The Problem of War in Moral Philosophy

Date: Nov 19, 2019
Category: Informative

The world history is inconceivable without wars. Wars bring destruction, deaths, they hinder progress and spread panic and fear in the international community. At the same time, during wars people unite and become closer as they fight against the common enemy. It is important to learn and understand the problem of war, its nature and reasons as well as its consequences. The problem of the morality of war can be regarded from the different points of view. The three main approaches in moral philosophy, such as consequentialism, virtue ethics and deontology deal with this question on the level of ethics. This essay examines two opposite theories on the issue and discusses the most persuasive one.

War is impossible without such weapon as aggression and violence that cannot be justified or called moral in any case, because “all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. Despite there are certain reasons for justification of war, there is no justification for taking people’s lives away, and where the war is there are always innocent people, the victims of war, to suffer and die. Besides, there always can be hidden motives behind those announced for entering war. 


Application of Two Ethical Theories

Utilitarianism or consequentialism is based on the principle of “producing the right kinds of overall consequences” (“Consequentialism”). People, adhering to this branch of moral philosophy, act in order to provide the best consequences for the majority. It means that the end result justifies all the means and efforts taken to achieve the goal. Thereby, the main goals can be spreading happiness and relieving sufferings, creating freedom in the world, or promoting the survival of the species (“Consequentialism”). Utilitarianism is a controversial theory as it pays attention to the majority without taking into account its individuals, rules and moral duties of people. There are also controversies between the representatives of this moral philosophy in what the right outcome is and what is wrong, and what can be considered as excessive and unreasonable. That is the reason why utilitarians are often considered cold and unsympathising in their way of treating individuals. 

Their basically neutral attitude toward the issue of war resembles the just war theory. According to the principles of utilitarianism, a country can enter war if its intention is the greatest good for the majority, meaning there is no need in just reasons and there are no limitations in means used to achieve the final result. For example, if a country lacks some natural resources, according to utilitarianism, it can take these resources from the other country, may be a smaller one. Utilitarians would not count the victims or the strength of destruction as the result justifies the means. The country that joins war can justify itself with the purpose of making the world a better place to live in or rebuffing the threat to global security.

However, utilitarians can also give rational explanations for entering war, such as defending one’s rights or protecting innocents. There is another way the utilitarian theory can be applied to the issue of war. The world where people join wars for no just reason can be considered unstable). In addition, the large-scaled wars bring destruction and slow down the progress, meaning that at the end the majority suffers in this case, which contradicts the main principles of consequentialism.

When applying the utilitarian theory to the issue of the morality of war, there are two ways of development of the events depending on what type of utalitarians rules over the country. The most dangerous is when utalitarians justify their violence towards others with the better results for all. Killing people can be considered right if the benefits outweigh the harms. It nurtures aggression in people. The saddest part is that this theory can be quite persuasive and it works, which can be seen on the example of the World War II. On the other hand, those utalitarians of the opposite moral rules, who think about the destructive power of war as the worst result for the majority, can persuade to fight for peace or find the ways to negotiate and solve the problem without beginning the war.

Virtue ethics developed long after the two main moral approaches, which are consequentialism and deontology. It is based on the virtues or moral character in contrast to the consequences of actions as in consequentialism. Virtue ethics adherents think about the individuals, as the society (the majority) consists of individuals.  The basic principles of the virtue ethics originate from the works of Aristotle, who claimed that “human beings differ from animals by their ability to use reason to choose their actions”. Aristotle defined virtue as a “means between vices of excess and deficiency”. One of the key concepts of the virtue ethics theory is eudaimonia, which means happiness or flourishing. It is based on the idea that it is necessary to live a life in accordance with virtue, which is connected with the best traits of the character, for example, being honest, wise, generous, and having good intentions when doing anything. It emphasizes the development of an individual through teaching and practicing virtues.

If eudaimonia is a core of the virtue ethics theory, then war can be more likely considered as a violation of eudaimonia. Thus, virtue ethics becomes a foundation for the pacifism. Unlike in consequentialism, in virtue ethics things cannot be taken neutrally, as it examines questions of an individual’s moral views and character.  War, as well as the destruction it brings, is considered as evil. Violence and aggression are the vices that should be avoided according to the virtue ethics. Pacifism in its turn claims it morally wrong to use force even in response to violence. Pacifism is based on valuing sacred human’s life and there is absolutely no place for violence and aggression that war brings.

On the other hand, there are gaps in the virtue ethics, when different kinds of virtues conflict, which allows to consider the non-pacifist point of view on the issue of war. It is possible to enter war in order to achieve peace, which is equal to eudaimonia. Although, it works only in case an individual is driven to do so. If an individual acts basing on the good intentions, if he or she decides to support war for peace, then the case can refer to virtue ethics. In addition, taking into account that virtue ethics is focused on an individual and his or her character, soldiers taking part in war can be justified for having good intentions in protecting innocent people. On the other hand, soldiers only follow orders, which contradict one of the main virtues, which is wisdom. 

According to the main principles of the virtue ethics, war is the evil that cannot be justified, as it contradicts eudaimonia and the other features (virtues) of the theory.


When thinking about the best for the majority, the best for the country,  politicians that start the wars forget about the violence they can bring, and about the worst consequences. Virtue ethics thinks about the individuals as the part of society, it takes the possible destruction and deaths as the violence of eudaimonia in the world, meaning the violence of personal happiness. It opposes war to peace like vice to virtue. It approves of the moral principles of caring about other people and considers it immoral to start war when there are ways to avoid it and reconcile the conflict. Virtue ethics appeal to the virtues of human natures, to people’s ability be reasonable, which differs them from the other animals and restrains the instinctive aggression. 

However, there are certain cases when it is impossible to solve the problem peacefully and a state needs to rebuff against the open aggression of another state. In this case pacifism would not help. Human’s nature is much more difficult and where there is a virtue, there is a vice, hidden motives, deception, and intrigues. This makes up a necessary balance of the human nature. A modern politician or the one who rules over the country does not have to necessarily adhere to the virtue ethics, but he has to reconcile the possible war conflicts and be ready to negotiate in order to avoid the mistakes of the past. This is the moment when the newest virtue ethics comes to help. 

Despite there are certain reasons for justification of war, such as self-defense, the protection of innocents and protection of one’s rights, and  punishment for some crimes, war cannot be just because it brings violence and depends only on military forces, but not moral values of its participants. If everything could be decided upon negotiations, then there will be no more wars. The hidden motives of entering war are only a part of war immorality. Nobody ever confesses that the war is for the reason of occupation and seizure of territory and/or resources.