Is going to war and killing humans ethical?

Contributed by DH.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

6 responses »

  1. KS says:

    This is a very broad question like the “is abortion wrong?” and is hard to answer in general. However, since there are so many companies that contract with the U.S. Defense Department for which some of us work, it’s a compelling question.

    I believe the answer depends on the reason for going to war. Some people may argue that going to war does not pass the generalization test. Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” But only the lives of soldiers should be deliberately targeted during a war. Deliberately targeting innocent people cannot be justified. Although some loss of civilian life is inevitable in any war, if the reason for entering into the war is to protect future lives and preserve the general welfare and freedom of a populous, then I believe that waging war can pass the generalization test. Simply killing for the sake of engaging in violence or creating terror does not pass the generalization test.

    Waging war can satisfy the utilitarian test if it ultimately leads to saving lives in the long run and otherwise contributes more happiness, less suppression, more freedom, etc, for a population. To satisfy the virtue test, one needs to consider who is fighting whom. It would not be virtuous to fight innocent people who are not in danger of harming the safety and welfare of others. It is, however, virtuous to fight those who pose a threat to the safety of the innocent. It is also virtuous to protect the innocent and to protect those who are helping you protect the innocent (such as a fellow soldier).


  2. HF says:

    This is indeed a good question, and one that a lot of us sometimes have to think of or even face with the turbulence taking place around the world and increased violence. My quick answer is: No, this is not ethical. I am a big believer and follower of Gandhi’s philosophy and thoughts that directly focus around this question. Gandhi has been able to win a war without killing humans. If he was able to do that, then anyone else should be able to do the same. I am totally against beating, hurting or even killing someone else in war or under any other context. That being said, someone would counter my argument by saying: Well, what do you do if someone has evil thoughts and tries to hurt/beat/kill you without any rational thinking? In this case, I say, you have to understand this person’s background, culture, way of thinking and if you live around this person, you have a big responsibility to educate the person and raise his awareness by informing him that what he is or may try to do is irrational and does not in any way fulfill his goals. I know this sounds too good to be true and ideal, but I truly believe that each person has a level of goodness in himself and it is up to the educated, more rational and fortunate people to educate others and help them in order to reveal the good in them. Wars where people must kill/die have never had a positive outcome on anyone and never will. Last but not least, I believe that each person has the right to defend himself if he is in danger of being hurt/beaten/killed if all other means of education and rational awareness fail. But even the self defense method could be applied without killing humans. That being said, each person has the free will to decide whether to go to war and kill humans or not.


  3. TH says:

    The question of the ethics of war, for me, bring to mind the concept of Just War Theory, which mirrors the framework for ethical decision-making that we have been discussing. Generally, for a war to be considered “just”, it must satisfy the following four conditions:

    1) The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
    2) all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
    3) there must be serious prospects of success;
    4) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

    Each of these criteria has an analogue to at least one element of our framework:

    Generalization: What would happen if every nation with the same goal pursued that goal through war? For certain goals, such as the pursuit of greater wealth, this is not generalizable. Every nation wants greater wealth, but the pursuit of wealth through war results necessarily in the destruction of property, life and wealth. Every nation would be an aggressor, and every nation would be a victim. Thus, the reason for going to war would be invalidated through its execution. However, in the case of self-defense, any nation can, and does, respond with force when attacked. The reason is that the waging of modern warfare always carries the prospect of “lasting, grave and certain” damage (principle 1). Thus, self-defense through war is generalizable.

    Utilitarianism: We go to war if it is the best way available to achieve our goals. Given the destructive nature of war, it is difficult to envision a scenario where this would be the case for proactively waging war. However, war in self-defense has a much better chance of being the best utilitarian option, as an aggressor is likely to inflict more pain on an attacked population if they were to passively surrender than if they were to defend themselves. However, a nation could not defend themselves in a utilitarian fashion by, say, launching nuclear weapons at an attacking nation. Thus, war must be both the most practical alternative (principle 2), be waged in order to achieve a goal rather than simply inflict pain (principle 3), and must be waged in a way that minimizes pain (principle 4).

    Virtue: This is a difficult one to justify in the context of war, but we can make the case that freedom is a virtue worth defending. While deaths may result (obviously not virtuous behavior when taken by itself), we can say that it is rational to sacrifice one virtue (the defense of human life) to preserve another virtue (freedom), especially when the virtue being preserved applies to more people than the virtue being sacrificed.

    Thus, for most circumstances, war can not be considered ethical under this framework. However, given the proper circumstances and execution, war in the name of self-defense can indeed be considered ethical.


  4. SS says:

    I find this question about the ethics of war the most interesting. I believe it IS NOT ETHICAL.

    Most people tend to use a utilitarian justification for waging war: Something to the effect of “Lose some lives now to save many more in the future”. The basic problem with this sort of a utilitarian test is the inability of humans to a) predict the other “party’s” future course of actions and, primarily b)account to second, third, fourth order effects of the use of such force. The range of these effects or consequences is beyond human comprehension. Apart from the obvious damage – tangible and intangible – of lost lives, there are lasting political, economic, social, health effects that are impossible to be valued with any degree of accuracy. The point is that the calculation is not as simple as “lives lost now vs. lives lost later”. The net utility of the war is impossible to be determined. Unfortunately we can only measure these consequences against ASSUMPTIONS about the consequences of not waging a war. There is no alternate reality to compare with. What is determinable is the extent to which the consequences of these wars have been miscalculated. History has numerous examples of gross miscalculations.

    The most immediate source of error in the utilitarian argument is the (FALSE) value assigned to the different parties involved in the war. In general the value discrepancy seems to resemble this inequality Civilians at home > Our Soldiers > Their Civilians > Their Soldiers. Most developed legal systems measure that we all grow up in measure the value of life equally. Yet that standard is thrown out the window during war leading to subjective calculations about the relative value of human life (relative to the other party). The problem is there is no rule or protocol to measure this relative value. This is a stark violation of The Difference Principle described in the book. Their civilians or their soldiers will certainly be better off without a war.


  5. Anonymous says:

    Of course going to war is ethical as long as it is in self-defense.

    Generalization test: If every country defended itself against threats, it would not take away the benefit of a country defending itself through war. In fact, if we look at the generalization test from the other way, if no country defended itself against attackers, the attackers would take over and bad people (for instance terrorists) would eventually rule.

    Utilitarian test: Countries like Iran who openly express desire to destroy entire nations being stopped creates a large amount of utility to millions of people. This outweighs the loss of the smaller number of human lives in a war (especially when the enemy’s main goal is to hurt people of different religions, etc.).

    Virtue test (loyalty): Loyalty to one’s country when your country is acting in self-defense is more important than loyalty to another country with evil intentions.


  6. John Hooker says:

    As KS suggests, the question is too broad to answer. At the very least, we must narrow it down to a decision that individuals can make: Should I join the military? Should I work for a defense contractor? Should I vote for a pro-war candidate? Should I resist if drafted into the military? Few of us are in a position to decide whether a war will actually be fought.

    The decision also depends on the circumstances surrounding the war. TH points out that there is a carefully considered body of thought on this issue, known as just war theory. Many people seem to think that just war theory states that war is just. On the contrary, it sets out strict conditions that any “just war” must satisfy. The conditions are historically associated with the Roman Catholic Church, but they are based on the philosophical analysis of Thomas Aquinas and others, which one can evaluate independently of religious faith. The arguments are not unrelated to the type of arguments I use in this blog.

    As TH also notes, very few actual wars (including U.S. wars) meet the conditions of just war theory. In particular, a war of “self defense” may not meet the conditions.

    Perhaps someone would like to post some more specific dilemmas related to war and peace.


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