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War and moral stupidity

  • Kimberly Hutchings (a1)


This article uses the example of Wittgenstein’s decision to go to war in 1914 to frame a contrast between two different ways of thinking about moral stupidity and moral intelligence in relation to war, those of Jeff McMahan and Jane Addams. The article clarifies how pathways for thinking about the morality of war are blocked and enabled not only by different accounts of justice but also by different understandings of war. It is argued that if we want to be morally intelligent in our judgments about the ethics of war we should follow the pathway marked out by Addams and think less about justice and more about war.


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*Correspondence to: Kimberly Hutchings, School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London, Mile End Road, London E1 4NS. Author’s email:


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1 McMahan, Jeff, Killing in War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009), p. 2 .

2 This is well described in Monk, Ray, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990), pp. 111114 .

3 Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (4th edn, New York, Basic Books, 2006 [orig. pub. 1977]); Rodin, David, War and Self Defence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Fabre, Cecile, Cosmopolitan War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

4 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. xxii; Turner Johnson, James, ‘Contemporary just war thinking: Which is worse, to have friends or critics?’, Ethics and International Affairs, 27:1 (2013), pp. 25-45 ; Turner Johnson, James, ‘The right to use armed force: Sovereignty, responsibility and the common good’, in Anthony F. Lang Jr, Cian O’Driscoll, and John Williams (eds), Just War: Authority, Tradition and Practice (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013), pp. 1934 .

5 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, pp. xxiii–iv.

6 See, for example, McMahan, Killing, pp. 2, 106; McMahan, Jeff, ‘The morality of war and the law of war’, in David Rodin and Henry Shue (eds), Just and Unjust Warriors: The Moral and Legal Status of Soldiers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 20 .

7 McMahan, Killing, p. 96.

8 Jeff McMahan, ‘The ethics of killing in war [i]’, Ethics, 114:4 (2004), p. 701.

9 Ibid., pp. 717, 719; McMahan, Killing, p. 155.

10 McMahan, ‘The ethics of killing’, p. 708: ‘Just cause is an extrapolation into the domain of war of the insistence that one may not seriously harm or kill another person except for highly specific reasons, such as to defend oneself or another against an unjust threat of extreme gravity.’

11 McMahan, ‘The morality of war’, p. 25.

12 McMahan, Killing, p. 6; McMahan, Jeff, ‘The just distribution of harm between combatants and non-combatants’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 38:4 (2010), p. 354 .

13 McMahan, Jeff, ‘Intention, permissibility, terrorism and war’, Philosophical Perspectives, 23:1 (2009), pp. 345372 .

14 McMahan, Jeff, ‘Response to Uwe Steinhoff’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 16:2 (2008), pp. 234235 .

15 Proportionality can only be calculated from the standpoint of those with a just cause (all unjust war is by definition disproportionate). ‘Narrow’ proportionality takes account of the harm inflicted by just warriors on those potentially liable to be harmed; ‘Wide’ proportionality factors in harms inflicted by just warriors on those whom are not liable to harm. See McMahan, Jeff, ‘Proportionality and time’, Ethics, 125:3 (2015), pp. 124 .

16 McMahan, Killing, p. 150.

17 ‘To say that a person is liable to be attacked is not to say that there is a reason to attack him no matter what; it is only to say that he would not be wronged by being attacked, given certain conditions, though perhaps only in a particular way of by a particular agent.’ McMahan, Jeff, ‘Just cause for war’, Ethics and International Affairs, 19:3 (2005), p. 7 .

18 McMahan, Killing, p. 150.

19 Ibid., p. 96.

20 Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein, p. 114.

21 ‘In the case of soldiers, it is highly important that their beliefs should be justified because of the seriousness of what they are being asked to do, namely, to kill people of whom they have no personal knowledge.’ McMahan, ‘The ethics of killing’, p. 701.

22 ‘When morality of war requires what the law forbids, I believe that one must do what morality requires.’ McMahan ‘The morality of war’, p. 39; McMahan, Jeff, ‘The ethics of killing in war [ii]’, Philosophia, 34:1 (2006), p. 40 .

23 McMahan, Killing, pp. 104–54.

24 See Addams, Jane, Newer Ideals of Peace (New York: Macmillan Company, 1907); Addams, Jane, Peace and Bread in Time of War (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1945).

25 Addams, Jane, Democracy and Social Ethics (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1964); Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War, p. 249; see also John Dewey, ‘Democratic versus coercive international organization: the realism of Jane Addams’, Introduction to Addams, Peace and Bread, pp. ix–xx.

26 Addams, Peace and Bread, p. 137.

27 Ibid., p. 19.

28 Addams argued that we should look to the experience of the immigrant communities served by Hull House as an inspiration for a new kind of practical cosmopolitanism: ‘They are developing the only sort of patriotism consistent with the intermingling of nations; for the citizens of a cosmopolitan quarter find an insuperable difficulty when they attempt to hem in their conception of patriotism either to the “old country” or to their adopted one. There arises the hope that when this newer patriotism becomes large enough, it will overcome arbitrary boundaries and soak up the notion of nationalism.’ Addams, Newer Ideals, p. 18.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid., pp. 17–19.

31 Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics, p. 6; Addams, Peace and Bread, p. 112.

32 Addams, Peace and Bread, pp. 2, 48.

33 Ibid., p. 65; Addams, Newer Ideals, pp. 31–60.

34 Addams, Peace and Bread, p. 174.

35 Ibid., pp. 75–7; Addams, Newer Ideals, p. 208.

36 For classic arguments about the centrality of gender to war, see Bethke Elshtain, Jean, Women and War (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987); Ruddick, Sarah, Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989); Enloe, Cynthia, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). For a comprehensive recent account of feminist arguments about the gendered nature of war, see Sjoberg, Laura, Gendering Global Conflict: Toward a Feminist Theory of War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

37 Hamington, Maurice (ed.), Feminist Interpretations of Jane Addams (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010); Haddock Siegfried, Charlene, ‘Socializing democracy: Jane Addams and John Dewey’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 29:2 (1999), pp. 207230 .

38 Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics, pp. 102, 146, 176, 273–4.

39 Ibid., p. 59.

40 Ibid., p. 6.

41 Ibid., pp. 102, 176, 271.

42 Addams, Peace and Bread, p. 142.

43 Ibid., p. 101.

44 Ruddick, Maternal Thinking.

45 Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics, p. 10.

46 Ibid., p. 159

47 Ibid., p. 153.

48 McMahan is insistent that the morality of war can be rationally established: ‘I believe, in contrast to conventionalist theories, that much of morality can be justified independently of its acceptance or of the effects of its acceptance.’ McMahan, Jeff, ‘Self-defence and the problem of the innocent attacker’, Ethics, 104:2 (1994), p. 289 ; ‘The morality of war is not a product of our devising. It is not manipulable; it is what it is.’ McMahan, ‘The morality of war’, p. 35.

49 McMahan, Killing, p. 153.

50 Ibid., pp. 104–54.

51 Ibid., p. 153. cin Killing in War and McMahan’s other writings on just war works through analogies and thought experiments that model the moral grammar of just war in terms of individuals making decisions about killing in imagined interpersonal contexts in order to articulate or test our moral intuitions. Particularly so in cases where acting to protect the innocent against unjust threats nevertheless foreseeably harms innocent bystanders of various kinds. However, the Second World War is also frequently introduced as a decisive example to illustrate the claim that war can be just. Walzer raised the question forty years ago about the ‘special’ status carried by the Second World War in arguments over just war. He argued for the special character of that war because it was ‘a case where a wager against the rules might be morally required’. Walzer, Michael, ‘World War II: Why was this war different?’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1:1 (1971), p. 21 . For McMahan, the moral significance of the Second World War is the opposite one. It exemplifies the rule that justification may override liability if it is strong enough, and keeps the theoretical possibility of just war open.

52 Addams, Peace and Bread, p. 133.

53 Clark, Ian, Waging War: A Philosophical Introduction (2nd edn, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 13 .

54 McMahan, ‘The ethics of killing in war [ii]’, pp. 34–5.

55 Ibid., pp. 35–40; McMahan, ‘The morality of war’, pp. 19–43.

56 McMahan, ‘The ethics of killing in war [ii]’, p. 40.

57 Carpenter, R. Charli, Innocent Women and Children: Gender Norms and the Protection of Civilians (New York; London: Routledge, 2016 [orig. pub. Ashgate, 2006]).

58 Kinsella, Helen, The Image Before the Weapon: A Critical History of the Distinction between Combatant and Civilian (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011). See also, Sjoberg, Laura, ‘The inseparability of gender hierarchy, the just war tradition, and authorizing war’, in Lang Jr, O’Driscoll, and Williams (eds), Just War, pp. 8196 .

59 Kinsella, The Image, p. 139.

60 McMahan, ‘Self-defence and the problem of the innocent attacker’.

61 Ibid., pp. 11, 255–6.

62 This is not to suggest that McMahan’s approach to the morality of war is particularly permissive in relation to liberal interventionism, just that his profoundly asymmetric moral imaginary when it comes to the just and the unjust does not exist in a vacuum, but in relation to other profoundly asymmetric moral imaginaries at work in contemporary world politics. See McMahan, , ‘Humanitarian intervention, consent and proportionality’, in N. Ann Davis, Richard Keshen, and McMahan (eds), Ethics and Humanity: Themes From the Philosophy of Jonathan Glover (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 4472 .

63 See Brown, Chris, ‘Just war and political judgment’, for a defence of just war thinking as opposed to just war theory in Lang Jr, O’Driscoll, and Williams (eds), Just War, pp. 3546 .

64 This is not an argument that war should or should not be deregulated. For Addams, questions about the regulation of war in the context of a world still ridden with war would need to be approached pragmatically, but with full awareness that such regulation in no way renders the particularist, unequal and hierarchical logics of war just, nor lets the moral subject committed to values of cosmopolitanism, equality and democracy off the hook of political struggle for the eradication of war.


War and moral stupidity

  • Kimberly Hutchings (a1)


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