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My maternal grandfather was a teenager in the Second World War, and he stole a

My maternal grandfather was a teenager in the Second World War, and he stole a pocket knife and a relatively valuable watch from a dead German. This kind of looting, I gather, was widespread at the time, yet the few times I was told the story, whoever was telling (either my grandfather or my mother) always seemed slightly embarrassed, and appeared to be trying to make excuses for taking stuff from a dead body. If we look beyond the Second World War, looting bodies (as in, taking items from the corpse when one did not cause the death oneself) is often considered quite despicable. But assuming one is not in such a position as to know whether the person made a will and who the items should be returned to, why should we disapprove of it so strongly?

Transpose the case to one where you come across a body by the side of a rural road in your own country. You stop your car, find that the person is dead, then take her valuables and drive off. You are in no position to know whether the person has made a will or who the items should be returned to. Is your conduct then alright?

I would think not. Though you don't know who this person's friends and relatives are, its quite likely that she had friends and relatives, and it's quite possible that some of them would appreciate something to remember her by. Likewise, though you don't know whether or not she has made a will, she may well have done so and, in any case, will have legal heirs under the law. (One reason she may not have made a will is that she was content for her property to go to those the laws says it should go to if she dies intestate.) It's not your job to find the heirs, friends, relatives. But this does not mean you can just walk off with her stuff.

This reaction to the domestic case explains why your grandfather's conduct at least appears morally dubious. Just like the woman by the side of the rural road, the dead German is likely to have had friends and relatives and legal heirs. It is quite possible that the valuable watch -- perhaps passed down within the family -- would have been meaningful to one of them (much like your grandfather's watch might come to be your treasured possession one day).

The parallel might break down in two ways. First, one might argue that the Germans were enemies and therefore not worthy of any fine consideration. When we're bombing their cities, how can it be wrong to deprive them of a treasured watch? Here one needs to think further about whether it was alright to bomb their cities. Some argue that the ordinary constraints against bombing cities were overridden in this case by the military importance of the bombing raids. Even if this were right, no military purpose is served by stealing a watch from a dead German. Others might argue that the Germans had forfeited any claim to consideration. But how can we say this about those who opposed Hitler or about those who were children at the time (including perhaps the dead German's little son who, growing up half-orphaned, would have treasured his parent's watch)? And so it seems that the parallel to the domestic case still stands.

Second, one might argue that the watch would not have made its way to the dead German's heirs anyway. Had your grandfather not stolen it, another GI would have done so or else it might have been buried somewhere with the corpse. I cannot judge the truth or probability of these subjunctives. But, if this is what your grandfather reasonably thought, then why not ascertain the dead German's name and make an effort, later, to return the loot? Many soldiers have done exactly that and thereby contributed to reconciliation after the war, and even formed lasting friendships with their erstwhile enemies.

I've noticed that Western media – and perhaps society as a whole – pay far

I've noticed that Western media – and perhaps society as a whole – pay far greater attention to civilian deaths (and coalition deaths) than to the deaths of enemy military personnel. The best current example of this is Libya – when civilian deaths due to NATO's campaign are suspected, this is heavily reported. But it is hard to get any sense of how many of Gaddafi's soldiers have been killed by NATO. From the point of view of the media (and NATO) these numbers don't seem to matter. The neglect of loss of military life (on both sides) seems to me indefensible. If Gaddafi's soldiers were entering the conflict of their own free will then we may try to argue (incorrectly, in my view) that their deaths have less moral significance than the deaths of civilians. However, it is likely that many of Gaddafi's soldiers are not in the conflict of their own free will, because defection is punishable by death. My question is this: shouldn't philosophers fight as hard for the rights of military personnel (whichever...

You make very good points! HIstorically, philosophers have been concerned about the status, importance, and duties of soldiers. Aristotle has a very high view of the warrior (and this perhaps makes quite good sense when one notes that he was a tutor of Alexander the Great) and Socrates was very concerned about not punishing (executing) members of Athens' navy who neglected to rescue sailers. Actually, Socrates' interest in soldiers is especially to be appreciated when one takes into account that he himself was a veteran (and, more specifically, a veteran of a defeated army). While there is a long tradition of philosophers reflecting on the ethics and practice of war, probably the topic was most heated recently in the 1960s and 70s during the Viet Nam War and during the Cold War. Today war seems a little less the topic of choice today (compared with the 1960s), though it is not neglected and it is not unusual to see work on international justice, nationalism, global justice, and genocide. I feel sure you are right, however, that soldiers can also serve under coercive conditions (without a real choice) and that non-lethal weapons are preferable to lethal ones for all sorts of reasons.


Hi. I live in Israel. I do not wish to be recruited to the Israeli army for two main reasons. One is the preservation of my liberty (the mandatory service in the IDF is 3 years), the second is the desire to refrain from harming others. While I am not sure how to justify this principles in a general theory of "the universe", I am firmly certain that in Israel, the political situation enables me to use them in order to avoid being recruited to the IDF. However, there is a third variable that keeps nagging me - justice. If I do not serve, other people are protecting me, and there is nothing I can do to avoid it. Can you help? Suggest a line of reasoning and investigation? Sincerely, Shmuel

I am not so sure that you can get out of your military service simply by saying that you wish to preserve your liberty and don't wish to harm other people. You may know the present situation better than I do, but I know of a number of young Israelis who ended up in jail for refusing to serve in the IDF.

I see your justice point: The IDF is protecting the physical security of Israeli citizens (or at least of a large majority of the Israeli population to which you belong), and so it seems unjust for you to enjoy this protection but then also to refuse to contribute to it.

You say that there is nothing you can do to avoid being protected by the IDF. If this were true, then this would weaken your reasons to serve. To illustrate, suppose you have a fan who, unprompted by you, greatly improves your reputation by posting admiring stories about you on Facebook, by very effectively singing your praises to important people in your social environment whose support will greatly help your career, etc. You learn about this person's efforts, and you realize that you benefit from these efforts. But you have no obligation to reciprocate, I would think, precisely because you had no choice in the matter, never asked your fan to act in your behalf or even signaled your approval. Matters are different when you do have a choice and then actively take advantage of benefits made available to you. Suppose, for example, that all the other occupants of your apartment building collaborate to cultivate a beautiful flower garden near your building. This garden cannot be seen from the outside (it is surrounded by hedges), but because you love flowers you often go there and sit on the bench. Here it seems that it would be wrong of you to take advantage of the beautiful garden while refusing to join the effort to maintain it (assuming that your neighbors really want you to contribute etc.).

The preceding paragraph suggest that your justice reason for serving in the IDF is the stronger the more of a choice you have about whether to remain in Israel. If you could easily leave and, say, live in the US instead, then your remaining in Israel is closer to the garden case, where you are taking advantage of the efforts of others. If you have no realistic way of avoiding protection by the IDF (short of suicide, say, which is obviously not a serious option here), then your presence in Israel is closer to the Facebook case where you benefit without choice and thus may permissibly refuse to reciprocate by doing your fair share.

Coming to your first two reasons now. Serving in an army means subjecting oneself to the far-reaching authority of its commanders and political leaders. They may order you to kill people, and they may order you into situations in which you must kill in order to survive. Soldiers harm people; and, more importantly, soldiers often wrongly harm people. Many of the objectives armies are used to achieve are unjust objectives, and many of the people who get killed by soldiers are innocent people and people whose killing is not morally justifiable or excusable. So your fear that, by joining the army, you will become a participant in unjust harm is entirely realistic. Joining the IDF, you may well be ordered to man checkpoints and to police roads that stifle the movement of Palestinians within the West Bank, for example, or to fire tank shells at, or drop bombs upon, civilian homes in the Gaza Strip. To put it bluntly, you may be given orders that, if you comply, will make you harm and even kill innocent people whom it is wrong to harm or kill.

By joining the army, you will make it much harder for yourself to avoid wrongdoing, to avoid harming and even killing innocent people. How much this matters depends on the specific situation. If an army fights (or is disposed only to fight) justly for an important just cause, then one may have strong moral reason, on balance, to join it. If an army is fighting, or disposed to fight, for an unjust cause, then one may have strong moral reason to refuse to join even when one also expects personally to benefit from this army's success. In such a case one would still have reason to avoid the benefits if one can do so witout undue hardship and also reason, of course, to avoid making other contributions to the army's success.

So this is what you might say in defense of your refusal to join the IDF to others who are joining and accusing you of being a free-rider. You can say that one central objective the IDF is used to support is the appropriation of land in the West Bank for new and expanding Israeli settlements, and that this is an unjust objective and policy that wrongly harms the Palestinians who live there. It would be wrong to contribute to the injustice done to the Palestinians and therefore wrong for you to join the IDF. You might add that, while the IDF also serves the legitimate objective of protecting you and other Israeli civilians from violence by Palestinians, much of this protection is needed only because of unjust Israeli policy in the West Bank.

If it is said in response that you are benefiting from the settlement policy, you can respond that you are not actively taking advantage of it (e.g., by living in the West Bank) and only benefiting from it (e.g., through lower real estate prices in Israel) in ways you cannot reasonably avoid.

If it is said that you should then (given what you believe) actively avoid the benefits by working toward emigration, you might respond that you are willing to forego such benefits by donating them to organizations (such as B'Tselem, perhaps) that protect the human rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. You might add that, as an Israeli citizen, you have a responsibility to work toward achieving greater justice of your country's social institutions and policies, and that the kind of discussions with your fellow citizens that are central to such work would be very much harder to conduct from abroad.

In conclusion, I think that -- if you see the situation in roughly the way I have guessed in the preceding three paragraphs -- you can avoid both: being a participant in injustice and unfairly benefiting from the efforts of others who have joined the IDF. My sense is, though, that your government will not make this path as easy for you as you seem to expect.

Seeing the devout passion of sports fans I've often wondered if sports today are

Seeing the devout passion of sports fans I've often wondered if sports today are a substitute for war. People root for their hometown team and despise people from other towns because of their sport teams. This also isn't just an American thing and it seems as if this is the case all around the world. Since most people in non-third world countries at least are not constantly at war and fighting traditional country against country wars I've wondered this. My question is this: do we use sports as a substitute for war?

It depends what you mean by "substitute." If by that you mean function symbolically than yes, I think sports can work as a substitute for war. Just consider some of the lingo in football. The long pass is the bomb and we talk of an offense as having a lot of weapons and of the qb as a general. I suppose that sports might also be considered as a way of sublimating aggressions and reinforcing communal bonds. For instance, when I lived in central Florida many people who seemed to share very little else in common, thought of themselves as "Gators" and could always relate to each other along those lines. And they got hyped up for certain games as though it were a kind of symbolic war. In thinking about the uses of sport, we should also consider that famous soccer game that took place between enemies during a cease fire. The men played together, embraced, shared food etc and the next day went back to bayoneting one another.

Is it possible for a war to be fought in which both sides are justified? Or is

Is it possible for a war to be fought in which both sides are justified? Or is every war necessarily problematic in the sense that at least one party must be wrong?

The short answer I think is, yes, one could imagine situations where all the participants in a war had strong reasons for participating. A more insightful answer to your question, however, will depend on exactly how one understands the ethics of war and peace.

For example, if it turns out that pacifism is correct (for more on this doctrine, see, then the answer to your question may be--depending on the exact version of pacifism that is true--"no" because it turns out to be impossible for any act of warfare to be justified.

On the other hand, if just war theory is correct (for this, see, then one can imagine situations where multiple parties to a war were justified according to the rules of jus ad bellum. Since those rules are pretty strict, however, in practice I imagine that this rarely occurs, if it ever does. (It is possible, however, under this doctrine -- it is not the case that "every war is necessarily problematic" in the sense that you ask about.)

Another perspective that provides a clear answer to your question is that of realism within international relations. I don't view this as a philosophical theory or ethical doctrine, but rather a perspective on international relations that is extremely influential among scholars and practitioners within that field and that aims (among other things) to show that ethical argumentation of the sort pacifists and just war theorists wish to use is inappropriate for understanding and assessing international relations. (For more on this perspective, see, for example, According to this view, war can be justified by states' national interests and needs for security and, alas, in our world of scarcity, unequal distribution of resources, and cultural and ethnic divisions, conflicts among those items occur frequently and so it would be fairly common for both parties in a war to act with justification.

In one answer to a question posted on your forum on 30 July 2009 on the issue of

In one answer to a question posted on your forum on 30 July 2009 on the issue of human collaterals of wars (, one 'philosopher' panelist remarked that it's not always practical to take the moral grounds when faced with a war situation like in Palestine, Afghanistan or Iraq and that in reality a choice has to be made of the better of unpleasant alternatives. In my opinion, it is precisely this kind of rhetoric that gives license to killing innocent people and waging indiscriminate wars. How would the author react if one of his fellow mates or beloved ones was caught as an innocent hostage and had to be killed as collateral? The UN role in establishing peace is important, difficult and at times hypocritical but the role of civil society and agents such as 'philosophers' to continue to teach freedom and critical reasoning based on experienced truth, one that is lived by the agents themselves, cannot be overshadowed by notions of skepticism. Wars are...

I think Leaman is right that, in war and elsewhere, one must often choose between morally unpalatable alternatives. For example, the only way to protect innocent people from being massacred may be an intervention that risks killing other innocent people. And then your question (how would you feel if one of your loved ones were killed as collateral?) would be balanced by a similar question on the other side (how would you feel if one of your loved ones were massacred because we decided not to intervene?).

Having said this, I also feel I understand what upset you in Leaman's answer. There are two relevant passages. One says that "try[ing] to distinguish as far as possible between civilians and insurgents .. is a pretty empty policy once the bullets start flying. Right now the US and British military in Afghanistan have responded to pressure from the Afghan government to unleash less remote bombing operations to cut down on civilian deaths, and this has resulted predictably in increased military deaths among the allies." I suppose an empty policy is one that is unlikely to be implemented. Still, in this case the empty policy is also the morally right policy, and we citizens should not let the Afghan government be the only one calling for restraint. We should support as firmly as we can the call that such restraints be implemented (which, as Leaman's last sentence suggests, has now been done to some extent). Distinguishing between civilians and insurgents will increase harm to our soldiers, and this is a real, terrible cost. But what right do we have to pursue a policy that preserves the lives and health of allied soldiers at the cost of vastly larger numbers of Afghan civilians (as was the practice under Bush)? In fact, fighting there, what right do we have to assign any greater a value to our soldiers than to local civilians?

The other passage suggests we give up "trying to establish a UN policy of regulating weapons that no-one would adhere to anyway." Here I am rather more optimistic than Leaman: I think the ban on the use of biological weapons has worked quite well and has prevented a lot of harm. And the effort to ban landmines (spear-headed by Princess Diane) has also been impressive in the broad support it has achieved, even though the key offenders have so far not budged. I do not think it is hopeless to achieve widespread agreement that cluster bombs and napalm must not be used in urban areas where many civilians live. In fact, most people seem to agree with this prohibition, and very few states continue to offend against it. To be sure, an urban operation becomes more costly for one's own soldiers if one cannot just drop napalm all over the neighborhood. But then the commanders will have to consider whether the operation is really worth the cost (something they may pay much less attention to when the costs of the operation will be borne by foreign civilians) and, if it is, risk the lives of the soldiers they command.

Looking at the history of warfare, it is clear that some armies have, even at considerable cost, conducted themselves well vis-a-vis civilians even at times when bullets were flying (or the fighting was intense) and other armies have bahaved horribly. In Vietnam and also in Iraq and Afghanistan, allied military policy has been informed by great indifference to the suffering of the civilian populations. Such indifference to civilians is especially appalling because of the crushing military superiority we enjoyed in these conflicts: the survival and territorial integrity of our (allied) contries were in not the slightest danger, and the free fire zones and the napalming of villages in Vietnam victimized deeply impoverished families who lacked both the will and the ability to do the slightest harm to the US or anyone. Instead of feeling compassion for such people and a commitment to keep them out of harm's way, our military responded to their poverty and defenselessness with racist and cultural chauvinism (which was also in evidence in the widespread recreational torture practiced by our troops in Iraq). This is not the way all armies behave, and it is not the way ours is destined to behave. And even if this were the way our army is, or all armies are, destined to behave, we should explain why this is wrong and why it would be wrong to join, or to allow oneself to be conscripted into, such an army

Why is the use of police force justifiable to stop the attempted murder of a

Why is the use of police force justifiable to stop the attempted murder of a neighbor, but military force unjustifiable when used to stop the attempted murders of civilians in other countries who peacefully advocate for human rights (speech, assembly, voting, etc.)?

There are various potentially relevant differences. First, interventions abroad are often more likely to be counterproductive. The foreign government committing or condoning the human rights violations may be so powerful that the attempt to stop it will cause much more death and destruction than is now occurring. By contrast, we can bring overwhelming force to bear domestically and thereby crush even well-armed crime gangs.Second, internationally we do not have unique authority to judge and to act. We are just one of many similarly placed agents possibly able to do something. These agents (the governments of powerful states) are likely to see things differently -- e.g. may support different factions in a country that's facing a violent power struggle. For example, some potential interveners may believe that the Sri Lankan all-out assault upon the Tamil Tigers was a crime that had to be stopped (because so many civilians were also hurt and killed). Other potential interveners may believe that the assault was the only way to end the civil war once and for all. If one intervenes to enforce its view of the situation, another may go in to prevent that. This illustrates that a general permission to intervene is likely to make matters worse by leading to altercations among interveners. Third, governments are often disingenuous. If we endorse the kind of principle you are entertaining (let governments use military force when doing so can stop the attempted murders of civilians in other countries who peacefully advocate for human rights), then governments are bound to appeal to this principle -- even in bad faith -- to justify interventions that are really motivated by rather more self-interested motives. You may recall those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that were mendaciously appealed to to justify the invasion of Iraq. It's just as easy mendaciously to appeal to attempted murders supposedly taking place in a country one would like to invade.You will note that these arguments are predicated on the world as it is. They do not deny that the world you suggest is desirable: a world in which people abused by their government can hope for protection from abroad. But building such a more desirable world requires changes that go deeper than the adoption of a principle of parity. In particular, it requires a single effective decision mechanism that judges in the manner of a court -- that is, in a rule-based and transparent manner -- whether some particular country is so badly governed that military intervention is justified. In addition, it requires a powerful alliance of states committed to giving effect to those judgments. These two conditions seem far off.

The recent conflict in Gaza resulted in what has been described as a high

The recent conflict in Gaza resulted in what has been described as a high civilian casualty number. (Although, considering that in the Gulf War coalition forces killed over 3000 civilians and 3000 people die ever week in the Iraq War, I’m not sure several hundred constitutes as a high casualty rate.) But, I do think that there was an issue. Human Rights Watch claims to have investigated and discovered that most of the civilian deaths resulted from misuse of unmanned aircrafts, white phosphorus, and cluster missiles. The more I think about it the more I feel that weapons like these should be banned. Their lack of precision seems to be the main cause of civilian deaths in all three of the mentioned wars. For example, a bunker with 400 civilians (many children) was hit by a US stealth bomber during an air raid in the Gulf War. What is the UN’s stance on such methods of war and how would one go about influencing these in such a way that puts strict regulations on the usage of weapons that are so...

A traditional component of the 'just warfare doctrine' emphasizes the importance of 'discrimination' between soldiers and civilians in carrying out a 'just war.' While often ignored, this requirement was easier to fulfill before technology changed the nature of warfare over the past couple centuries. After all, it was relatively easy to know whom you were attacking with a spear or sword. Compared to the indiscriminant carpet bombing and fire bombing tactics used during the conflicts of the mid-twentieth century I think things have improved considerably in recent years due to the creation of higher precision ammunitions. However, even high precision ammunitions require accurate intelligence and careful rules of engagement to avoid substantial civilian casualties. In the conflicts you mention, discrimination has also become more difficult because the use of 'irregulars' (non-uniformed combatants), the use of civillian areas for military cover, and the awareness that civilian casualties can be used to generate sympathy through the media have all increased.

All military weapons have the potential for misuse, but I am uncertain whether any of the weapons you mention are genuine examples of weapons that are inherently indiscriminate. If there is an ethical problem, it is in the nature of how they have been used not in the nature of the weapon itself.

I hear this argument a lot: If you're old enough to fight for your country, then

I hear this argument a lot: If you're old enough to fight for your country, then you're old enough to do X. X might be "drink," or "gamble," or "do crack cocaine," or "rent a car"; basically anything. Whenever people say this, it strikes me as kind of silly. But at the same time it kind of makes sense, because fighting and dying seems more serious than almost anything else you could possibly do. So I wanted to ask: What do the panelists think?

The claim to which you refer, Isuspect, is a shortened version of one or both of two basicinferences. Either, that killing other people/ risking one's own lifeis an enormous and 'grown-up' responsibility; anyone deemed to becapable of such responsibility should surely be capable of lesserresponsibilities; drinking et al are lesser responsibilities;therefore etc. Or, second, that a nation is asking a great deal of aperson in putting them forward for combat; if someone is asked for somuch, and gives honourably, something should be owed in return,especially some degree of rights or privileges; drinking et al arejust such rights or privileges; therefore etc.

As they stand, the above mini-argumentsare not terribly convincing. The responsibility argument assumes thatthe condition of being responsible is simple and one-dimensionallyquantitative. But imagine a Mr. X, who holds down a good job inmanagement, raises a family, sits conscientiously on the citycouncil, and so forth – but occasionally drives under theinfluence. Such an example shows that being responsible is not quiteso straight-forward a concept, capable of an unequivocal 'less' or'more'.

The rights or privileges argument, onthe other hand, seems to assume that a privilege such as drinking isowed. But, if anything is owed it is either contracted explicitly(the soldier's wage packet, pension, due care by commanding officers– something owed by law) or something conventionally suitable (likea parade, say, or a bit of respect – something owed by existingcultural convention). I don't see how renting a car, for example,fits into either category.