Finlay on Legitimate Authority: A Critical Comment

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Christopher J. Finlay claims “that a principle of moral or legitimate authority is necessary in just war theory for evaluating properly the justifiability of violence by non-state entities when they claim to act on behalf of the victims of rights violations and political injustice.” In particular, he argues that states, unlike non-state actors, possess what he calls “Lesser Moral Authority.” This authority allegedly enables states to invoke “the War Convention,” which in turn entitles even individual soldiers on the aggressive side to use military violence against soldiers defending the victim state. Non-state actors, in contrast, have to fulfill more stringent requirements. If they do not, then even their attacks on military personnel can properly be called "terrorist." In the following I will argue that Finlay’s attempt to show the importance of the legitimate authority criterion of just war theory and to demonstrate that non-state violence has to satisfy heavier burdens of justification than state violence fails for a number of reasons: his claim that defenders would wrong victims if they defended them against their will is mistaken, he overlooks the fact that non-state agents need not claim to fight on someone’s behalf, the full moral authority he mentions is redundant, the powers he ascribes to “Lesser Moral Authority” are, depending on interpretation, either morally irrelevant or nonexistent, and his claim that granting states “Lesser Moral Authority” is beneficial from a “moral pragmatic” point of view while granting the same authority to non-state actors is not, is unwarranted.
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