Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

War and Self-Defense

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

War and Self-Defense

Article excerpt

When the Bush and Blair administrations justified the 2003 war on Iraq as an act of preemptive self-defense, this was greeted in many quarters with understandable skepticism. How can the right of self-defense be legitimately invoked when no prior aggressive attack has occurred and there is no evidence that one is imminent? This question, much debated in the months leading up to the war, invites us to reflect critically on the content of the right of self-defense. Yet there is a deeper question to be asked about the idea of a war of self-defense; namely, how is it that war can be considered an act of self-defense at all? How exactly is it that the concept of self-defense can provide a justification for war? It is this question that I ask in War and Self-Defense and the answer I arrive at is a surprising one. (1)

It may seem an odd question even to ask. Surely a nation, or at least a state, has a right to use military force in national defense in the same way that an individual who is attacked has the right to kill in self-defense. This seemingly straightforward idea, which Michael Walzer memorably called "the domestic analogy," has been a prominent feature of much political, legal, and philosophical thought on the ethics of war in the Western tradition. Indeed, so fundamental is the idea of an analogy between self-defense and national defense that it is difficult to imagine how any theory of just war could proceed without it.

It is fundamental but it is also, I contend, wrong. There is no valid analogy between self-defense and national defense, and the attempt to model international law and international ethics on domestic law and interpersonal ethics is philosophically misconceived and unhelpful in practice.


In order to support such a claim it is necessary to begin with a proper understanding of the right of self-defense. We need a moral theory of self-defense whose function is first to explain the structure, operation, and limitations of the right, and second to provide a moral grounding to the right; to explain why it is that defenders are morally entitled to kill aggressors in situations of self-defense.

In order to generate such a theory, I first analyze the moral structure of self-defense, using as a starting point Hohfeld's famous analysis of legal rights. Self-defense is constituted by a set of normative relations between four elements:

* the subject of the right (the defender)

* the object against whom the right is held (the aggressor)

* the act that is the content of the right (in typical cases of self-defense this will be homicide)

* the end of self-defense (the good that the defensive act is intended to protect or preserve--this may be the defender's own life, the life of a third party, or some other valuable, such as property or liberty)

By paying attention to the relationships between these elements we can begin to explain many features of the operation of rights of defense in their most general form. For example, rights of defense arise out of a normative relationship between the subject of the right and the end that he or she is seeking to protect: either the subject has a "right to" the end of defense (as when one defends one's own right to life from attack) or the subject has a duty of care over the end (as when a parent defends his or her child) or the subject is acting out of a general duty of rescue (as when a defender comes to the aid of a third party who is being attacked). The rights and obligations of defense differ subtly in each of these cases.

Self-defense is partly grounded in the normative relationship between the defender and the end of her action, but it is also importantly grounded in the fact that the end she is seeking to protect is a good or a value sufficient to merit harmful acts in its defense. This gives rise to the three most significant limitations on the right of self-defense: proportionality, necessity, and imminence. …

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