Defensive Wars and the Reprisal Dilemma

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I address a foundational problem with accounts of the morality of war that are derived from the Just War Tradition (JWT). Such accounts problematically focus on ‘the moment of crisis’: i.e. when a state is considering a resort to war. This is problematic because sometimes the state considering the resort to war is partly responsible for wrongly creating the conditions in which the resort to war becomes necessary. By ignoring this possibility, JWT effectively ignores, in its moral evaluation of wars, certain types of past wrongdoing. I argue that we can address this problem by incorporating an account of compensatory liability into an account of the morality of war. Doing so yields the view that, if we have culpably failed to compensate victims for past wrongs, we might be morally required to weigh the well-being of those victims more heavily in our calculation of proportionality when determining the permissibility of a defensive act that harms the victim as a side-effect. This, in turn, makes satisfying the proportionality constraint more difficult. The upshot is that sometimes, in order to wage a defensive war permissibly, we first have to discharge compensatory duties. This has implications for how we evaluate ‘cycles of reprisals’ that plague warfare.