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Ethics of War Essay

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Updated: Jul 23rd, 2021

In the study of philosophy, looking back at past events allows applying philosophical concepts and questions to them, thus assisting in the analysis. While learning more about the just war theory, it is essential to consider its application to the events of the past. The Peloponnesian War was a significant period in the history of the Mediterranean region, which caused the deterioration of the power of Athens and made Sparta the key city-state in the area. Thucydides’ text provides a complete detailed account of the war, which enables scholars to analyze its causes, course, and effects in great depth. While the book is handy to historians due to its scope and particularity, it is also beneficial for philosophical studies because it provides an overview of different viewpoints regarding the war.

The concept of the just war is believed to represent realistic views on international relations and military activities. According to realism, it is incorrect to apply moral principles to the behavior of states because states will and should always be concerned with power and national security and thus act based on their self-interest. Descriptive realism differs from prescriptive realism in the view of states’ actions and responsibilities. The former claims that the pursuit of power, security, and national interest is characteristic of all shapes, whereas the latter posits that states must pursue national interests to keep citizens safe and prosperous.

These interpretations make war seem inevitable and can be used to justify almost any actions taken by military powers during the war. For this reason, the just war theory posits that in order to be considered just, the war must have a just and proportionate cause, the right intention and authority, and reasonable chances of success (Carter). As explained by Carter, just wars are also considered the last resort, and this concept should thus apply to cases where the war started after diplomacy had failed. Based on these premises, just war theory appears to offer a good view on war, which does not negate the necessity to avoid war while still allowing it in certain circumstances. Personally, I agree with the idea that wars are inevitable at times and that they can be the preferred option when protecting national security. Although wars are associated with poverty, hunger, and death, these threats can be far more significant if invaders meet no opposition.

The realistic view on war contrasts pacifism, according to which the war is considered ultimately wrong because of all the hardship and damage that it brings to nations. Contrary to realism, absolute pacifism extends moral rules that apply to individuals to entire countries, arguing that no state should ever engage in a war despite the circumstances. However, this perspective on war appears illogical and unrealistic in cases where a country is attacked, and military response is the only option to ensure national security.

Both views on war can be observed in Thucydides’ account of the events leading to the Peloponnesian War. Book I contains the speeches made by Corinthians, Athenians, and Lacedaemonians on the subject of war. The group that presents a realistic perspective on the war is Corinthians. Corinthians argue that the war against Athens is inevitable and just because of the city’s increasing power in the region and the fact that it threatens other states, including Sparta and Corinth. Corinthians state that the actions of Athenians are unjust and war is the only option to restore peace in the region: “And yet, Lacedaemonians, you still delay, and fail to see that peace stays longest with those, who are not more careful to use their power justly than to show their determination not to submit to injustice” (Thucydides). The view of Corinthians is that Athens threatens their regional power and national interest, and thus defending against them with the support from Sparta would be engaging in a just war.

Interestingly, another realist viewpoint on the ethics of war is presented by Athenians. Based on the information included by Thucydides, Athenians argued against breaking the treaty and acted in the protection of their national interest. For instance, when they are accused of beginning a war by preventing Peloponnesians from attacking Corcyraeans, they respond by stating, “neither are we beginning war, Peloponnesians, nor are we breaking the treaty; but these Corcyraeans are our allies, and we are come to help them” (Thucydides). Given the critical importance of alliances in the Mediterranean region at the time, the defeat of Corcyraeans would threaten the national security of Athens. Thus, the Athenians’ actions prior to the outbreak of the war were in accordance with the requirements for protecting citizens.

Athenians were also among those who voiced their opinion during the hearing before the Lacedaemonian government. Their key argument is that they did not use violence and war to build the Empire, and thus, the territory is rightfully theirs, and they need to protect it (Thucydides). Athenians also explain that their political and military activity is what any state has to do to maintain security and grow: “it was not we who set the example, for it has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger” (Thucydides). The statements made by Athenians are in line with a realistic perspective on national security and war. Hence, both Athenians and Corinthians argue from a realism standpoint, but since the two states are rivals, they have opposing views on the treaty and the war.

The person who makes a moral argument against the war is Archidamus, who was the king of Sparta at the time. On the one hand, he refuses the notion that the war would be just because Sparta does not have sufficient resources to win easily and its territory is not threatened by Athenians yet: “What can justify us in rashly beginning such a struggle?” (Thucydides). On the other hand, he shows the damage that the war would inflict on Sparta and its people for years to come, arguing that breaking the treaty would be dangerous and dishonorable: “I fear rather that we may leave it as a legacy to our children; so improbable is it that the Athenian spirit will be the slave of their land, or Athenian experience be cowed by war” (Thucydides). Archidamus cannot be considered an absolute pacifist; instead, he argues that the war would be wrong from a moral viewpoint because it would endanger the people of Sparta.

All in all, the reading allows us to identify how different views and theories on war were used in politics in ancient times. It is particularly curious to study the just war theory in the context of Sparta and Athens since both city-states had military solid history. The analysis shows that both Corinthians and Athenians viewed the war from a realism standpoint, but their views on breaking the treaty differed because of opposing interests. The king of Sparta, however, presented a moral argument that Sparta was not ready for war and thus it would bring the state more harm than good.

Works Cited

Carter, Joe. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. 2017, Web.

Thucydides. War. n. d., Web.

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1. IvyPanda. "Ethics of War." July 23, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ethics-of-war/.


IvyPanda. "Ethics of War." July 23, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ethics-of-war/.


IvyPanda. 2021. "Ethics of War." July 23, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ethics-of-war/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'Ethics of War'. 23 July.

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