Just Warriors, Unjust Wars?

Deciding When It’s All Right to Fight

The philosopher Jeff McMahan opens his extraordinary 2009 book, Killing in War, with a reflection on Ludwig Wittgenstein, “generally regarded as the greatest philosopher, and certainly the greatest philosophical iconoclast, of the twentieth century.” This great philosophical iconoclast did not question whether it was right to enlist as a soldier in World War I. Wittgenstein’s country, Austria, had declared war, and the philosopher believed himself morally obligated to fight. Remarkably, he believed the same for Englishmen: he had studied at Cambridge, and disagreed with the decision of his friend and former teacher, Bertrand Russell, to oppose the war.

Note that Wittgenstein believed it morally permissible and even obligatory for both Austrians and Englishmen to fight, without regard to the question of which side, if either, had just cause to go to war. For Wittgenstein, considerations of jus ad bellum—the principles governing the resort to war—were apparently independent of considerations of jus in bello—the principles governing the conduct of war. Though one...

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About the Author

Bernard G. Prusak is associate professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.