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.
For those who are involved in war—whether fighting it at the tactical level, waging it at the strategic level, or living it somewhere in between—understanding war’s moral dimension is vital. Morality and war cannot be separated, for at its very essence, war is about using, risking, damaging, taking, or protecting life itself.
Without the tools of ethics and philosophy, strategists may go about their strategizing in an ad hoc manner characterized by frequent vague appeals to a crudely defined notion of political realism and a myopic conception of instrumental expediency. But ethics also must survive the formidable challenge of providing knowledge about and guidance for strategic choices. To paraphrase Dennett, ethics can make strategy rigorous, but strategy also makes ethics honest.Without the tools of ethics and philosophy, strategists may go about their strategizing in an ad hoc manner characterized by frequent vague appeals to a crudely defined notion of political realism and a myopic conception of instrumental expediency. But ethics also must survive the formidable challenge of providing knowledge about and guidance for strategic choices.
Perhaps the best way to conceptualize the effects-focused approach is that it conceives of surrogates as being more like weapon systems than moral agents. In addition to the strict ethical and legal responsibilities regarding the use of surrogates, there is also a general responsibility to evaluate the risk of working with (and thus potentially enabling) prospective surrogates.
The ethical concerns surrounding international arms sales should meet the criteria outlined in the jus ad bellum framework whenever politically possible. The jus ad bellum framework encourages policymakers to take the long view by considering the broader strategic implications of the decision to export weapons. Though not a panacea, arms transfers that meet the jus ad bellum criteria provide policymakers with some assurance that the recipient state’s government will use the arms in question responsibly, and in a manner that aligns with broader American foreign policy goals.
Too often, strategy discussions are seen as dominated by pragmatism, while discussions about ethics are considered more abstract or theoretical. What is often missed by people who approach the Just War Tradition 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.
Politicians, strategists, and tacticians need to discuss this problem. There is a group of experts who might help in this conversation, but they, sadly, are rarely invited to the sorts of parties that politicians, strategists, and tacticians attend. They are moral philosophers, and they could be our counsellors. If anything we might at least see the ethical elephant in the room, even if we can’t find him a new, more realistic, home.
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.
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.
When discussing ethics in a national security or military context, most people immediately think of the tradition of moral discourse about war, dominated by the Just War Tradition or Just War Theory. In this tradition, especially as it is taught in most civilian and professional military education largely based on the moral and legal principles first championed by Augustine and Aquinas, the only consideration of ethics in war involves either the morality of the choice to enter war in the first place or the ethical aspects of the tactical practices employed during the conflict.
What of the ethical nature of choices made at the level of strategy and/or policy? Rarely are there discussions of the morality of the lessons passed down by strategists and war theorists such as Thucydides, Realists of various stripes, Clausewitz, and more contemporary figures such as B. Liddell Hart and Colin Gray who tend to root themselves in practical considerations and historical precedent. What role do ethical considerations play in the selection of policy goals, the approaches employed to meet them, and the level of resources dedicated to the wartime effort?
To address this lack of understanding of ethics across the spectrum of war, the Ethics and Strategy series is designed to explore some of the following questions about these two traditions and the lack of intersection and discourse between them:
- Why? What are the reasons for this lack of discourse and discussion between these strains of thought?
- What are the points of intersection and common interest?
- Is there a moral obligation to have and maintain effective strategy? Why? What would be the moral grounds of such an obligation?
- What are the moral obligations that ought to contain or limit strategy? Are there any?
- What strategic considerations ought to constrain or inform moral discourse about war?
- What of the role of moral theory in strategy education and training?
- What is the role of various aspects of strategy (history, psychology, political science, military science) in the training of military ethicists and others involved in moral discourse about war
- What are future directions and considerations for dialog?
- Are certain kinds of conflict (responsibility to protect, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency) more amenable to a moral/strategic intersection? Why?
We hope you enjoy this series as much as we did working on it. If the articles generated ideas or you want to join in the conversation, put it down on paper and send it our way. Some submission guidelines to support your efforts can be found here.
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Header image: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, also known as Wanderer Above the Mist, an oil painting composed in 1818 by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich (Wikimedia)