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Self-Defense and the Obligations to Kill and to Die

  • Cheyney C. Ryan


David Rodin's book, War and Self Defense, is a subtle and provocative analysis of the claim of self-defense and its relation to modern war. Building on his analysis, I raise some further issues about self-defense as a justification of modern nation state war. Principal among these is what I call the conscription paradox: if the state's right to make war is grounded in the right of its citizens to self-defense, how do we explain the right of modern states to conscript its citizens into the military – and order them to die, if need be? This problem has been acknowledged by liberal individual thinkers over the years, but not solved. It raises questions of whether a coherent account of current nation state military practice can be grounded in individual self-defense.



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1 An excellent introduction to these issues is Pocock, J. G. A., The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975).

2 Kant, Immanuel, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays on Politics, History, and Morals, ed. Humphrey, Ted (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), p. 108.

3 Bourne, Randolph, War and the Intellectuals, ed. Resek, Carl (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 17.

4 Rodin, David, War and Self-Defense (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). All in-text citation references are to this book.

5 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, ed. MacPherson, C. B. (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1968), p. 269 – 70 and 718–19 ; andLocke, John, Two Treatises on Government (New York: New American Library, 1965), pp. 407 – 08. Other excellent discussions are Walzer, Michael, “The Obligation to Live for the State,” in Obligations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970); and Kateb, George, “The Liberal Contract: Individualism, War, and the Constitution,” in The Inner Ocean (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992). I discuss these issues in “The State and Warmaking,” in Sanders, John T. and Narveson, Jan, eds., For and against the State: New Philosophical Readings (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Lit-tlefield, 1996).

6 See, e.g., Bradley, F. H., “My Station and Its Duties,” in Ethical Studies, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), pp. 164–65, where he states that no social contract theory “will explain except by the most palpable fictions” the right of the state to compel self-sacrifice.

7 Cited in Manchester, William, American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880–1964 (New York: Dell, 1978), p. 262.

8 The discussion was initiated in Marshall, S. L. A., Men against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command (New York: William Morrow, 1947); another good discussion is Holmes, Richard, Firing Line (London: Penguin, 1986).

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Self-Defense and the Obligations to Kill and to Die

  • Cheyney C. Ryan


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