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Ethics, Force, and Power: on the Political Preconditions of Just War

Finlay, Christopher J. (2021) 'Ethics, Force, and Power: on the Political Preconditions of Just War.', Law and Philosophy .


Benbaji and Statman’s contractarian ethics of war offers a powerful new philosophical defence of orthodox conclusions against revisionist criticism. I present a two-pronged argument in reply. First, contractarianism yields what I call ‘decent war theory,’ a theory in which war between de-cent states is paradigmatic. I argue, by contrast, that states should treat wars against indecent states as paradigmatic, resulting in a Rawlsian alternative that issues in an ethics closer to revi-sionism. The second prong argues that the symmetrical international distribution of power re-quired by contractarianism throws into doubt the viability of war as an instrument for securing just ends. But I argue that there is a very important lesson to take from Benbaji and Statman’s analysis here. Even if contractarianism is arguably weakened by its political assumptions, revi-sionists frequently fail to pay any attention to the vagaries of power and their effects in shaping the outcomes of different accounts of ethics. I therefore argue that just war theory in general ought to develop an ethics with sufficient versatility to respond to shifts and variations in the distribution of military power. In particular, philosophers must consider morally defensible ways in which decent states can challenge rising indecent powers.

Item Type:Article
Full text:Publisher-imposed embargo
(AM) Accepted Manuscript
File format - PDF
Publisher Web site:
Date accepted:30 September 2021
Date deposited:29 November 2021
Date of first online publication:2021
Date first made open access:No date available

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