Just War Theory and the Last of Last Resort

| June 2015
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The last resort requirement of just war theory (henceforth “last resort”) is a widely accepted jus ad bellum criterion that must be met in order for a war to be just. Many believe that a resort to war is permissible only if peaceful options that have a reasonable chance of achieving a just aim have been attempted for a reasonable amount of time and have failed. This seems commonsensical. An otherwise diverse group of policymakers and scholars generally think that no one should use violence or wage war unless it is a last resort. Despite the strong intuitive appeal of last resort, I argue that it should be jettisoned from the just war tradition because adhering to it can require causing or allowing severe harms to a greater number of innocents than if an alternative, violent policy were enacted. I argue that three accounts of last resort require the obviously wrong policy, whereas the fourth and most plausible formulation of last resort is made redundant by an important component of the just war principle of proportionality. As a consequence, just war theory would be more just without last resort.

To make this argument, I defend the view that rather than focusing on whether individuals inflict harms violently or nonviolently, what matters morally is how severe harms are, to what degree the people harmed are morally liable to defensive harm, how many innocents are harmed or put at risk of harm, and whether just war theory precepts other than last resort are met. I suggest that only policies that are likely to inflict the least number of severe harms on innocents and that have a reasonable chance of achieving a just cause are permissible (and all other just war theory precepts should be met). Mine is not a strictly utilitarian argument because I believe a number of things matter independently of utility (such as liability to defensive harm, and other just war precepts).

I advance these arguments in the following order. First, I define violence, present several accounts of last resort, attempt to make the strongest case for each, and show why each fails. Second, I show why all accounts of last resort either provide intuitively wrong policy recommendations or are redundant with proportionality, which covers entirely the morally important underpinnings of last resort. I then conclude.

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Category: Article, Issue 29.2

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