Justifying a war of aggression

Andrew asked:

Are there any circumstances in which a war of aggression is justified?

 Answer by Paul Fagan

For some persons, such as pacifists, any form of Warfare may be considered to be immoral. However, for many others a war of aggression may be justified, and here three types of justification are noted.

The questioner may find it surprising that for some political philosophies, war is considered an essential part of life. It keeps populations healthy and alert; and allows the evolutionary process of the ‘survival of the fittest’ to continue. For such political philosophies, a war of aggression requires very little justification. For instance, the Futurists, who were influential upon Italian fascism, proclaimed in article 9 of their manifesto of 1911: ‘We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene’ (http://viola.informatik.uni-bremen.de/typo/fileadmin/media/lernen/Futurist_Manifesto.pdf).

But what reasons would other philosophies need to justify a war of aggression? Christian philosophy, has had a role to play here, and would traditionally supply justification where a nation state could provide a ‘just reason to go to war’ or a jus ad bellum. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (OUP 1995) provides an insightful definition whereby, for a war to be just, it should be:

‘undertaken only by a legitimate authority, it may be waged only for a just cause, it must be a last resort, there must be a formal declaration of war, and there must be a reasonable hope of success’ (p. 905).

Hence, using this reasoning, nation states when acting aggressively, may argue that they had a just reason to go to war. A substantial body of work has been written in this area including definitions of what actually constitutes just conduct during warfare; and for further information the reader may like to visit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which provides a very good summary of this area (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/war/).

The reader may also like to look back into history and analyse any particular war of aggression of their choice. Now, if the war cannot be explained by a pugnacious political philosophy causing the aggression then one should query whether the aggressor felt it had a just cause. On the face of it, wars often fail to be explained adequately by either of these. This may lead one to ponder whether other processes of justification are at work and it is suggested here that a philosophical school of thought such as utilitarianism may be being used.  It is possible that the higher echelons of power, whether they are monarchs, governments or the establishment, carry out a utilitarian calculus either subconsciously or consciously, when deciding to go to war.  More bluntly, embarking upon a war may be explained by the tools provided by modern studies of business activity. It is possible that a form of cost benefit analysis is enacted, whereby the costs and benefits are weighed against each other before war is started. To explain, the costs of waging a war may incur: lives lost; taxation revenue required; and a diminished world standing. Whereas the benefits may include: gained resources; economic or military security; and the war may even divert the citizens’ attention from problems at home. Hence, after carrying out the exercise, if the benefits are deemed to outweigh the costs, then this may provide a justification for war in the eyes of the powers that be.

Varying philosophies, in their own way, may define whether a war of aggression is justified. Here, three have been noted, where: some will go to war quite readily; some will require the fulfilment of conditions; and some may calculate whether it is worthwhile. However, expounders of any of these philosophies would do well to bear in mind Machiavelli when he said ‘Wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please’.


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