Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: War (Page 1 of 2)

From the Vault: Journal of Applied Philosophy

While Justice Everywhere takes a break over the summer, we recall some of the highlights from our 2019-2020 season. This post focuses on the launch of our collaboration with the Journal of Applied Philosophy.

In 2019-20, Justice Everywhere began a collaboration with the Journal of Applied Philosophy. The journal is a unique forum that publishes philosophical analysis of problems of practical concern, and several of its authors post accessible summaries of their work on Justice Everywhere. These posts draw on diverse theoretical viewpoints and bring them to bear on a broad spectrum of issues, ranging from the environment and immigration to economics, parenting, and punishment.

For a full list of these posts, visit the journal’s author page. For a flavour of the range, you might read:

Stay tuned for even more from this collaboration in our 2020-21 season!

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Justice Everywhere will return in full swing on 7th September with fresh weekly posts by our cooperative of regular authors. If you have a suggestion for a topic or would like to contribute a guest post on a topical subject in political philosophy (broadly construed), please feel free to get in touch with us at justice.everywhere.blog@gmail.com.

Causation and Liability to Defensive Harm

In this post, Lars Christie discusses his recent article in the Causation in War Symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on why causal responsibility is not a requirement for individual liability to defensive harm.


The traditional view in just war theory has been to distinguish sharply between combatants and non-combatants, holding that the latter group is immune from intentional targeting in war, whereas the former can be targeted without further discrimination.  A new revisionist position in contemporary just war theory rejects this view and the underlying concept of collective liability on which it rests.  According to the revisionist view, whether a person is liable to attack depends solely on their individual moral responsibility for causally contributing to an unjust threat.

A familiar criticism of the revisionist view is that it is too permissive. Since many non-combatants are responsible for individual contributions to the war the revisionist view counterintuitively rules many non-combatants liable to attack. In my article, I present a new and different worry. If causal responsibility is a requirement on individual liability, then many combatants will escape liability to defensive harm, because their actions do not in fact causally contribute to the war. This implication makes the revisionist view too restrictive, or so I argue.

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Causal Contribution in War

In this post, Helen Beebee & Alex Kaiserman discuss their recent article in the Causation in War Symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how a probabilistic account of causation speaks to civilian immunity in war.


According to orthodox just war theory, combatants in armed conflicts don’t have rights against being intentionally killed. But this position has come under sustained attack from moral theorists in recent years. What grounds permissible killing in war, many argue, is just what grounds permissible killing in ordinary life.

It’s not OK to kill someone out of revenge, or even because they just stole your expensive laptop and that’s the only way to retrieve it; but it is OK to kill them if they pose an immediate and unjustified threat to the life of you or your neighbour or a stranger, and killing them is the only way of averting that threat. Similarly for combatants: the right to life is universal, so if a combatant lacks such a right, it’s not in virtue of being a combatant, but rather in virtue of having forfeited her right by wrongfully contributing to an unjustified lethal threat to another person, thereby rendering her liable to be killed in self- or other-defence.

One consequence of this approach is that not all combatants are equal. If the armed forces of Aggressorland unjustifiably threaten the citizens of Victimland, they may forfeit their rights not to be killed by the armed forces of Victimland. But in threatening to respond in this way, the armed forces of Victimland do not forfeit their rights against being intentionally killed, because the threat they pose is justified. In some ways, then, this revisionist approach to the ethics of war offers more moral protections to agents in armed conflicts than traditional just war theory.

The focus of our paper, however, is on the consequences of such a view for non-combatants. On the face of it, if combatants shouldn’t be stripped of their rights to life simply in virtue of being combatants, then neither should noncombatants be allowed to keep their rights to life simply in virtue of being non-combatants. The civilians of Aggressorland may have wrongfully contributed in all kinds of ways to the unjustified threat to Victimland: by voting for the war, manufacturing arms, providing food and medical assistance, or writing pro-war articles, for example. The revisionist seems forced to concede that these civilians, as well as the combatants they support, are legitimate targets of defensive attack.

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Causation Doesn’t Come in Degrees

In this post, Carolina Sartorio discusses her recent article in the Causation in War Symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how degrees of causation can (and cannot) bear on liability to harm.


The recent literature on the ethics of war draws heavily on the concept of causation. Your liability to be attacked during a war, some suggest, depends on the extent of your causal contribution to an unjust threat. Prominent theorists like Jeff McMahan and Cecile Fabre embrace a principle of civilian immunity on this basis: they claim that civilians (unlike soldiers) aren’t liable to attack because their causal contributions to an unjust war are typically very minimal. These ideas rest on an important assumption: that causation comes in degrees. But, is this assumption true? In my article, I argue against it. I claim that the appearance that causation comes in degrees is an illusion that can be explained away.

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Introduction: Symposium on War and Causation

In this post, Helen Frowe and Massimo Renzo introduce a recent symposium they edited in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how accounts of causation bear on ethics in war.


Causation, and differences in types of causal contribution, underpin various issues in the ethics of war and defensive harming. For example, one of the key ideas about defensive harming is that of moral liability to defensive harm. A standard view of liability is that a person forfeits her right not to suffer harm if she is morally responsible for a threat of unjust harm to others. Her specific connection to the threat might matter in several ways – the degree, type, and proximity to causation might all make a difference to her liability. Some writers argue that although civilians causally contribute to threats of unjust harm in war, they do not contribute enough to render themselves liable to (lethal) attack. Others argue that making distinctively military causal contributions, such as providing weapons, makes one a candidate for liability, but contributing food or medical supplies does not. Still others argue that one’s position in the causal chain bears on one’s liability: only those who directly pose threats of unjust harm, or who are sufficiently causally proximate to them, are liable to defensive harm.

However, despite their centrality to some of the most important issues in the ethics of war and self-defence, there has been very little exploration of whether these claims withstand scrutiny from the perspective of our best accounts of causation. To cast some light on this, the Conversations on War project, which is run by the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace and the YTL Centre at King’s College, London, set out to explore how philosophers working on the ethics of war can draw on research in other areas of philosophy to improve our accounts of harming in war, and how research on the ethics of war might challenge or illuminate work in those other areas. In this post, we summarise our introduction to a symposium that arose from these conversations that offers a substantial critical analysis of the role of causation in contemporary work on the ethics of war and self-defence, and is an important move towards making work on just war theory and defensive harm less insular.

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Was the Killing of General Soleimani Justified? An Ethical Analysis

This post is co-written with Anh Le (University of Manchester)

The killing of General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds force, has, once again, ignited the debate surrounding the practice of targeted killing. Much has been said about the legality and prudence of this strike. In this post, we assess the morality of this strike. From an ethical perspective, there are two paradigms that can justify the state’s killing of individuals: just war and law enforcement (there is, in addition, the emerging framework of jus ad vim but we’ll stick with the two familiar paradigms in this post). Any justified state-sanctioned killings have to fall within the purview of these two paradigms. If a particular act of killing fails to meet the rigorous demands of both paradigms, then such killing is unjust. In this post, we will analyse both possible justifications.

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Should We Be Cheering the Death of al-Baghdadi?

On the Sunday morning of 27 October, President Trump sent out a flurry of tweets, announcing to the world the death of one of the most hunted terrorists: ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The full detail of the assault is still emerging, as is expected with any covert operations. One thing is clear. The US and allies view al-Baghdadi’s killing as a positive news. I, however, think we should be cautious in uncritically celebrating his death. By this, I mean we should first assess this act of killing through a critical lens. In other words, we should ask: was this act of killing permissible?

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A Moral Case for Strikes against Syria? Part II: Punitive Strike

In this post, I explore the punitive justifications for the recent strikes against Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons. In the previous post, Sara was right to call into question the HI justification for the strikes provided by Theresa May. Indeed, even if one could assume that the strikes could satisfy the just cause criterion (and this is a big if), it’s doubtful that other ad bellum criteria could be met (proportionality and reasonable chance of success). The situation is Syria is complicated with multiple parties involved, either directly or through proxy. It is, therefore, difficult to determine what success would mean in this context and, correspondingly, what would be counted as proportionate force. I think Sara is right that the strikes could not be justified on the basis of HI. But, I ask, are there any other justifications for these strikes?

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A Moral Case for Strikes against Syria? Part I: Humanitarian Intervention

Early on Saturday, 14 April, it was announced that the US, UK and France had conducted targeted strikes on three targets in Syria – a chemical weapons and storage facility, a research centre and a military bunker – in response to Assad’s (alleged) use of chemical weapons in Douma.  The reaction to this news was mixed. One key problem that was highlighted was the question of the legality of the strikes, under both domestic and international law. However, although these are of course very important issues, a different one has remained relatively unexplored: could these strikes be permissible from a moral perspective? Given that international law is largely customary, and given that law doesn’t exhaust the limits on our behaviour, this is a crucial question.

There are a number of ways in which the resort to strikes on regime targets in Syria could be justified. The common moral framework for thinking about the morality of war, just war theory, recognises a number of reasons for legitimate use of force: self-defence against aggression, defence of another state against aggression and, increasingly, intervention to alleviate humanitarian suffering. In this post and the next, Anh Le and I will consider whether the strikes could be justified according to the standards set by just war theory. Here, I will consider possibly the most controversial just cause: intervention in order to stop severe suffering. In the next post, Anh will investigate whether the strikes can be considered morally legitimate as forms of punishment.

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Against Indiscriminate Killing Even in Supreme Emergencies

For the past few weeks, people on- and offline have spoken up to question Winston Churchill’s legacy. They generally highlight his racism, his support for the use of concentration camps, his treatment of Ireland, his complicity in the Bengal famine, and more. Some protested in a Churchill-themed café. In response, others argue that he nevertheless deserves to be remembered for his role in fighting off the Nazis and inspiring the British public in dark times. There are, however, important questions to ask even about Churchill’s role in fighting the Nazis. Churchill authorised the indiscriminate killing of civilians by bombing German cities. In justifying this tactic, Churchill appealed to the extraordinarily dangerous nature of the situation. But does this justify indiscriminate killing? This question still has relevance today. US drone strikes in the Middle East and Afghanistan in many respects resemble a campaign of indiscriminate violence, and so it is necessary to ask if this campaign can be justified. I will here argue that the logic of Churchill’s defence does not, and indeed cannot, justify the use of indiscriminate violence.

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