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The Philosophy of War

Philosophically, examining war begins with very general questions: What is war? How can it be defined? What causes war? What is the relationship between human nature and war? To what extent can humans be said to be responsible for war? The philosophy of war then converges onto more specific and applied ethical and political questions such as: Is it ever right to wage war? Should certain acts of war be impermissible? What should be the legitimate authority to declare war? What is the individual's moral and political relationship to his comrades or countrymen in arms? The philosophy of war covers theoretical and applied areas and this article explores some of the general issues as well as connections that may be made for further consideration.

What causes war?

Various sub-disciplines have grappled with war's etiology, but each in turn, as with definitions of war, often reflects a tacit or explicit acceptance of broader philosophical issues on the nature of determinism and freedom.

For example, if it is claimed that man is not free to choose his actions (strong determinism) then war becomes a fated fact of the universe, one that humanity has no power to challenge. Again, the range of opinions under this banner is broad, from those who claim war to be a necessary and ineluctable event, one that man can never shirk from, to those who, while accepting war's inevitability, claim that man has the power to minimize its ravages, just as prescriptive medicines may minimize the risk of disease or lightning rods the risk of storm damage. The implication is that man is not responsible for his actions and hence not responsible for war. Wherein lies its cause then becomes the intellectual quest: in the medieval understanding of the universe, the stars, planets and combinations of the four substances (earth, air, water, fire) were understood as providing the key to examining human acts and dispositions. While the modern mind has increased the complexity of the nature of the university, many still refer to the universe's material nature or its laws for examining why war arises. Some seek more complicated versions of the astrological vision of the medieval mind (e.g., Kondratieff cycle theories), whereas others delve into the newer sciences of molecular and genetic biology for explanations.

In a weaker form of determinism, theorists claim that man is a product of his environment-however that is defined-but he also possesses the power to change that environment. Arguments from this perspective become quite intricate, for they often presume that 'mankind' as a whole is subject to inexorable forces that prompt him to wage war, but that some people's acts-those of the observers, philosophers, scientists-are not as determined, for they possess the intellectual ability to perceive what changes are required to alter man's martial predispositions. Again, the paradoxes and intricacies of opinions here are curiously intriguing, for it may be asked what permits some to stand outside the laws that everybody else is subject to?

Others, who emphasize man's freedom to choose, claim that war is a product of his choice and hence is completely his responsibility. But thinkers here spread out into various schools of thought on the nature of choice and responsibility. By its very collective nature, considerations of war's causation must encroach into political philosophy and into discussions on a citizen's and a government's responsibility for a war. Such concerns obviously trip into moral issues (to what extent is the citizen morally responsible for war?), but with regards war's causation, if man is responsible for the actual initiation of war it must be asked on whose authority is war enacted? Descriptive and normative problems arise here, for one may inquire who is the legal authority to declare war, then move to issues of whether that authority has or should have legitimacy. For example, one may consider whether that authority reflects what 'the people' want (or should want), or whether the authority informs them of what they want (or should want). Are the masses easily swayed by the ideas of the