Is War Ever Morally Permissible?

Paper Info
Page count 7
Word count 1942
Read time 7 min
Topic Sociology
Type Essay
Language 🇺🇸 US


The history of mankind has been characterized by multiple major wars that have had detrimental consequences for all the parties involved. Consider, for example, the first and second world wars, where millions of people died. Other instances of major conflicts include the American Civil War, Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Revolution, and the Mexican revolution. Most recently, the United States has been involved in wars in such countries as Vietnam and Iraq, where the casualties have also been significant. Considering the damages caused by these conflicts, a key question that needs answering is whether war is ever morally permissible. Many theories of war have been developed, each explaining when war can be permissible. This paper argues that no war is ever morally permissible because no moral values support the massive loss of human lives. Several examples of war and its morality will be used to support this position.

Main body

Assessing the moral permissibility of war requires an exploration of the various theoretical perspective and an examination of the moral implications of each. However, it is important to acknowledge that wars take place for many reasons, some of which include responding to an imminent threat from another state. Additionally, such countries as the United States have gone to wars intending to promote democracy, often by targeting dictatorships across the world (Deudney and Ikenberry 7).

For instance, in 2003, the United States went to war with Iraq, which was termed by some as a form of military intervention whose goal was to facilitate a regime change or promote democracy. To Americans, all forms of dictatorships are considered to be inherently bad, which makes it a moral duty of the government to effect a change. In such cases, war is seen as a product of liberalism deeply embedded into American foreign policy.

The morality of the Iraq War can be questioned on several grounds, including the fact that the United States is engaged in a never-ending conflict without clear signs that the goal has been achieved. All other wars may face the same scrutiny regardless of the reasons and the theoretical perspective adopted. From a just war theory perspective, wars and the resulting are justified if they serve some greater good (Lazar 41). For example, the attack on the Japanese by the United States during World War II could be justified because Japan was an imminent threat to the lives of the United States citizens. The just war theory holds in this case because the bombings were a means to half further attacks by a foreign aggressor.

However, justifying wars is not the same as justifying morality. For example, the effects of the atomic bombs have persisted for several decades after the war, which raises the question of the morality of using atomic bombs in the war. A moral dilemma ensues because the country that starts a war could be labeled as immoral while the nation retaliating can be justified.

One way of addressing the moral dilemma is by focusing on the countries that initiate a war and ignoring those that retaliate. The rationale is that no country should allow another to attack without offering the necessary deterrents. In the case of Iraq, the United States may have felt the moral obligation to liberate the Iraqi citizens from the oppressions of a dictator. However, the casualties on both the soldiers and civilians may fail to justify the efforts.

The traditionalist justice war theory proposes two justifications for war: national defense and humanitarian interventions (Lazar 41). The atomic bombing of Japan was national defense, while the Iraq War was humanitarian. National defenses are inherently morally permissible because the retaliating country is only a victim. In such a case, the moral burden falls on the instigator. In humanitarian cases, the further dilemma presents itself because the devastation of an armed conflict may spread to the civilians that a country is attempting to liberate. Additionally, a country’s foreign policy should not extend its application to the internal matters of a sovereign state, which labels such conflicts as the Iraq War as immoral.

While just war theory permits war to take place, it also holds that the actions of the individual soldiers should also uphold the justification. The consequences of war are the result of the individual actions of the soldiers (Sagan and Valentino 411). For example, if a war involves the deliberate killing of civilians or mass raping of children, the political leaders who pressed for the war can distance themselves from such actions.

Moral soldiers will be deemed as those who follow war conventions and who protect non-combatants. Regardless of the nature of the victims, justifying war will not make it morally permissible regardless of the good conduct of soldiers. Technicalities emerge in the application of this theory because soldiers fighting in unjust wars are also not regarded as immoral as long as they follow the principles of just war. Such issues mean that the question of morality is a matter of deciding who bears the burden for the outcomes of an armed conflict. Whether or not soldiers fight in a just war, instigators of a conflict will have inadequate moral backing for their decisions.

Another theoretical perspective that can be used to assess the morality of war is realism. According to Deudney and Ikenberry, realism can be described as a cluster of related and sometimes conflicting schools of thought regarding the fundamental questions of the political order in both the international and domestic contexts. The equilibrium or balance of power is a school of thought that suggests that security and order are the results of a balanced or distributed power configuration.

Additionally, countries will tend to resist the efforts of another in establishing a position of domination. From this description, a key question emerges: should a country go to war with another whose political power is growing just to contain it? For instance, China is a rapidly growing nation in terms of both political and economic power. Does it mean that the United States should declare war because such progression offsets the current configuration of power? Going to war simply as a means of seeking political balance is inherently immoral because the power position of a country does not justify the casualties and property damage.

An opposing argument can be presented to the position that power balance holds no morality in war. In many cases, a country that has power may seek to use it as a form of political advantage in international matters or as a tool to deter aggressors. Rising nations can go rogue and decide to use their newly-founded position of power to impose their ideologies and laws on the weaker countries. The Cold War is a perfect illustration because the two powerful nations, the Soviet Union and the United States, imposed their ideologies on other countries.

With the United States as the most powerful country at present, it can be argued that the influence of communist China could be undesirable. Indeed, many people believe that the United States should tame China’s influence in Africa (James). Should the government hold the same opinion, it can be argued that a war between the two countries is inevitable and permissible under the notion of realism, specifically the balance of power school of thought. However, remaining the most powerful and influential country in the world should not be a moral reason to expose civilians to armed conflict.

Other schools of thought under realism are founded on the idea of power relations between countries. For example, hegemonic realism holds that order is achieved where there is a concentration of power, which means that countries could engage in combat to sustain their position (Deudney and Ikenberry). The case of the United States and China also applies to this school of thought because power can be deemed to be concentrated within the United States.

Therefore, intentions to sustain that position could see the country fight China. The third school of thought is called interdependence, which is based on the idea that high levels of mutual vulnerability make international war unacceptably perilous. In such situations, governments are inclined to consolidate their power on larger scales. Power consolidation could mean subduing another to contain their power and develop a position of advantage. Fighting can ensue in such cases, which could be seen as the result of the countries’ sense of insecurity. However, the morality question is not addressed in the theory of realism across all three schools of thought.

Pacifism is a theoretical perspective that is inherently opposed to war as its proponents advocate peaceful relations among governments. Pacifists believe that no war is ever just, which means that the parties to combat are immoral. Additionally, pacifists will also oppose realism by arguing that no war can ‘realistically’ aim at the common good (Cahill 180). By opposing the just war theory and realism schools of thought, pacifism becomes the most likely perspective to support the position that wars are never morally permissible. As mentioned earlier, the justifiability of a conflict can be assessed based on who starts it and the reaction of the other party.

Differences in moral values mean that what is deemed acceptable in one country could be acceptable in another. Holding this position means that even humanitarian interventions could become unjustifiable if viewed as efforts to impose one country’s morals over another. Realistically, humanitarian interventions in such countries as Iraq have resulted in civilian casualties, which supports the pacifists’ view that wars cannot serve the common good. Therefore, wars are never morally permissible from a pacifist point of view.

Another justification for pacifism is that despite the devastation, all countries engaged in combat will be using massive resources. The concept of opportunity cost pacifism has been proposed by (Pattison 545) to illustrate that the huge costs of war could be better utilized elsewhere. Case illustrations include the United States’ wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have an estimated cost of $5.9 trillion (Pattison 545).

The law of opportunity cost expresses that there is a benefit foregone for every option not chosen. The United States chose not to pursue peaceful engagement with Iraq and Afghanistan. The opportunity cost is equivalent to the potential benefits that could be derived from alternative uses of the $5.9 trillion. The citizens could have benefited from better housing schemes to address the housing challenges or develop projects that could have raised the country’s level of employment. The argument is that there are many social and economic problems that the country faces that could have been resolved by investing these funds.

Other theoretical perspectives, including liberalism, may have been used to justify the permissibility of wars. For example, liberals are more aligned with the realists, especially the interdependence school of thought, where vulnerabilities are a reason for war (Deudney and Ikenberry 22). However, no theory can justify the morality of war, whether or not combat was a necessity. Such a position has been presented by Burtt, who argues that war permissibility is a question of the extent to which moral duties are breached. If morals were to be strictly adhered to, then no nation would ever go to war.


In conclusion, the paper has presented an argument that no war is ever morally permissible because no values allow the deaths of people. Several theoretical perspectives have been used to support the argument where the basic idea put forward is that the necessity of war does not make it morally permissible. Just war and realism theories have plausible defenses for war, while pacifism opposes the basic tenets held by these two perspectives. Therefore, all wars breach morals regardless of the rationale used for justification.

Works Cited

Burtt, Michael. “What Moral Justifications Can There Be For Ever Allowing Killing In Wartime?E-International Relations. 2016. Web.

Cahill, Lisa. “Just War, Pacifism, Just Peace, and Peacebuilding.” Theological Studies, vol. 80, no. 1, 2019, pp. 169-185.

Deudney, Daniel and J. Ikenberry. “Realism, Liberalism and the Iraq War.” Survival, vol. 59, no. 4, 2017, pp. 7-26.

James, K. “Why US should combat China’s influence in Africa.Stars and Stripes. 2021. Web.

Lazar, S. “Just War Theory: Revisionists Versus Traditionalists.” Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 20, no. 1, 2017, pp. 37-54.

Pattison, James. “Opportunity Costs Pacifism.” Law and Philosophy, vol. 39, 2020, pp. 545-576.

Sagan, Scott and Benjamin Valentino. “Just War and Unjust Soldiers: American Public Opinion on the Moral Equality of Combatants.” Ethical and International Affairs, vol. 33, no. 4, 2019, pp. 411-444.

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NerdyBro. (2023, January 31). Is War Ever Morally Permissible? Retrieved from


NerdyBro. (2023, January 31). Is War Ever Morally Permissible?

Work Cited

"Is War Ever Morally Permissible?" NerdyBro, 31 Jan. 2023,


NerdyBro. (2023) 'Is War Ever Morally Permissible'. 31 January.


NerdyBro. 2023. "Is War Ever Morally Permissible?" January 31, 2023.

1. NerdyBro. "Is War Ever Morally Permissible?" January 31, 2023.


NerdyBro. "Is War Ever Morally Permissible?" January 31, 2023.


NerdyBro. 2023. "Is War Ever Morally Permissible?" January 31, 2023.

1. NerdyBro. "Is War Ever Morally Permissible?" January 31, 2023.


NerdyBro. "Is War Ever Morally Permissible?" January 31, 2023.