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Philosophy of war


The philosophy of war is the area of philosophy devoted to examining issues such as the causes of war, the relationship between war and human nature, and the ethics of war. Certain aspects of the philosophy of war overlap with the philosophy of history, political philosophy and the philosophy of law.

Perhaps the greatest and most influential work in the philosophy of war is On War by Carl von Clausewitz. It combines observations on strategy with questions about human nature and the purpose of war. Clausewitz especially examines the teleology of war: whether war is a means to an end outside itself or whether it can be an end in itself. He concludes that the latter cannot be so, and that war is "politics by different means"; i.e. that war must not exist only for its own sake. It must serve some purpose for the state.

Leo Tolstoy's novel War and Peace contains frequent philosophical digressions on the philosophy of war (and broader metaphysical speculations derived from Christianity and from Tolstoy's observations of the Napoleonic Wars). It was influential on later thought about war. Tolstoy's Christian-centered philosophy of war (especially his essays "A Letter to a Hindu" and "The Kingdom of God is Within You") was a direct influence on Gandhi's Hinduism-centered non-violent resistance philosophy.



He later characterizes the philosophy behind the Vietnam War and other Cold War conflicts as "Neo-Clausewitzian". Rapoport also includes Machiavelli as an early example of the political philosophy of war (On War, Rapoport's introduction, 13). Decades after his essay, the War on Terrorism and the Iraq War begun by the United States under President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003 have often been justified under the doctrine of preemption, a political motivation stating that the United States must use war to prevent further attacks such as the September 11, 2001 attacks.
  • The Cataclysmic school of thought, which was espoused by Leo Tolstoy in his epic novel War and Peace, sees war as a bane on humanity – whether avoidable or inevitable – which serves little purpose outside of causing destruction and suffering, and which may cause drastic change to society, but not in any teleological sense. Tolstoy's view may be placed under the subcategory of global cataclysmic philosophy of war. Another subcategory of the cataclysmic school of thought is the ethnocentric cataclysmic, in which this view is focused specifically on the plight of a specific ethnicity or nation, for example the view in Judaism of war as a punishment from God on the Israelites in certain books of the Tenakh (Old Testament). As the Tenakh (in certain books) sees war as an ineluctable act of God, so Tolstoy especially emphasizes war as something that befalls man and is in no way under the influence of man's "free will", but is instead the result of irresistible global forces. (On War, Rapoport's introduction 16)
  • The Eschatological school of thought sees all wars (or all major wars) as leading to some goal, and asserts that some final conflict will someday resolve the path followed by all wars and result in a massive upheaval of society and a subsequent new society free from war (in varying theories the resulting society may be either a utopia or a dystopia). There are two subsets of this view: the Messianic and the Global theory. The Marxist concept of a communist world ruled by the proletariat after a final worldwide revolution is an example of the global theory, and the Christian concept of an Armageddon war which will usher in the second coming of Christ and the final defeat of Satan is an example of a theory that could fall under Global or Messianic. (On War, Rapoport's introduction, 15) The messianic eschatological philosophy is derived from the Jewish-Christian concept of a Messiah, and sees wars as culminating in unification of humanity under a single faith or a single ruler. Crusades, Jihads, the Nazi concept of a Master Race and the 19th century American concept of Manifest Destiny may also fall under this heading. (On War, Rapoport's introduction, 15) (See main articles for more information: Christian eschatology, Jewish eschatology)
  • The Political school of thought, of which Clausewitz was a proponent, sees war as a tool of the state. On page 13 Rapoport says,
  • Realists will typically hold that systems of morals and ethics which guide individuals within societies cannot realistically be applied to societies as a whole to govern the way they, as societies, interact with other societies. Hence, a state's purposes in war is simply to preserve its national interest. This kind of thinking is similar to Machiavelli's philosophy, and Thucydides and Hobbes may also fall under this category.
  • Pacifism however, maintains that a moral evaluation of war is possible, and that war is always found to be immoral. Generally, there are two kinds of modern secular pacifism to consider: (1) a more consequentialist form of pacifism (or CP), which maintains that the benefits accruing from war can never outweigh the costs of fighting it; and (2) a more deontological form of pacifism (or DP), which contends that the very activity of war is intrinsically wrong, since it violates foremost duties of justice, such as not killing human beings. Henry Ford and others were famous advocates of pacifistic diplomatic methods instead of war.
  • Nonviolence also holds that a moral evaluation of war is a duty, and that war is always found to be immoral. Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Leo Tolstoy were all famous advocates of power of truth, lawfulness, soft power, nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience methods instead of war and to prevent war. Gandhi said he disliked more cowardice than violence.
  • Just War Theory, along with pacifism, holds that morals do apply to war. However, unlike pacifism, according to Just War Theory it is possible for a war to be morally justified. The concept of a morally justified war underlies much of the concept International Law, such as the Geneva Conventions. Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, and Hugo Grotius are among the philosophers who have espoused some form of a just war philosophy. One common Just War Theory evaluation of war is that war is only justified if 1.) waged in a state or nation's self-defense, or 2.) waged in order to end gross violations of human rights. Political philosopher John Rawls advocated these criteria as justification for war.
  • Clausewitz, Carl von, On War. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1968. J. J. Graham translation, 1908. Anatol Rapoport, editor. Introduction and notes (c) Anatol Rapoport, 1968.
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