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Critical Analysis of “The Ethics of War” by Bertrand Russell

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This was an entry made in the International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 25 No. 2 in January 1915 by a renowned British philosopher, writer, political activist, mathematician, and social critic Bertrand Russell OM FRS. It had been six months since World War 1 had broken out when the article was published. Being a pacifist himself, Russell wrote this article addressing not only Britain but the whole world, convincing them that war cannot be justified and is not the way for any country or any race to achieve happiness and peace. Reminding the reader that ethics can only be understood when feelings are present, clarified, and methodized. Russell uses pathos to invoke sympathy and uses assumption-based logic and tonal variation, however, his argument tends to change the course of the main theme and consulates the reader.

Russel divided his article into parts, each one being a reason for why war is considered unjustified under not all but many circumstances. He dissects these reasons systematically and in detail. His article not only appeals to the common man but to all the classes of men on both sides of the war. He relates the present events with the past for emphasizing on how times have changed, thus the meaning and effects of war have also altered.

Russel gained sympathy from an audience who were still in shock and baffled due to the events of a global war. Publishing this article in such a perilous and intricate period about the war was an act of gallantry. He presents his reasoning for his beliefs through explaining the different causes and effects of war. In his article, he blames the common man too and writes in the third person using ‘we’ through which he includes himself as one of the culprits. And so making it easier for people to relate to his point and not seeing him as a self-righteous philosopher. He uses an appeal to emotion by the use of imagery. His aim is to invoke sympathy in the hearts of people for those suffering from the brutal consequences of war whether they are from the opposing combatant or their homeland. For instance: “An overcrowded family, living in a slum in conditions of filth and immorality, where half the children die from ignorance of hygiene and bad sanitation, and the remainder grow up stunted and ignorant–such a family can hardly make progress mentally or spiritually, except through an improvement in its economic condition”(3).

He signifies ‘hate’ as the root cause of all evil. “Hatred, by a tragic delusion, perpetuates the very evils from which it springs”(3). He displays how hate and horror compel men in such a large number to break through the chains of sanity and inflict violence in any direction they are maneuvered towards by mentioning the sufferings of Germany. This makes the reader fearful for their own future. Providing international socialism as the one and only rational choice among all others and embedding assumptions in the reader’s mind that other options will eventually lead to violence makes the reader put strenuous effort into thinking for a better future and thus makes them hopeless. It also develops a sense of weight for the issue. And so through the use of metaphor and connotative words and phrases, Russel is able to play with the emotions of almost every class of men of every nation engaged in the war.

Russell has mostly used an aggressive tone in the essay which he supports till the end with unapologetic sarcasm. However, his tone seems to vary along the length of the essay as he touches on different aspects surrounding the issue He criticizes the powerful men, who go on making international treaties, in a sardonic tone demeaning the point of view of all so-called political powers of the world. This forces the reader to consider the higher class authority false. When describing different types of wars he opts for a calmer tone since the issue in the following citation is controversial. Russel, while talking about Wars of Colonization, argues,

”Such wars are totally devoid of technical justification and are apt to be more ruthless than any other war. Nevertheless, if we are to judge by results, we cannot regret that such wars have taken place. They have the merit, often quite fallaciously claimed for all wars, of leading in the main to the survival of the fittest, and it is chiefly through such wars that the civilized portion of the world has been extended from the neighborhood of the Mediterranean to the greater part of the earth’s surface” (4).

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Over here Russel deals with a harsh argument delicately so it is easier for the reader to grasp his argument with an open mind. Gradually Russel starts to shift his tone to a more critical one. He talks about what would happen in the far future if Germany was to be defeated, this arises a sense of fear and distraught for the reader as he tries to explain the consequences of inflicting brutality on the Germans today. And so the reader is compelled to think of war as the greater evil. “Whatever the outcome of the war, this nation [Germany] will still exist at the end of it, and its strength cannot be permanently impaired”(5). Russell’s use of analogy in the following citation gives the reader a sense of how important the thinking style of people matters in these modern times. He states,

” But the imagination in what pertains to war is still dominated by Homer and the Old Testament; men who cannot see that circumstances have changed since those works were composed are called “practical” men and are said to be free from illusions. Those, on the other hand, who have some understanding of the modern world, and some capacity for freeing their minds from the influence of phrases, are called dreamy idealists, Utopians, traitors, and friends of every country but their own.”

This statement comprised of sarcastic and comparative style makes the reader realize how people have been categorized due to the differences in their mindsets. And compels the reader to think with an open mind about other nations and classes. His use of literary devices such as diction helps to develop his unique yet varying style.

The use of kairos is stretched along the article by using current events to back up the writer’s reasoning. He provides credible historic events and has cleverly linked them with the present ones he mentioned and with his premise evolving a sense of urgency among the reader’s mind about the current war. Along with all the facts he gives his own assumption about what the future holds for us if this war was to continue in an old-fashioned way in a modern world. Russel states” What I do wish to dispute is the belief not infrequently entertained in England that if the Allies are victorious democracy can be forced upon a reluctant Germany as part of the conditions of peace”(6). Here Russel mentions a possible outcome of the current condition of Germany and continues in the article about its menacing outcomes in the far future thus having an apprehensive impact on the reader’s mind. And so by the use of historic and present events he manages to present his dialect in such a manner that is comprehensible for the majority.

However, Russel’s organization of ideas in this argument seems to enmesh the reader’s thoughts and feelings on this matter. Russel seems to deviate a bit from his main thesis which causes uneasiness and skepticism in the readers’ minds about the author and his argument. This happens when he talks about the war of colonization in the past being justified. Another point that Russel mentions might cause many readers to go against him as he talks about white people already having occupied most important parts of the world and yellow and white people holding power in the other states. This exhibits a mild essence of white supremacy in his argument. And so he might lose the support of readers of other ethnicities. Although he does stress upon the fact that “there should be a very great and undeniable difference between the civilization of the colonizers and that of the dispossessed natives”(4), arguing that in the past there might have been times when war was necessary for human civilization and so still remains intact to his original stance giving the reader a logical explanation about his view. And by adding mildly offensive phrases attacking people of a different class, race and nation he was able to collect even more support for his beliefs and argument since this showcased that he is unbiased and so his argument is valid and easier for the majority to digest.

“The Ethics of War” was an argumentative article comprising of Russell’s main point of view and beliefs about the issue which he successfully exhibited in the length of the article. He manipulated his readers by keeping them on their toes emotionally through the thorough use of the tools of pathos. Similarly, his logical explanations along with reliable proofs made it easier for the reader to accept Russell’s point of view. Furthermore, Russell wrote while varying his tone according to the minor aspects of his article with such liquidity that it made the reader understand his concepts in a flow. To conclude, Russell effectively convinces his readers: whatever the reason may be that a war’s outcome cannot outweigh the pain and suffering it inflicts on the world in modern times.

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Critical Analysis of “The Ethics of War” by Bertrand Russell. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 6, 2023, from
“Critical Analysis of “The Ethics of War” by Bertrand Russell.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
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