Ethics- Utilitarianism in relation to the war on Iraq.

When we discuss classic ethical theories, utilitarianism provides us with a prevalent conception of morality. It is a theory derived from consequentialist ethical theory, whereby actions are morally assessed in terms of their consequences. After examining the prescribed literature on utilitarianism, it is evident that a clear distinction exists between ‘act’ and ‘rule’ utilitarianism. Although the authors of utilitarian theory primarily agree on, and advocate the concept of utility, a prominent conflict is evident in relation to the way utilitarian principles should be applied. For the purpose of this essay, an act utilitarian perspective will be assumed, focussing on the recent war within Iraq. After a clear understanding of utilitarianism is established, several crucial decisions relating to the war against Iraq will be analysed, and the consequences of these actions will be examined. It will be argued that the initiation of war within Iraq was morally legitimate and warranted, when we consider the significant consequences that resulted from this decision.

Within the vast realm of ethical theory, utilitarianism presents us with a prevalent conception of morality. It is a theory associated with consequentialist ethical principles, whereby actions are morally judged in terms of their consequences or outcomes. Beauchamp (2001:104) explains, ‘Consequentialism asserts that actions are right or wrong according to their consequences, rather than because of any intrinsic features they may have, such as truthfulness or fidelity’. Furthermore, ‘What makes an action morally right or wrong is the total good or evil it produces’ (Beauchamp, 2001:104). Therefore, the theory of utilitarianism is primarily concerned with the consequences of a given action, and not the act itself.

Beauchamp (2001) identifies the authors recognised with early utilitarian theory, including Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Bentham, educated in law, advocated utilitarian principles for the purpose of legislative reform. For him, utilitarianism offered a practical and appropriate basis for law reform within the British legal system. Attempts were made to revise criminal penalties, which he believed were somewhat unjust, and in need of reform. Bentham suggested that the consequences of a crime be the primary factor in determining the penalty to be opposed on the offender.

Although Bentham is recognised as one of the earliest writers associated with utilitarianism, the work of John Stuart Mill is generally regarded with greater significance. Mill was considered to have followed the early views expressed by Bentham, writing Utilitarianism and On Liberty, which he believed ‘corrected’ flaws in Bentham’s moral philosophy (Beauchamp, 2001). Bevir (2002:222) offers his account of Mill, asserting:

“Mill remained committed to the broad thrust of utilitarianism and classical liberalism. As he saw it, although he altered the tone and feeling of his predecessors, his reflections ultimately “only laid the foundation of these [his early opinions] more deeply and strongly””.

Within his work, Mill maintains that the concept of utility, or the ‘greatest happiness’ principle, is the fundamental basis of morality, asserting ‘Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness, i.e., pleasure or absence of pain’ (Beauchamp, 2001:105).

Within utilitarianist ethical theory, a prominent debate is apparent in relation to the way the principles of utility should be applied. The main issue for contention relates to whether utilitarian principles should be applied to actions, or to rules of conduct that decide if particular actions are right or wrong. Beauchamp (2001:117) clarifies the critical issue of this debate, explaining ‘the act utilitarian asks only, “What good and evil consequences will result directly from this action in this circumstance?”, and not, “What good and evil consequences will result generally from this sort of action?”‘. Therefore, act utilitarianism determines the alternative actions that are evident in a given circumstance, and applies the principles of utility when taking action, to achieve the greatest consequences or benefits possible.

A highly documented issue, receiving international attention in recent months, relates to the war in Iraq. As with all significant military conflicts, there was much contention and deliberation among the public, throughout all regions of the world. The conflict involved an army of allied forces, including US, British, Australian, and Polish military personnel, infiltrating Iraq with the primary aim of regime reform. During the prior months to the war, tension had mounted between the US and Iraq, relating to the development of ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Following the events of September 11, 2001, the US government has appeared to have adopted a more proactive approach to protecting national interests relating to terrorist and anti-US activity. Therefore, the speculated activity of Iraq producing such weapons became a well documented issue, especially within the US. The US government demanded that action be taken to minimise the possible threat of such weapons being produced, and subsequently used against either the neighbouring nations of Iraq, or the US. This speculation opted the decision for the United Nations (UN) to enter Iraq and assess the situation in terms of arms production, and determine the threat related with these weapons. After a series of inspections were undertaken throughout Iraq, the UN could not locate any weapons of mass destruction, neither any substantial evidence that such weapons had been recently manufactured. Regardless, the US government still believed that Saddam Hussein, and the Iraqi regime presented the US with a serious threat, and decided to initiate military action after negotiations failed to resolve their concerns. Obviously, the decision made to initiate major warfare against Iraq was highly contentious and controversial.

To adopt a utilitarian perspective on this issue, it is necessary to determine the consequences of this crucial decision. However, for the purpose of this essay, it is practical to firstly ascertain the main reasons the US government initiated the conflict in Iraq. As it was conveyed to the international public, we will assume the primary purpose of this war was to remove Saddam Hussein from political power, and in effect, bring about regime reform. Furthermore, the US government had reason to believe that an increasing threat was evident in relation to the development of chemical and biological weapons within Iraq. Although many people believe there were underlying agendas for the US led war in Iraq, we will assume that only the preceding reasons influenced the US government to initiate military action within Iraq.

On May 1, 2003, US President Bush declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended”, suggesting that the war in Iraq had concluded. Therefore, in less than one month, the US and coalition forces had achieved all of their main military objectives, and successfully deposed Saddam Hussein from power. The direct and most documented consequence of this action related to the ‘liberation’ of the Iraqi people from an oppressive regime. Symbolic images of the Iraqi people destroying statutes of Saddam Hussein were transmitted across all regions of the world. Although there was early resistance, and civilian casualties did result from the military action within Iraq, there was a distinct sense that the Iraqi people had indeed been liberated after the disposition of Saddam Hussein. In addition to this consequence, the threat associated with the Iraqi regime, and the development of chemical and biological arms had been alleviated. The US government maintains that critical action had to be taken, as the development of such weapons posed a major risk to the national defence interests of the US, in addition to the neighbouring regions of Iraq.

Considering the preceding outcomes that resulted from the war in Iraq, we ask the question “what would be the utilitarian perspective on this war”? After examining the early utilitarianist theories of Bentham and Mill, it is possible to assume a utilitarian would support the decision to initiate war against Iraq. To determine if this decision was morally right or wrong, we focus only on the consequences that result, and not on the act itself. With the end of military conflict, we can now conclude that several positive outcomes are evident. First and foremost, the military action resulted in the liberation of the Iraqi people. Secondly, the threat associated with Saddam Hussein, and his regime, has been alleviated due to the military conflict. If we consider the beliefs of Mill stated earlier “Actions are right in the proportion as they tend to promote happiness”, we could then argue that the act of war within Iraq was morally legitimate and warranted, from a utilitarian perspective. The decision to initiate war has resulted in the liberation of the Iraqi people, therefore promoting greater freedom and happiness within Iraqi society.

Zunes (1999) provides an article that examines a similar topic to that raised within this discussion. The article relates to the 1998 US led war against Yugoslavia, and outlines reasons why the war was wrong from a ‘moral, legal and utilitarian’ perspective. After weeks of negotiations failed to resolve the ethnic conflicts between the Serbs and Kosovar Albanians within Yugoslavia, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces were deployed to commence military action. As diplomatic initiatives had failed to establish an agreement between the involved parties, NATO launched a major bombing campaign against Serbian forces. The air strikes lasted for more than ten weeks, resulting in widespread destruction. The consequences were devastating, especially for the Kosovar Albanians. Zunes (1999:451) explains,

‘Not only were hundreds of ethnic Albanians accidentally killed by NATO bombing raids, but the Serbs, unable to respond to NATO air attacks, turned their wrath against the most vulnerable segments of the population: the very Kosovar Albanians NATO claimed it would be defending’. Furthermore, ‘Despite the bombing, Serbian troop presence in Kosovo increased as the bombing continued and the repression of the Kosovar Albanians dramatically escalated’ Zunes (1999:452).

Therefore, after examining the preceding consequences, it can be argued that a utilitarian would not support the decision to initiate military conflict in this case. Although the act of war, which many people regard morally wrong, was initiated by US forces in similar circumstances in both Yugoslavia, and more recently Iraq, we are only concerned with the consequences of these actions. For this reason, a utilitarian would strongly oppose the decision for NATO forces to initiate military action, as It was clearly evident that the negative consequences of this action outweighed any positive consequences.

To conclude, we will recall the belief of Mill that ‘Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness, i.e., pleasure or the absence of pain’. When we consider this view, one would assume a utilitarian would support the war on Iraq. If actions are morally assessed in terms of their consequences, and we consider the significant consequences discussed earlier, then the decision to initiate war within Iraq can be morally justified.



Beauchamp, T.L. (2001,3rd edition). Philosophical Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy. Boston: McGraw Hill

Bevir, M. (2002). Sidney Webb: Utilitarianism, positivism, and social democracy. The Journal of Modern History, vol.74, (2), 217-252.

Zunes, S. (1999). NATO’s rush to war in Yugoslavia. Peace Review, vol.11, (3), 447-454.

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