The Six Best Books on the Ethics of War

Lennox Johnson Books

From beginner-friendly introductions to classic books on the ethics of war, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s worth noting that there is no single best book on the ethics of war. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or pick up one of the classics.

It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.

Here are the best books on the ethics of war in no particular order.

Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations – Michael Walzer

Category: Introduction | Length: 416 pages | Published: 2015 (5e)

Publisher description: A penetrating investigation into moral and ethical questions raised by war, drawing on examples from antiquity to the present.

Just and Unjust Wars has forever changed how we think about the ethics of conflict. In this modern classic, political philosopher Michael Walzer examines the moral issues that arise before, during, and after the wars we fight. Reaching from the Athenian attack on Melos, to the Mai Lai massacre, to the current war in Afghanistan and beyond, Walzer mines historical and contemporary accounts and the testimony of participants, decision makers, and victims to explain when war is justified and what ethical limitations apply to those who wage it.

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The Ethics of War and Peace – Helen Frowe

Category: Introduction | Length: 290 pages | Published: 2015 (2e)

Publisher description: The Ethics of War and Peace is a lively introduction to one of the oldest but still most relevant ethical debates. Focusing on the philosophical questions surrounding the ethics of modern war, Helen Frowe presents contemporary just war theory in a stimulating and accessible way.

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The Morality of War: A Reader – Kinsella & Carr

Category: Anthology | Length: 415 pages | Published: 2007

Publisher description: Kinsella and Carr (both political science, Portland State U., Oregon) put the anthology together for their undergraduate students. The short texts and excerpts look at historical and philosophical approaches to the morality of war, resort to war, the conduct of war, and war crimes and judgment. Thucydides, Leo Tolstoy, Aquinas, the United Nations Charter, John Stuart Mill, the Geneva Conventions, US Catholic bishops, and the Nuremberg trials are among the sources of the various views.

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The Oxford Handbook of Ethics of War – Seth Lazar

Category: Handbook | Length: 592 pages | Published: 2020

Publisher description: Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest, among both philosophers, legal scholars, and military experts, on the ethics of war. Due in part due to post 9/11 events, this resurgence is also due to a growing theoretical sophistication among scholars in this area. Recently there has been very influential work published on the justificaton of killing in self-defense and war, and the topic of the ethics of war is now more important than ever as a discrete field.

The 28 commissioned chapters in this Handbook will present a comprehensive overview of the field as well as make significant and novel contributions, and collectively they will set the terms of the debate for the next decade. Lazar and Frowe will invite the leading scholars in the field to write on topics that are new to them, making the volume a compilation of fresh ideas rather than a rehash of earlier work. The volume will be dicided into five sections: Method, History, Resort, Conduct, and Aftermath. The contributors will be a mix of junior and senior figures, and will include well known scholars like Michael Walzer, Jeff McMahan, and David Rodin.

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On War – Carl von Clausewitz

Category: Classic | Length: 700 pages

Publisher description: Carl von Clausewitz entered the Prussian military at the age of twelve as a Lance-Corporal and would go on to obtain the rank of Major-General. In “On War”, Clausewitz draws upon his experiences fighting in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, as well as his military studies at the “Kriegsakademie”, or Prussian War Academy, which he would eventually become director of. Clausewitz employs a dialectical approach to military analysis, which leads to frequent modern misinterpretation. Described as both a realist and a romantic, Clausewitz argued that war could not simply be reduced to the logistics on the ground but rather called for rapid decision making by alert commanders responding to unexpected developments unfolding under the “fog of war”. First published in 1832, “On War” is a mainstay of modern military colleges, a monumental work of military analysis and philosophy, which continues to be studied and interpreted to this day.

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Killing in War – Jeff Mcmahan

Category: Contemporary | Length: 264 pages | Published: 2011

Publisher description: Killing a person is in general among the most seriously wrongful forms of action, yet most of us accept that it can be permissible to kill people on a large scale in war. Does morality become more permissive in a state of war? Jeff McMahan argues that conditions in war make no difference to what morality permits and the justifications for killing people are the same in war as they are in other contexts, such as individual self-defence. This view is radically at odds with the traditional theory of the just war and has implications that challenge common sense views. McMahan argues, for example, that it is wrong to fight in a war that is unjust because it lacks a just cause.

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The following sources were used to build this list:

University Course Syllabi:

Bibliographies:

Other Recommendations:

Additional Resources

You might also be interested in the following reading lists:

Or browse this collection of over 100 philosophy readings lists to find more philosophy book recommendations.


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