Author Q&A Session: William H. Shaw

Routledge Military, Security and Strategic Studies is pleased to share with you our author Q&A session with William H. Shaw! Author of Utilitarianism and the Ethics of War, Shaw talks about his title and what makes it unique. It is available for purchase here!

'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

‘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

Q&A with the Author...

1. Congratulations on the publication of your book Utilitarianism and the Ethics of War! What led you to writing it?

The key step for me was the opportunity to be a visiting fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy, where I participated in a year-long seminar for fellows, officers, and interested faculty members on current work on the ethics of war. I’ve always had a general interest in the topic, but until then I hadn’t dug into it deeply.

2. What do you think makes your title unique and stand out?

I approach the ethical problems of war from a utilitarian perspective, according to which the consequences of our actions and policies in terms of their impact on human well-being determine when and how wars may permissibly be fought. Most other philosophers writing about war these days assume that utilitarianism is a non-starter whereas I try to show that it’s really the best way to think about the ethical issues war raises.

3. Was there anything particularly surprising about this subject that you came across while sourcing material and researching content for this title?

I was surprised that even though contemporary utilitarians haven’t written much about war, the great 19th century utilitarians had quite a lot to say about it.

4. What is your favourite example in the book?

Let me give you several examples of engaging moral issues that the book takes up: Can it be right to fight if the cause seems hopeless? Must you adhere to the rules of war if the other side does not? Was the Allied bombing policy in World War II morally justified? How much risk must combatants take to avoid injuring civilians? What should military officers do when called on to fight an unjust war? Is a state ever justified in going to war to prevent an enemy from growing too dangerous?

5. Do you have any events lined up? Are you attending any conferences?

Alas, no plans now for a book tour.

6. Who would you recommend your title to?

Obviously, it should appeal to anyone who is seriously interested in the ethics of war or in utilitarianism and contemporary moral theory, but I’ve written the book to be accessible to students and other coming to these subjects for the first time, and not just to specialists.

7. Can you describe your book in one sentence?

It develops and defends a utilitarian response to the two central questions posed by war—when it is right to fight, and what are the moral limits on how war may be fought?—while also examining the duties of military personnel and the moral challenges they face.

8. Do you have plans for future books? What’s next in the pipeline for you?

No specific book project now, but I plan to pursue further some of the ethical conundrums of war as well as some of the ongoing controversies in moral philosophy surrounding utilitarianism and other consequentialist theories. 

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.

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