Weight loss goals and the laws of armed conflict seem pretty far removed. But stick with us! Military ethics provide useful principles to test the worth of our new year’s resolutions.

The ethics of war are based on making sure the inevitable harm, pain and suffering caused by violence is minimised as much as possible. Most resolutions also involve some pain and suffering. After all, we don’t need resolve to do what’s easy! So let’s apply these principles of warfare to the hardships of our resolutions and check if they’re are morally justified.

Just war theory, the most common approach to the ethics of war, says war is justified only if it satisfies a set of conditions. These include:

Just cause

War is only just when it is fought in response to a serious violation of state or human rights (basically, because war causes death and destruction it has to be responding to a grievous offence.)

Right intention

The declaration of war is not motivated by private, self-interested or vicious intentions but out of a desire to bring about a just outcome.

Legitimate authority

Only the leader or leaders of a political community have the right to declare war.

(Macro) proportionality

The peace the war aims to create has to be preferable to the way the world would be if no war was fought (a nuclear war will almost always be disproportionate).

Last resort

Are there less harmful measures than war which might bring about peace?

Probability of success

Do not undertake the pain and suffering of war if there is no chance of winning, otherwise lives are wasted pointlessly.

(Micro) proportionality

The benefits gained from a military operation must outweigh the harms it inflicts.

Discrimination

Only combatants may be targeted by military attacks. Civilians are off limits.

Maybe before you sign up for a 10 day silent yoga retreat you could try signing up for a weekly class and see if it helps.

What does this tell us about new year’s resolutions?

Good goal

An ethical resolution will aim to achieve something good (health, travel, education). Don’t aim to do something you know to be bad (“This year I resolve to make profits at any cost”).

Right intention

Is your resolution motivated by a genuine desire for self-improvement? Or is it motivated by shame, peer pressure, greed, vanity or fear? If the latter it might be worth considering whether it’s really a resolution worth making.

Is your resolution motivated by a genuine desire for self-improvement? Or is it motivated by shame, peer pressure, greed, vanity or fear?

Accept your limits

You only have the ‘authority’ to make resolutions for things within your control. Don’t resolve to get a promotion at work. Instead, resolve to reinvigorate your attitude at work so your application for promotion has the best chance of success. But remember, getting the promotion is outside your control.

Holistic improvement

Make sure you will be a better personal overall after succeeding in your resolution. You might be able to run a marathon, but make sure it isn’t so detrimental to your health, relationships, work or other interests that you’re worse-off overall.

Avoid drastic measures

Have you tried less intense measures to achieve your goals? Maybe before you sign up for a 10 day silent yoga retreat you could try signing up for a weekly class and see if it helps.

Probability of success

Set realistic goals you can actually achieve. If you and your partner aim to spend more time together after three date nights in the last year, resolving to have a weekend away once a fortnight might be a bit extreme. Be honest to avoid setting yourself up for failure and making the effort and sacrifices you make futile.

Cost/benefit analysis

Is the inconvenience, expense or pain of your resolution worth it for the goal you are trying to achieve? Trying to have a body like Chris Hemsworth might be more trouble than it’s worth.

Own your resolution

Your resolution is your resolution – everyone except you is an innocent bystander! If you’ve decided to go vegetarian, that’s fine. Insisting everyone in your share house skips on meat to suit your new diet isn’t.

So there you have it – your guide to an ethical new year’s resolution with help from military ethics. These steps won’t guarantee your resolution is successful but they will guarantee it’s a resolution worth making. For tips on how to form the resolve, perseverance and courage it takes to stick to your new commitment, you might want to talk to a soldier.

Join the conversation

What are the greatest lessons war teaches?