Philosophers, Moral Absolutism, and War Waging: Reflecting on #StrategyAndEthics

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.

War is a human endeavor that requires ethical decisions at every level, crossing the ambiguous boundaries established between the decision to go to war, the strategy developed to prosecute the war, and how the war is waged in practice. In short, war has an inherently ethical component.

The #StrategyAndEthics series was designed to examine aspects of these dynamics, including the moral discourse about war and the ethical considerations in the selection of policy goals, the approaches employed to meet them, and the level of resources dedicated to the wartime effort. We could not have asked for a better collection of authors to do so.

In “Strategy and Ethics: Why Strategists Need Philosophical Back-Up,” Dr. Pauline Shanks Kaurin, a professor at Pacific Lutheran University, examines the pitfalls inherent in a strategy devoid of philosophy, as well as some advantages philosophers could provide to strategy development. A key item identified by Dr. Shanks Kaurin is the value to be found in “practical reasoning which requires thinking about means and ends in regard to human society and experience.” How can political goals be met through violence if the actions are devoid of an understanding of its effect on adversary decision makers and their people?

Tom McDermott, an Australian Army officer and student of strategy at the Australian National University, wrestles with the core problem of Western war-making decision making in “Burning the Village to Save It: Moral Absolutism, Strategy and the Challenge of the 21st Century.” He asks, to “what extent ethics should influence political decisions about war, the development of strategies for war, or the tactics of how war is fought?” Central to his analysis is the idea that strategy itself is amoral or not inherently ethical, but when the theory becomes action through the employment of strategies and tactics, ethics is imperative to achieving the goals of the strategy.

In “Pragmatic Ethics,” David Whetham, a Reader in Military Ethics at King’s College London, suggests the Just War Tradition is more than abstract or theoretical. Rather, it can be pragmatic and useful, representing a “‘fund of practical moral wisdom” that bridges the gap between goals developed in a strategy and the tactical actions to achieve them.

In an attempt to provide some tangible examples of ethics in strategy, both Rob Arnett and Deane-Peter Baker employ case studies. In “Ethics and Arms Sales: Operationalizing the Just War Tradition,” Arnett, a U.S. Air Force officer and graduate of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, claims the Just War Tradition provides policy makers and statesmen the tools for strategic thinking through the lens of ethical implications of the decision to export weapons.

In “SOF and Surrogates: Rethinking the Ethical-Strategic Challenge of ‘Through, With and By,’” Baker, a professor at the University of New South Wales Canberra and the Australian Defence Force Academy, describes the particular ethical challenges that arise out of a strategy that seeks to leverage tools of the special operations forces. For Baker, an effects-based approach may be the answer.

In "Ethics in Strategy: Making Strategy Rigorous and Ethics Honest," Adam Elkus, a doctoral candidate in computational social science, uses the lens of explicitly programming rational, strategic agency to illuminate the reflexive relationship between ethics and strategy. Elkus concludes that while ethics are a valuable tool for strategists, ethicists must similarly wrestle with the hard problems of strategy. 

Jim Dubik closes our series in "On the Inseparability of War and Morality" with a moving and profound assertion that “morality and war cannot be separated, for at its very essence, war is about using, risking, damaging, taking, or protecting life itself.” This brings Dubik to the point of focusing on “war waging” as a better way to integrate morality into war.

Finally, Mick Cook and the team over at The Dead Prussian Podcast hosted Jim Dubik, Pauline Shanks Kaurin, and Tom McDermott for a roundtable discussion on #StrategyAndEthics. Listen to the team chat about the ethics of managing, waging, and conducting war. The panel topics range from Just War Theory and its application to strategic decision making through to the actions of the soldiers in the coalface. There is even mention of the Bard and what we can learn of ethics from Henry V.

While the above content provide useful deep dives into the subject of strategy and ethics, there remains much left to be said, both at the theoretical and practical level. We hope these articles helped your thinking and writing!

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Header Image: A row of philosophers – busts of Greek philosophers from Socrates to Epicurus as seen in the British Museum, London. (St. Peter's List)