When is military intervention morally justified?

Seminar Paper, 2005
17 Pages, Grade: 1,0




I. Definition of Central Concepts
1.1. Morality
1.2. Intervention

II. Crucial Theories of the Justice of Intervention
2.1. Utilitarianism
2.2. Just War Theory

III. “Just and Unjust Wars” - Michael Walzer’s Moral Position
3.1. Theoretical Argumentation
3.2. Criticism

IV. Case Study: Was the NATO Intervention in Kosovo Morally Justified According to Just War Theory?
4.1. Background
4.2. Moral Legitimacy in Accordance with Just War Theory




Somalia, Serbia-Montenegro, Iraq - These are just three of several countries that were exposed to external military intervention in recent times. Although this kind of intervention is in principle prohibited under international law under Article 2 of the United Nations Charter, states have not been hesitating to use force in order to retaliate against an aggressor , to preventively fight against a threat to national security or to protect human rights. Regardless of its legality, it is interesting to analyze the legitimacy of an intervention from an ethical perspective. Under which conditions is a state morally justified to militarily interfere in another state’s internal affairs? What are the moral standards on which a state’s conduct of war should be based? Opinions among scholars differ greatly when dealing with this contentious issue. This essay is going to provide some possible answers.

Initially, I define the key concepts of the essay theme: “morality” and “intervention”. The second chapter deals with two crucial theories of the justice of intervention, namely utilitarianism and just war theory. Subsequently, I present some of Michael Walzer’s ideas about just war as elaborated in his famous book “Just and Unjust Wars”. At the end of my essay, in the fourth chapter, I attempt to answer the question whether the NATO intervention in Kosovo was morally justified by applying just war theory. The second and third chapter are accompanied by my personal evaluation.

I. Definition of Central Concepts

1.1. Morality

Morality describes “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour” (Oxford Dictionaries 2005: ‘morality’). In everyday life, we often take moral considerations about rightness and goodness into account when making decisions, for example, when we think about using white lies.

As Robert Holmes states, “morality is a perspective or way of viewing life […] that one may adopt or reject along with the others. And it too comprises values and standards that one may or may not choose to honor” (Holmes 1989:20). What criteria distinguish morality? In Western moral philosophy, two general strategies of how and where to identify moral principles have emerged: consequentialism and deontology. A consequentialist assumes that an action is moral when it realizes good results, no matter what the means are (Amstutz 2005:29). By contrast, a deontologist judges an action by its inherent rightness and not by the validity of its consequences (Amstutz 2005:35).

1.2. Intervention

According to the Dictionary of International Relations, intervention is a term which “covers a wide variety of situations where one actor intervenes in the affairs of another” (Evans 1998:278). A state’s foreign intervention can be non-violent, involving the threat or use of economic, diplomatic, or other sanctions, or violent, involving military intervention (Holzgrefe and Keohane 2003:18). Three major types of intervention are distinguished: political, strategic, and humanitarian (Amstutz 2005:136).

Political intervention is undertaken to advance political interests in global society, for instance to promote democracy1 in another country by overthrowing or reestablishing a regime (Amstutz 2005:136).

elected representatives” (Oxford Dictionaries 2005 : ‘democracy’)

Strategical intervention aims at fostering national security of the intervening state. It is undertaken to achieve “territorial security, regional stability, restoration or consolidation of democratic government, and regime transformation” (Amstutz 2005: 139).

Humanitarian intervention serves to protect human rights 2 in the targeting country. It is “the threat or use of force across state borders by a state (or group of states) aimed at preventing or ending widespread and grave violations of the fundamental human rights 2 of individuals other than its own citizens […]” (Holzgrefe and Keohane 2003:18).

II. Crucial Theories of the Justice of Intervention

2.1. Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a moral theory derived from consequentialism (see chapter 1, part 1). Generally speaking, proponents of utilitarianism judge the justice of an action by its outcome, i.e., by its utility3 and not by its means. Holzgrefe points out: “Conduct is never good or bad in itself. Only its effects on human well-being make it good or bad.” (Holzgrefe and Keohane 2003:20) In philosophy, two types of utilitarianism are distinguished: act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism.

Act-utilitarians hold that each particular action is to be evaluated directly in terms of the utility principle (Amstutz 2005:30). Act-utilitarians judge a forcible intervention as morally justified when the state’s military actions lead to victory at a minimum of expense and time (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2005: ‘Just War Theory’). Thus, a humanitarian intervention can be considered to be just if the number of saved lives exceeds the number of those who die during fighting (Holzgrefe and Keohane 2003:21).

Rule-utilitarians assume that an action is justified when it is required or permitted by rules or procedures that derive their moral legitimacy by their expected contribution to aggregate well-being (Amstutz 2005:30). An example for such a basic rule in international society is the principle of non-intervention4: Whereas some rule- utilitarians hold that the principle of non-interv ention has to be followed because in the end the negative consequences of intervention overweigh - i.e., utility cannot be achieved -, others affirm that interventions can in some cases - i.e., when based on rules expected to maximize utility - promote overall well-being and therefore are under certain circumstances morally justified (Holzgrefe and Keohane 2003:24).

I personally have two objections against the way utilitarianism morally justifies intervention: First, it is often very hard to foresee the outcome of a military intervention. Accurate calculation of utility is therefore practically impossible. Second, in the case of intervention, someone who thinks end-based does not consider the dignity of the people in the targeted country. Since utilitarianism neglects constraints on the conduct of war, every kind of harm is conceivable: Intervening soldiers are permitted to torture or even kill innocent people in order to achieve utility. Hence, soldiers can randomly violate indiv idual rights.

2.2. Just War Theory

The just war theory is a set of moral principles that can guide the conduct and ending of wars. It deals with the justification of how and why wars are fought. This theory has its origins in Christian ethics: St. Augustine5 was the first who applied moral criteria for a just war (Evans 1998:288). The just war theory is comprised of two parts: the jus ad bellum, i.e., the justice of going to war, and the jus in bello, i.e., the justice in wartime (Amstutz 2005:110).


1 Definition of democracy: “a form of government in which the people have a voice in the exercise of power, typically through 2

2 Human rights are “basic moral guarantees that people in all countries and cultures allegedly have simply because they are people. Calling these guarantees ‘rights’ suggests that they attach to particular individuals who can invoke them, that they are of high priority, and that compliance with them is mandatory rather than discretionary.” (Nickel 1992:561 -562 )

3 Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the founder of the utilitarian movement, defined utility as the “greatest good for the greatest number” (Amstutz 2005: 29)

3 Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the founder of the utilitarian movement, defined utility as the “greatest good for the greatest number” (Amstutz 2005: 29)

4 The norm of nonintervention “has been defined and proclaimed in numerous sources. The most important legal prohibitions against intervention are contained in the UN Charter, which states (Article 2.4) that UN members are obligated to ‘refrain in their international relations from the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any other state.’” (Amstutz 2005:127)

5 St. Augustine lived from 1225 to 1274 (Evans 1998:288)

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When is military intervention morally justified?
University of Tubingen
Course 'Normative Theories of International Relations'
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Christian Kreß (Author), 2005, When is military intervention morally justified?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/40859


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