Reflections on 'Supreme Emergency'

31 Pages Posted: 6 Nov 2017 Last revised: 14 Nov 2017

See all articles by Jeremy Waldron

Jeremy Waldron

New York University School of Law

Date Written: November 2017


Chapter 16 of Michael Walzer's book addresses the topic of "supreme emergency" and asks whether the fundamental laws and customs of armed conflict can be upheld when one or other side in a conflict faces the imminent destruction of a whole community or civilization. This paper argues that Walzer's discussion should not be understood as a doctrinal proposal, either at the level of law or deep morality. Instead it should be understood as a necessary reflection on the possible limits of the regulation of warfare. In an analogy to the Rawlsian concept of "the circumstances of justice," the paper argues that Walzer is considering whether -- when the stakes in a conflict are very high -- the circumstances that make the regulation of warfare viable may be imperiled or collapse. And the upshot of these reflections is not that it is perfectly alight in these circumstances to engage in terror-bombing of enemy cities, but that we may not be able to say with any determinacy what it is right or wrong to do. Some readers criticize Walzer for including this discussion in his book. But the paper argues that it would have been unseemly not to include, i.e. not to raise questions about the limits that have to be faced in the enterprise of regulating the savagery of war.

Keywords: bombing, Churchill, circumstances of justice, community, emergency, supreme emergency, terror, Walzer, war, World War II

Suggested Citation

Waldron, Jeremy, Reflections on 'Supreme Emergency' (November 2017). NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 17-45. Available at SSRN: or

Jeremy Waldron (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

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New York, NY 10012-1099
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