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War and Self-Defense

  • David Rodin


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.



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

2 The operation of reciprocity is apparent also in other elements of the right; for example, in the notion of proportionality. Though it appears at first sight to be a form of consequentialist requirement, proportionality does not in fact require us to balance the overall harms and benefits of an act of defense, for an innocent defender is entitled to kill literally any number of culpable attackers. On the contrary, proportionality requires us to balance the harm inflicted upon a particular person, against the harm with which he threatens us. Proportionality in self-defense is therefore best regarded as deriving from a kind of interpersonal moral reciprocity.

3 Understanding which innocent threats and innocent aggressors one may properly harm in self-defense requires a detailed examination of the theory of excuse.

4 This may provide grounds for rehabilitating the idea of military force as a form of law enforcement or even punishment, though careful attention must be paid to the idea of authority: in most cases states at war will lack the authority required for proper punishment or law enforcement.

* The editors would especially like to thank David R. Mapel for helping to guest edit the articles in this symposium.

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War and Self-Defense

  • David Rodin


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