Is there such a thing? An ethical war? If you equate ethics with moral philosophy, then yes, there are ethical norms. But they are of limited value, applicable only off the battlefield, and routinely ignored by both sides. That is largely because war is an inescapable part of something called “the human condition.”[1] World history, civilization, conflict, death, memory, heroism and tragedy, love of country and hatred of enemies are both the start and the end of the human drama called war. Totalitarians, authoritarians, dictators, and other monsters live by it. That said, there are ethical and legal rules that should govern all warfare.

                “Just War Theory is a fancy way to ask questions about how and why people fight wars. Throughout history, people have competed for resources. Principles of honor and warfare were present in ancient Egyptian and Greek civilizations. Catholic theologians in the Middle Ages like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas developed the modern written theory of just war. These philosophers wanted to reconcile the belief that taking a life was wrong with a state’s duty to defend its people and the necessity of violence in some circumstances. It provides a framework for states in conflict. It stresses that every effort to prevent wars must be made. According to Just War Theory, violence is only permissible when it is a lesser evil than the alternatives. For a battle to be considered morally permissible, it must be ethical before, during, and after the conflict. Respectively, the Latin jus ad bellum, jus in bellum, and jus post bellum describes these parts.”[2]

Jus ad bellum describes justice before a war. To enter war, states must have a reasonable chance of success, attempt all other options of negotiation, and have the intention to right a wrong, not gain materials. War should be proportional to its harms. Jus in bellum, justice during war, describes the actions a country can fairly take in battle. Jus post bellum, or justice after a conflict, is vital for proper restorations. Similar to starting the war with just cause, there must be an ethical reason for ending the war.[3]

Pacifism is opposition to all violence, the philosophy that war and brutality are always wrong. During wartime, those with strong pacifist beliefs protest, march, register as a conscientious objector and refuse to serve in the military. Pacificism comes from pacific, “tending to make peace.”[4]

Anarchism, on the hand, the one wrapped around a gun, is a political philosophy skeptical of authority. Anarchists rejects coercive forms of hierarchy, like elections. They call, openly or privately, for the abolition of the state, which they hold to be unnecessary, undesirable, and harmful to their destiny to absolute rule, often by waging war. Putin is said to live by the “logic of war.”[5]  

To my surprise, there are ethical norms underlying the pivotal questions giving context to 21st Century wars. Why? Who? When? What? Where? How? These contextual questions were answered by Walter Dorn.[6]

  1. Why use force? Just War Theory insists that you need a just cause —a good reason. You need the right intent —you can’t have ulterior motives behind your action that are not consonant with your declared cause. And you need to have a net benefit. If the end result of your fighting is going to be negative, then it does not meet the net benefit criterion.
  2. Who should authorize force? The theory says that it should be a legitimate authority. The modern interpretation of that principle is that the authority should be legitimate under international law—which means the UN Security Council, in accordance with the UN Charter.
  3. What level of force? The theory requires proportional means. You must not use nuclear weapons after someone steps on your foot! You should use weapons and means that are proportional to the atrocity that was committed or to the action that must be corrected.
  4. When should you use force? Only as a last resort, which means after all peaceful options have been exhausted. That criterion may be hard to meet, since there are always some peaceful options left, but let’s say that reasonable options must have been exhausted, or that any remaining ones are clearly unlikely to succeed.
  5. Where can you use force? Only on military targets, not on civilian ones. That is specified by the Just War tradition and modern international laws regarding armed conflict.
  6. How to use force? With right conduct, including obeying all the laws of armed conflict.

These six answers serve as tests to examine the focus question—what ethical norms are available to test the ethicality of what we write about war. Just War assessment is ethically mandated.

Barrack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. He referred to Just War criteria in his acceptance speech. “War is justified only when it meets certain pre-conditions. For example, it must be used only as a last resort or in self-defense. The force used must be proportional, and, whenever possible, civilians must be spared from violence.”[7]

So, what ethical norms might apply to the war in Ukraine? Morality? The Russian invasion is a moral outrage. It is not a Just War. The ethics of war is properly understood as an ethics of politics.[8]

Geopolitics are why Russia started this war. “The outrage of the war—the outrage that gives rise to all its other outrages—is that the Russian invasion is precisely aimed at denying the people of Ukraine the right to determine the shape of their own political community. In the language of Just War Theory, the rights to “territorial integrity” and “political sovereignty” are meant to protect the more fundamental right of a people to political self-determination. When Russia sent tanks across the border, violating territorial integrity, with the aim of deciding for itself Ukraine’s political future, and thus violating political sovereignty, it not only violated Ukraine’s right to self-determination but also threatened the order of the world which, whatever its faults, is based on the inviolability of this right.”[9]

See, there are ethics of war.



[3] Ibid.




[7] Ibid.


[9] Ibid.

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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