Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jeff McMahan's "Killing in War"

Jeff McMahan is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University. His books include The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life (Oxford University Press, 2002).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Killing in War, and reported the following:
Page 99 is in a section of the book that advocates more generous legal provisions for conscientious refusal to fight in an unjust war. The material on this particular page is part of a response to the objection that if the moral right of conscientious objection by active-duty military personnel were accorded some form of legal recognition, that would undermine the military chain of command and thus the cohesion and effectiveness of the military itself. The previously stated arguments for a moral right of conscientious objection, and indeed in some cases a moral requirement of conscientious refusal, are a natural extension of the central thesis of the book, which is that it is morally wrong (though in many cases excusable) to fight in a war that is unjust because it lacks a just cause.

From p. 99:

If there were legal provisions for soldiers to refuse to fight in a war that they could plausibly argue was unjust, this could indeed impair the ability of their government to fight an unjust war. But this is hardly an objection, since from an impartial point of view that would be an overall good effect. The concern is instead that such a provision would impede the ability of the government to mobilize sufficient forces, with sufficient discipline and cohesion, to be able to fight a just war as efficiently as it could if it were to prohibit conscientious objection. I cannot pretend to have the expertise in history, psychology, and other areas that would be required to offer a credible opinion on this matter. But I will offer a couple of observations. First, there have been a great many instances of unjust wars throughout human history, which suggests how comparatively easy it is for governments to assemble the soldiers they need to fight their wars, whether just or unjust. Yet there are relatively few recorded instances of a government being unable to fight a just war because of its inability to motivate people to fight. Mass insubordination or mutiny has been comparatively rare, especially in wars that were just. In particular, when people have been threatened by unjust aggression by a foreign power, they have almost always been willing to fight, even when the prospect of successful defense has seemed remote. It is illuminating to recall that the contemporary military organization that has the most conspicuous record both of instances of conscientious refusal to serve in certain campaigns or operations and of toleration of this sort of conscientious action is Israel’s IDF, which operates on the basis of universal conscription and extensive reserves. Yet no one doubts that everyone in the IDF would fight with the utmost cohesion and determination in a just war of national defense.

If we ask what has been the greater problem historically, conscientious refusal to fight in just wars or unreflective obedience to commands to fight in unjust wars, the answer is obvious. Considered impartially, therefore, greater toleration of selective conscientious objection, even by active-duty soldiers, would almost certainly have good effects overall.

Learn more about Killing in War at the Oxford University Press website.

Visit Jeff McMahan's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue