Ethics in War

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

What is it

After World War II the Nurenberg trials and the conventions that arose out of them codified the idea that there are right and wrong ways to wage war.  That prisoners of war have definite rights, and that non-combatants should be treated differently than soldiers.  Some think the idea of a morality of warfare makes no sense, and that the distinction between soldiers and non-combatants is meaningless in the setting of modern warfare.  John and Ken discuss these issues in the light of philosophical theories of right and wrong.

Listening Notes

When considering war there are religious religions for avoiding and entering into war, there are prudential concerns, and there are worries about the large-scale effects on both countries and the combatants. Ken introduces the idea of Just War Theory, which is concerned with the justice of entering into war, the proper conduct in war, and justice after a war. There are also some people who hold that moral judgments cannot be passed in war, known as realists.

The guest of the show is queried by John as to how something as terrible as war can be considered a right action at any given moment. What interests and considerations allow for this? Pacifists argue that there are no conditions under which war is permissible due to the enormous amounts of damage, both physical and psychological, that it causes. The discussion traces back thousands of years, to people like Augustine and Aquinas, who asked the same questions that are asked on the show, about whether or not it can be considered permissible to enter into war. They argued that while the answer is most often no, there are considerations under which it can be allowed.

Self-defense in the case of an invasion is considered by many to be the most obvious case where war is permissible. However, our guest notes that there are some who would say that even an invasion is not grounds for retribution. Ken argues that he cannot understand this argument given the present conditions of the world, once a group performs an unjust action itself. If an utterly despicable enemy presents itself, are you justified in taking any actions during the war to win and overcome the evil, or are you just reducing yourself to that level? One of the problems discussed about war is that countries and combatants are prone to self-deception in acting for a particular cause and in performing certain actions.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 2:18): Amy Standen asks whether a person can be both moral and trained to kill at the same time. She visits a professor of philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in NY, who was a marine himself in the Vietnam War.


George R. Lucas Jr., Professor of Ethics and Public Policy, United States Naval Academy


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