Ethics and War

The idea that war should have ethical guidelines or be justified may seem inconsistent with the notion of hurting or killing another human being, and from a Pacifist’s viewpoint, war could be considered in direct contradiction to the religious commandment of Jews, Christians, and Muslims of thou shall not kill.

A Just War and Ethical Guidelines

The idea of a “Just War” is influenced by the notion of self-defence and resisting the aggression of an enemy, or to help an ally who has been attacked. From a “Just War” perspective, retaliation against a wrong already committed, for example, to pursue and punish an aggressor, or to pre-empt an anticipated attack are important considerations.

Overtime there have been ethical guidelines for war and the five core guidelines are linked to the idea of a “Just War”.

  • There should be a just cause.
  • Attempts of peaceful resolution should have been exhausted.
  • The war should be decided on by an appropriate authority, and it needs to be clear who or whom has this authority.
  • Going into a war will not make the situation even worse than it is already.
  • There should be a reasonable prospect of achieving the aims of the war.

These five guidelines for a “Just War” have been expanded with the inclusion of two additional ethical criteria:

  • the right attitude to the enemy (how to behave to those you are fighting during a war – both the combatants and the non-combatants), and
  • obligations after a military conquest (how to behave towards those you have been fighting).

United Nations’ Charter

The notion of a “Just War” was part of the thinking when setting up of the United Nations after the Second World War.

Chapter VI of the United Nations Charter deals with peaceful settlement of disputes. It requires countries with disputes that could lead to war to first of all try to seek solutions through peaceful methods such as, “negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.” If these methods of alternative dispute resolution fail, then they must refer it to the UN Security Council. Under Article 35, any country is allowed to bring a dispute to the attention of the UN Security Council or the General Assembly.


Sorabji, R. & Ronin, D. (2006). The ethics of war: Shared problems in different traditions. Farnham, UK : Ashgate.

Military Ethics

Prepared by Rev Ken Box, Chaplain Royal Australian Air Force.

War is a catastrophe to our civilization and as such it seems that there is no place for ethics. This is, however, not the case and in the following section this relationship is explored.

Ethics can be defined as:

  • a moral principle, or a set of moral values held by an individual or group,
  • a code of behaviour considered to be correct, especially that of a group, profession or individual, and/or
  • a set of principles by which actions may be judged right or wrong.

Is there an eternal, absolute system of right and wrong, such as the Ten Commandments, which suggests that some things are always right and the good thing to do, whilst others things are bad or intrinsically evil. That is, the action or event has evil within its nature and is wrong in all situations and under all circumstances.

In terms of ethical values, on the one hand, some sincere religious believers actually stop the discussion of morality at this point and accept that the rules are made by God and that is all there is to it. On the other hand, some religious believers suggest morality and ethics are not so rigid as that and the context is important. Joseph Fletcher suggested an understanding of ethics he called Situation Ethics. He claimed that nothing is intrinsically good or bad; it often depends on the situation. Goodness or badness are things that happen to actions in the doing. Criticism of Fletcher’s view focuses on the nature of the examples by which he demonstrates his logic which are drawn from the extremes of the extraordinary, and the tremendous burden of responsibility deciding the rightness of each situation. The major flaw is, however, that his system is still based on an absolute; that is love. Fletcher sees love as the determinant of right and wrong.

Is the source of ethical values internal; and if our value systems are internal, how did they get to be there?

There are at least two possibilities:

  • Ethical values are inherited, that is, that there is something emotional inside people that will, under normal circumstances, lead them to behave ethically.
  • Ethical values are socialised, first in the family, and then in the community as the source of an individual’s ethical framework.

Behavioural Science and Moral Development

Behavioural scientists tend to see ethical values and morality as a developmental process where an individual’s morality and ethical understanding grows along a continuum from Convention (rules imposed by an external authority) to Justice (an internalised understanding of what is right and wrong).

Jean Piaget developed his theory of moral development from his questioning of children playing marbles in the streets of Geneva. He asked three questions:

  • How old are you?
  • How do you play marbles?
  • How do you know that is the way to play marbles?

What Piaget collected from this inquiry was the attitude of children at various ages to rules of any kind. Young children see the rules as being handed down by a higher authority and they accept this authority.

Towards adolescence, Piaget noted older children challenged the rules. “It’s our game, we can make any rules we want,” was the typical response as older children went through the phase of inventing new rules, sometimes making the game impossibly hard, sometimes so easy that it was no longer fun. In this stage, they soon realised that they do have the power to change the rules, but that the rules they modify must be fair or the game is no longer fun.

Here, on the mid-point of the continuum, older children are beginning to understand that rules are not absolute decrees from on high but that rules are made by people like themselves. They recognise that these rules have been tested and perfected over the course of time with the aim of promoting fairness, and that these rules can also be changed by people like themselves. Being a “good” person no longer means simply obeying the rules, it now includes sharing the responsibility for evaluating and making rules that will be fair to all.

Piaget suggested that the attitudes he noted in children towards the rules for the game of marbles provides a paradigm of our attitude to all rules.

Lawrence Kohlberg extended Piaget’s theory further in his own theory of moral development. He claimed that the basis of reasoning behind moral decisions is a developmental process ascending through a series of steps, each requiring a higher level of cognitive reasoning.

Kohlberg suggested that an individual’s moral development stage will be a more reliable indicator of their ethical behaviour than individual actions. For Kohlberg, ethical thinking involves both why the decision was taken and what was the decision selected. Kohlberg suggested that ethical thinking was hierarchical, and people tended to be attracted to the next higher level by observing others using that level of reasoning, but not two or three levels higher.

Briefly summarised Kohlberg’s five stages are:

Stage 1: Avoidance of punishment, if I misbehave I will be punished.

Stage 2: Personal reward, if I am good I will be rewarded.

Stage 3: Shared reward, this will be good for everyone me included.

Stage 4: To reward others, for the benefit of others with no thought of personal reward.

Stage 5: Internalised value system. I believe that this is the right thing to do, rewards or punishment don’t come into the equation.

It is important for Military Commanders and leaders to understand the significance of Kohlberg’s theory as it relates to how they act and what they expect from subordinates and those they lead. This is because without some form of internalised ethical framework, the leader is likely to operate more at the lower levels of Kohlberg’s framework, but the real need, particularly in stressful situations is to have the leader operate at the higher thinking levels. These higher levels involve more independent problem solving, looking at a situation from a number of perspectives, and understanding the short-term and long-term consequences of a decision. Demonstrating this higher level thinking and ethical reasoning helps to build trust within the team and an understanding of the consequences of a decision.

The Sixth Commandment

This book on the 165 ANZACs is not a Bible study, but invariably the question of the commandment “thou shalt not kill” arises, so the issue is here reviewed. The Bible makes a clear distinction between the accidental killing of humans, killing humans in battle, or killing humans in self-defence, compared with the type of killing forbidden in the sixth commandment, malicious killing. The distinction is established by the unique language used in the Hebrew text. The Hebrew sentence that is the original sixth commandment is, “L’aw t’ratzah.” The phrase is now usually translated as murder. The end part of this phase “ratzah” is translated as a malicious killing and it is not a common term used in the Bible. It occurs in only 12 passages. In each it is used exclusively in a forensic sense to distinguish deliberate and malicious killing from an accidental killing or killing in the heat of battle. If you wish to check, look up: Exodus 20:13, Numbers 35:20-35, Deuteronomy 4:41-42, and Psalm 10:8.

The “Just War” Theory

The means of waging war are governed by a strict code of conduct called the Law of Armed Conflict. This law is based on three conceptual building blocks:

  • Military Necessity
  • Humanity, and
  • Proportionality

The concept of Military Necessity requires that any action in war is restricted to achieving legitimate military objectives. Military Necessity might, for instance, allow the bombing of a tyre factory to restrict the enemy’s war effort, but it would never sanction the bombing of a hospital. The latter would breach the concept of humanity.

The concept of Humanity forbids any form of attack that inflicts unnecessary suffering on an enemy and requires that the force used must not exceed the minimum necessary to achieve the objective. There must always be a valid military objective, and destruction of property must contribute to the defeat of the enemy, and the taking of revenge is forbidden.

The concept of Proportionality is the link between the concepts of Military Necessity and Humanity. This bars a commander from causing harm or damage out of proportion to military gain.

It is the allowance within the primary concept accepted in the Law of Armed Conflict, that of Military Necessity, for incidental injury and collateral damage to civilians (within the limits of proportionality, of course) which eliminates justice as a valid description of war. That children are killed in war by a misdirected bomb is not an illegal act, but it’s not a just or a moral act either.

Defence of values has always been the mainstay of the Just War Theory, and traditionally this has been divided into four categories:

  • Defence of the innocent,
  • Recovery of something wrongfully taken,
  • Punishment of evil, and
  • Defence against aggression in progress.

James Turner Johnstone, in an essay entitled Does Defence of Values by Force Remain a Moral Possibility presented two arguments: The first is based on the work of John Stuart Mill and his notion of utilitarian (useful and functional) ethics.

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth war, is worse… A man who has nothing that he cares about more than his own personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made so and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

The second argument draws on the theory of the theologian and humanist, Desiderius Erasmus who lived in Holland and wrote in the 15th century. Erasmus looks at the cost of war and decided that it is too high:

Think of all the crimes that are committed with war as the pretext, while good laws fall silent amid the clash of arms—all the instances of sack and sacrilege, rape \and other shameful acts, such as one even hesitates to name. And even when the war is over, this moral corruption is bound to linger for many years. Now assess for me the cost—a cost so great that, even if you win the war, you will lose much more than you gain. Indeed, what realm… can be weighed against the life, the blood, of so many thousand men?

Both statements have elements to recommend them. Erasmus is right in emphasising the cost of war, even for the victor, but Mill is also right in saying that if we are truly human we will have values that we will defend with our lives. For Mill war is the world’s second greatest evil; a greater evil would be to have no values or principles worth defending.

Building Blocks of Military Ethics

The question then is: What are the attributes of a military leader from a military ethical perspective? This issue has been investigated by Yigal Allon in his book published in 1970, The Making of Israel’s Army. Allon claimed, there are five attributes that a military leader or officer must possess that are linked to ethical leadership and these are reviewed below.

  • Courage
    1. Courage in the commander is a prior condition for courage in those under his/her command.
    2. This courage comes from cool thought and knowledge, never hot headedness or lack of knowledge.
    3. The kind of courage needed by a commander is serious and purposeful, not rash and adventurous.
  • Knowledge and Breadth of Outlook
    1. Knowledge and breadth of outlook are precious qualities in the military leader.
    2. Though straightforward instruction by means of lessons and lectures cannot be dispensed with, military leaders must at all times be urged to expand the scope of their knowledge.
    3. Nothing has a more damaging effect on the quality of an army than a hard core of military leaders whose minds are narrow and inflexible.
  • Sincerity and Truth  
    1. Mutual trust demands complete honesty.
    2. The commander who has the courage to revoke a misplaced or mistaken order will win the respect of his/her subordinates and the sympathy of his/her superiors.
  • Honesty  
    1. No distinction in honesty can be drawn between the small and large scale. A crime is a crime regardless of scale and can be called by no other name.
    2. No military leader can demand discipline and honesty if he/she does not serve as an example.
  • Personal Conduct
    1. A military leader at every level of command must show extreme restraint in his/her personal conduct.
    2. The exploitation of rank in order to take advantage of subordinates is a disgraceful act that disqualifies its perpetrator from any position of command or instruction.
    3. This does not imply intervention in the individual’s personal affairs, positions of military responsibility carry with them numerous obligations and the military unit is no private domain in which the individual may do as he/she pleases.
    4. An officer must serve as an example of modesty and reserve to a degree above the average accepted by society, at the risk of being suspected of “puritanical” tendencies.
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Jon Hosford

Jon Hosford is a retired educator and voluntary website manager for the Holy Trinity, Launceston parish.