Strategy and Ethics: Why Strategists Need Philosophical Back-Up

This essay is part of the #StrategyAndEthics series, which asked a group of academics and national security professionals to provide their thoughts on the confluence of ethical considerations, the development of strategy, and the conduct of war. We hope this launches a debate that may one day shape policy.

There are important conversations happening in strategy and moral philosophy about technology, the nature of war, new forms and challenges of warfare, the place of non-combatant immunity, torture, winning hearts and minds, the role of military force as opposed to other strategies, and when war and military force ought to be used—all with wide ranging policy implications. Strategists, however, rarely talk about ethics or moral theory (even Just War Theory), and military ethicists and moral philosophers rarely talk about strategy.

Strategy discussions tend to be rooted in history, psychology, political science, and international relations as disciplines, asking:  What is the political end? How can military force be brought to bear for that goal? What is the will and action of the enemy? What will we do? What will the enemy do? Military ethicists and moral philosophers meanwhile invoke moral and legal principles including the Just War Tradition and ask: What are the moral constraints on war? What is required for war to be morally justified? What harm is justified and to whom? These questions tend to be justification oriented, concerned with the minimization of harm and the restoration of peace.

Given this gap, it is worth considering what ethics and philosophy can contribute to discussions of strategy, as a way to explore the intersections between the two; both are concerned with the political aim, the justification for the cause and rationale for means, as well as thinking about war as a means, not an end in itself.

The Nature of Strategy

First, let’s look briefly at how strategy is typically defined. Chris Coker describes strategy as the military realization of statecraft, while Colin Gray observes what unites strategic experience across all periods of war is the ability to turn local success (military) in a decisive political outcome.[1] B.H. Liddell Hart, meanwhile, quotes Clausewitz’s claim of strategy “…as the employment of battle as a means to gain the object of war” which means that strategy forms the plan of war, the campaigns and regulates the battles. However, Liddell Hart thinks the focus on the military does not take into account policy and the extent to which the government is involved, and so offers a shorter definition: the art of distributing and applying means to fulfill the end of policy.

Strategy is “…the art and science of how policy—and policymakers—wrestle to the ground primordial violence, hatred, and enmity and the other powerful emotions of war…Strategy makes these emotions, and the violence they generate, purposeful."

Alternately, Al Pierce argues strategy is “…the art and science of how policy—and policymakers—wrestle to the ground primordial violence, hatred, and enmity and the other powerful emotions of war…Strategy makes these emotions, and the violence they generate, purposeful."[3] He does follow Clausewitz in that the political aim restricts the means and uses this to wedge in the idea that ethics (especially Just War Theory) has a role in strategy. J.C. Wylie argues strategy is “…a plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment.[4] This point about measurement seems important and there are three themes that have recurred in strategy discussions: decisive battle, military force and political ends/aims.

The Dangers and Pitfalls

While strategists emphasize the constant loop of question, results and evaluation, as well as anticipation of possible scenarios, history is replete with cases where strategy becomes inflexible doctrine supported by the military and political structures. It is oft noted that we fight the current war with the paradigm of the last one; this doesn’t just apply to militaries, but to strategy as well.

"Pericles' Funeral Oration" (Philipp von Foltz)

The first pitfall is that of unexamined assumptions. Pericles’ strategy of using his navy while protecting his army behind the walls of Athens, thereby denying the Spartans’ desire for a direct land fight during the Peloponnesian War is a good place to start. This strategy seems wise, as it exploits the Athenian naval strength and denies the Spartans their strength (forcing a siege); however, if it turns out these assumptions are not warranted, then whole thing falls apart. This strategy turns on the Spartan’s having a certain view of courage rooted in Spartan militarism and warrior culture, strength in land power, and a preference for phalanx warfare. It also turns on Athens not sharing this view of courage and the power of Pericles as a leader, especially in terms of maintaining control and morale. It also is dependent on the nature of the Greek polis and political obligation in both societies, with attendant ideas about role of war—for Athens empire building, while for Sparta existential.

The second pitfall is the role ethical and cultural norms and assumptions play in strategy; strategy does not exist in a vacuum. For instance, Vietnamese strategic thinking was culturally tied to their own traditions, ethical and cultural norms, and commitments, much like Sparta and Athens. In our own time, Coker notes that Americans see their soldiers as moral crusaders, not as risk managers seeking to contain damage to an acceptable level, so there is resistance to limited wars and inconclusive campaigns.[5] Clearly this is a constraint on strategy, as wars need at least some level of public support to achieve political ends.

In the past, a cultural and even ethical assumption in Western warfare has been the idea of decisive battle using military force. To the degree that there are fewer decisive battles, or battles at all, this constrains strategy, especially given the tension between this fact and cultural and ethical norms. In addition, a small group of commentators in both strategy and the moral philosophy (Liddell Hart, Walzer, Pierce) have noted that the Just War Tradition and International Law function as constraints on our strategy when it comes to military force. If the aim is to produce a better peace and/or restore the peace, then this frames strategy in ways that may not apply to our adversaries.

The final pitfall is that things change. Liddell Hart and other strategists note that one must be able to adapt to conditions as they change; one could see this related to tactics influencing strategy in terms of the battle and use of military force, but it must be broader. Political conditions also change over time and this cannot help but be a factor. The death of Pericles and the impact of the plague in Athens made it much more difficult to maintain the “behind the walls” strategy. And of course, the enemy adapts their strategy and tactics as they learn our strategy, which then requires further rethinking, evaluation, assessment, and adaptation.

What a Philosopher Can Bring

"Aristotle" ( Francesco Hayez)

Philosophers bring important skills and tools to the intersection of strategy and ethics. First, from Aristotle there is the idea of prudence (practical reasoning) which requires thinking about means and ends in regard to human society and experience. Prudence is not the uncritical acceptance of experience as true, but allows us to use experience to reflect upon the best means for a given end and also to reflect on ends in this context of what is best for human community.

Second, rather than taking the political end as a given goal in strategy, we can help reflect upon and question the role of the political end in strategy. To this, we can ask important questions about the classic jus ad bellum requirements in the Just War Tradition of Just Cause, Proportionality of Ends, the Reasonable Chance of Success, and the jus in bello requirement of Last Resort relative to whether military force is, in fact, the best way to achieve a political end. It is possible these issues constrain or frame how we articulate the political end and the strategy that will be used to bring it about. Certainly, there are also questions on means and implementation of the strategy that have moral constraints and implications that should be in the feedback loop. Ethics (as a part of the discipline of philosophy) is also rooted and versed in issues of epistemology—what are the grounds and justification for your belief? Are they reflective of short or long term considerations? Further, philosophers bring a healthy sense of skepticism and critical distance to ask questions that might not get asked given the issues of power and bureaucracy involved.

Third, the need for adaptability and alternative ends requires the ability to think outside of one’s framework—to think with and like the enemy. Philosophers are specifically trained not just to be aware of what counter-arguments might be, but also to be able to represent them charitably and to understand their logic from the inside out. Strategists would be wise to take advantage of this training and orientation to buttress their own work.

Finally, if Pierce is right that strategy is directing and making emotions purposeful, ethical reflection can help illuminate the proper role of emotion, facilitate recognition of the impact where it might not be clear, and also enhance judgment of the appropriateness of emotion. Philosophers have argued that not all emotions are a valid or helpful basis for morality and the same should be true in strategy. A strategy designed to deal with anger, vengeance, or other similar emotions seems to be problematic; the same is true of other emotions, such as empathy or sympathy. All of these are human emotions, but to what degree they ought to drive and influence strategy is a question that philosophers can raise.

The philosophical tradition in the West began with Socrates asking difficult, important, and sometimes annoying questions of those in power to explore ethical life and the nature of human society. He claimed to be a midwife of ideas—to help others in the painful process of giving birth—and to the extent that strategists are birthing strategy and creating means to achieve political ends of the State, a partner seems in order.

Pauline Shanks Kaurin holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Temple University and is a specialist in military ethics, just war theory, social and political philosophy, and applied ethics. She is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pacific Lutheran University and teaches courses in military ethics, warfare, business ethics, and history of philosophy.

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Header Image: The School of Athens, a fresco painted by Raphael in 1510 (Wikimedia|Public Domain)


[1] Christopher Coker, Barbarous Philosophers: Reflections on the Nature of War from Heraclitus to Heisenberg (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010): 115, 172.

[2] B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy (New York: Fredrick Praeger, 1968): 333.

[3] Pierce, Al. “War: Strategy vs Ethics, Ethics and Strategy?” Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz Memorial Lectureship in National Security Affairs, University of California (March 2, 2002): 5.

[4] Phil Walter, Strategies, Plans and Quotations, (February 26, 2016).

[5] Coker, Barbarous Philosophers, 178.