'Just war' or just war?

Ethics, Killing and War
October 11, 1996

One of the central features of common-sense morality is its prohibition on the taking of human life. One of the most striking features of human history is the prevalence of warfare, and the adulation of its more successful practitioners. Philosophers, theologians and politicians have long sought to resolve this seeming contradiction. Richard Norman asks whether any of their attempts can succeed.

The heart of the book is a sustained and careful critique of the just war theory enshrined in international law, as well as philosophical tradition. Norman focuses on "the core idea": self-defence. He asks whether individuals really do have a sweeping right to self-defence. Would I be justified in killing anyone merely to protect my property? He then questions Michael Walzer's analogy between the individual's (alleged) right to self-defence, and the political community's right to defend its own territory and sovereignty. Norman concludes, contra Walzer and others, that if we are to decide whether a community has the right to use force to defend its cultural and political life, then we "cannot escape the need to make qualitative judgements" about that life.

The inclusion of detailed discussions of the rights and wrongs of particular military actions is a very pleasing feature. Norman uses such discussions to demonstrate the (often significant) gap between the practical pretensions of the just war theory (the conflicts it is used to justify) and its theoretical limitations (which conflicts it could actually justify). There is no mention of the situation in the former Yugoslavia. Norman would here have had an ideal opportunity to explore a further problem: that of delineating "nation states".

Norman concludes that the just war theory fails in its main aim. No war can be justified as "just", but he suggests instead that war may sometimes be a "lesser evil": in situations of genuine moral tragedy, an action which cannot be justified may become acceptable, if the alternatives are even less justifiable.

He seriously challenges a number of common assumptions regarding the moral acceptability of warfare. His solution is only sketched, and he raises far more questions than he answers, but perhaps this is a mark of the particular contradictions inherent in our moral attitudes to life and war.

Tim Mulgan is a lecturer in philosophy, University of Otago, New Zealand.

Ethics, Killing and War

Author - Richard Norman
ISBN - 0 521 45539 1 and 45553 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00 and £9.95
Pages - 256

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