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Ethics of Contemporary War


Admission requirements

Required course(s):

  • Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies


This module will explore the moral and ethical issues raised by contemporary warfare. In the first part of the course, students will be introduced to the dominant Western frameworks for moral reasoning about the use of force in world politics: pacifism, realism, and the just war tradition. The course will explore the historical and religious roots of these traditions, and the major streams of thinking within them. In the second and third parts of the course, we will focus on the just war tradition, applying its concepts and principles to a range of important issues in contemporary warfare that present challenges to the just war tradition as it is conventionally formulated. These will include jus ad bellum questions about non-state actors and anticipatory war; jus in bello questions about targeted killing and supreme emergencies; and jus post bellum questions about post-conflict responsibilities. These issues will be explored through case studies drawn from recent conflicts. Students will be encouraged to think about whether the traditions of ethical reasoning about war inherited from earlier generations remain adequate to guide our judgment of contemporary warfare, or whether they need to be revised.

Course Objectives


  • Demonstrate a thorough understanding of the different theoretical approaches employed in the ethics of war – i.e., realism, pacifism, and just war – and their strengths and weaknesses.

  • Describe the central principles associated with the just war tradition.

  • Understand the ethical issues raised by new technologies and forms of conflict, and how they might be approached from the perspective of the just war tradition.


  • Discuss the continuing value (or otherwise) of the just war tradition in the context of contemporary warfare.

  • Demonstrate appropriate cognitive, communicative and transferable skills; develop the capacity for independent learning, critique major texts and approaches and lead class discussions.

  • Analyse historical and contemporary cases in the light of just war principles.


Timetables for courses offered at Leiden University College in 2022-2023 will be published on this page of the e-Prospectus.

Mode of instruction

The course is taught through two-hour seminars. Students will be expected to participate in both large and small group discussions; present and defend their ideas within an academic setting; and take part in group projects. The instructor will facilitate and ensure the efficient running of the discussion, but students are responsible for shaping its direction. Each seminar has a ‘required reading’ list that must be read in advance of each seminar. Students are also recommended to read some of the items listed under ‘suggested reading’ prior to each seminar and use the extended list as a starting point in their preparation for essay writing.

Assessment Method

  • Seminar participation: 15% (ongoing, weeks 1-7)

  • Debate format group presentation: 15% (weeks 5-7)

  • Essay: 35% (2500 words, week 5)

  • Literature of war case analysis: 35% (1500 words, week 8)

Reading list

The core text of the course will be:

  • Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 5th edition (NY: Basic Books, 2015)

This is a mandatory purchase (4th edition is also fine). Also highly recommended:

  • Alex Bellamy, Just Wars: From Cicero to Iraq (Cambridge: Polity, 2006)

  • James Turner Johnson, Morality and Contemporary Warfare (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).


Courses offered at Leiden University College (LUC) are usually only open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Leiden University students who participate in one of the university’s Honours tracks or programmes may register for one LUC course, if availability permits. Registration is coordinated by the Education Coordinator,


Dr Edmund Frettingham,