Putting the War Back in Just War Theory: A Critique of Examples

Ethical Perspectives 24 (1):123-144 (2017)
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Analytic just war theorists often attempt to construct ideal theories of military justice on the basis of intuitions about imaginary and sometimes outlandish examples, often taken from non-military contexts. This article argues for a sharp curtailment of this method and defends, instead, an empirically and historically informed approach to the ethical scrutiny of armed conflicts. After critically reviewing general philosophical reasons for being sceptical of the moral-theoretic value of imaginary hypotheticals, the article turns to some of the special problems that this method raises for appraisals of warfare. It examines some of the hypothetical examples employed in the construction of Jeff McMahan’s revisionist just war theory, and finds that they sometimes stipulate incompre- hensible conditions, lead to argumentative impasses of diverging yet uncertain intuitions, and distract attention away from the real problems of war as we empirically know it. In contrast, empirical and historical studies of warfare rein- force the deep connections between facts and values, and compel theorists to face uncomfortable moral ambiguities. Perhaps most importantly, the analytic method of focusing on imaginary hypothetical examples can not only be distracting, but it can also be genuinely dangerous. Hence, the article pays special attention to the way in which a seemingly innocuous fiction like the famous Ticking Time Bomb scenario can come to frame a new paradigm of inhumanity in the treatment of prisoners of war.
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