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“Kantian and utilitarian ethics both lead to difficulties when considering

the rights and wrongs of warfare.” Discuss.

War is an armed conflict between two or more groups, commonly nations. It tends to cause a
great amount of suffering to all parties involved and is therefore usually undesirable. There
are various types of war (e.g. nuclear warfare, biological warfare, and conventional warfare).

The utilitarian stance on war centres around the Greatest Happiness Principle, which can
itself be divided into the principles of hedonism, equity, and consequentialism.

The hedonist says that all humans seek pleasure and shun pain. Therefore, a war would
generally not be desirable as there is a great deal of pain and suffering involved. However,
after the war the suffering may be reduced to a level before that of which it was initally (e.g.
in the case of overturning an evil regime) and therefore it could be argued that it would be
hedonistically desirable to go to war.

This thought process would be carefully considered by the consequentialist – who believes
that consequences after an act has been carried out are critical to the decision making process.

The third aspect of the Greatest Happiness Principle is the principle of equity. Considering
this the utilitarian tried to treat all people as equal. Going to war treats some people as
“enemies” and therefore would not be desirable to the utilitarian who strongly follows the
principle of equity.

Looking specifically at the case of nuclear war, utilitarians are categorically opposed to it
taking place. Firstly, there are enough weapons to destroy all life on earth and so the potential
consequences would be far too severe. Secondly, the devastation and suffering caused by just
one nuclear bomb would far outweigh any benefits the dropping of the bomb may have (e.g.
advancing the – already imminent - end of WWII in the case of the bombs dropped over
Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

The utilitarian stance on war has a number of stengths. War will only be seen as moral if the
consequential benefits and improved standards of living outweigh the suffering caused. Even
then, such a case would be rare as the hedonic calculus sees death as the ultimate in suffering.
Nuclear devastation such as the scenes in Japan in 1945 would never be justified as no
benefits could ever equal the suffering that would result. Utilitarianism also looks to the long
as well as short term consequences of war. For instance, the deaths of people even today from
the effects of radiation around Hiroshima and Nagasaki would add to the reasons why the
utilitarian would have opposed the nuclear bombings. Utilitarianism also involves rules
during war having to be obeyed – e.g. no killing in war would be justified if the consequential
benefits did not outweigh the suffering. Also, wars of mutual destruction would be seen as

There are of course problems with the utilitarian stance as well. It would be difficult to
consider whether each death in war would be morally justified and it would be virtually
impossible to avoid some unnecessary deaths in a large-scale conflict. Additionally, the
consequences of going to war are often not fully known at the time (e.g. the extent of
concentration camps in Hitler’s Nazi State). War may result in a much improved situation or
there may be numerous deaths which amount to nothing. Furthermore, the utilitarian position
on what exactly the rules of war should be is unclear. As J. Glover said, in “some cases
breakign the rules would suit utilitarian principles.”

Kantian ethics are the hallmark of deontological ethics. These rules are not held because they
promote the good but because they provide the standard of what is right and wrong. In the
Groundwork, Kant said that if a moral law is to be unconditionally and universally binding, it
must contain something that is unconditionally and universally good, something that is good
in itself, and the highest good.

The keystone of Kantian ethics is the Categorical Imperative. There are three versions of this
with the most important being as follows: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I
can also will that my maxim should become a universal law” – Kant, Ibid p.67

The most important feature of the Categorical Imperative is indeed, it’s emphasis on
universability. Kant criticises immoral actions as either being: 1. Contradictions in the law of
nature, or 2. Contradictions in the will.

Kantian ethics have their strengths just as utilitarian ethics do. There is an underlying
principle of equality in Kantian ethics (“an eye for an eye”). There is also a concentration on
motives of an act, with this ideology it would be theoretically possible to avoid the suffering
of anyone. People would only suffer as a result of their own decisions to breach universal
laws. The idea that everyone has a duty to be moral is appealing. Selfishness is punished and
it is encouraged to perform acts which result from desirable motives for others.
The ideology of “an eye for an eye” is controversial, however. For instance, Kantian ethics
support the death penalty for the crime of murder whereas this is genrally not accepted as a
just punishment in modern civilised society (the USA being the exception). As Gandhi said
“an eye for an eye and the whole world is blind”. With solely looking at motives Kantian
ethics could in theory support a great deal of suffering to prevent some lesser suffering.
Although the idea that everyone has a duty to do what is morally right is appealing, Kantian
ethics, like utilitarian ethics, fail to recognise special bonds (such as those between family
members) in this regard. Universal laws defining what is and what is not good are also
somewhat controversial. For instance, what may be deemed to be good in one country may be
deemed as immoral elsewhere.

Kantian ethics disregard emotions which may confuse what universal laws actually are.
There is also an ambiguity over what happens when two duties conflict, e.g. defending
oneself one could not kill even if one was about to be killed.

To conclude, there are a great deal of difficulties in both the utilitarian and Kantian stances
on war. However, the two general stances are much clearer. Utilitarianism tends to be against
war in the vast majority of cases, whereas Kantian ethics would generally support war to
“cancel out” the initial aggression by one side/group. Situations of war are always very
complex however, and situations can vary a great deal which might lead to even the utilitarian
being in support of a war. However, in the case of nuclear war the utilitarian is categorically
opposed to it taking place.