Dr. Michael Walzer

Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and Author

Walzer Poster

Just and Unjust Wars

Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Stern Center, Great Room – 7:00 p.m.

What are the underlying principles that distinguish just from unjust wars? In particular, how do the principles of proportionality and responsibility apply to situations of asymmetric warfare, such as the recent violence in the Gaza Strip?

Topical Background
Just War Theory has two dimensions: jus ad bellum and jus in bellum. The former refers to the justification for war while the latter refers to the conduct of war. A major issue regarding both dimensions is the principle of proportionality. This principle requires that the benefits of the war must be proportional to its expected harms and that the force used must be proportional to the wrong suffered and the possible anticipated benefit. The number of civilian casualties has an important bearing on the principle of proportionality.

Other dimensions of jus ad bellum include legitimate authority, intention, and last resort. Additional dimensions of jus in bellum involve distinction and military necessity. Distinction requires that force be directed solely at enemy combatants instead of non-combatant civilians. The concept of military necessity dictates that an attack or an offensive must be for the purpose of a specific military objective.

The Hague Conventions in the early 1900’s and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 attempted to codify just war theory into international law – particularly the dimension of jus in bellum.

However, certain commentators reject the assumptions of just war theory. Two such views, polar opposites from one another, are known as “militarism” and “pacifism.” Militarism views war as having beneficial social consequences. Pacifism views any type of war as morally wrong. Another viewpoint is realism, which holds that morality is subjective and that it cannot be applied to international relations.

About the Speaker
Michael Walzer has written about a wide variety of topics in political theory and moral philosophy: political obligation, just and unjust war, nationalism and ethnicity, economic justice and the welfare state. He has played a part in the revival of a practical, issue-focused ethics and in the development of a pluralist approach to political and moral life. He is currently working on the toleration and accommodation of “difference” in all its forms and also on a (collaborative) project focused on the history of Jewish political thought.

Michael Walzer is a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study located in Princeton, New Jersey. In addition, he is co-editor of the political-intellectual quarterly, Dissent. To date he has published 27 books and over 300 articles. Walzer has served on the faculty of both Princeton University and Harvard University. He graduated summa cum laude from Brandeis University with a B.A. in history. He studied at the University of Cambridge on a Fulbright Fellowship and later completed his doctoral work at Harvard, earning his Ph.D. in government.

Dr. Michael Walzer is also an author of many renowned books in ethics and political philosophy, including Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, Arguing about War, Thinking Politically: Essays in Political Theory, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, and On Toleration.

Related Links
Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/12/31/q-hostilities-between-israel-and-hamas

Stephen Erlanger of the New York Times: