Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Source Publication

The Ethics of War (Oxford University Press)


Under the influence of Jeff McMahan’s groundbreaking work, many recent writings in Just War theory have taken a fundamentally individualistic turn in their approach to the morality of war. It is individuals’ actions that make wars unjust, and it is individuals’ liability and moral value that govern how wars should be fought. Collectives’ existence, rights, or liability have no salient moral role to play, and insofar as they figure in discussions of the morality of war, it is merely as shorthand for deeper individualistic complexities. Such radical reductive individualism is generally asserted in reaction to a longstanding theoretical tradition according to which the morality of war applies primarily to the acts of collective entities—namely, states—and only derivatively to the acts of individuals, such that otherwise familiar principles of individual morality do not apply in that context. To be sure, one of the most strident rallying cries of individualist theorists is that traditional war doctrines that ascribe irreducible moral salience to states almost invariably end up overlooking crucial differences in the moral position of individual participants in wars—including differences that stem from the justice or injustice of their respective causes and, among unjust participants, from the kind and degree of their involvement in warfare.


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