Thomas Nagel believes that no human being is ever, under any circumstances, justified in murdering or torturing another. In the following article, Nagel claims that this moral datum provides an objective basis for rules of war, while no conventionalist or utilitarian theory can account for morally justifiable rules of war. The limitations on war which Nagel believes justifiable are of two types: those which limit the legitimate targets of hostility and those which limit its character, even when the target is acceptable.
From the apathetic reaction to atrocities committed in Vietnam by the United States and its allies, one may conclude that moral restrictions on the conduct of war command almost as little sympathy among the general public as they do among those charged with the formation of U.S. military policy. Even when restrictions on the conduct of warfare are defended, it is usually on legal grounds alone: their moral basis is often poorly understood. I wish to argue that certain restrictions are neither arbitrary nor merely conventional, and that their validity does not depend simply on their usefulness. There is, in other words, a moral basis for the rules of war, even though the conventions now officially in force are far from giving it perfect expression.
No elaborate moral theory is required to account for what is wrong in cases like the Mylai massacre, since it did not serve, and was not
Reprinted from Philosophy and Public Affairs 1, no. 2 (C 1972 by Princeton University Press). Reprinted by permission.