Using Shakespeare's Henry V to Teach Just-War Principles

Most of us assume that we have a basic right not to be killed. We might not consider that to be an absolute right—since that would entail strict pacifism—but rather what philosophers call a prima facie right.2 For example, we might be said to forfeit our right not to be killed if we commit a particularly heinous crime like aggravated murder. Or we might waive that right if we suffer from a terminal illness and can’t end our own life without assistance from others. And any right that can be forfeited or waived cannot be absolute. But we’re certainly on solid ground in believing that we have to have very serious moral reasons to justify killing people. In the Western just-war tradition, war is thought to be morally acceptable if it can satisfy certain ethical and procedural criteria. But that tradition also regards war as potentially causing so much suffering, death and destruction that leaders must carefully weigh those harms against the goals they hope to achieve through war. Even if one’s country has been seriously harmed, one’s soldiers or other citizens unjustly killed by foreign powers or terrorists, leaders still face significant moral constraints under just-war criteria on what they may do in response. Having just cause to go to war, for example, does not permit one to wage total war.
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