Ethics: Antiwar Arguments that War Is Immoral and Unethical

hand grenade on white background
Chris Clor/Blend Images/Getty Images

There are few wars so popular that everyone in a society supports it; thus, even when support is unusually widespread, there will always be a few who dissent from popular opinion and object to their country engaging in war, arguing that the conflict is immoral and unethical. Quite often, they are attacked for their stand and accused of being unpatriotic, immoral, naive, and even treasonous.

Although some might agree with the "unpatriotic" label and claim that patriotism is a misplaced loyalty, that is relatively rare.

Instead, those who oppose either war generally or some specific war will instead argue that it is the support of war which is immoral, naive, or even a betrayal of their nation's deepest and most important values.

Although they may be wildly wrong and profoundly mistaken, it would be a serious error to fail to recognize that people who personally adopt an antiwar stance normally do so for what they regard as very moral and rational reasons. Understanding the antiwar arguments better will go a long way towards healing the division between both sides on a conflict.

Presented here are both general and specific arguments. The general arguments are those which tend to be used against the morality of any war at all, concluding that war is pragmatically (due to its consequences) or inherently immoral. The specific arguments allow that some wars at some times may be moral and/or justified, but they are used to object to some war in particular as failing to meet just standards.

General Arguments Against War

What Is Pacifism?
Is pacifism a result of being naive, or of being committed to nonviolent principles? Is it an incredibly moral and difficult position to adopt, or is it rather a treasonous and uncaring philosophy? The truth is probably somewhere in between, which may explain why society can't quite decide how to react to pacifism and pacifist critiques of society's violence.

Killing Innocent People is Wrong
One of the most common antiwar arguments is the fact that wars result in the deaths of innocent people and, therefore, war is necessarily immoral. This objection accepts that a state may have a vested interest in pursuing attackers and even killing them, but points out that the justice involved with such actions is quickly offset when innocent lives are put at risk or even lost.

Life Is Sacred
The pacifist position against war or violence generally is often based upon the deontological argument that all of life (or just all human life) is sacred, and hence it is immoral to ever act in a way which would cause the deaths of others. Quite often the reasons for this position are religious in nature, but religious premises involving God or souls are not absolutely required.

Modern War & "Just War" Standards
There is a long-standing tradition in Western culture of differentiating between "just" and "unjust" wars. Although Just War theories were developed primarily by Catholic theologians and most explicit references to a Just War theory today tend to come from Catholic sources, implicit references to it can be found widely because of the way in which it has become incorporated into Western political thought.

Those using this argument try to make the case that today, all wars are unethical.

Wars Cannot Achieve Political & Social Goals
Because so many wars are defended by relying upon the need to achieve important political or social goals (some selfish and some altruistic), it is only natural that one important rebuttal to war is to argue that even if it seems that such goals might be achieved, in fact the use of war will ultimately prevent them from ever becoming a reality. Thus, wars are unethical because they hinder rather than help in attaining important ends.

Wars Risk the Future of the Human Race
The generally limited nature of warfare, even at its most brutal, ended after World War II with the development of nuclear weapons. Between those and the vastly improved biological and chemical weapons which have become standard in the military arsenals of so many nations, the destructive capacity of even a single conflict has grown to such proportions that no one can pretend to be uninvolved and unaffected.

Thus, the potential devastation means that wars today are immoral acts.

War Shouldn't be a Government Power
Some have argued that the power to conduct warfare is so immoral that it should perhaps be denied to governments completely. This is a deontological position - although it does object to the extreme consequence of modern warfare, it takes a further step and argues that war has become something which is inherently outside the moral sphere of state activity.

Specific Arguments​ Why Wars of Aggression Are Wrong

One of the most common objections to individual wars is to condemns acts of violent aggression. It's possible, but unlikely, for different countries to attack each other simultaneously, so that means that some nation has to initiate the violence and begin the war itself. Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that there is always an aggressor and hence someone who has acted immorally.

War Violates International Law
It's not unusual for those who want to stop a war from happening or to stop a war which has already begun to appeal to a "higher authority," namely international law. According to this argument, the actions of states with respect to each other cannot be arbitrary; instead, they must conform to more impersonal standards of the international community. Otherwise, those actions are unethical. On previous occasions, international agreements, such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, even aimed to outlaw war altogether. 

War is Contrary to National Self-Interest
A common argument used to object to a particular war is that the conflict somehow fails to serve "national interests." This is a favorite objection of isolationists who argue that their country should never involve itself in foreign disagreements, but even those who approve of engaging closely with other nations may object when that engagement involves sending the military to achieve some change through force and violence.

Related Issues

Unpatriotic Protests
Should protesters support our troops? Some say that protests during war are unethical and unpatriotic.

Are protesters really ungrateful, or are their critics acting unethically and unpatriotically by trying to squelch dissent?