Pragmatic Ethics

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.

The #StrategyAndEthics series began with the observation that discussions about strategy and ethics tend to take place separately. Both strategy and ethics are taught to varying standards of quality in military institutions around the world. However, the two areas tend to be taught as distinct rather than inextricably connected subjects (the one exception to this is perhaps in Germany).[1] Too often, strategy discussions are seen as dominated by pragmatism, while discussions about ethics are considered more abstract or theoretical. This is true though the serving practitioners who I have the privilege of teaching, often having served back-to-back tours since 2001, are normally all too aware of the implicit connection between the two.

Despite the conscious, or unconscious, separation of the two areas, I will take this opportunity to demonstrate just how pragmatic and useful the Just War Tradition has been and continues to be when thinking about strategy. While there is a lot more to the subject of military ethics than the Just War Tradition, it represents a fund of practical moral wisdom that has evolved over time to reflect the changing character of war. What is often missed by people who approach it as an abstract theory, rather than as a true tradition, is that as part of this evolution, it has incorporated prudential calculations that acknowledge the crucial importance of context when determining a correct course of action.

In brief, the Just War Tradition demands that actions that can cause harm to others (i.e., going to war) can be undertaken only if there is a compelling, morally justifiable reason—a just cause. They must be undertaken with the right intentions and authorized by those who have the legitimacy to sanction the suspension of the normal rules prohibiting this kind of action. The harms that the action may produce in both the short and long term must be proportional to the injury that has been suffered, and there must be a reasonable prospect that the actions will lead to success. Finally, you must be confident that there are no alternative options that may do less harm and still produce results, i.e., war must be a genuine last resort. In addition to these ad bellum requirements, there are also certain in bello principles to take into account, concerned with how war is allowed to be conducted. Specifically, one should be discriminate to ensure that any harm to the innocent is limited, and any harm must be proportionate to the aim that is being legitimately pursued.

By establishing a clear and realistic objective at the outset, mission creep can be avoided and war can be kept firmly as an instrument of policy rather than its master.

There are pragmatic reasons why each of these criteria should inform policy formation and consideration about using violence on behalf of a given community. Given issues of brevity, the essentially pragmatic nature of the Tradition will be demonstrated by focusing on only two of the possible examples, one from each level of the criteria.[2] Firstly, at the ad bellum level, few people would deny that it is sound strategic planning to ask what a war is trying to achieve before embarking upon it.[3] Consistent with this, the Just War Tradition demands a clear idea of what success in this context actually means. Note that success is not the same as victory, even though the two are often confused. One can normally achieve one’s objectives without having to utterly destroy one’s opponent. For example, in 1939 Finland defended itself against the Soviet Union even though it was clearly not going to win. However, the Finns almost certainly obtained significantly better terms when they did finally capitulate five months later, than they would have achieved if they had not fought at all.[4] It is difficult not to see this as success even if it was clearly not a victory. The link between Just War thinking and sound strategy can be demonstrated in this area by Clausewitz, who stated, “No-one starts a war—or rather, no-one in his senses ought to do so—without being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. The former is a political purpose; the latter its operational objective.”[5] By establishing a clear and realistic objective at the outset, mission creep can be avoided and war can be kept firmly as an instrument of policy rather than its master. The normative concern is certainly not at odds with the strategic one.

Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Patton, inspect artworks rescued by the Monuments Men. (National Archives)

Secondly, proportionality at the in bello level requires that the damage, losses or injury resulting from any military action, not just to one’s own side but considered overall, should not be excessive in relation to the expected military advantage. How can this be squared with pragmatic strategic thinking? After all, in the words of General Eisenhower referring to the destruction of ancient artifacts and cultural heritage: “If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more and the building must go.” It would be easy to stop there, assume that the practical sentiment is clear and dismiss the whining of the armchair ethicists who don’t understand what war is really about. However, Eisenhower didn’t stop there. The quote continues:

But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase “military necessity” is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference.

Perceived wanton destruction is a powerful propaganda tool which can alienate the people that you are supposedly trying to win over. It was a message that was not always understood in World War II (although Eisenhower ‘got it’), and can still be misunderstood today (e.g., the harm to local relations prompted by the irreparable—but completely avoidable—damage to ancient Babylon caused by placing a US military base right at its heart in 2003). There are many more examples that could be used to demonstrate these points, and they certainly aren’t limited to preserving cultural heritage, but it should be clear already that there is nothing alien to strategic thought being demonstrated here by raising normative questions. Rather, these are considerations that should be taken into account to ensure sound strategic practice. From Deuteronomy in the Old Testament forbidding the wanton destruction of enemy crops through to the policy of Courageous Restraint, we can see that just because you can do something (or even might be permitted to do it under the law or rules of engagement) that doesn’t mean that you should do it, and there are often, in fact, very practical and sound strategic reasons why you should not.

A Polish soldier walks back to his tent just outside the ancient City of Babylon, south of Baghdad, Iraq in 2003. (Bullit Marquez/AP)

The distinction Clausewitz makes between the nature of war (immutable but therefore purely theoretical) and its character (what war actually looks like when translated into a particular time and place) acknowledges that real war is a social phenomenon and cannot simply be divorced from this context. Short-term military success and longer-term political success are not necessarily the same thing and successful strategy must provide a linkage between the two. The Just War Tradition, and the principles that it contains, help us to bridge that gap, which might be why that although it is often associated with Western or even Christian traditions, principles of the Just War Tradition resonate with ideas, cultures, and religious principles found all over the world. In the same way that the logic of strategy remains consistent through different eras and military operating environments, this surely cannot be accidental.[6]

Dr. David Whetham is Reader in Military Ethics in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, based at the UK’s Joint Services Command and Staff College. He is Director of the Centre for Military Ethics.

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Header Image: A view taken from Dresden's town hall of the destroyed Old Town after the allied bombings between February 13 and 15, 1945. (Walter Hahn/AFP/Getty Images)


[1] One of the core reasons that the International Society for Military Ethics, and its sister chapter Euro ISME, were established was to provide forums for getting academic ethicists and military practitioners in the same place, talking about the same things at the same time. The Journal of Military Ethics has been going since 2002 and aims to provide guidance and analysis for military professionals by drawing on the rich (and very long) tradition of thinking that informs contemporary military ethics, including some very current challenges and responses.

[2] Johnson argues convincingly that three prudential criteria have been attached to the classical ad bellum criteria: proportionality, reasonable prospect of success and last resort See James Turner Johnson, The War to Oust Saddam Hussein: Just War and the New Face of Conflict (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), p. 36.

[3] For more on these criteria, see D. Whetham, “The Just War Tradition: A Pragmatic Compromise,” in D. Whetham, ed., Ethics, Law and Military Operations (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

[4] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, Second Ed (New York: Basic, 1992), p. 70.

[5] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), VIII: 2, p. 223.

[6] If you are interested in exploring further, see the Just War module available at