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War and peace, philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S066-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

The war/peace dichotomy is a recurrent one in human thought and the range of experience it interprets is vast. Images of war and peace permeate religion, literature and art. Wars, battles, pacts and covenants appear as outcomes and antecedents in historical narratives. Recurrent patterns of warlike and pacific behaviour invite scientific explanations in terms of underlying biological, psychological or economic processes. War and peace are also often matters of practical concern, predicaments or opportunities that call for individual or collective action. While philosophers have explored all these ways of looking at war and peace, they have paid most attention to the practical aspects of the subject, making it part of moral and political philosophy.

Practical concern with war and peace can go in either of two main directions, one focusing on war and the other on peace. Those who doubt that war can be abolished naturally worry about how it can be regulated. So long as war is possible, there will be principles for waging it. Whether such principles should limit war-making to ends like self-defence or leave the choice to the discretion of political and military leaders is a matter of continuing dispute. Nor is there agreement regarding restrictions on the conduct of war, some holding that belligerents need only avoid disproportionate damage, others that it is morally wrong to harm innocents (for example, noncombatants). In situations of emergency both limits may give way, and moralists have debated whether this relaxation of standards is defensible. Disputes over the principles governing war raise difficult questions about action, intention and the character of morality itself.

If we think that wars can be prevented, it becomes important to focus on the conditions of permanent peace. Some who do this conclude that peace depends on the conversion of individuals to an ethic of nonviolence, others that it requires strengthening the rule of law. According to a powerful version of the latter argument, the absence of law creates a condition in which persons and communities are at liberty to invade one another: a condition that, in Hobbes’s classic metaphor, is a ‘state of nature’ which is also a perpetual state of war. While treaties of peace may terminate particular wars, only political institutions that establish the rule of law within and between communities can provide security and guarantee peace.

Citing this article:
Nardin, Terry. War and peace, philosophy of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S066-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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