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Extremism and Confusion in American Views about the Ethics of War: A Comment on Sagan and Valentino

  • Jeff McMahan

Abstract

In their article “Just War and Unjust Soldiers: American Public Opinion on the Moral Equality of Combatants,” Scott Sagan and Benjamin Valentino have revealed a wealth of information about the views of contemporary Americans on the ethics of war. Virtually all they have discovered is surprising and much of it is alarming. My commentary in this symposium seeks mainly to extract a bit more from their data and to draw a few further inferences. Among the striking features of Sagan and Valentino's data are that the views of Americans tend to cluster at the extreme ends of the spectrum of possible views about the ethics of war, that an apparent sympathy for pacifism coexists with harshly punitive views about the treatment of soldiers, and that few of those surveyed appear to have given any thought to the implications of the views they expressed for what it might be permissible for enemies of the United States to do to captured American soldiers. The commentary concludes by arguing that Sagan and Valentino's findings do not, as they argue, support the fear that is sometimes expressed that a wider acceptance of revisionist just war theory, and in particular its incorporation into the law, would make the practice of war even more barbarous than it already is.

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References

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NOTES

1 In this essay, I respond to Scott D. Sagan and Benjamin A. Valentino's article, “Just War and Unjust Soldiers: American Public Opinion on the Moral Equality of Combatants,” Ethics & International Affairs 33, no. 4, pp. 411–444. All quotations, figures, and pages numbers referring to the authors or their work are from this article.

2 Blackstone, William, Commentaries on the Laws of England (Boston: Beacon, 1962), book 4, p. 420.

3 This notion includes “retribution . . . directed at outgroup members who, themselves, were not the direct causal agents in the original attack against the person's ingroup.” Lickel, Brian, Miller, Norman, Stenstrom, Douglas M., and Denson, Thomas F., “Vicarious Retribution: The Role of Collective Blame in Intergroup Aggression,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 10, no. 4 (November 2006), p. 372.

4 Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1907), p. 490.

5 For a proposal for a juridical body similar to that mentioned by the authors, see McMahan, Jeff, “The Prevention of Unjust Wars,” in Benbaji, Yitzhak and Sussman, Naomi, eds., Reading Walzer (London: Routledge, 2013).

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Extremism and Confusion in American Views about the Ethics of War: A Comment on Sagan and Valentino

  • Jeff McMahan

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