Standard Article


  1. Seth Lazar

Published Online: 1 FEB 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee200

The International Encyclopedia of Ethics

How to Cite

Lazar, S. 2013. War. The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 FEB 2013


Since at least the first recorded instance of human-on-human conflict, in Wadi Halfa, Sudan, between 14,000 and 12,000 years ago (Reader 1998: 142–3), human beings have fought with, and killed one another. Also, probably since that first conflict over diminishing resources, we have sought to explain and justify some of this killing. Each culture, each historical and religious tradition, has its own history of debate about war's morality (see Just War Theory, History of). Christian just war theory traces its roots to the early Church fathers, medieval scholastics, and the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century jurists. The Qur'ān offers Muslims guidance on when and how to fight; while Hindus derive insights from the Mahabharata and the Laws of Manu, among other places. Other traditions have their own key texts and insights. In recent years, thinking about war's morality has slipped its religious moorings, and drifted towards more secular, universalist foundations. Foremost among these is the conviction that profound moral reasons protect all human beings equally against lethal attacks, no matter how they otherwise differ (see Killing). To justify killing, we must explain how these weighty reasons can either be overridden, or defeated by some other consideration. Although other terms might be used, this is most commonly expressed in the conviction that all people have fundamental human rights against being killed, such that we can only justify killing them if they have somehow lost that right, or it has been overridden by some even weightier set of moral reasons (see Rights). Since killing is the business of war, if warfare is to be justified, we must explain how our enemies lose their rights against attack, or how those rights are overridden by our positive reasons for fighting. On this justificatory project hangs the viability of an ethics of war: if it fails, we must reject warfare, and endorse pacifism (see Pacifism).


  • ethics;
  • legal and political;
  • philosophy;
  • politics;
  • practical (applied) ethics;
  • war and conflict