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Ethics of War

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Are morals peacetime luxuries? Is pacifism right?

  • Or was Grotius correct to distinguish just from unjust wars?
  • Can only states legitimately wage wars?
  • If so, are revolutions and civil wars never justified?
  • Could anything justify the use of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons?
  • Who is responsible if lethal robots kill erroneously?
  • Are conscripts' deaths any less bad than those of noncombatants?
  • Must one endeavour to avoid harming civilians even if they are actively assisting the enemy?
  • Who is entitled to prisoner of war status?
  • Are war criminals just those whose bad luck puts them on the losing side?
  • Are postwar tribunals inevitably ‘victors' justice’?
  • Is it fair to judge choices made in ‘the fog of war’ by peacetime standards?
  • What obligations do we have to those fleeing conflict?
  • Can states permissibly prohibit citizens from fighting others' wars?
  • When is conscription justified?
  • How should conscientious objectors be treated?

We will explore ethical questions which arise for those initiating, pursuing or responding to war. No previous knowledge of philosophy or warfare is required.

Learning and teaching


The following is a sample of the kinds of questions and issues the module explores:

Fundamental questions

  • Are morals peacetime luxuries or is war properly subject to ethical evaluation?
  • Is pacifism the only credible moral position or are some wars justified?
  • Is there any fundamental moral difference between killing in self-defence or to defend others and killing when ordered to do so in defence of one’s community or country?
  • When is it permissible, impermissible or required to serve in the armed forces or as part of a non-state armed group?

Just War Theory

  • Should we focus on the requirements for just institutions, such as legislative frameworks and judicial procedures?
  • Or should we focus on the ethical standards appropriate when evaluating particular actions, strategies and policies?
  • Are some methods or strategies always wrong, regardless of the justness of one’s cause and the extremity of one’s situation?
  • Can the use of nuclear weapons ever be justified?
  • What about the use of biological warfare?
  • What about chemical weapons?

Special issues

  • Are there specific obligations to children caught up in conflicts?
  • How should medical personnel be treated?
  • How should journalists be treated?
  • When is conscription permissible?

Third parties

  • Do states have any general obligation to interfere in wars between states to whom they owe no treaty obligations?
  • What obligations do states have to civilians fleeing conflicts?
  • May states legitimately prohibit their own citizens from participating in wars they are not themselves party to?

The course may draw on case studies and examples from fiction and non-fiction to illustrate the theoretical positions discussed and students are encouraged to draw further examples from their own experience.

Coursework and assessment

You will be asked to undertake three assignments which will entail writing around 2,000 words (formulating a question, a case study, and an essay).

Advice and support will be provided for assignments and you will receive detailed feedback relating to strengths and areas for improvement on both pieces of work.

Reading suggestions

The tutor will provide a comprehensive list of reading materials prior to the course starting.

Library and computing facilities

As a student on this course you are entitled to join and use the University’s library and computing facilities. Find out more about using these facilities.


Our aim is access for all. We aim to provide a confidential advice and support service for any student with a long term medical condition, disability or specific learning difficulty. We are able to offer one-to-one advice about disability, pre-enrolment visits, liaison with tutors and co-ordinating lecturers, material in alternative formats, arrangements for accessible courses, assessment arrangements, loan equipment and dyslexia screening.