Front Page Titles (by Subject) Walzer & Just War - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Walzer & Just War - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Walzer & Just War
“Recapturing the Just War for Political Theory.” (Review Article) World Politics 31(July 1979):588–599.
The pervasive distrust of absolute values and the concomitant rise of “power politics” as a school of political philosophy have diverted attention from just war theory. The few serious explorations of the doctrine in our era have been written mainly by Catholic theologians, who retain a more traditional attitude toward ethical values.
In his widely praised book, Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer seems untroubled by the lack of secure philosophical foundations for modern views on the ethics of war. He confidently argues that the moral dimension is never absent from the decisions that lead to war as well as from the actions of those engaged in combat. In dealing with just in bello, for example, Walzer presents a very sympathetic view of the “war convention,” a set of rules which apply both to just and unjust participants in a military conflict. The central intent of the convention concerns the protection of the rights of noncombatants. While soldiers are always subject to attack (unless wounded or captured), noncombatants are not to be attacked at any time.
Since, in the twentieth century, whole populations have been mobilized for war, this protective principle would seem to have become null and void. Walzer seeks to save it by reformulating the doctrine of the “double effect.” According to this teaching, an act of war which causes injury to civilian bystanders is justified if the effect is not directly intended. By the same token, injury may not be done to civilians in order to spare the lives of combatants. In fact, “if saving civilian lives means risking soldiers' lives, the risk must be accepted.” Double effect also bars such techniques as sieges, guerilla and counter-guerilla warfare, and terrorism, because they expressly disavow any effort at protecting innocent bystanders.
In Walzer's view, only when collective survival is at stake may political leaders consider the violation of basic human rights. They are not, however, free of guilt when they do so. Walzer upholds the rationale of the Nuremberg trials that statesmen and military leaders may be tried and condemned for crimes committed in the name of a warring nation.
While Prof. Bull finds much to praise in Walzer's approach, he feels nonetheless that Walzer errs by failing to discuss the ethical foundations of his position and by rushing immediately into the realm of practical morality. Walzer's views seem subjective and vulnerable to attacks against which he provides no defense. For example, pacifists would deny that there is a legitimate distinction between a just and an unjust war. His “exceptions” to the war convention in order to avoid universal cataclysm or the extinction of a collectivity do not take into account the objections of those who uphold the absolute moral imperatives. Furthermore, Walzer's distinction between “practical” and “theoretical” morality ignores the basic unity of the two realms. In fact, it is at the level of foundations that the most important disagreements about the everyday morality of war be resolved or at least clarified.
Prof. Bull contends that Walzer has regrettably provided us only with his unfounded opinions about just and unjust wars.