top of page

Taking War Seriously

By Charles Blattberg, Professor of Political Philosophy Université de Montréal.


Just war theory − as advanced by Michael Walzer, among others − fails to take war seriously enough. This is because it proposes that we regulate war with systematic rules that are comparable to those of a game. Three types of claims are advanced. The first is phenomenological: that the theory's abstract nature interferes with our judgment of what is, and should be, going on. The second is meta-ethical: that the theory's rules are not, in fact, systematic after all, there being inherent contradictions between them. And the third is practical: that by getting people to view war as like a game, the theory promotes its ‘aestheticization’ (play being a central mode of the aesthetic) such that those who fight are encouraged to act in dangerous ways. And war, it goes without saying, is already dangerous enough.

Keywords: Peace and Conflict Studies, Terrorism, Serious Games, War Studies, Dialogue, Just War, Justice, Negotiation, Intellectuals, Just War Theory, Conflict Resolution, Aesthetics and Ethics, John Rawls, Abstraction, Israel, Games, Michael Walzer, Rules of War, Clausewitz, Conflict and Conflict Resolution

1. Introduction

To play a game is, we say, not serious because it involves doing things for no other reason than for the sake of the game. Why should I kick the ball in that goal or shoot the puck in this net? Because that is how the game is played, nothing more. And why can’t I pick up the ball with my hands or kick the puck in with my skate? Because these acts would violate the rules − rules, again, which exist simply because we could not play without them.

It is for this reason that such rules are sometimes called “constitutive.”(2) The idea is that the rules of a game make the game by defining it. One can always shoot a puck in a net but, if this is to be done as part of a game of hockey, then there must exist a set of rules for playing. Constitutive rules, moreover, form a system, allowing them to be categorical rather than hypothetical, which is to say of a kind to be followed without exception. In chess, for example, there is a rule that the bishop moves diagonally; if you were to decide, for whatever reason, that you will move it vertically or horizontally, then you cannot be said to be playing chess. Hypothetical rules, by contrast, those we follow “if” we wish to achieve some end, must allow exceptions since they often come into conflict with each other. Indeed, that is why we tend to take them so seriously, because such conflicts mean that one or more of the rules may have to be broken. Of course there are people who treat games very seriously, but this is not, or at least not necessarily, because they are open to breaking the rules. Rather, it arises from their connecting the games to values that lie outside of them. Think of the salary of the professional athlete or the glory of the victor. These things are external because they are not essential for playing; after all, one can always do so for free or without a care for the recognition of others.

Now war, too, is serious. Clausewitz famously thought so because he viewed it as an alternative means for attaining political ends.(3) So, though at one point he compares war to a game of cards (there being a great deal of risk involved in both), he also takes care to point out that “war is no pastime; it is no mere joy in daring and winning, no place for irresponsible enthusiasts. It is a serious means to a serious end.”(4) Clausewitz is also well-known for his claim that wars have a tendency to escalate until they are fought without moral limits, because there’s always an advantage to be gained through greater ruthlessness. Since having fewer restrictions means you can attain your objectives more efficiently, you will be impelled to become more and more ruthless than your enemy. (5)

I think Clausewitz is wrong to claim that greater ruthlessness is inevitable in war; that war is, ultimately, a moral void. Still, he does identify a very worrying phenomenon, one that has led many to wonder about how we might stop the slide down this slippery slope. What, they ask, is the best way to conceive of, and indeed shore up, the moral limits on war?

For some time now, the most popular answer to this question has been theoretical. The idea is that we can avoid the slippery slope by conforming to a theory of justice. Such a theory will consist of a set of systematic principles: jus ad bellum, regarding the decision to fight; jus in bello, regarding how one fights; and jus post bellum, regarding our obligations when the fighting is over. In the words of Michael Walzer, the leading contemporary theoretician of just war, these principles are to “shape and control the judgments we make” and thereby regulate our behaviour.(6)

Walzer does not, however, expect us to follow the theory in every circumstance. He accepts there may be situations of “supreme emergency” in which “our deepest values and our collective survival are in imminent danger.”(7) At such times, he believes, it is permissible to violate the rules of war. But make no mistake: when we do so we cannot be said to be fighting justly. On the contrary, what we have done is chosen to fulfil ends that are external to justice. The rules, in other words, are categorical: they “have an independent foundation in moral principle”8 and so are to be upheld for their own sake. We cannot modify or bend them, much less suspend them, in order to meet the needs arising from some extreme circumstance. What we can do, however, is “override” the rules in favour of urgent ends that are external to them.(9)

Internal categorical rules that are to be followed for their own sake − fighting a just war, it seems, is very much like playing a game. If this sounds farfetched, consider that many theorists of justice actually welcome the analogy with the game. Here, for example, is John Rawls: “In much the same way that players have the shared end to execute a good and fair play of the game, so the members of a well-ordered society have the common aim of cooperating together to realize their own and another’s nature in ways allowed by the principles of justice.”10 So we should not be surprised when we find Walzer quoting Ruskin in reference to those wars in which all of the participants have consented to fight as “beautiful…play.”(11) Of course Walzer is aware that most wars have been fought by people who probably did not volunteer to do so. Presumably, however, this means only that they didn’t experience the fighting as beautiful; we may still speak of “this game of war, rightly played.”(12)

Yet we can do so, again, only if the war is fought justly, in compliance with the theory. Which leads me to ask: isn’t there something odd about comparing justice in politics to the playing of a game? (13) And isn’t this even more odd when it comes war? Those who, like myself, conceive of justice as a matter of the accommodation or, in the best case, reconciliation of conflict rather than of conformity to a set of systematic principles certainly think so. And since such things usually require dialogue – which, by definition, is absent between opponents at war – this leads us to conclude that there is no place for the idea of a just war. All wars, in other words, are more or less unjust. “More or less” because it cannot be the case that there is never a good reason for fighting one; sometimes, pacifism is simply suicide. Still, we should never go further than asking about a given war’s degree of injustice: how far does waging it take us from the possibilities of reconciliation and accommodation?

Rules can, I believe, help to keep us from going too far. But not by avoiding the slippery slope; rather, the best they can do is to provide guidance so that we don’t slide down it. The referee of a game can govern in a neutral fashion because its rules, being constitutive, are systematic and categorical and, we may now add, relatively precise; the kinds of rules that I’m invoking here, however, are not only fuzzy but also tend to come into conflict with each other. So such rules cannot be said to control our judgment, nor to regulate anyone’s behaviour. Rather, they can only have an influence if we engage in a non-neutral form of judgment, one that requires flexibility in order to be sensitive to the demands of the context. In fact, we will often have to engage in dialogue among ourselves in order to determine what to do.

Where do rules of this sort come from? I conceive of them as interpretations of conventions that have arisen within all of the world’s civilizations; you could even say they serve as an important part of a “minimal global ethic.”(14) And unlike the abstract principles of just war theory (whether these are arrived at deductively, casuistically, or by some other means), such rules “express” the ethic as it exists in the context of each and every culture, which is to say that they remain intimately connected to all of the other ends the culture affirms.(15) So they cannot constitute an independent domain like that of a game, and any distinctions they support, any lines they would have us draw, must always be flexible as well as porous or blurry rather than rigid or sharp. Such lines, we might even say, represent the places where our thinking must start rather than stop, since they can do no more than help us decide how to make the dirty compromises that, in war, cannot be avoided.(16)

I want to lend support to this approach by offering a critique of just war theory. I shall argue, first, that its sharp lines interfere with our judgment of what is, and should be, going on; second, that its rules are not, in fact, systematic after all, and so that it makes no sense to assert them categorically; lastly, that by getting people to view war as being like a game, just war theory encourages them to act in dangerous ways. And war, it goes without saying, is already dangerous enough.

Suggested Citation:

Blattberg, Charles, Taking War Seriously (January 14, 2019). Towards One, as Many (Forthcoming); Philosophy 94, no. 1 (Jan. 2019): 139-60. Available at SSRN:


bottom of page