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Is War Ever Morally Justified? Essay

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Updated: Oct 31st, 2020

When discussing the domain of war, it is necessary to stress its ethical component. Almost any war implies mass and institutional violence, which has a purposeful character and assumes a strain between countries. It is crucial that this phenomenon is deeply rooted in history since wars have been perceived as the most common form of communication between states, which is confirmed by historical reality. However, this mode of interaction has also been regarded as a strongly negative format of interstate relations. The purpose of this paper is to provide arguments that a moral justification of war is impossible based on a critical discussion of theories supporting the ethical justification of warfare and prove that they have inherent contradictions and are likely to lead to further negative manifestations and consequences.

In order to understand the arguments that make it possible to justify war from the standpoint of morality, it is crucial to analyze the history of this phenomenon. Initially, a war was considered acceptable if the participants in this process acted in accordance with the existing rules and had justified their reasons for unleashing the military conflict (Kovac, 2013). If these conditions were not followed, the conflict was considered barbarous. The distinction between a morally justified and an immoral war depended on the purpose of initiating it and the side against which the warfare was unleashed. Some experts in the field claimed that wars derived from the social order of the world (Kovac, 2013).

For example, some theorists believed that war was a necessary state of humanity. Opponents of this position argued that people were benign beings by their nature who could come to unanimity without the use of force and violence. However, a social space and its structure pushed states to fight with each other. Although these beliefs were diametrically opposed, they revealed a general understanding of wars, which implied that they could be morally justified since they were a prerequisite for the development of the world.

One of the fundamental approaches that consider similar arguments to justify the use of military action is realism. In this theory, the emphasis is placed on the political aims of war. The conduct of war is not only a seizure of territory and victory over the enemy but also an unsurpassed opportunity to have an impact on the opponent’s consciousness. Justification of war from this standpoint lies in social antagonisms that reach the level of interstate contradictions (Morkevičius, 2015). Consequently, in this approach, war has a rational explanation and is an inevitable given.

However, when arguing whether or not realism allows justifying war from a moral perspective, it is necessary to note that this theory breeds such concepts as “war” and “morality” on different sides of the barricades (Morkevičius, 2015). Thus, a military action cannot be considered from the position of morality. Due to the fact that war is regarded in the context of political action and affects interests of state structures, realism cannot justify war from a moral point of view.

Another direction that justifies the use of military action is the theory of militarism. In general, it is a reactionary policy of strengthening military power and intensifying military preparations. It is interesting that this theory has a specific discourse on the moral justification of military action (Morkevičius, 2015). In particular, war is compatible with morality in the sense that it does not allow society to regress. For example, when justifying a military conflict, experts supporting this position suggest that war stimulates the development or emergence of moral values.

It is reasonable to assume that without wars the evolution of such domain as justice would be impossible. However, such an argument can be rejected as this approach proclaims the apotheosis of war (Morkevičius, 2015). In this connection, in society, a threat of total war of annihilation is increasing.

Interestingly enough, there is a position that fundamentally opposes any wars, which is pacifism. No military confrontation can be ethically justified, and the supporters of pacifism morally condemn any armed struggle since it inevitably leads to human casualties. Therefore, this theory strives for a peaceful conflict resolution. Initiation of war is rejected as a means to resolve international disagreements since it affects the lives of civilians (Ryan, 2013). Moreover, a pivotal argument in this approach is that people also should not resort to violence in response to the evil exhibited towards them.

Despite the fact that pacifism morally denounces wars and any justifications of them, this view is subjective in some cases. Although pacifism pursues a humanistic worldview, this approach contains a contradiction on a fundamental level. There are different modes of pacifism ranging from its absolute form, which views wars as univocal evil, to pacifism that has a conditional character. In the latter case, violence is likely to be morally justified under certain circumstances (Ryan, 2013).

Moreover, these factors are determined by specific political conditions. Consequently, conditional pacifism also has a connection with theories that support a moral justification of wars. Notably, having reviewed the arguments that either defend or reject the moral component of war, it becomes possible to observe the counter movement of militarism and pacifism towards each other (Ryan, 2013). At the confluence of some circumstances, pacifism can justify the need for violence against people while militarism can exhibit an opposite tendency.

Just war theory is another popular approach, which argues that it is possible to justify the emergence and conduct of a military action from the ethical point of view. The concept is a compilation of certain aspects of pacifism and militarism. The concept is based on two fundamental principles of jus ad bellum and jus in bello (Sussmann, 2013). According to the first principle, war can be morally justified if certain rational causes are present and violence is applied to ensure international order and security. At the same time, war should be wielded by legitimate authority. Moreover, a military action can be justified if it does not imply implementation of bad intentions.

An important factor that this theory includes is that both sides should participate in a war only if they are not doomed to failure (the forces are distributed evenly among the opponents). Also, another principle presupposing the moral justification of war is that it should be an extreme measure to which a state resorts (when diplomatic measures prove to be ineffective) (Sussmann, 2013). From the standpoint of the second fundamental principle (jus in bello), a military conflict can be ethically viable when a pragmatic principle of a probability of success is observed. An aspect of paramount importance that this theory has is that a military conflict should prevent a greater evil.

On the one hand, in this concept, it is possible to discern a rational grain. Just war theory does not denounce war initially as pacifism does (Ryan, 2013). Also, in this concept, military conflicts are not glorified as in the theory of militarism. Moreover, unlike realism, just war theory does not subordinate a military action to the political necessity but requires a moral basis (Sussmann, 2013). On the other hand, it can be argued that war cannot be morally justified when relying on the principles of this concept since they have high flexibility; therefore, they lose their objectivity.

The general purpose of just war theory lies in its potential to maintain violence at a morally acceptable level. However, jus ad bellum and jus in bello contradict each other in their core. Importantly, the discrepancies can be detected in the conceptual apparatus of the theory. Moreover, they reveal a practical inconsistency of the concept.

An example of the way just war theory exhibits contradictory arguments lies in its interpretation of legitimate power. Notably, every state has a legitimate government; however, in the case when civilians rebel against it in order to establish a new government, it becomes impossible to determine what power should be considered legitimate (Sussmann, 2013). Thus, the argumentation proposed in the theory leads to a paradox.

Moreover, the understanding of evil proposed in the concept also contains a contradiction. For example, according to this approach, good can fight evil using force. In addition, each of the opponents can offer their understanding of evil and initiate a military conflict to achieve justice (Sussmann, 2013). Thus, despite the fact that just war theory provides stronger arguments than such approaches as realism, militarism, and pacifism do, this concept also does not offer normative provisions that allow justifying war from a moral perspective.

Comparing the arguments provided above, it can be stated that wars cannot be morally justified for a number of reasons. The discussed theories and their arguments focus on human rights or the need of countries to subordinate military conflicts to a political necessity (Kovac, 2013). However, such a worldview revives the theological meaning of war, which has already had severe consequences. In particular, such argumentation makes it possible to justify humanitarian intervention from the position of morality.

Large-scale negative outcomes of such a reasoning can be observed in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and some other states. Moreover, these arguments lead to the emergence of hybrid wars, which are global police operations in their core (Sussmann, 2013). In addition, when substantiating wars from the ethical perspective, radicals receive a moral right to proclaim their supreme ethical value as the cause of war. It will lead to the fact that disparate values will inevitably resonate with each other.

Thus, it can be concluded that wars cannot be morally justified. Despite the fact that different theories provide multiple arguments to prove a polar worldview, these assumptions often contain contradiction. Many of the approaches discussed in the paper rely on the historically formed idea that war is an essential state of humanity since it allows the world to develop, and warfare is acceptable when it relies on some common principles. Nonetheless, this mode of justification is not related to morality. However, more importantly, the points provided in different theories leave room to subjectivism and interpretation, which can evolve in further negative manifestations such as wars veiled under humanitarian interventions or other overtones.


Kovac, J. (2013). Science, ethics and war: A pacifist’s perspective. Science and Engineering Ethics, 19(2), 449-460.

Morkevičius, V. (2015). Power and order: The shared logics of realism and just war theory. International Studies Quarterly, 59(1), 11-22.

Ryan, C. (2013). Pacifism, just war, and self-defense. Philosophia, 41(4), 977-1005.

Sussmann, N. (2013). Can just war theory delegitimate terrorism? European Journal of Political Theory, 12(4), 425-446.

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