ELAC Annual Conference: "Justifying Preventive Harm: Retributive and Distributive Approaches”.

The event is a collaboration between ConceptLab and The Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC)

The 8th Annual Conference of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict is hosted this year University of Oslo’s ConceptLab at the Oslo Military Society

Speakers: John Gardner (Oxford), Richard Arneson (UCSD), Susanne Burri (LSE),  Lars Christie (Oxford/University of Oslo), Patrick Tomlin (Reading), Doug Husak (Rutgers), Jovana Davidovic (University of Iowa)

Respondents: Helen Frowe (Stockholm), Andreas Carlsson (University of Oslo/Norwegian Defence Ethics Council), Michael Robillard (Oxford), David Rodin (Oxford).

Benjamin Matheson, Kartik Upadhyaya, Korbinian Ruger

More info about the theme of the conference

Registration is free and open to all, and includes refreshments and lunch on both days, as well as a conference dinner.

Registrations will close on July 31, but please note that places are limited.

To reserve a place, please email Lina Tosterud copying Martina Selmi

ELAC is an interdisciplinary research programme that aims to strengthen law, norms and institutions to restrain, regulate and prevent armed conflict.




Day 1 - Thursday August 17

8.45– 9:00           Arrival and coffee

9:00 – 10:30        Session 1

Distributive Wars: Richard Arneson (USCD)

Many hold that war under modern conditions can only be justified when its goal is defense of national sovereignty (or, more broadly, group autonomy) or perhaps the reduction of  extreme and large-scale violations of basic human rights.  On this view a paradigm of unjust war would be one for distributive aims: Country A, whose members are not in dire need, makes war on country B, whose members are on the whole better off, in order to rectify the distribution if resources of welfare across A and B. Another paradigm unjust cause: Country A makes war on country B in order to rectify the distribution of resources or welfare among the members of country B.  So many hold.  –On the contrary, we should accept that wars for distributive aims can be morally permissible and even mandatory.  One key is to identify a plausible account of distributive justice.  Another key is to note that wars need not necessarily involve enormous broad-ranging violence whose harmful effects fall indiscriminately; a war can involve small-scale violence, violence aimed with precision at specific targets, and even no violence at all, merely credible strong threat.  Allowing that distributive aims can justify war is compatible with acknowledging that the conditions for justification are stringent and perhaps rarely met.  We should also note that policies and practices aimed at advancing distributive justice within a country in ordinary peacetime can impose uncompensated harms on innocent bystanders without hereby automatically qualifying as unjustified.                             

Respondent: Helen Frowe

10:30– 10:45 Coffee break

1045 – 12:15 Session 2

Distributing Harms among Liable Aggressors: Patrick Tomlin (Reading)

The individualist nature of much contemporary just war theory means that we often discuss cases with single attackers. But even if war is best understood in this individualist way, in war combatants often have to make decisions about how to distribute harms among a plurality of individual aggressors. In this paper, I distinguish two different kinds of cases of in which we face a plurality of aggressors – simultaneous attacks and sequential attacks (the reality of war is that we will face an amalgam of these archetypes – sequential simultaneous attacks). I then focus on simultaneous attacks, and in particular cases in which more than one distribution of harm among (potentially) liable aggressors will prevent an attack. I show how such cases pose questions concerning the nature and role of the necessity principle, and its relationship to narrow proportionality. I argue that a hitherto unrecognised measure – ‘narrow proportionality shortfall’ – and its distribution is relevant in choosing how to distribute harms across (potentially) liable aggressors. I then extend this analysis to show how this may help us with some puzzles concerning sequential attacks.

Respondent: Benjamin Matheson

1215 – 1315 Lunch

1315-1445 Session 3

 Liability to Defensive Harm, Forfeiture Theories of Rights and Relational Theories of Rights: Jovana Davidovic

Abstract: According to forfeiture theories of rights one can become liable to defensive harm when they act in ways that forfeit their right not to be harmed. For example, when they unjustifiably threaten harm to innocent victims. Forfeiture theories are traditionally normative theories; they are attempts to justify imposing harm on culpable or morally responsible aggressors. In this paper, I argue that forfeiture is best understood as a conceptual rather than a normative or justificatory aspect of the right not to be harmed. I argue that understanding forfeiture in this way can nonetheless put limits on the sorts of justifications one can offer for grounding the right not to be harmed and consequently for liability to defensive harm. Specifically, I argue that understanding forfeiture as a conceptual feature of the right not to be harmed gives us reasons to embrace relational, inter-agential grounding for that and similar rights; a grounding that in addition to protection of an interest requires that an agent respect similar protections for others. Furthermore, I argue that understanding forfeiture as a conceptual feature of rights can also help fill noted gaps in forfeiture accounts: the so-called mechanism gap and the central normative transition gap.

Respondent: David Rodin

15:00 – 16:30 Session 4

Foreseeability, Moral Responsibility, and Liability to Defensive Harm: Susanne Burri (LSE)

Consider the following two cases: The Conscientious Driver.1 A person who always keeps her car well maintained and always drives carefully decides to drive to the cinema. On the way, a freak event that she could not have anticipated occurs that causes her car to veer out of control in the direction of a pedestrian. Day's End.2 A homeowner always come home at 9 pm and the rst thing he does is ip the light switch in his hallway. He is about to do so this evening. The homeowner's ipping the switch causes a circuit to close. By virtue of an extraordinary series of coincidences, on this particular evening the circuit's closing will cause a a small lightning ash in a neighbouring house. The lightning ash threatens the life of an unsuspecting neighbour. Both the conscientious driver and the homeowner are non-culpably threatening the life of an innocent other. But according to Je McMahan (2009), there is nevertheless an important moral di erence between the two, in that only the conscientious driver was able to foresee|in a sense to be speci ed|that her action might cause serious harm. For McMahan, this means that the conscientious driver, but not the homeowner, is liable to defensive harm: if the pedestrian could save himself by throwing a grenade towards the conscientious driver's car, he would be morally permitted to do so. The homeowner's neighbour, by contrast, lacks a similar moral permission to defend himself. In this paper, I investigate whether McMahan is right to claim that the harm threatened by the conscientious driver is foreseeable in a way that the harm threatened by the homeowner is not. I conclude that a principled distinction between the two agents can be drawn, but that the difference might not be as morally weighty as McMahan thinks it is.

Respondent: Henrik Syse

19:00 Conference dinner

Day 2 Friday August 18

8.45– 9:00           Arrival and coffee

9:00 – 10:30        Session 1

The Punishment/Self-Defence Distinction: John Gardner  (Oxford)

I will discuss three questions. First, is there a secure distinction between retributive and distributive justice? Second, is there a sharp(ish) distinction between desert and necessity? Third, should we expect the distinction between punishment and self-defence to hold apart from the existence of social practices that differentiate them? I lean towards negative answers to all three questions. I will therefore raise doubts about recent philosophical writings on self-defence that presuppose affirmative answers to one or more of them.


Respondent: Andreas Brekke Carlsson


10:30– 10:45 Coffee break

1045 – 12:15       Session 2

Punishing attackers in self-defence : Lars Christie (Oxford/UiO)

In my article, I identify a tension between academic writings on punishment and academic writings on self-defence. A number of theorists writing on punishment have advanced the idea that punishment can be justified on similar grounds as self-defence. Yet most theorists of self-defence reject this idea: they are not attracted to the view that the justifications for punitive and defensive harm might rest on similar grounds. At the same time, theorist of self-defence by and large accept the intuitive view that a threatener’s culpability is relevant to the amount of defensive force the victim may use to defend himself. I argue that one cannot insist on the relevance of culpability to defensive harming while at the same time denying the overlap between the justification for punishment and self-defence.


Respondent: Kartik Upadhyaya


1215 – 1315 Lunch


1315-1445 Session 3  "The Vast Scope of Preventive Harming"

Doug Husak (Rutgers)


Examples of preventive harming are much more commonplace in modern society than many theorists seem to acknowledge.  Approximately 70 million persons are potentially affected by the harmful collateral consequences triggered by a mere arrest.  This total greatly exceeds the number of cases on which many moral and legal philosophers have tended to focus: those involving incarceration and real or putative instances of self-defense.  Without denying the tremendous philosophical interest these latter examples continue to attract, they represent a drop in the bucket when we consider the true extent of preventive harming that is permitted (and sometimes mandated) by law throughout the United States today.  But the philosophical significance of my position is normative rather than descriptive.  To my mind, it would take a fair amount of creative Gerry-rigging to accommodate many of the collateral consequences I describe within conventional philosophical wisdom about preventive harming.


Respondent: Korbinian Ruger


19:00 Conference dinner

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Published Aug. 14, 2017 10:11 PM - Last modified Jan. 8, 2019 3:05 PM