Ethics And War: Political Realism

Peace and war are two concepts generally bound together. We can rarely address one of these issues without addressing the other and the understanding of one of those two concepts increases the understanding of the other. This explains principally the choice of this topic: Ethics and War in a course entitled Peace and Culture.

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Peace is defined by the Oxford dictionary (2010) as: “a state or a period in which there are no war or war has ended”. For many, the word peace is merely the opposite of war and they tend to define peace from what it is not. But how can we talk of peace in countries where even though there is no war, people are deprived from freedom of choice and from participating in decision that affect their own lives? Consequently, I agree with Johan Galtung (1999) on his distinction between positive and negative peace. Galtung defines negative peace as the absence of violence and positive peace as “more than the absence of violence, the presence of social justice through equal opportunity, a fair distribution of power and resources, equal protection and impartial enforcement of law”. Thus the absence of war is just one aspect of peace. In the absence of mechanisms to promote positive peace, the negative peace might last for a short period.

Now, we shall consider what war is and what its definition is. Like any social phenomenon, definitions are varied and generally, the proposed definition expresses the author’s broader political or philosophical ideology. Karl von Clausewitz defines war as “the continuation of politics by other means”, and again as “an act of violence intended to compel our opponents to fulfil our will”, for Quincy Wright, war is “a violent contact of distinct but similar entities”, and Denis Diderot comments that war is “a convulsive and violent disease of the political body”.

Webster’s dictionary defines war as a state of open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations. This definition captures the fact that war must be declared and is between states or nations, thus individuals’ fight cannot be considered as a war. Nevertheless, this definition is narrow as, strictly talking about nations and states, it rejects civil war.

Furthermore, the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy defines war as an actual, intentional and widespread armed conflict between political communities. This definition brings out the fact that war should be an armed conflict presently existing, not merely potential or possible. Besides, by stating that political communities can wage war, it allows for civil war. Again, it brings about a new extension of the definition of war which allow for war on terror. The weakness of this definition is that it does specifically state that a war must be declared by a competent authority of either political community.

There is no universally agreed definition of war; each definition of war having its strengths and its weaknesses. More central to the debate are the moral question that the concept of war raises: Is war ever justified? Or, can war be justified? As we shall see in the continuation of this essay, the way of setting this question already gives an insight of the author’s ideology. The first one presuppose that war is just but it may sometimes be used pervasively and the second takes as fact that war is morally wrong but there may be situations when we have to wage a war.

Ethics and war

There are many philosophical theories that relate to war. As previously said, one of the serious moral question war raises: Is war morally justifiable? All the philosophical theories can more or less fit into three categories:

Political Realism

Just War Theory


Political Realism

Political realism, simply referred to as realism, is a school of thinking in the international relations discipline. Though realism has many sub-categories, there are some common characteristics to all those sub-categories. Political realism attempts to define and prescribe national interest as the main motive in political relations. It has a strong doubt on the possible application of moral concepts such as justice, ethics… to international relations. The advocates of realism lay a great emphasis on power and security issues and believe that the international arena is a sort of anarchy.

Again, for the promoters of realism, the only parameter to take into consideration before waging a war is national interest. War is to be resorted to as long as national interest is threatened. This could be explained by the fact that they consider war as inevitable and they believe in the principle of the survival of the fittest. Only the interests of the fittest could be achieved and war is used to determine who is the fittest.

Realism theories’ roots can be traced far in history, the classical realists being: Thucydides, Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes and Spinoza. Modern realists are: Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, Reinhold Niebuhr and Henry Kissinger. To this list we can also add neo-realists such as Kenneth Waltz.

A new manifestation of realism in the penultimate century came into the form of social Darwinism, whose adherents advocated that races, communities, groups where subject to the same laws of natural selection developed by Charles Darwin on animals and plants in nature. Like the realists, they advocated the fact that social and political growth was subject to the principle of survival of the fittest.

Realism could be separated in two branches:

Descriptive political realism

Prescriptive political realism

The distinction between those two forms of realism is based on the primary purpose of the theory. A theory will be classified as descriptive if its primary aim is to explain international relations or categorised as prescriptive if its primary purpose is to advise on how international relations should be dealt with.

Descriptive realism is the contention that nations or states either do not (are not motivated to) or cannot (because they are not able to) behave morally. It supports the idea that states lack the morality and justice sensitivity. It argues again that states and individuals are different creations, thus we cannot apply the same rules and principles to both.

The main criticism to descriptive realism is that the nation or the state is ruled by humans who are animated in terms of morality and justice and even if those leaders are not, they are accountable to a population who is animated in terms of morality and justice. Again, the view that morality is not applied to international relations does not mean that it should not.

Prescriptive political realism claims that states should act amorally on the international arena in other to achieve their own interest. Its advocates argue that nations or states must pursue their own interest regardless of the actual condition of international relations. This theory has many obscured parts starting from what the national interest is claimed to be or the permissibility to employ any means as far as it takes one to his objectives. This could bring about a diversity of interpretations.

Some authors such as Plato and Aristotle have proposed economic and political self-sufficiency as the main national interest. If this is the case, then there is no need to go to war as this interest can be achieved by means other than war. One contemporary example to illustrate this is China.

As an illustration, mercantilists have argued that the economic sufficiency of a nation can only be achieved at the expenses of the others. Consequently, one should not bother about other nations as soon as national interest is achieved. In contrast, Adam smith and David Ricardo have argued that economic interests of various nations could be achieved with a good organisation of world trade.

Are there always means other than war through which a state or a nation can achieve its interest and preserve its security?

Just War Theory

Just war (in Latin: Bellum Iustum) theory is a very famous perspective of ethics of war. In the recent years, the Invasion of Iraq has re-opened the debate on when war is permissible. This theory is somehow midway to political realism on one side and pacifism on the other side. It is primarily concerned with the rationalisation of why and how wars are fought. Put this way, one should not think that it encourages war, on the contrary, it prohibits law but allows for special circumstances under which a nation or a state has the right (not the obligation) to resort to armed conflicts. Before talking about the criteria that qualify war as a just war, we will briefly look at just war classics and advocates.

Just war theories can be traced far back in history, at least to Cicero. In its origin, just war is a combination of Greco-roman and Christian values. As classical and advocates, we can mention: Cicero, Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria, Francisco Suarez, Hugo Grotius and more recently, Immanuel Kant. Nowadays, most of the international conventions and charters, namely the United Nations Charter and the Hague and the Geneva Conventions, can find their ideological roots in just war theory.

The just war theory was primarily divided into two parts but more recently, we have witness the emergence of a third part:

Jus ad bellum: before the war, there are rules and criteria that determine when and under which circumstances a nation may wage a war

Jus in bellum: These rules are to be applied during the war. These rules cover the manner in which war should be conducted

Jus post bellum: when war terminates, how are peace agreements put in place and accountability and responsibility of warring parties assessed.

It is worth noting that a war is considered a just war only if it was permissible in the beginning, carried out following the rules and the post-war agreements put in place are fair to both parties. If one of these three steps is left out, then the war ceases to be a just war. In the continuation of this essay, we will use the Latin appellations of those fractions of just war.