Utilitarianism and the Ethics of War: 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Utilitarianism and the Ethics of War

1st Edition

By William H. Shaw


184 pages

CHOICE 2018 Outstanding Academic Title Award Winner
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This book offers a detailed utilitarian analysis of the ethical issues involved in war.

Utilitarianism and the Ethics of War addresses the two basic ethical questions posed by war: when, if ever, are we morally justified in waging war, and if recourse to arms is warranted, how are we permitted to fight the wars we wage? In addition, it deals with the challenge that realism and relativism raise for the ethical discussion of war, and with the duties of military personnel and the moral challenges they can face. In tackling these matters, the book covers a wide range of topics—from pacifism to armed humanitarian intervention, from the right of national defense to pre-emptive or preventive war, from civilian immunity to the tenets of just war theory and the moral underpinnings of the rules of war. But, what is distinctive about this book is that it provides a consistent and thorough-going utilitarian or consequentialist treatment of the fundamental normative issues that war occasions. Although it goes against the tide of recent work in the field, a utilitarian approach to the ethics of war illuminates old questions in new ways by showing how a concern for well-being and the consequences of our actions and policies shape the moral constraints to which states and other actors must adhere.

This book will be of much interest to students of the ethics of war, just war theory, moral philosophy, war and conflict studies and IR.


'William H. Shaw’s Utilitarianism and the Ethics of War is a terrific book that will enlighten readers interested in moral problems about warfare as well as friends and foes of utilitarian moral theory.' -- Stephen Nathanson, Emeritus Professor, Northeastern University, USA

'In this important new work, Professor Shaw reflects not simply upon what states and their leaders actually consider or how they actually reason when declaring and conducting armed conflict, he offers convincing arguments regarding what they are also obliged to consider, and how they ought to reason about war and its consequences in terms of its overall impact on the welfare of their citizens and of society at large. While such utilitarian considerations traditionally infuse "just war" reasoning unsystematically, Shaw’s is the first explicitly systematic treatment by an eminent utilitarian moral philosopher of just exactly how considerations of well-being and the common good offer the most useful and advantageous analysis of war’s likely impact and permissibility. This is a significant revision and clarification of just war reasoning generally that ought to be read by every serious scholar or student of political theory, international relations, or moral philosophy.' -- George Lucas, Emeritus Professor, U.S. Naval Academy

'William Shaw provides a cogent, compelling, and comprehensive account of the ethics of war, arguing persuasively that utilitarianism provides the most satisfactory basis for answering questions both about the justification of going to war, and about the ethical limits of conduct in war. This book provides a much-needed counterpoint to the deontological approaches that dominate contemporary discussion of military ethics.' -- Alastair Norcross, University of Colorado, USA

‘Shaw’s Utilitarianism and the Ethics of War masterfully develops utilitarian prescriptions about when wars should be fought and about what are the rules that commanders and lower-ranked military personnel should follow in wars. Especially impressive are Shaw’s explanations of how utilitarianism underwrites the principles of just war theory. This is a very wise book.’ -- Brad Hooker, University of Reading, UK

'Shaw's book deserves praise for several reasons. It is reader-friendly, well researched, organized, and argued. Most importantly it reminds us that although utilitarianism has been assassinated repeatedly both recently and in the past, miraculously, it is still alive and well.' -- Nick Fotion, Emory University, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

'The volume is clear, carefully argued, and thorough in its discussion of the literature on the morality of war.' Summing Up: Highly recommended.' -- Choice, J. H. Spence, Adrian College (CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title for 2017)

Table of Contents

Preface 1. Beyond Realism and Relativism 2. Understanding Utilitarianism 3. When Is It Right to Fight? 4. Utilitarianism, Pacifism, and Just War Theory 5. National Defense and its Limits 6. The Rules of War 7. Combatants and Noncombatants 8. Ethics and the Profession of Arms Conclusion

About the Author


William H. Shaw is Professor of Philosophy at San Jose State, USA. He is the author/editor of numerous books.

About the Series

War, Conflict and Ethics

Ethical judgments are relevant to all phases of protracted violent conflict and inter-state war. Before, during, and after the tumult, martial forces are guided, in part, by their sense of morality for assessing whether an action is (morally) right or wrong, an event has good and/or bad consequences, and an individual (or group) is inherently virtuous or evil. This new book series focuses on the morality of decisions by military and political leaders to engage in violence and the normative underpinnings of military strategy and tactics in the prosecution of the war.

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
HISTORY / Military / General
PHILOSOPHY / Ethics & Moral Philosophy
PHILOSOPHY / Movements / Utilitarianism
POLITICAL SCIENCE / International Relations / General