Debating the Ethics of War and Political Violence

Level: Open to students entering grades 11 or 12 or freshman year of college in fall 2016.
Session: II, July 19-August 5, 2016
Days & Time: Monday–Friday, 10:10 a.m.–12:00 p.m. and 2:10–4:00 p.m.
Michelle Chun,
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Students interested in this course might also be interested in Constitutional Law.

“This class taught me to try to understand complex ideas before asserting my own opinions.”​ — Chloe Chaobal, 2015

Course Description

What are the ethics of war? Can we apply our ordinary moral judgments and political commitments to war? Does it even make sense to talk about an ethics of war that is not simply an expression of power? This course in political philosophy explores the relationship among war, politics, and ethics.

The course begins with a survey of issues of realism and just war theory through in-depth analysis of texts by classic and contemporary philosophers. We will also survey basic ideas of justice—utilitarian and deontological—and how they relate to the ethics of war. We then move on to examine war from the perspective of the international order, looking at the legal and practical norms governing war and how they are changing. We look also to important boundary cases and pressing topics in current events—terrorism, drone warfare, torture, and humanitarian intervention. How can we justify or denounce such actions and on what terms? Do these cases amount to war? Are they crimes and police actions? How should they be assessed?

Course materials draw widely from classics of political philosophy, literature, painting, and film, as well as newspaper articles and long form journalism.

Class time is divided between discussion of the reading assignments in the morning and debates, group projects, and student presentations in the afternoon. The morning sessions are devoted to helping students achieve a firm grasp of the philosophical arguments found in the readings, while the afternoon sessions allow participants to creatively apply these ideas through a variety of interactive contexts.  While experiencing the rigor and fun of political philosophy, students hone skills in formulating, clarifying, and expressing their own political ideas. Field trips enhance and probe more deeply into themes explored in course materials. 

Note: Students explore the above issues in part through the rich resource of war films, some of which contain mature content.


Michelle Chun

Michelle Chun is a JD/PhD candidate in Columbia’s Law School and Department of Political Science, where she focuses on legal and political theory. Her dissertation examines issues in contemporary democratic theory and jurisprudence through the lens of John Dewey’s thought. At Columbia, she has served as a teaching assistant in courses on justice, the history of human rights, the First Amendment, and Middle Eastern politics, among others, and as a writing consultant at the University’s Writing Center. She holds an MA, MPhil, and JD from Columbia and an undergraduate degree with highest honors in social studies from Harvard College. 

Specific course information, such as hours and instructors, are subject to change at the discretion of the University.