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Social Theory and Practice

Volume 38, Issue 4, October 2012

Graham Parsons
Pages 663-688
DOI: 10.5840/soctheorpract201238436

The Incoherence of Walzer’s Just War Theory

In his Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer claims that his theory of just war is based on the rights of individuals to life and liberty. This is not the case. Walzer in fact bases his theory of jus ad bellum on the supreme rights of supra-individual political communities. According to his theory of jus ad bellum, the rights of political communities are of utmost importance, and individuals can be sacrificed for the sake of these communal rights. At the same time, Walzer bases his theory of jus in bello on the supreme rights of individuals to life and liberty. According to his theory of jus in bello, the rights of individuals are of utmost importance, and political communities can never permissibly violate them in war. Thus, Walzer’s theory of just war is based on two incompatible theories of justice. This explains why Walzer’s theory produces incoherent practical prescriptions in cases of supreme emergencies. Furthermore, it is impossible for Walzer to base his theory of jus ad bellum on the rights of individuals as he conceives them. The theory of jus ad bellum holds that soldiers are obligated to obey the commands of their political superiors. However, this obligation violates the rights of individuals in a number of respects. This is why Walzer does not base the theory of jus ad bellum on individual rights, and produces an incoherent theory.

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