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The ethics of war

People often do not associate war and ethics with one another, given the death, conflict, and senselessness that typically arises. However, in this sampling from Military Ethics: What Everyone Needs to Know, author George Lucas argues that ethics are not only paramount in military service, but typically more complex than “good versus evil.”

How can we talk about ethics in war, when people are deliberately killing each other?

This question expresses a common misconception that has a grain of truth. Of course killing people and destroying property are morally wrong in virtually all societies, under normal conditions.

The only way we would not categorically condemn these actions is if they were an unavoidable part of our attempts to stop something that was even worse. Simply put, the use of lethal force is morally justifiable only if war is the only remaining way we have available to us to prevent or avoid something even more terrible.

The premise of ethics pertaining to warfare is that war is waged only as the last remaining alternative to an even worse atrocity. If our justification for going to war is to avoid an even greater atrocity or evil, then we ourselves cannot inflict more harm than we are trying to rectify or prevent.

And here we encounter an important moral principle, known as the “principle of lesser evil” or, more commonly, the “principle of proportionality.” That is to say, very quickly in considering whether to wage war, we are forced to invoke moral considerations. We need a really compelling reason (like avoiding genocide or enslavement); we need to have first tried other, less “evil” alternatives than war (and presumably failed); and even then, we need to be reasonably sure our decision won’t bring about even more harm than we are trying to avoid or prevent.

That is how ethics comes to play a role in something even as terrible as violence and warfare. The ethics comes in through the questions we are forced to pose and answer that explain why it is both necessary and reasonable to sometimes fight, rather than surrender and put up with whatever terrible circumstances we are facing.

Isn’t this talk of justified war merely a form of public relations, designed to win public support for morally questionable decisions made by political leaders?

Quite often, one gets the impression that talk of justice in war, or the justification for going to war, is a kind of “sales pitch” designed to persuade a reluctant and skeptical public that they should support a proposal to go to war or to continue to endure the hardships of a war already in progress.

Suppose we accept this very cynical portrayal of political leaders as clever, Machiavellian manipulators who mean to employ subtle rhetorical tricks to dupe us into supporting a war that has no justifiable cause, or serves no useful or significant purpose (other than, perhaps, resulting in some kind of personal gain for themselves and their immediate friends). Why should this ploy work? What makes us all, apparently, “suckers” for the attractiveness of moral arguments?

If our leaders wish to persuade us to fight in, pay for, and suffer the risks and deprivations of war for their own personal gain—that is, if their real intention in declaring and waging war is narrow self-interest, as realists often claim—then their telling us the truth about that motivation is not itself very motivational. This is true even if we, with equal cynicism, believe that everyone in the world ultimately acts only in behalf of narrowly conceived individual interests. If we personally stand to gain nothing from the proposed war, we are unlikely to support it or to fight it.

So, according to this cynical view, political leaders must instead learn how to appeal to our shared sense of justice and fairness, as well as to moral principles like the defense of human rights, in order to foster support for their war. These appeals to the morality and justice of our shared cause seem to have enormous positive appeal. Cynics might continue to argue that this appalling strategy finally works, because the average person is ignorant, gullible, and naïve, and consequently open to manipulations through such “soft” appeals to our emotions and sentiments.

A less cynical observer, however, might think that such appeals address what President Abraham Lincoln eloquently termed “the Better Angels of Our Nature” in his 1864 First Inaugural Address. That is, we are open to such appeals precisely because most ordinary people believe concepts like “morality” and “justice” are important, and that they have some authoritative claim on our choices and actions. In other words, we are subject to persuasion on moral grounds because most of us, most of the time, are not skeptical or cynical regarding moral values and moral principles. It is only because most of us believe that ideals like justice and human rights are valid, important, and universally applicable that the manipulative ploy of the cynical statesman (if that is all it is) is finally able to succeed.

Appeals to morality may sometimes disguise more cynical and unworthy motives. But when this is discovered, it does not constitute an argument against the importance of morality in making decisions about war. Rather it betrays the weak or duplicitous character of political leaders, who would dare to frivolously risk the lives of soldiers and citizens for decidedly unworthy or immoral purposes, and then try to trick them into believing otherwise. This sinister possibility should, in turn, foster the resolve of all of us, military and civilians, to become better informed, more responsible citizens, rather than giving up our most profound moral convictions.

Image Credit: Photo by skeeze. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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