He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Morality and War: Can War be Just in the Twenty-First Century?, and reported the following:
On page 99 I discuss whether non-combatant immunity is absolute. Is it always wrong to kill non-combatants in war? That may seem obviously true. It is surely always wrong to kill innocent civilians. That is a fundamental moral principle to which there should be no exceptions.Learn more about Morality and War at the Oxford University Press website.
But suppose you are a USAF pilot flying your plane over Manhattan on September 11 2001. A civilian airliner hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists is about to crash into the Twin Towers, killing three thousand innocent civilians. You can save their lives by firing a missile to shoot the plane down. But if you do that you will kill thirty innocent passengers on board. What should you do?
There is no easy answer to such an agonising moral dilemma. But the conclusion I reach on page 99 is that, like Agamemnon at Aulis torn between his duties as king and his duties as a father:
We can be presented with situations where ‘there are no ways that do not lead to ill.’ In such circumstances the right thing to do, however morally regrettable, may be to choose the lesser of two evils. Moral absolutism pretends that such dilemmas never happen. But they do. Hence, as Aeschylus recognised, derive the springs of moral tragedy.So in order to save the lives of many thousands of innocents it may be morally permissible, however regrettable, to take the lives of a few.
This is just one example of the many difficult moral dilemmas with which we are daily presented by the shifting nature of modern warfare, to which I seek to provide answers in the book. Others include: the morality of torture, military pre-emption, the Iraq war and humanitarian intervention.
But do moral questions have objective answers? Isn’t morality just a matter of personal opinions and preferences? The book argues that such moral scepticism, widely prevalent in society, is profoundly mistaken. Drawing on a way of thinking that goes back to Aquinas, Aristotle and beyond, it concludes that there are rationally based ways to answer moral questions. Such moral reasoning, based on the just war tradition, provides a robust and indispensable guide to resolve the security challenges of the twenty-first century.