George Tarr

Review: ‘Ethics of War’ by A. J. Coates

‘Ethics of War’ is an ambitious defence, aimed at the contextualisation, clarification, and application of the traditional just war approach in a period of increasing revisionism. At its metaethical cornerstone, it affirms the ‘radical contingency’ of ethical thought upon practice; analytical approaches are framed as ahistorical and ironically idealist in their quest for certainty (Coates, 2016:6). This approach serves to don Coates’s theories with a useful fluidity. As Kendall notes, he can thereby avoid both Walzer’s inflexible legalism and Rodin’s analytically-based revisionism (Kendall, 2018: 1), operating at the intersection between theory and action. However, this is a difficult balancing game, as one must succeed in extracting the best, rather than the worst, of both worlds. While there are many merits to this work, this ‘traditional’ over ‘reflective’ foundation seems the root of its errors. In his affirmation of radical contingency, Coates’s conclusions are in some cases inappropriately uncertain or lacking in rigour.

Part I, ‘Images of War’, is a call-back to Michael Waltz’s famous three images of international relations (Waltz, 1959) and gives comparably durable clarity. It engages in a thoroughly useful and novel process of contextualisation, lodging traditional just war theory amongst the internally rich traditions of realism, militarism and pacifism. Coates is generous to the theories he criticises, treating them, not as intellectual pests, but as the refining fire of just war theory. From realism, it garners moral restraint; from pacifism, the primacy of peace; from militarism, a severe warning. These four images are clearly distinct, and their points of interaction highlight the most foundational issues in the ethical debates surrounding war. Whether they are exhaustive is debatable, with one author even insisting upon a distinct category for the religious apocalyptic image of war (Arcamone, 2015: 120).

Coates’ account only falls short at disparate intervals here. First, there is something to be said against a categorisation which conceives of these four images as somehow existing along a continuum, with pacifism and militarism occupying the poles. Indeed, Coates refers to his classification as a “conceptual spectrum of war” (Coates, 2016: 115), implicitly lodging the just war tradition at the centre. One author has done excellent work in cautioning us against this spectrum, which inherently implies that the just war theorist is the ‘moderate’ and, moreover, occupies the broadest logical space, with the most room for internal variety (Vorobej, 2014: 6). In ordering, rather than merely categorising, the images of war, Coates may take his classification a step too far.

A second suspicion regarding the first part concerns Coates’s use of militarism as a foil character for the just war tradition. In contrast to this villainous image, which glorifies war for its own sake, Coates emphasises that just war tradition keeps “the horrors of war” at the forefront, with “a sense of moral tragedy and foreboding” (Coates, 2016: 204). His emphasis at points amounts to advocating a strange self-flagellation, as though just war theory evades the triumphalism of militarism simply by being unsure of itself. This is troubling. On one intuition, it is more condemnable to cause such widespread suffering with an attitude of uncertainty; a lack of confidence in one’s capacity to weigh and calculate harms. The emphasis on the continually troubled heart of the just war traditionalist stems in no small part from Coates’s disfavouring of the analytical revisionist approach. In many ways, the traditionalist embraces the fog of war as decisive, leaving conclusions themselves foggy and unfinished.

Third, the contention that traditional, historical approaches are better equipped to manage unforeseen circumstances is not well argued by Coates, who grounds this expectation in the emphasis upon virtue by the traditionalist. It seems plausible that a clear defining of the desired virtues, and of their interaction with the broad features of war, will be more ‘ready’ and applicable if developed in the abstract, than if developed in specific historical contexts. Coates does not justify this clearly.

In Part II, Coates defends seven core principles of just war instigation and conduct. In many places, Coates’s observations are insightful, clarifying and even rigorous, as in his assessment of the doctrine of double effect and of the principle of proportionality in recourse to war. While Coates does not draw precise conclusions here, these two discussions benefit from practical examples like the Falkland War occupying the correct locus; supporting rather than supplanting theoretical thought.

Another useful contribution in Part II is Coates’s clarification of the debate between “unilateral justice” and “bilateral justice” in the recourse to war. While just cause is ordinarily thought to entail unilateral justice, Coates rightly locates the solution in a “balance of justice” (Coates, 2016: 167). This is one way in which his pragmatic awareness benefits his work. Recognising the “complexities and ambiguities of international relations” he concludes the likeliness “that neither justice nor injustice will be the monopoly of one side or the other” (Coates, 2016: 167). This conclusion is no small thing, having troubling implications for McMahan’s revisionist contention that ‘unjust’ and ‘just’ combatants should not be treated morally equal once the war begins. Coates’s observations seem to breakdown this distinction altogether (McMahan, 2009).

Finally, Part II categorises the principles of just war more logically than traditional approaches, for example bracketing ‘prospects of success’ under proportionality.  Elsewhere in Part II, however, there is a frustrating lack of engagement with ethics, which is somewhat randomly and inappropriately supplanted with practical consideration. In places, it almost seems as though Coates is testing out ‘rules of thumb’ by process of deduction, the criteria of success being either practical ease or a loose sense of ethical comfort. One example of this is his distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Coates first notes a number of possible ‘combatant’ criteria, including their contributions to war efforts or whether their activities are expressly war-generated. He then assesses these on practical grounds, before drawing no conclusion other than that “the burden of proof of ‘combatancy’ lies with the attacker” (Coates, 2016: 253). This is an example of the way in which a lack of analytical rigour at the philosophical level is ultimately less helpful at the practical level: the “attacker” must now achieve something which the theorist did not; he must explain and justify the combatancy distinction. This is a microcosm of a pattern repeated through Part II.

Part III applies Coates’s case-based approach more appropriately. In addressing the definition of ‘terrorism’, Coates usefully notes that “a moral phenomenon like terrorism [should be] viewed as a moral unity composed of diverse but interrelated parts” (Coates, 2016: 315). Believing so, he rightly criticises approaches like that of Rodin, which begin and remain in the abstract, centring on singular features, and thereby obscuring the manifold cross-cutting ways in which terrorism can fail ethically. His opponent here is not as broad as he suggests, seeming to be, rather, the bad conceptualist, rather than the entire revisionist analytical school. It is similarly a mission of the analytic to break vague and broad phenomena like terrorism down to their smallest constitutive parts, avoiding sweeping prohibition. Cases seem utterly essential for this task, although I am less sympathetic to the idea that one cannot eventually be exhaustive, or that cases frequently occur which are wholly morally unique.

The dissection of terrorism into its many features and parts proves truly useful in his assessment of how it coheres with the just war tradition. For example, rather than framing ‘legitimate authority’ as a distinction between non-state and state actors, he envisions a spectrum from public to private employment of force, with terrorism existing nearer the private end. Moreover, terrorism’s militaristic element, in which part of the end is the means of war itself, inhibits its ability to cohere with jus ad bellum principles like ‘just cause’ and ‘last resort’. While these features are not central or definition-bearing, they illuminate specific incompatibilities which may occur between terrorist activity and just war tradition. His criticism of Walzer’s defence of British terror bombing in WWII illustrates the applicability of his method.

Somewhat ironically, many of the merits of ‘Ethics of War’ are on the conceptual front. The images of war and the breakdown of terrorism are clarifying and useful. However, in calling philosophical argument “radically incomplete”, he pits himself against the analytical rigour which could enhance and defend his theories. It was by no means imperative that Coates write a comprehensive ethical analysis of each component of just war theory. Rather, this review takes issue with an unclear employment of practical considerations, often vaguely or inappropriately playing the role of theory. This leads to pitfalls particularly in Part II, where questions are often left unanswered, or are answered swiftly by rule-of thumb intuition. One worries that the overall conclusion drawn by his defence is that war is foggy, but must be done, and so must be done in sad reluctance. In this way, the defence seems more pessimistic, and less practical, than Coates intended.


Arcamone, D. (2015). Religion and Violence: A Dialectical Engagement Through the Insights of Bernard Lonergan. Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Coates, A. J. (2016). The ethics of war. Oxford University Press.

Kendall, C. (2018, Oct 11). Struggling for Justice Among Nations: A.J. Coates and The Ethics of War. Law and Liberty. Accessed online at:

McMahan, J. (2009). Killing in war. Oxford University Press.

Vorobej, M. (2014). Is Pacifism An Extreme View?. Peace Research, 5-29.

Waltz, K. N. (2001). Man, the state, and war: A theoretical analysis. Columbia University Press.

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