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Talks Organiser: Robert Beadnell Hospitality Organiser: Claire Beadnell
Zoom Organiser: Chris Seddon

19 November, D-Day Museum, Southsea, Portsmouth and on Zoom

Booking for this event will open in the near future.

The Ethics of War

“War is no pastime; it is no mere joy in daring and winning, no place for irresponsible enthusiasts. It is a serious means to a serious end.”

Carl von Clausewitz, On War

Unfortunately, the ethics of war remains highly topical; human beings continue to resort to war. The aim of this year’s Away Day is to consider some central topics within the Western ‘just war’ tradition and responses to this. This tradition started with the ancient Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, and has continued since then right up to the present day. There are three key questions to act as a stimulus for the Away Day:

  1. What makes it right to go to war (jus ad bellum)?
  2. What it is right to do in war (jus in bello)?
  3. Can any war be just?

For the first question, typical conditions developed over the centuries were that the war may only be conducted by a legitimate authority, it may only be waged for a just cause, it must be a last resort, there must be a formal declaration of war, and there must be a reasonable hope of success. More recently, the principal condition has become the idea that war can only be justified as a response to aggression. The right to respond in this way is standardly compared to the right to self-defence at the individual level. In this, the right to life of an attacker is forfeited since they threaten another’s life. By analogy, the right to kill to defend one’s own life is extended to communities. But does this work? The killing of thousands of people to defend borders does not seem exactly analogous.

For the second question, the two most important conditions developed were that the means employed should be proportional to the end aimed at (to avoid an even greater evil), and that it was not permissible to kill non-combatants. More recently, the focal criterion has been on the latter: avoiding non-combatant deaths. However, this may seem to be ethically problematic too. The hugely destructive power of modern weapons makes it almost impossible to target combatants and military sites only without also often killing large numbers of civilians at the same time. Also, whilst an aggressor nation might not be innocent, many of its combatants may be (e.g., conscripts). So, the distinction has its problems too.

For the third question, the just war tradition assumes that war can be ethically justified if the right conditions are met. However, there are a couple of other important alternative traditions. Firstly, there is pacifism, which concludes that war cannot be justified. Philosophers tending towards pacifism include Erasmus of Rotterdam, and Bertrand Russell. Secondly, there are those who assume a realist or ‘realpolitik’ point of view, and who typically deny that there can be an ‘ethics of war’. Philosophers in this camp include Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes.


10:00 Museum opens. Those who have paid to look around can do so.

10:30-11:00 Registration at Dulverton Room

11:00 Introduction: Robert Beadnell

11:05-11:45 Talk 1: Lawrence Kies

A Practitioners View on the Ethics of War

In order to facilitate a meaningful philosophical discussion of War it is first necessary to define what we mean by this term. Carl von Clausewitz’s broad definition of war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will” whilst succinctly capturing the violent and coercive nature of war is too broad. A Westphalian focus on State-on-State conflict will be adopted, similar to that which frames much of international law on war both ad bellum (of war) and in bello (in war). Clausewitz also famously states that “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means”, thereby establishing the link between the Military, the Government and the People. From a practitioner’s perspective (who is employed to enact the will of the people or at least the government) this links their nation’s philosophy on war to the actions they are required to take within the framework of International Law which in itself is shaped by a global philosophy of war. Hence in order to establish a base line for the subsequent discussions I will outline the broader concepts and themes of international law as it relates to war looking from the view-point of a military officer. This will touch on both a Realist as well as a humanitarian viewpoint.

Biography: Lawrence Kies, has served in the British military for nearly 35 years, spanning periods in both the regular Army and the Royal Navy as well as the Reserve Forces. Whilst a Mechanical Engineer by degree, much of this later career has been focussed on the delivery, governance and policy of Professional Military Education (PME) for which he has developed a considerable passion. To support this, he has undertaken Masters Degrees in both Global Security and Education. His career strides the gap between Maritime and Land forces with his operational experience encompassing the Balkan wars in both Bosnia and Kosovo as well as Afghanistan and Iraq.

11:50-12:30 Talk 2: Bob Stone

War as a Cultural Norm: Lessons from Ancient Athens

The attitude of the ancient Athenians to war was somewhat different from our own: war was endemic, it was romanticized in literature, it was seen as something every man had to engage in if he was a true man, it was assumed that death in battle was the most glorious thing that could happen to him and rewarded with honours after death, cowardice in battle was the ultimate sin, and it was a natural law that the spoils of war – i.e. the surviving people and possessions of a conquered city (which included all the women) – were the victor’s to do as he liked with. On the other hand, the decisions to go to war were taken not by some totalitarian government but by the male citizens themselves (the fighters) in a democratic assembly; yet the women had no say, though their fate if the men lost was probably worse than the men’s. I shall discuss how people of the time saw this cultural attitude, to what extent they criticized it, and how much of what seems to us like an old-fashioned and mostly pernicious mindset is still around today.

Biography: Bob Stone is a retired classics teacher who read Classics at Cambridge, specialising in Greek philosophy, and there developed an abiding interest in philosophy in general. In the last 13 years he has had time to take several courses with OUDCE (260 CATS points at present!), and likes nothing more – apart from watching cricket – than reading, learning, talking and writing about philosophy. Mostly his studies have been in the areas of ontology, epistemology, ethics, mind; the subject of war, which he is very thankful has not impinged on his life, is a new departure.

12:35-13:15 Talk 3: Peter Lloyd

Language-Games and the Malleability of Ethics in Wartime

One oddity of the ethics of war is that the State subscribes to two contradictory codes: peace-time ethics and war-time ethics. In peacetime, life is held to be sacred and killing is a grave crime. We can't even hang mass murderers. But, in war-time, we indulge in the routine killing of combatants, who may be law-abiding citizens of their own lands, and may be conscripts. Even the killing of non-combatants, regarded as collateral damage and a concomitant of military action, is morally sanctioned. How can we live with such jarring contradictions? We might be tempted to invent ‘meta-rules’, for example saying that life is to be regarded as sacred except when the best outcome for the most people involves killing individuals. A problem with that approach is that the meta-rules may ‘leak’ into peace-time. If we are permitted to kill combatants to save our own people, then during peace-time why can’t we kill law-abiding citizens in order to harvest their organs? Wittgenstein’s concept of language-games may help here. Acknowledging that morality is a social construct, we can partition our ethical discourse into language-games suited for war and peace with no obligation to find a single, over-arching set of principles.

Biography: Peter Lloyd works professionally in software engineering, having obtained a degree in computer science in the University of Wales in 1981. While working as a software developer at the Clinical Trial Service Unit in Oxford University, he studied philosophy in evening and weekend courses under Dr Michael Lockwood and Ms Marianne Talbot, obtaining an Undergraduate Certificate in Philosophy in 1996. He has published a number of articles, papers, chapters, and books in philosophy and the history of cartography, and given a number of presentations in both disciplines. His philosophical interests are the mind-body problem and the ethics of violence. 

13:15-14:45 Lunch. Eat in Dulverton Room. 1.5 hour break gives participants chance to have lunch and look round museum (if paid for) or to do something else such as look round Southsea Castle (Henry VIII’s Fort).

14:45-15:25 Talk 4: Edward Hadas

Three Fairly Modern Arguments for Unjust War

For many peoples in history, war needed no justification. It was what humans did, like marriage or worship. If there was justice in war, it was in found in following the appropriate rituals that legitimated and organised deadly intercommunal violence. This unquestioning approach to war has lost favour, but many people still believe that at least some wars are good for humanity, whether or not they can be described as just by any normal ethical standard. I will look at three arguments that have been used to support that belief: the Christian claim that fighting a divinely ordained holy war is a religious duty (firmly endorsed in the Catholic Catechism of 1566), G. W. F. Hegel’s argument that war is the most important motor of the development of the Spirit through history, and René Girard’s argument that civilisation is built to control mimetic violence. I will argue that each of these explanations of war have greater explanatory power than any permutation of just war thinking. 

Biography: Edward Hadas is a Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, working with the Las Casas Institute for Social Justice. He teaches for the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education, as well as giving tutorials in economics, philosophy, and social theory to visiting undergraduates at the Stanford University in Oxford and OPUS programs. He has written books about Catholic Social Teaching (2020) and about moral aspects of economics (2007 and 2022). Before coming to Oxford in 2017, he had consecutive careers in finance and financial journalism, in both the United States and Europe. 

15:30-16:10 Talk 5: Ivor Middleton

Total War Drives Out Ethics

"Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst... If one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains, the first will gain the upper hand that side will force the other to follow suit; each will drive its opponent toward extremes.” (Clausewitz On War) Clausewitz wrote of two types of war: the kind that leads to a decision, win or lose, Absolute War, and ‘war of observation’ - Limited War. Under Limited War, jockeying for position, manoeuvring for balance of power, there is room for ethical considerations. Total War, however, is an all out battle for survival. The defender is subjected to brutal, unimaginably bloody extremes. Wars have the potential to escalate, so that a commander must always keep in mind the possibility of all out war. Similarly the statesman must keep a close eye on his commanders, lest they push too far and escalation moves things beyond the point of control. How can politicians and commanders draw ethical lines when their populace face extermination?

Biography: Ivor Middleton is a qualified accountant and works as a finance director for hire, helping managing directors run their businesses. This means he has come face to face with many ethical challenges across the years. He is an amateur philosopher of the worst sort - ill-read and dabbling - but keenly interested in the world and in getting a better grip on reality. Politically he would like to see the world move on from tired Left-Right 19C ideas and synthesise a new politics for the future, one that puts looking out for each other high in its priorities.

16:10-16:30 Break

16:30-17:10 Talk 6: Robert Beadnell

What Might War Tell Us About Ethics?

The Just War doctrine is largely a rules-based ethical approach used to determine what is ethically acceptable when deciding to go to war and how to conduct a war. A rules-based approach is needed so that laws can be made. However, this approach may seem simplistic and even hypocritical when faced with the realities of politics, history, and war. A consequentialist approach can be taken but this might seem more like political calculation, or a realist approach, than ethics. If ethics cannot cope with war, then one might conclude that ethics itself is nonsense. Perhaps a virtue ethics approach might fare better? This talk examines the lives and conduct of three exceptional people in the German resistance to Hitler and the Nazis: The German Army Officer and aristocrat Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the theologian and German Military Intelligence agent Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the student Sophie Scholl from the White Rose movement. All three deeply wanted to be good people, but decided to break ethical norms (murder, treachery, and high treason) in pursuit of this goal, and paid with their lives. Ethics in war is not black and white, but can we make ethical sense of the grey?

Biography: Robert Beadnell has had a 30-year career in the Royal Navy, and this has included going on operations to the Adriatic (former Yugoslavia) and to Iraq in 2007 during the insurgency. As a young man he gained master’s degrees in physics and engineering before lecturing nuclear reactor physics at postgraduate level. More recently he studied theology with the University of London and then philosophy with OUDCE and Cambridge ICE. He is currently studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His main philosophical influences have been Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.

17:15-17:55 Panel Questions

18:00 Museum closes and participants depart museum

Optional: Participants walk to Florence Arms Gastro Pub for drinks and Away Day dinner