Can war be justified? Is there such a thing as morally proper conduct in war?
With Veterans’ Day upon us and, with the Obama administration preparing to face another four years of geopolitical choices in unstable regions, The Stone is featuring recent work by Jeff McMahan, a philosopher and professor at Rutgers University, on “just war theory” — a set of ethical principles pertaining to violent conflict, whose origins can be traced back to Augustine, that still influence the politics and morality of war today. The work will be published in two parts on consecutive days — the first dealing with the background and history of the traditional just war theory, and second consisting of the author’s critique of that theory.
— The Editors (NY Times)
There is very little in the realm of morality that nearly everyone agrees on. Surprising divergences — as moral relativists delight in pointing out — occur among the moral beliefs in different societies. And there are, of course, fundamental moral disagreements within individual societies as well. Within the United States people hold radically opposing views on abortion, sexual relations, the fair distribution of wealth and many other such issues. The disagreements extend from the particular to the general, for in most areas of morality there are no commonly recognized principles to which people can appeal in trying to resolve their disputes. But there is at least one contentious moral issue for which there is a widely accepted moral theory, one that has been embraced for many centuries by both religious and secular thinkers, not just in the United States, but in many societies. The issue is war and the theory is just war theory.
“Just war theory” refers both to a tradition of thought and to a doctrine that has emerged from that tradition. There is no one canonical statement of the doctrine but there is a core set of principles that appears, with minor variations, in countless books and articles that discuss the ethics of war in general or the morality of certain wars in particular. In recent decades, the most influential defense of the philosophical assumptions of the traditional theory has been Michael Walzer’s classic book, “Just and Unjust Wars,” which also presents his understanding of the theory’s implications for a range of issues, such as preemptive war, humanitarian intervention, terrorism, and nuclear deterrence.
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