The Ethics of War

The Ethics of War


Edited by Saba Bazargan-Forward and Samuel C. Rickless

Oxford University Press, New York, 2017, 304 pages

Book Review published on: February 2, 2018

The character of war is ever changing. One factor influencing this change is the nature of the international system, which continues to drift away from the Westphalian concept of the unquestioned primacy of the sovereign state. Yet, modern governments still draw upon traditional “just war theory”—first articulated by theologians and jurists around the time of Westphalia—as the basis for their moral and legal evaluation of armed conflict. The contributors to The Ethics of War critically analyze that legacy approach, noting that just war theory is “one of the few basic fixtures of medieval philosophy to remain substantially unchallenged in the modern world.”1 The twelve essays collected for this book originate from a conference at the University of California–San Diego in 2013. The essays in the book are united by a common theme—that the traditional just war theory as exemplified by Michael Walzer in his classic 1977 work Just and Unjust Wars is sorely in need of an update.

The Ethics of War is a strong complement to James M. Dubik’s 2016 work, Just War Reconsidered, in which he writes that given current trends in warfare, “moral philosophers have an important role in this time of change, and they have risen to this occasion.”2 Like the contributors to The Ethics of War, Dubik focuses on the difficulty of applying Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars to conflicts outside the state-on-state model. Dubik also takes a more individualistic approach by identifying the moral obligations of the political and military leaders who direct the war’s strategy as a key omission in Walzer’s just war theory. Dubik provides an overview of some of the evolving ideas in just war theory, citing several authors with essays in The Ethics of War as exemplars of revisionist thinking. Reading the collected essays in The Ethics of War provides a one-stop shop for the curious to dig a bit deeper into the current debates Dubik discusses.

The Ethics of War is structured in such a way that the lead articles exemplify thinking by “first wave” revisionists followed by essays with refining ideas from “second wave” revisionists. One of the strengths of this book is that the various authors often critique each other’s arguments in their respective articles, providing a balanced approach that widens our understanding of the current debates. For example, the opening chapter by Jeff McMahan analyzes the concept of proportionality, and it concludes, in part, that liability is fundamentally a matter of justice in the distribution of harm. David Rodin directly challenges McMahan in the very next chapter, arguing that “a reciprocity account of rights can explain liability to harm without problematic recourse to considerations of distributive justice.”3 The arguments and counterarguments are too complex and thoughtful to cover satisfactorily in a short book review format, but suffice it to say that the insights delivered are worth a careful reading.

One weakness of the book is its overwhelmingly Eurocentric view of the law of armed conflict and international law in general. Traditional just war theory is a decidedly western construct.

There are some subtle signs of this Western bias in the essays, such as the “no new rights” principle introduced by Seth Lazar in chapter 11. At first glance, it appears quite reasonable to posit that war is an illegitimate means for establishing new entitlements over territory or resources. After a little reflection, it may dawn on the reader that their own country enjoys some entitlements grounded in past warfare. However, Lazar reassures the reader that “there is a statute of limitations on the injustices that grounded contemporary states’ institutions, which means that their subsequent history can legitimate unjust beginnings.”4 While this might satisfy a Western reader ensconced in their well-entitled homeland, one wonders what a reader in Beijing might think.

That said, even its flaws underscore the fact that The Ethics of War is a thought-provoking book. It raises important questions and illuminates developments in a field that will no doubt continue to influence how societies view the legitimate use of violence. Like any worthwhile work, it is as valuable for the new questions it raises as for the answers it provides. If nothing else, the contributors to The Ethics of War will convince their readers that, as Dubik put it, “the update to traditional just war theory is an active field for moral philosophers and that the discussion is far from finished.”5

Book Review written by: Kevin Rousseau, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas


  1. Saba Bazargan-Forward and Samuel C. Rickless, eds., The Ethics of War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), xi.
  2. James M. Dubik, Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2016), 8.
  3. Bazargan-Forward and Rickless, The Ethics of War, 40.
  4. Ibid., 241.
  5. Dubik, Just War Reconsidered, 13.