Arguing about War

While others in his field feel the lure of lofty abstraction, Michael Walzer is a political philosopher who has made a point of working from the ‘ground up.’ The ground in question has shifted and expanded, his writings ranging across issues from the nature of equality to the history of Jewish political thinking. His 1984 book Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality put him in the major league of contemporary English-speaking political theorists, coming somewhere shortly after Rawls, Nozick and MacIntyre. Before that, in 1978, came Just and Unjust Wars – a book which has come to be required reading for students and teachers of the ethics of war, in respect both of its conduct (jus in bello) and the circumstances in which it is justified (jus ad bellum). The Latinate stock phrases reflect the (unsurprisingly) long vintage of such debates, within and beyond the Western philosophical tradition. In the latter, formal discussion of what counts as a ‘just war’ had its tone set by mediaeval Catholic theology. Walzer’s book has been widely recognised as a definitive modern mapping of the issues. It was accessible, provocative and formidable – and whether one was convinced or not, a model of philosophical non-flatulence. Presenting simple pacifism and amoral realism as untenable alternatives, it developed, through case-study and extended argument, a rubric to distinguish good from bad reasons for waging war. Walzer aimed to bolster two main conclusions, re-stated in this new collection of writings on similar themes: ‘that war is sometimes justifiable and that the conduct of war is always subject to moral criticism’ (p. ix.)

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