Legitimate Authority and the Ethics of War: A Map of the Terrain

Ethics and International Affairs 2 (31):169-189 (2017)
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Despite a recent explosion of interest in the ethics of armed conflict, the traditional just war criterion that war be waged by a “legitimate authority” has received less attention than other components of the theory. Moreover, of those theorists who have addressed the criterion, many are deeply skeptical about its moral significance. This article aims to add some clarity and precision to the authority criterion and to debates surrounding it, and to suggest that this skepticism may be too quick. First, it provides an analysis of the authority criterion, and argues there are (at least) two distinct moral claims associated with the criterion, requiring separate evaluation. Second, it outlines an increasingly influential “reductivist” approach to just war theory, and explains how it grounds powerful objections to the authority criterion. Third, and in response, it sketches the most promising strategies for providing a (qualified) defense of authority, and the further questions and complications they raise. Importantly, these strategies aim to rehabilitate the authority criterion from within a broadly reductivist view.
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