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Forthcoming in Oxford Handbook of the Classics of Contemporary Political Theory

Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars

Terry Nardin
Michael Walzers Just and Unjust Wars remains the standard account of just war theory
despite the criticism it has received. Much of that criticism denies the political character
of just war discourse by substituting general moral principles for principles generated in
reflecting on the use of military force. It challenges Walzers view of the relationship
between morality and politics and his conclusions about the moral standing of states, the
moral equality of soldiers, the moral basis of humanitarian intervention, and the limits of
morality in emergencies. Instead of providing a foundational argument, the book
reconstructs a tradition of discourse that transcends particular contexts because of the
range of historical experience on which it draws. The critics raise genuine issues but their
objections do not undermine the books argument. That argument stands in a complex
relationship with political realism, which it rejects in some ways and embraces in others.
Michael Walzer, just war, moral standing of states, humanitarian intervention, moral
equality of soldiers, emergency, political realism

Just and Unjust Wars has been translated into more than a dozen languages and published
in four editions. Each edition after the first includes a new preface relating the books
argument to current concerns: in the second edition (1992), to the Gulf War and
preventive war; in the third (2000), the Rwandan genocide and humanitarian intervention;
and in the fourth (2006), the American occupation of Iraq and regime change post bellum.
The book was treated as a classic almost from the day it was published. Written in
the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which inspired the activism and subsequent reflection

on which its argument is based, it explores recurring themes of just war thinking in the
context of great power competition, colonial rule and national resistance, and changing
military technologies and practices. Among the topics considered are moral skepticism
and historical relativism, aggression and self-defense, preventive war and intervention,
military necessity and noncombatant immunity, guerilla war and terrorism, and individual
and collective responsibility for crimes of war. Early reviews recognized the books
importance even as they questioned its central arguments. Richard Wasserstrom, writing
in The Harvard Law Review (1978), challenged Walzers attribution of moral standing to
statesa theme that others would subsequently take upand J. M. Cameron, in The New
York Review of Books (1977), noticed a tension between the books claimed commitment
to human rights and its utilitarian argument for violating those rights in a supreme
emergency. Later critics, including David Hendrickson (1997), Brian Orend (2000), and
Jeff McMahan (2004), affirmed the books status as a classic by treating it as the standard
statement of views they rejected.
Linking these themes and criticisms is the relationship between interest, policy,
utility, and necessity, on the one hand, and morality, law, justice, and human rights, on
the other. For Walzer, that relationship is political. Just war thinking is concerned with
the conduct of states and with the acts of individuals in their public roles as soldiers,
citizens, and government officials. It therefore has a public dimension that is missed
when the effort to guide or judge this conduct is viewed as an exercise in applied ethics.
By applied ethics I mean deciding according to moral principles with little attention to
nonmoral considerations such as those of law or policy. The principles may be
philosophically defensible but can be oddly irrelevant to the political circumstances in
which they are applied. And when they are amended to take account of those
circumstances, they converge with the political understandings they were supposed to
The principles of just war theory, in contrast, have been shaped by use in the
circumstances of war and by reflection on that use. They are expressed in a shared
vocabulary that recognizes these circumstances, which have political as well as ethical
implications. By starting with acts and practices to be examined instead of abstract
principles to be applied, Just and Unjust Wars captures the political character of ethics in

war. In doing so, it pays close attention to the requirements of political and military
decision-making and reveals the complex relationship between its arguments and those of
political realism.
Moral discourse
Just war theory is an interpretation, and what it interprets is a tradition of judgment and
argument. The theory reconstructs the ideas that constitute the tradition, but what gets
used when judgments are made is not the theory but the particular principles it identifies.
Distinguishing right from wrong in particular situations is a practical activity, not a
theoretical one. It is casuistry, in a general and non-pejorative sense of that word:
reasoning in relation to cases and learning from that reasoning (Boyle 1997). The cases
examined in Just and Unjust Wars are actual and historical, not imagined or hypothetical.
As its subtitle indicates, the book offers a moral argument with historical illustrations.
This approach sets it apart from analytical political philosophy, which (to use Walzers
terms) discovers or invents principles, previously unknown, and applies them to
particular situations. For Walzer, the discoveries or inventions claimed by philosophers
are in fact disguised interpretations of an inherited body of ideas and principles. Their
purported theoretical superiority cannot put an end to disagreement. Arguing about war,
like arguing about morals and politics in general, is persuasive and rhetorical, not
demonstrative or a matter of proof (Walzer 1987, 32).
Instead of a foundational argument, Just and Unjust Wars offers an interpretation
of just war tradition to defend a theory that achieves a high degree of generality because
of the wide range of historical experience on which it draws. Much criticism of the book
misses the mark because confuses personal morality with the demands of justice in and
between the legally-ordered, non-voluntary associations we call states. If justice is about
how people can be compelled to treat one another, the political character of just war
theory is evident, for it primarily concerns what states can justifiably compel people to
do. With the revival of political realism in academic political theory, this insight is once
again coming to be appreciated.
Part of that realism is to appreciate the situation of the interpreter. Much can be
learned about Walzers approach in this book from the preface to the original edition,

which is reprinted in all the later ones. It explains its origins not in philosophy but in his
opposition to the American intervention in Vietnam. The philosophy, which emerged in
reflecting on this political activity, came later. What just war theory provided us, he
writes, was a shared vocabulary through which opponents of the war could articulate their
indignation. The experience of political criticism, and even more their subsequent
reflection on it, taught critics of the war that the thoughts expressed in their inherited
vocabulary were reports on the real world, not merely on the state of our own tempers.
The moral reality of war is constituted not by what people do but by the moral law
those general principles that we commonly acknowledge, even when we cant or wont
live up to them (Walzer 1977, xii, xiii).
Two points are evident here. First, the us expands to include not only those who
condemned the war but also those who understood the condemnation (whether or not
they agreed with it) (Walzer, 1977: xiv). The members of this larger community inhabit
a common moral world not because they adhere to the same doctrines or make the same
judgments but because they share a moral vocabulary in which to express their agreement
or disagreement. Just war theorizing not only describes the arguments people make; it
dissects those arguments, uncovers their presuppositions, and exposes the hypocrisy of
those who invoke shared principles to justify acts that violate those principles. Second,
the principles govern our judgments even when they fail to govern conduct. They are
historically embedded, not permanent or unchanging, though many are recognizable in
different times and places. Because Walzers aim is ultimately practicalto identify
moral principles for usehe is concerned with the present structure of the moral world.
His just war theory, in other words, is a slice in time across a slowly changing tradition of
just war discourse. That discourse enables arguments that are mutually comprehensible
even when their context is different or they contradict one another. Like the Athenians at
Melos, whose cynical dismissal of the vocabulary of justice is betrayed by their appeals
to honor and to their empire as a good that justifies their ruthlessness, we cannot escape
the common moral world within which our conduct is judged, even if we deny its reality
or its application to ourselves. We will be judged, and those judgments willlike the
judgments that Henry Vs massacre of prisoners of war at Agincourt was incontinent,
ungallant, excessive, brutal, murderousreverberate down the centuries. The clearest

evidence for the stability of our values over time is the unchanging character of the lies
soldiers and statesmen tell, for these lies depend on principles that everyone to whom
their justifications are offered may be presumed to acknowledge. Therefore, whenever
we find hypocrisy, we also find moral knowledge (Walzer 1977, 19)that is, a moral
world sufficiently real and a moral vocabulary sufficiently stable to enable shared moral
The moral standing of states
A state is a legally-defined community. Peoples defined by their nationality or ethnicity,
that is, in terms of a common ancestry, race, religion, customs, or collective experiences,
are not as such states. As an association on the basis of common laws, a state claims
authority and imposes duties. It can make these claims and impositions justifiably only if
in doing so it respects the moral rights of its citizens. Walzer makes an argument of this
sort when he says that just war theory rests on a morality of human rights (1977, xvi). It
rests above all on ones right to make choices for oneself, which means not having other
peoples choices imposed on one except as consistent with having a common system of
laws within which similar rights for all are recognized and secured. Using law to impose
the arbitrary will of some on the choices of others violates the latters independence; it
constitutes tyranny or domination. The right of a state, through its government, to
exercise sovereign powers derives from this basic individual right to independence or
nondomination. States as well as persons have a right to make their own decisions: the
right of self-determination. And since states as well as persons occupy physical space,
states have a right to territorial integrity corresponding to a persons bodily integrity.
Just war tradition affirms the right of states not be victims of aggression, the crime
of violating their rightful independence and territorial integrity. Under the principles of
jus ad bellum a state may defend itself against aggression when it takes the form of an
actual or imminent armed attack. It may also defend another state that has been unjustly
attacked and may even use force inside the territory of a state in certain circumstances,
such as to protect a fledgling political community against imperial oppression (1977, 94)
or rescue victims of genocidal violence (1977, 107).
The scope of these rights has been the subject of many challenges to Walzers

reconstruction of just war tradition. The main line of criticism is that only legitimate
states can exercise sovereign rights and only states that fully respect human rights are
legitimate. But because human rights are violated in and by every actual state, the
question becomes one of deciding when those violations have reached a level that
justifies the use of force to resist them. Walzer thinks the just war tradition is correct in
setting this level rather high. Force is justified to resist armed aggression against a state
and, if sufficiently grave, by a state against its own people. Many critics set the level
much lower. They think that any significant violation of human rights by or within a state
casts doubt on its legitimacy and therefore limits its sovereign rights. According to one
such critic, a significant violation is one that infringes socially basic human rights,
which he defines as rights to security and subsistence. Any proportional struggle for
socially basic human rights is justified, even one which attacks the non-basic rights of
others (Luban 1980, 175). Sovereignty and law are unimportant in this argument. If
there were famine in one state, a war to secure food that is plentiful in a neighboring state
would be just, for example. Such reasoning has been used, however, mainly to challenge
Walzers views on intervention, which (it is argued) are insufficiently permissive because
a regime can violate the basic rights of its subjects in ways that fall short of genocide or
other crimes against humanity but nevertheless warrant foreign intervention.
Walzers response to such objections is to assert the importance of the state in
protecting the rights of political communities. The tension between state and political
community arises, when it does, because there are forms of community whose claims
might in certain circumstances justify political independence. A political community, in
this sense, is a community that has a right to national self-determination. A nation or
people might acquire rights of self-determination and territorial integrity that at some
point trump those of the state that governs it. This might occur in a state that encompasses
two political communities, one of which uses the apparatus of the state to dominate the
other. In such a case, the state loses its presumptive legitimacy. A tyrannical state is
presumptively illegitimate and is subject to intervention if its oppression is sufficiently
grave. The bar is set highits oppression must involve crimes against humanity, not less
substantial violations of human rightsand not only on cost-benefit grounds but because
interference in the jurisdiction of a state violates its sovereign rights unless those rights

are exercised in a way that undermines its claim to represent a community. The reason is
political, not philosophical, however: it cannot be the case that a political community is
immune from intervention only if its struggles to shape its own laws and institutions
have a single philosophically correct or approved outcome (Walzer 1980, 225; Nardin
2013). Such a requirement would displace politics, which is never entirely rational or
Judging from the subsequent history of this debate over the moral standing of
states, Walzer seems to have had the best of the argument. Not only has his statism (to
use the pejorative term applied by critics) gained defenders, but the critics have had to
progressively qualify their objections. Those objections are grounded in a decreasingly
attractive political moralism, the application to politics of moral principles with
insufficient attention to considerations of law and politics (Williams 2005). The
complaint that the idea of consent, which Walzer invokes to justify political authority, is
meaningless in nondemocratic states (Doppelt 1978; Beitz 1980) ignores the difference
between agreeing with the policies of a government and acknowledging its authority. The
claim that he privileges the state over other forms of community ignores the difference
between peoples identities as citizens and legal subjects and their identities as members
of other groups or associations. The suggestion that the claims of states must diminish as
global norms and institutions develop (Beitz 2014) indirectly affirms that states have
moral standing by acknowledging the defects of the international state of nature on which
just war theory is premised. The moralism of Walzers critics has been moderated by a
political realism that allows that a state can be legitimate, that its legitimacy does not rest
solely or directly on moral principles, and that political arguments are a matter of
persuasion and agreement rather than of certainty and proof.
The moral equality of soldiers
Movement from political moralism towards political realism is also evident in criticism
of Walzers account of justice in the conduct of war, jus in bello. A states decision to
wage war can be just with respect to its cause but unjust in execution, and vice versa. The
two kinds of judgment are independent. One implication of this independence is that
soldiers fighting in war for an unjust cause have the same rights as soldiers fighting in a

just war. The injustice of the cause they serve does not make them war criminals, though
they can become criminals if they violate the rules governing military conduct, and they
are no less entitled to the status of prisoner of war if captured than soldiers serving a state
whose cause is just.
This convention, which rests on widespread agreement although its moral basis
is contested, seems at odds with the common sense that divides the world into good guys
and bad guys. That common sense finds expression in philosophical criticism of the war
conventions principle of moral equality. Why should soldiers fighting an aggressive war
have the same protections as those fighting to resist aggression? It is not a matter of selfdefense. A bank robber commits murder if he shoots and kills a guard reaching for his
gun: he cannot plead that he shot in self-defense. Nor is it a matter of excuses. One
cannot say that the soldier fighting in an unjust war is excused from blame for killing
enemies because he had no choice; he did have a choice, even if a constrained one.
Rather, it is because the soldier, unlike the bank robber, kills in accordance with lawin
this case, the positive laws of war found not only in international law but also in the
military law of every state (Walzer 1977, 128; McMahan 2004, 699). Excuses like
ignorance or duress apply only in particular cases, not across the board to all those
fighting a particular war. The argument against the moral equality of soldiers is plausible
only if we ignore the claimsand pointof political authority. Soldiers have rights and
duties as citizens of a state. To substitute morality for law in determining the obligations
of soldiers is to bring moral uncertainty inside the state, thereby reproducing the very
problem the state is supposed to resolve: how to enable people to coexist under known,
common, and enforceable laws, and thereby avoid the violence and injustice that must
otherwise be their lot.
It has been argued, against the distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello,
that only a morally legitimate state can have authority over individuals. Obligations to
obey the law arise only in the case of institutions that are genuinely just and important,
so if a government is illegitimate, or a particular war lacks democratic authorization,
soldiers serving that government are not obligated to obey its commands: they have no
institutional obligations that can justify their fighting (McMahan 2004, 705), though
there may be other considerations such as duties to fellow soldiers that justify doing what

would otherwise be wrong. Without further treading the winding paths of this argument,
one can see that it puts the ordinary soldier in an impossible position. In place of positive
law it offers an ill-defined set of criteria including morality, loyalty, and judgments
regarding the importance of an institution in securing social goods (McMahan 2004,
733). Peoplesoldierscannot be expected to combine such criteria to reach consistent
and defensible conclusions. The argument substitutes private judgment for the public
judgment found in positive law, not only in special cases, but in all cases. It not only
invites disorder, but denies the very idea of a common public order.
Recognizing this defect, McMahan proposes a solution in the form of an ethical
courta court of morality, staffed by moral philosophers, not a court of lawto devise
and apply an improved jus ad bellum to determine when a war is unjust and when those
who fight in it might be excused for doing so (McMahan 2014, 242). Where Walzers
account reveals the logic of the war convention, McMahans substitutes a rationalist and
utopian proposal that ignores that logic. It is, however, a half-hearted substitution, for as
soon as he pays attention to the claims of law and politics that have shaped the tradition,
reason and custom converge. There are practical reasons, he thinks, why the laws of war
should be upheld as a convention to which all combatants are bound. Soldiers cannot
be punished for participating in an unjust war because the procedures for determining the
punishment are unlikely to be fair, and the prospect of being punished might deter
soldiers from surrendering (McMahan 2004, 730731). Most importantly, the convention
lessens the savagery of war because its rules, which have been shaped by the experience
of many centuries, are well-adapted to regulating military conduct. Walzers error, it
seems, is only to present the convention as being grounded on morality rather than on
The war convention is in fact morally grounded, not directly on human rights, but
on the responsibility of the state as their guarantor. Actual states frequently neglect that
responsibility. They may fail to respect human rights, sometimes grossly, but this does
not undermine the rationale for civil authority as a solution, however imperfect, to the
moral uncertainty of the state of nature. People can know and enjoy rights only in a
system of authoritative and effective laws. The just war tradition recognizes the moral
standing of states, and its corollary, the moral equality of soldiers, because it rests on this

rationale for political authority. The error of much political philosophy is to treat political
authority as if it derived directly from moral legitimacy. If this were the case, there would
be no need for authority, which is needed because legitimacy is contested and therefore
uncertain. The moral equality of soldiers reflects this rationale for political authority and
for the claims of law and politics in applying moral principles.
The limits of sovereignty
The distinction between moral and political justification is illustrated in the debate over
humanitarian intervention. Just and Unjust Wars restates the common understanding of
the nonintervention principle as a corollary to sovereignty and therefore as fundamental
to international order, but also as admitting a number of exceptions including intervention
to resist massive violations of human rights (Walzer 1977, 101). Humanitarian
intervention must be distinguished from efforts to liberate a people from a tyrannical
regime, imperial or homegrown. Genocide justifies intervention to suppress it; ordinary
oppression does not. A state, even a tyrannical one, represents the will of its people so
long as people continue to acknowledge its authority, which is always a matter of current
belief. That authority is the basis of its claim to sovereignty. Misconduct weakens the
claim, but discontinuously: a state loses its rights to self-determination and territorial
integrity only when its crimes cross a threshold marked by phrases like crimes that
shock the conscience of mankind or crimes against humanity.
Many critics of the book challenge this claim. If outsiders may intervene to end
gross human rights violations, they ask, why not to end lesser violations? One answer is
pragmatic: military intervention is justified in principle but may be too costly, or unlikely
to succeed. Another is principled: states have moral standing and therefore sovereignty,
which entails rights that are lost only if they are grossly misused. Just war theory
acknowledges the right of states to govern, which means enacting laws that displace
moral judgments and making decisions that might be morally objectionable. The
authority to govern therefore sets up a normative barrier to external intervention even
when a government is oppressive. Intervention is justified only when oppression becomes
extreme. Allowing military intervention as a way of dealing with ordinary human rights
violations would deny political communities the right to govern themselves. Intervention

to suppress abuses that fall short of crimes against humanity is wrong in principle, then,
because it denies states the rights of political self-determination and territorial integrity to
which they are morally entitled.
Subsequent debate has modified but not overthrown these arguments. It has also
identified other issues. One arises from the objection that intervention is always selective.
But interventions are risky and therefore warranted even in the face of genocide only if
they are likely to succeed (Walzer 2000, xiii). States must consider the benefits and costs
of intervening as well as questions of legal authorization. They must consider not only the
ethics but also the politics of rescue (Walzer 2004).
Another debate goes beyond the right to intervene to whether there might be a
duty to intervene. This question became the focus of discussion post-Rwanda, leading to
the idea that there is a duty to protect that must be performed by outsiders if a state
cannot itself perform it. This responsibility to protect rests with the international
community, which may intervene if necessary. As a matter of international law, the
Security Council must authorize military intervention. But if the international community
cannot act, individual states might have a moral duty to do so. But which states? The
problem, as Walzer and many others observe, is that the duty doesnt clearly belong to
anyone in particular. Somebody ought to intervene, but no specific state . . . is morally
bound to do so (Walzer 2000, xiii). The problem may have no evident solution, but that
does not mean that the principle is empty. States have a duty to support an international
legal order with institutions to deal with crimes against humanity, but they also have a
moral duty to act unilaterally in the absence of such an order if they can do so effectively
and at reasonable cost.
But if there is a duty to protect, we can ask whether rescue is enough, for even if
an intervention succeeds in ending a massacre, it may leave a murderous regime in power
and expose its people to renewed violence after the intervening force is gone. In Just and
Unjust Wars, Walzer argued that once the violence that invited intervention has been
suppressed the intervening power must withdraw, as India did after invading East
Pakistan in 1971 to suppress the slaughter of those supporting independence (1977, 105).
But India could withdraw because East Pakistan had a government as the new state of
Bangladesh; continued occupation was unnecessary and therefore unwarranted. If the

intervening power departs too soon, it may leave in place conditions for renewed
violence. When a regime commits crimes against humanity, it must be overthrown and a
new, more civilized, regime established. Those who intervene may have to replace that
regime with a new one of a different, possibly more democratic but certainly less
murderous, character (Walzer 2006, x-xi). This is as close as Walzer ever comes to the
argument for reform intervention, the argument of his critics that intervention might be
justified not only to halt a massacre but to replace a tyrannical regime with a democratic
one (Beitz 1980; Luban 1980; Tesn 2005). But he does not share their view that only
morally legitimate or democratic states have sovereign rights.
The limits of justice
A theory of just war is a theory of justice in the circumstances of war, but at some point,
realists argue, justice must give way to necessity. For the moral skeptic, this point comes
as soon as the word justice is breathed because there is no such thing as justice: what we
call justice is, in the words of Platos Thrasymachus, the interest of the strongernothing
more than fine words to mask what the Athenians at Melos claim we all know, that the
powerful do what they can and the weak suffer what they must (Walzer 1977, 5). But
claims like these are themselves mere words: acts defended as necessary are never, from
the perspective of the agent, inevitable. There are always choices, even if the alternatives
are not attractive ones. Nor are acts ever indispensable: not only can an agent never know
that a given act is the only one that can produce a desired result but the claim presupposes
some end, such as victory or national independence, for which an unjust act is said to be
necessary. This reopens the question of justice by calling attention to whether that end
justifies the means proposed for achieving it (Walzer 1977, 8).
Those who are not moral skeptics, who acknowledge that justice has a place in
politics and even in war, identify some other point at which the claims of justice must
yield to those of prudence or utility. The argument that the rules of war do not hold when
they are an obstacle to victory or increase the costs or risks of fighting sets prudential or
utilitarian calculation against moral obligation. But the point of the latter is always to put
a limit to calculation: we are permitted to calculate within the bounds of justice, permitted
to act to achieve our ends provided we do not violate rules that protect others from being

forced to serve our ends instead of their own. That is why military necessity operates
within the jus in bello, not as an exception to its rules. Soldiers are permitted to use as
much force as is reasonably needed to subdue the enemy, but they are not permitted to
attack noncombatants deliberately, as an end in itself or a means to an end. Similar
reasoning applies at the level of jus ad bellum: prudence can justify an action consistent
with the principle that aggression should be forcibly resisted. The argument for military
action to forestall an invasion depends not only on evidence that the action is expedient
but also that it falls under the principle of self-defense. It is an argument within the jus ad
bellum, not one that repudiates it. The German argument for violating Belgian neutrality
in 1914 did, however, repudiate the idea of justice in war by justifying aggression to
reduce costs by achieving a quick victory in the west before turning to fight the Russians
in the east. It was an argument for aggression, not for resisting it (Walzer 1977, 240
241). Walzer makes a similar point about Churchills argument for violating Norwegian
neutrality in 1939 (1977, 24250). These are not genuine arguments about the limits of
justice but arguments that purport to justify injustice.
That way of putting it reveals a paradox, however, for how can injustice ever be
just? Perhaps an unjust act can be shown to be warranted on grounds other than justice,
but so long as the word justice has meaning it cannot be shown to be just. The issue is
brought into focus in cases of emergency, where (it is argued) morality must at last give
way to necessity. Often, however, the claim of necessity is overblown. A crisis, though
real, may not require statesmen to act unjustly because their responses can be justified on
the basis of just war principles. Military intervention to suppress genocidal violence, for
example, requires injustice only if sovereignty is viewed as absolute. But the moral
argument for humanitarian intervention is not an argument for injustice. An intervention
to rescue the victims of mass murder perpetrated or permitted by a regime does not
violate the latters sovereign rights because that regime has forfeited its right against
foreign interference.
A genuine (supreme) emergency, Walzer suggests, is one that might call for a
response that really is unjust because it involves a danger that is unusual and horrifying.
It occurs in war, he think, not when a country is facing defeat but only when defeat would
mean the triumph of barbarismof a domination so murderous, so degrading that it

represents evil objectified in the world, and in a form so potent and apparent that there
could never have been anything to do but fight against it (Walzer 1977, 253). Walzer
argues that such an emergency would warrant a state in violating the rules of war; he is
reluctant to say that it can justify violations because justification, strictly speaking,
shows conformity to principles of justice, not good consequences or excuses from
responsibility. The British bombed German cities starting in 1940 not because those cities
contained military targets but to terrorize the country into surrender. Here, he argues, is a
case in which justice must yield to consequences.
Critics have suggested several problems with this argument. It does not belong in
just war theory because it is an argument for injustice, based on expediency rather than
on moral principle (Nardin 1983, 300). It equivocates between state-centric realism,
which concerns the fate of a particular political community, and utilitarianism, which
concerns the good of human beings everywhere, as members of the civilized
community. But Walzer concludes, not without hesitation and worry, that the rights of
innocent people can be overridden to preserve a particular political community. Even if it
were only Britain whose survival was at stake in 1940, the choice would be brought
under the rule of necessityand (genuine) necessity knows no rules. Walzers theory
of just war, then, ultimately collapses into political realism, understood not as moral
skepticism but as reason of state (Nardin 1983, 302). And even if given a broader
utilitarian interpretation, the theory offers a bifurcated ethic in which morality governs
ordinary situations and utility the extreme ones. But if utilitarianism is what gets us out
of our moral difficulty in the hardest case we can conceive, then it may perhaps be a
serviceable doctrine in cases that are not so extreme (Cameron 1977, 13).
A quite different objection is that calling Nazism an ultimate evil turns just wars
into holy wars, in which ordinarily-forbidden means can be used. This raises the question
whether an ultimate or transcendent threat can be recognized in history, by finite human
beings (Johnson 1981, 25). Walzer sees the problem: people are all too likely to err in
distinguishing ordinary evils from ultimate ones.

Emergency and crisis, he

acknowledges, are cant words, used to prepare our minds for acts of brutality (1977:
251). We need criteria like imminence and seriousness to distinguish genuine
emergencies from lesser crises. Nevertheless, he defends the judgment, made in Britain

after the war, to withhold honours from those who participated in the terror bombing.
This was appropriate, he thinks, because those people were murderers, even though in a
good cause. They killed unjustly . . . for the sake of justice itself, but justice itself
requires that unjust killing be condemned (Walzer 1977, 323). Behind this doctrine of
dirty hands is the Weberian ethic of responsibility, which holds that to lead in dark
times means sinning for the sake of the collective. That ethic expresses the romanticism
and hubris from which Nazism itself emerged (Cameron 1977, 15).
A state is constituted as a political community by its laws. When political leaders
act unjustly in its name, do they protect or destroy that community? One can argue that
by violating its laws, they deny the principles that make it a community. One does not
defend civilization by barbaric means, even against barbarians (Donagan 1977, 180183).
This is why, as Walzer acknowledges, those who sin for the community must be
dishonored or punished: those who do wrong must in the end be judged. It is also why, in
reconsidering his arguments in Just and Unjust Wars on what has since come to be called
asymmetrical warfare, he affirms the possibility as well as the moral importance of
fighting justly (Walzer 2013).
Just and Unjust Wars is a classic because it thoughtfully and engagingly explores issues
in the morality of war that arise whenever military force is used. It has shaped subsequent
discussion of the topic, and even those who dispute its conclusions treat it as the standard
statement of the just war tradition they wish to challenge. The philosophical abstraction
and practical implausibility of much of the criticism that the book has attracted, together
with the fact that even the more radical critics eventually revert to traditional positions,
suggests that Walzer has got it more or less right. The issues on which his judgments
seem most open to objection, such as the utilitarianism of extremity, reveal conceptual
fault lines that divide moral from other kinds of practical reasoning, and make clear that
the just war tradition is not only marked by internal disagreement but also by tensions
with other ethical traditions such as pacifism, holy war, and political realism. If there is a
larger lesson for political philosophy in the debates provoked by this book, it is that ethics

cannot be usefully divorced from engagement with politics or from the history of that
One puzzle posed by Just and Unjust Wars is why, if just war theory is the result
of political as well as philosophical arguments, Walzer is so dismissive of what he calls
the paper world of positive international law (1977, xiii). To support its claim to count
as law, and for its institutions exercise authority justifiably, a legal system must impose
reciprocal limits on those it governs that are compatible with their rights and those limits
must be authoritatively ascertainable and enforceable. These conditions are fulfilled in
civil society, which has institutions to recognize, interpret, and enforce common laws. In
international society, however, such institutions are rudimentary and international law
therefore uncertain and ineffective. Just war theorizing articulates principles of rightful
coercion that are morally justifiable in the absence of a robust international legal order.
But its principles are no more effective than those of positive international law, nor are
they on Walzers account any less political. Each provides a vocabulary for debating the
rights and wrongs of war, vocabularies that overlap significantly. Perhaps the solution to
the puzzle is that just war theory is the result of efforts to find a stable ethic between too
much philosophy on the one hand and too much politics on the other.

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