The Morality and Law of War

In Andrei Marmor (ed.), Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Law. New York, NY, USA: Routledge. pp. 364-379 (2012)
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The revisionist critique of conventional just war theory has undoubtedly scored some important victories. Walzer’s elegantly unified defense of combatant legal equality and noncombatant immunity has been seriously undermined. This critical success has not, however, been matched by positive arguments, which when applied to the messy reality of war would deprive states and soldiers of the permission to fight wars that are plausibly thought to be justified. The appeal to law that is sought to resolve this objection by casting it as a practical concern, a pragmatic worry about implementation, which while germane to debates over the laws of war, need not undermine our convictions in the fundamental principles the revisionists advocate. This response is inadequate. Revisionists have not shown that soldiers should obey the laws of war, in practice, when they conflict with their other moral reasons – our worries about application remain intact. Moreover, a theory of war that offers only an account of the laws of war, and a set of fundamental principles developed in abstraction from feasibility constraints, is radically incomplete. We need to know how to apply those fundamental principles, and whether, when applied, they lead to defensible conclusions. Only two options seem to remain. Perhaps the revisionists’ arguments for their chosen fundamental principles are sufficiently compelling that we should stick with them, and accept their troubling conclusions – in other words, accept pacifism. Alternatively, we need to revise our fundamental principles, so that when applied they yield conclusions that we can more confidently endorse. Though it does not save the revisionist view from the responsibility dilemma and cognate objections, the appeal to law does raise an important, and previously inadequately theorized, question – or, rather, resurrects a neglected topic, discussed in depth by historical just war theorists such as Grotius and Vattel. There are good grounds for distinguishing the laws of war from the morality of war, and for adjusting the former to accommodate predictable noncompliance, that should not impact on our account of the latter. Nonetheless, I have argued that there are some profound moral insights underlying both combatant legal equality and noncombatant immunity: specifically, we cannot infer from a combatant’s side having not satisfied jus ad bellum that he may not justifiably use lethal force; and other things equal, it is more wrongful to harm a nonliable noncombatant than to harm a nonliable combatant.
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