Liability and Just Cause

| March 2007
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This paper is a response to Jeff McMahan’s “Just Cause for War” (Ethics & International Affairs, 19.3, 2005). McMahan holds, as many have, that there is a just cause for war against group X only if X have made themselves liable to military force by being responsible for some serious wrong. But he interprets this liability requirement in a very strict way. He insists (i) that one may use force against X for purpose Y only if they are responsible for a wrong specifically connected to Y; and (ii) that one may use force against an individual member of X only if he himself shares in the responsibility for the wrong.

This paper defends a more permissive, and more traditional, view of just war liability against McMahan’s claims. Against (i) it argues that certain ‘conditional just causes’ such as disarming an aggressor, deterring future aggression, and preventing lesser humanitarian crimes can be legitimate goals of war against X even if X have no specific liability connected to them. Against (ii) it argues that soldiers who have no responsibility for X’s wrong may nonetheless be legitimately attacked because in becoming soldiers they freely surrendered their right not to be killed by enemy combatants in a war between their and another state, so killing them in such a war is not unjust. Though initially a criticism of McMahan, the paper makes positive proposals about conditional just causes and the moral justification for directing force at soldiers.

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Category: Article, Issue 21.2, The Ethics of War and Peace

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