Even dirtier hands in war: Considering Walzer's supreme emergency argument

Stephen Coleman

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    2 Citations (Scopus)


    War is undoubtedly a dirty business, usually entailing massive destruction and loss of life on both sides. In an attempt to limit this inevitable death and destruction, philosophers have argued that belligerents must following certain principles in the conduct of warfare; namely, the principles of discrimination (that only legitimate military targets may be attacked) and of proportionality (that the damage done in attacking such targets must not be out of proportion to the military value of the target). These principles have come to be enshrined in International Law through a range of treaties, which are collectively known in military circles as the International Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC).The essential idea at the heart of Michael Walzer's supreme emergency argument, or as Brian Orend calls it, the supreme emergency exemption, is that desperate times call for desperate measures. If the situation is dire enough, and the consequences faced are serious enough, then it will be justifiable to act in ways which would normally be prohibited. In concrete terms, what this means is that during a time of war, a state can in some circumstances ignore the usual rules of warfare (i.e. the principles of discrimination and proportionality). Walzer claims this is justified if and only if the following conditions are met: the state is the victim of aggression, the state is about to be militarily defeated, and that the consequences of defeat will be catastrophic (i.e. would include extreme and widespread violations of fundamental human rights). In other words, when faced with a supreme emergency one is justified in engaging in widespread violations of the rights of some people (people to whom one only has a general duty) in order to prevent widespread violations of the rights of others (people to whom one has a specific duty).In this paper I argue that the 'rules' which must be applied in order for widespread rights-violations to be considered justified are actually well understood, and that supreme emergency is not an unusual situation for which new rules must be considered, but simply an important specific example of such a situation. Essentially I argue that one must dirty one's hands in war, but that there is no need for one's hands to get any dirtier in a situation of supreme emergency.This paper provides a novel framework for considering a much-debated question within military ethical fields, using insights from two of the major proponents of contemporary military ethics.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)61-73
    Number of pages13
    JournalResearch in Ethical Issues in Organizations
    Publication statusPublished - 2015


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