Why McMahan's just wars are only justified and why that matters

Michael Neu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article is concerned with a distinction Jeff McMahan draws between just and justified wars. It argues that this distinction does not accord with the content of McMahan’s conceptual distinction between just and justified threats; nor does it correspond with the way in which McMahan applies this distinction to the jus in bello tactical bomber scenario. McMahan claims that the tactical bomber’s conduct, assuming it foreseeably causes collateral damage, can only be justified, but not just, while war can be just despite foreseeably resulting in the killing and maiming of innocent people. This claim is incoherent. The incoherence can be overcome, though, within McMahan’s own conceptual framework. For contingent reasons that have to do with the nature of at least modern warfare, justified wars are virtually always unjust. Since agents are generally morally required to prevent themselves from getting into situations in which they can (or must) perform morally justified acts that are unjust, distinguishing between these two types of war is not merely a matter of terminology. This article is a plea for the recognition of the tragedy of justified wars, a tragedy which is only authentic if it could not have been prevented by the agents who wage these wars.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)235-255
Number of pages21
JournalEthical Perspectives
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2012


  • Collateral damage
  • just war theory
  • justified wars
  • McMahan
  • tragedy


Dive into the research topics of 'Why McMahan's just wars are only justified and why that matters'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this