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A Short History of the Ethics of War

When you'll study it
Semester 1
CATS points
15
ECTS points
7.5
Level
Level 6
Module lead
Helen Spurling

Module overview

Wars have been fought throughout the history of mankind. Ethical concerns that they raised, or, in other words, the rights and wrongs of waging war, have been discussed from time immemorial. War has often been seen as an evil, a necessary evil, to be avoided when possible. On the other hand, there have always been circumstances in which the resort to war and violence was accepted or justified, and even, in particular instances, praised or celebrated. The ‘if’ and ‘why’ a war can be fought are at the heart of the ethics of war and the so-called ‘just war theory’. However, the legitimacy of a war is not the only concern, not at least, according to modern International Humanitarian Laws (IHL), according to which a just war has to be fought in a just way. The IHL rules over the conduct of war, defining the rights and status of both combatants and non-combatants alike.

Historians often see a fundamental rupture between pre- and post- Geneva Conventions, rebuffing the legacy of the past. Yet the past may help to understand why the Conventions are not always successfully upheld in the modern world. This module will take a wide historical perspective on the ethics of war, looking at ancient, medieval and modern interpretation of why and how wars should be fought. By no means, however, will our reflection remain purely theoretical. In order to understand the context and evolution of the establishment of the norms or rules of war (and the societies that make them), it is fundamentally necessary to observe their historical applications: why and how wars were fought is at least as important as why and how wars should be fought.

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