Approaches to pre-modern war and ethics: some comparative and multi-disciplinary perspectives

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War is both violent and significantly ordered. As an intrinsically social phenomenon, war is deeply affected by all manner of socio-cultural norms and 'ethics' that shape the conceptualisation and experience of war, from justifying it to condemning it, from formulating grand strategy to engaging in individual hand-to-hand combat, and from understanding what it means to achieve victory or suffer defeat. How, then, should scholars approach the study of war and ethics, particularly from the perspective of intellectual history? When we still lack a consensus definition of what war is, much less a consensus about how war has shaped and been shaped by ethical thought, this is far from a simple question. This essay reflects on how a comparative and multi-disciplinary approach to the study of pre-modern war and ethics may encourage historians to ask new questions of the subject. I consider the methodology and theoretical foundations of four disciplines - comparative history, anthropology, sociology, and psychology - in order to highlight how a multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary approach can enhance our understanding of the complex historical relationship between war and ethics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)592-613
Number of pages22
JournalGlobal Intellectual History
Issue number5
Early online date26 Sept 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Ethics
  • War
  • Violence
  • Comparative history
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology


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