Lesser Evil and Responsibility: Comments on Jeff McMahan's Analysis of the Morality of War

Israel Law Review, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 709-729, 2007

18 Pages Posted: 24 Apr 2008 Last revised: 15 Apr 2015

See all articles by Re'em Segev

Re'em Segev

Hebrew University of Jerusalem – Faculty of Law


The main aim of Jeff McMahan's manuscript on the morality of war is to answer the question: why and accordingly when is it justified or permissible to kill people in war? However, McMahan argues that the same principles apply to individual actions and to war. McMahan rejects all doctrines of collective responsibility and liability. His claim is that every individual is liable for what he has done and not for the actions of others - even if both are part of the same collective. Accordingly, McMahan challenges the common view that it is much easier to justify killing in war compared to killing in other contexts. Therefore, the scope of his project exceeds the context of war and extends to interpersonal conflicts between individuals that do not qualify as war. Many of McMahan's main claims are appealing. Particularly, appealing is his rejection of the collectivist account of war. Indeed, it seems that the simple story according to which people are responsible solely for their actions - rather than (also) to the actions of others - should be held on until a different, more complex, account of collective responsibility is put forward and its plausibility is explained. Therefore, the article focuses on the general principles advocated by McMahan with regard to the resolution of all interpersonal conflicts: Whether these conflicts are small scale or large scale (that is, whether few or a many people are involved in the conflict), and within the latter category of conflicts involving many people, whether these conflicts qualify as war (according to some standard) or not.

Keywords: Lesser Evil, Responsibility, War

Suggested Citation

Segev, Re'em, Lesser Evil and Responsibility: Comments on Jeff McMahan's Analysis of the Morality of War. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1124809

Re'em Segev (Contact Author)

Hebrew University of Jerusalem – Faculty of Law ( email )

Mount Scopus
Jerusalem, 91905

HOME PAGE: http://en.law.huji.ac.il/people/reem-segev

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