Ethics, Interpretive Social Science and War

Mervyn Frost*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This chapter explores radical interpretivism as an approach to understanding contemporary war and the implications that flow from its application to questions about what ought to be done in contemporary asymmetrical wars. It argues that the currently dominant version of the relationship between just war theory and the world to which it is to be applied is misguided. It is widely held that policymakers facing ethical decisions about war and peace, have first to ascertain the empirical state of affairs in which they find themselves, and then, in a second step, consider what it would be ethical to do, given the circumstances. On this view, questions about the justice of going to war arise only after the completion of an empirical analysis about how things stand in the world. Radical interpretivism denies the possibility of determining a given "state of affairs"in social relations in purely empirical terms that do not involve engaging with ethical considerations from the outset. A central strand of the argument is that in the analyses of the circumstances that precede wars, what must be understood are the histories of actions and reactions of the parties involved. These, as is the case with all actions, can only be understood within the social practices in which the actors are participating. Such understandings involve an ethical engagement at every point. This interpretive approach is particularly important for a proper understanding of asymmetrical wars.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)252-270
Number of pages19
JournalEuropean Review of International Studies
Issue number2-3
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • asymmetric war
  • empiricism
  • ius in bello
  • just war theory
  • radical interpretivism
  • war


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