Ethics and War: Examining Moral Dilemmas in Conflict

War is undoubtedly one of the most challenging arenas for ethics. The devastating impacts of armed conflict challenge us to think deeply about morality, often encountering tragic moral dilemmas. In war, we frequently face conflicts between values like protecting lives versus respecting rights, or choosing the greater good over avoiding harm. Wrestling with the ethics of war requires grappling with utilitarian calculations, debates over just war theory, and profound philosophical questions about human nature.

This article will examine some of the most difficult moral dilemmas posed by war. First, it will look at the overall justification of war itself. Is war ever ethically permissible? If so, how can the immense harm of war be reconciled with ethical values? Second, it will explore dilemmas faced by individual actors in war, including soldiers, commanders, humanitarian aid workers, and journalists. What are their moral obligations and ethical boundaries when operating in warzones? Finally, it will investigate dilemmas related to tactics and strategy. Is it ethical to use methods like deception, torture, or terrorism when lives are at stake? How do we balance military necessity against human rights?

Justifying War

The question of whether war can ever be ethically justified has challenged thinkers for millennia. Several philosophical perspectives have emerged in wrestling with this dilemma.

Realism argues that in an anarchic world of sovereign states, war is an inevitable tool states use to achieve national interests and maximize power. From this view, managing war’s excesses is more realistic than pursuing its elimination. However, critics counter that realism’s acceptance of war as unavoidable ignores potentials to cultivate peace, trusts overly in state power, and diminishes human dignity.

Pacifism contends that war is never morally permissible due to its immense destruction. Principled pacifism rejects violence altogether. Few states, however, adopt such absolute stances. Pragmatic pacifism instead urges pursuing non-violent solutions whenever possible and using force only as a last resort. This allows exceptions for limited defensive or humanitarian military action if alternatives fail. But skeptics argue that pragmatic pacifism is unrealistic and risks enabling tyranny by eschewing forceful responses to injustice.

The just war tradition argues war can be morally justified if certain criteria are met. A war’s cause must be just – responding to direct harm or correcting severe injustice. War aims must be ethically focused – not revenge or conquest, but protection of human rights and dignity. Last resort means all peaceful alternatives must be exhausted first. Right authority denotes war declared by legitimate governments, not rogue groups. Proportionality requires the expected good to outweigh the harm inflicted. Discrimination means directing force only at combatants, avoiding civilian deaths. If these principles are met, then going to war may be regrettable but ethically permissible. However, critics argue just war norms are subjective, inconsistently applied, and unable to tame war’s violence.

In ethical terms, non-violence is ideal. Yet pacifism’s ethical purity confronts challenges of operational complexity. Preventing greater evil sometimes appears to require using force. But just war theory faces difficulties too. Its worthy principles are stretched to justify highly questionable wars. Perhaps the best path lies between these poles – striving to avoid war through moral courage and creative peacebuilding, yet reluctantly conceding at times that war, for all its horrors, may be the least bad option available.

Individual Ethics in War

Within war, individual actors like soldiers, commanders, aid workers, and journalists regularly confront heart-wrenching ethical dilemmas. Wrestling with their moral obligations requires considering both the roles they inhabit and their shared humanity.

For soldiers, their role obligations to serve their country and obey lawful orders can conflict with other moral claims. While lawful orders carry strong normative weight, human rights law prohibits following manifestly illegal commands to harm civilians, torture detainees, or commit atrocities. When commands appear unlawful, moral courage may require respectfully questioning authority and even refusing to comply if concerns are dismissed – despite high personal risk for insubordination. Even absent unlawful orders, combat frequently puts soldiers in morally anguishing dilemmas. Choices to save comrades over civilians, kill some to reduce greater harm, or sacrifice their own safety for others involve daunting ethical calculations under fire, with limited time and incomplete information to weigh lives in the balance.

Military leaders bear even heavier moral burdens. Their decisions steer strategy, troop deployments, and life-and-death missions, plus responsibilities to care for those under their command. Commanders must strive to fulfill duties effectively yet ethically – sound judgment and moral discipline are essential. When missions and values conflict, speaking uncomfortable truths to power is required. In extreme cases, leaders might have to resign rather than execute deeply unethical policies. Senior officers are also accountable for indiscipline among troops. Preventing and punishing war crimes by cultivating an ethical climate and moral character requires constant attention.

For humanitarian workers, moral dilemmas center on providing aid neutrally based on need, while facing impossible choices over lives to save when resources are scarce. If allied forces restrict access to civilians in enemy territory, do aid groups comply or protest despite being denied entry? When community leaders exploit aid, does withdrawing it to avoid fueling conflict punish the needy? Complex emergencies that mix natural disaster with violent upheaval pose further quandaries. Can aid groups engage armed actors to access suffering populations while maintaining neutrality? Is working closely with intervening militaries doing harm by enabling force, or helping by providing alternative non-violent solutions? The deeper moral guidance humanitarian organizations can provide is upholding human dignity impartially.

Journalists covering conflict face dilemmas like serving truth versus avoiding harm. Reporting fundamentally informs public understanding of war’s impacts on all sides. But revealing information could endanger operations or lives if it aids the enemy. Respecting human dignity means informing the public responsibly, not becoming a combatant. Yet journalists must also grapple with states restricting access and suppressing dissent under the cloak of national security. Atrocities and abuses civilians suffer might warrant discreet reporting to avoid censorship. But any deception still corrodes public trust. These cases compel searching moral reasoning that resists absolutism.

Navigating these dilemmas involves discernment and moral courage. For individuals within war’s crucible, ethics provides not rigid rules but wise principles – seek justice, respect human rights, aim for proportionality, sustain humanity. No perfect solutions exist, only conscientiouscommitment to minimize harm.

Strategic and Tactical Ethics

At the levels of military strategy and specific combat tactics, ethical dilemmas multiply even further. Purposes may be justified but methods immoral, or vice versa. Protecting civilians conflicts with using overwhelming force. Supporting friendly forces contradicts opposing their abuses. Securing victory competes with preserving humanity.

Strategic bombing targeting population centers emerged during World War II aiming to destroy enemy morale. But killing hundreds of thousands of civilians proved impossible to reconcile ethically with just war principles, despite military rationales insisting it hastened victory. Torture, summary executions, and ethnic cleansing of contested territory have likewise been rationalized strategically for stabilizing occupation and counterinsurgency. But such heinous violations of human rights completely corrupt just war morality.

Deception and psychological operations that manipulate beliefs pose complex dilemmas. Defeating fascism arguably warranted disguising the D-Day invasion site through elaborate deception like false radio signals and dummy equipment. But after conflicts conclude, continued disinformation campaigns against democratic societies violate basic liberties. Covert action like assassinations and election interference by foreign militaries completely discard ethics under the veil of state interests.

Irregular or asymmetric conflicts against non-state armed groups raise dilemmas like civilian collateral damage during drone strikes justified by claims of self-defense against terrorism. But human rights groups condemn many such operations as extrajudicial executions violating due process, sovereignty, and discrimination principles. Even tactics that seem necessities, like depriving populations of financial resources used by militants, can impose collective punishment and quickly devolve into unjustified harm against civilians.

The most fundamental strategic dilemma is balancing military necessity against human rights. Carl von Clausewitz famously called war “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” But refusing to place ends and means in proper ethical relation risks moral disaster. Protecting civilians and upholding human rights provide the limits within which military strategy must always operate. Political scientist Michael Walzer thus rightly warned, “war is still, somehow, a rule-governed activity, a world of permissions and prohibitions – a moral world… Once the rules have been violated, it is no longer a just war.”

No Easy Answers

Rather than offering solutions, the honest student of war’s ethics must acknowledge painful moral grey zoneswhere good people wrestling in good faith with impossible choices may still inflict and endure terrible harms. The ugliness of war should continually push us to seek more humane paths than violence.

We may rightly aspire for a world where swords are beaten into plowshares, where mercy and justice kiss. But the stubborn realities of human conflict short of that day require moral courage, wise judgment, and commitment to human dignity above all. Then with sorrow but clear conscience, we may hope at last to say of war, “it is finished.”


This examination of ethics and war has illuminated some of the most challenging moral dilemmas. War’s fundamental question – is it ever justified – has elicited perspectives like realism, pacifism, and just war theory, each grounded in competing values but also subject to criticism. Within war, individuals like soldiers, commanders, aid workers, and journalists face dilemmas balancing their roles against moral truths. Strategic and tactical decisions also frequently pit military necessity against human rights, with no easy answers available. Throughout these difficulties, ethics calls for wisdom and integrity in balancing lives, rights, duties, and needs through each situation’s murky moral fog.

The great hope is discovering paths beyond war altogether through non-violence, diplomacy, cooperation, humanization of enemies, and cultivation of just societies. But where these fail or fall short, ethics can still guide us even amidst war’s horror. Our shared human dignity demands no less, however impossible the dilemmas. With ethics then war may become less terrible; without ethics there can be no just war at all, only endless suffering. We must search for the moral wisdom that war makes difficult but even more necessary.


Dallaire, Romeo. Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. Carroll & Graf, 2004.

Fiala, Andrew. The Just War Myth: The Moral Illusions of War. Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

McMahan, Jeff. Killing in War. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Orend, Brian. The Morality of War. Broadview Press, 2006.

Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. Basic Books, 2015.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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