Practical Philosophy Webinar: Johan Olsthoorn

Johan Olsthoorn, KU Leuven.

"Rights, Standing, and Liability in the Ethics of War"

Image may contain: White, Black, Black-and-white, Monochrome photography, Monochrome.

Johan Olsthoorn, Assistant professor in political theory, University of Amsterdam; Senior postdoctoral research fellow at KU Leuven, Institute of Philosophy.

Abstract: Waging a war of national self-defence against unjust foreign aggression, some revisionist just war theorists have argued, can be morally impermissible. Proportionality requirements and duties of care owed to nationals can render it morally mandatory for political communities to surrender national territory to unjust aggressors. This paper assumes the soundness of this contested view in order to spell out the normative conditions of victims and attackers should the former nonetheless, and wrongly, resort to defensive war. (As was the case, perhaps, in the 1939 Finnish-Soviet war.) I canvass their respective normative conditions using the distinction between directed and nondirected liberty-rights (Sreenivasan 2010). Directed liberty-rights express the absence upon the right-holder of directed duties as against some other party. Deontological liberty-rights, by contrast, are non-directed all-things-considered moral permissions. When faced with conditional political aggression, I suggest, political communities may be morally obliged to abstain from exercising their directed liberty-right to wage defensive war against unjust aggressors. Yet if they contravene this requirement, and impermissibly inflict (narrowly proportionate) defensive harm upon unjust enemy combatants, then the latter are neither wronged by this, nor have standing to complain. The proposed analysis has some theoretical significance: it suggests that rival conceptions of moral liability are suited for different purposes. On internalist and comparativist conceptions, liability informs statements of what agents can justifiably do (to others). On externalist and non-comparativist conceptions, by contrast, liability can capture the distinctive standing wrongdoers occupy vis-à-vis their victims. The two functions may come apart. The language of directed and nondirected liberty-rights, I suggest in conclusion, helps integrate a second-personal dimension into the ethics of war.


Zoom: The links to the zoom meetings will be sent to all those in the mailing list. If you wish to get the information weekly, please send an email to Oda Davanger (

Published Aug. 10, 2020 11:26 AM - Last modified Oct. 18, 2020 10:35 AM