Hobbesian defenses of orthodox just war theory


Authors
Jeff McMahan
Oxford University
Abstract
Most of us accept that all persons have a right not to be killed, unless they forfeit or, perhaps, waive it. According to the currently dominant understanding of the just war, civilians retain the protection of this right in conditions of war but combatants do not. On one view, combatants forfeit the right by posing a threat to others; on another view, they waive it when they accept combatant status, which requires that they identify themselves visually and in other ways as legitimate targets. Yet people who fight in a just war (“just combatants”) and fight only by permissible means, are simply defending themselves and other innocent people against a wrongful attack or some other serious wrong. They do not, it seems, either forfeit their right not to be killed or grant their enemies permission to try to kill them. I believe, therefore, that the blanket permission that those who fight without a just cause (“unjust combatants”) have to kill just combatants is a legal permission only, not a moral permission. The law of war, I suggest, diverges quite radically on this issue from the morality of war. Although just combatants retain their moral right not to be killed, and although their right is seldom overridden, it is nonetheless best, for a variety of contingent and largely pragmatic reasons, not to hold unjust combatants legally liable for killing them. The moral right of just combatants not to be killed is not protected by a legal right in wartime. This is, however, not the common view of the permissibility of killing just combatants in war. Most people, including most moral theorists in the just war tradition, believe that the morality of war and the law of war coincide on this point. They believe, 2 as I noted, that all combatants lose their moral right not to be killed by enemy combatants in conditions of war. But what is the reason for thinking that the right they have in peacetime no longer protects them in war? I have argued at length elsewhere against the view that just combatants forfeit their right not to be killed by posing a lethal threat to others, as well as against the view that they consent to become legitimate targets and thus waive their right not to be killed.1 If my arguments are right, we must, if we wish to preserve the traditional view, explore other possible ways of defending it..
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