The Morality of War

Sun Aug 31 21:34:29 2008
We don’t have a universally agreed upon formula for finding the solution to ethical problems. There are Virtue ethics (e.g., Aristotle‘s Nicomachean Ethics), Deontological ethics (e.g., Locke’s Natural Rights, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Rawl’s Contractarianism) Consequentialist (e.g., Mill’s Utilitarianism) and Existentialist Ethics (e.g., Sartre’s mauvaise foi), not to mention an almost endless variety of religious and legal approaches.

There are many that would say that war itself is always wrong. We certainly don’t advocate violence and killing as legal and moral behavior for the general population. Perhaps if we accepted the idea that war is unethical we might approach its application with more gravity and seriousness. It is certainly brutal, violent and unpredictable. But there are also occasions where it might also be necessary. Machiavelli had an interesting approach. He did not try to rationalize, moralize or justify the use of violence. He accepted that it was immoral, but also that sometimes it was essential for a state to act immorally.

And that leads us to a problem that we can address as historians and not moralists. We no longer have to grasp with thorny moral issues of right or wrong that have no clear answer. We can instead address issues of political expedience or strategic value or necessity. These are within reach of the historian.

Was the US strategic bombing in WWII wrong? This is an ethical, not a historical question and one could make an argument that it was wrong. Was it necessary or politically expedient? This is a question for the historian. Here evidence is ambiguous but suggests that much of it was not necessary. Why do we, as historians or moralists, feel the need to rationalize and justify it? That is a question for social psychologists and not historians or moral philosophers.


~ by severalfourmany on August 31, 2008.

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