ethics of war

Guest Post: The moral lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Written by William Isdale

University of Queensland

This year is the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Are there any moral lessons we can learn from that historical episode? I think so.

Recently I delivered a talk on radio about this topic. I argue that one key reason to study history is to learn lessons about human nature. The war in the Pacific against Japan can tech us about, (1) our tribal natures, (2) the limits of empathy when we kill from a distance, and (3) the ratchet-up effect of retaliatory violence.

We have a moral obligation to take heed of those lessons, for instance by reining in our more dangerous traits. The existence of nuclear weapons, because of their destructive power, makes the imperative to understand and control our natures all the more significant.

Below is a slightly adapted version of what I said.



This year marks 70 years since the end of World War Two. A conflict that ended with the use of the most destructive weapons ever invented – the atomic bombs, dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Has it ever occurred to you to ask, just what is the point of commemorating wars? Do we commemorate them because they are interesting, or are there more important reasons?

If you’ve ever attended a war commemoration ceremony, you’ve probably heard speakers talking about the gratitude that we owe to those who fought to defend our way of life. Or speeches that urge us to reflect on the tragedy of lives lost, and the risks of rushing into conflict. And those are good reasons for remembering wars. But, in my view, they’re not the most important ones.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume once wrote that the principal reason to study history is to discover  “the constant and universal principles of human nature”. And in no other area of human life is learning those lessons more important, than when they concern war.

By studying wars we can learn lessons about ourselves. About how we get into them – why we keep fighting them – and what we do to justify extraordinary levels of cruelty and destruction visited on others.

Today I want to uncover three lessons about human nature that are revealed to us by the war in the Pacific against Japan – and particularly, from the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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Jeff McMahan on What Rights Can be Defended by Means of War

On the evening of Thursday 7 February, Jeff McMahan, Honorary Fellow of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and Professor Philosophy at Rutgers University, delivered an insightful and fascinating Astor Lecture at the University of Oxford.

McMahan’s topic was the relatively underdiscussed question of the extent to which states are morally entitled to resist what he called ‘lesser aggressors’, who are seeking not to take over the state in question or to inflict major harm or damage, but some lesser goal, such as control over some relatively insignificant piece of territory. McMahan mentioned the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands Islands as a possible example.  Continue reading