The responsibility dilemma for killing in war: A review essay

Philosophy and Public Affairs 38 (2):180-213 (2010)
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Killing in War presents the Moral Equality of Combatants with serious, and in my view insurmountable problems. Absent some novel defense, this thesis is now very difficult to sustain. But this success is counterbalanced by the strikingly revisionist implications of McMahan’s account of the underlying morality of killing in war, which forces us into one of two unattractive positions, contingent pacifism, or near-total war. In this article, I have argued that his efforts to mitigate these controversial implications fail. The reader is left stranded: to reach plausible conclusions, Walzer deployed an implausible conception of our rights to life; McMahan’s more rigorous account of those rights generates untenable conclusions. Absent new developments, it seems that the prospects for grounding the ethics of war in individual rights are poor: any theory of our rights to life that is sufficiently indiscriminate to work in the chaos of war is not discriminating enough to be a plausible theory of our rights to life. Perhaps by rejecting the ideal of the rights-respecting war altogether we might develop an alternative theory of justified warfare, which marries theoretical soundness with conclusions that we can more confidently support.
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