Mcmahon's Views on Contingent Pacifism

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Pacifism is a term regarding the moral permissibility to engage in war. Just war theorists and pacifists debate that the participation in war can be justifiable. The most extreme embargo against participation in war comes from “absolute pacifism” theory which states that war is unable to be morally justified under any conditions. This absolutist form of pacifism centres on the viewpoint that each individual has some absolute right not to be killed, and that war inevitably kills those who have failed to do anything to lose that right. Therefore, these individuals are not liable to any harm leading to the aforementioned conclusion regarding the impermissibility of all war. Absolute pacifism, although noble in its intent, has been successfully been argued to be morally untenable. In more recent times, a new pacifist theory has emerged which argues in favour of individuals having no absolute right to not be killed – contingent pacifism. This theory has been criticized heavily by Jeff McMahan (2010); describing contingent pacifism as “untenable”. This essay will endeavour to present the case against contingent pacifism offered by McMahan, and also expand on these ideas presented. Before ideas and theories are explored, it is important to state some key definitions of terms that will be used widely throughout this essay. McMahan categorizes stakeholders within war into four broad classifications. (1) “Just Combatants” – soldiers fighting in a just war; (2) “Just civilians” – those who do not fight (ie. non-combatants) on the just side; (3) “Unjust Combatants” – soldiers fighting in a war that lacks just cause; (4) “Unjust Civilians” – non-combatants on the unjust side. Contingent pacifists acknowledge that people have no absolute right to not be killed or harmed. This is even true in the case of just civilians who are often the easiest of people to argue an absolute right – as they have done nothing to lose their right to not be harmed. However, this right can be somewhat overruled by proportionality and adapting a consequentialist ideology in that the killing of innocents can only be permissible if the consequences of not killing these innocents are sufficiently worse. This therefore leads on to a restraint of sorts for contingent pacifism, in that once this threshold of just cause is reached, it is morally permissible to participate in war. A key argument for contingent pacifism is that even unjust combatants are not liable to harm based on the grounds of ignorance and/or duress. In any war that is participated in, it is widely accepted and acknowledged that unjust combatants will be killed. However, if these unjust combatants are not liable to any form of harm due to this ignorance or duress, it is morally impermissible to kill these individuals. This also draws the conclusion that if killing unjust combatants is impermissible, so too must be the harming of unjust and just civilians. Due to this defiance of unjust combatants being liable to harm, it is very difficult for contingent pacifists to agree that even a war with just cause is morally permissible, given the amount of deaths that would arise to those who are deemed innocent. This theory provides great debate surrounding innocence. Just war theorists have long stated that innocent parties are those who are unthreatening. Consequently, all combatants regardless of fighting a just or unjust war are not innocent. Moreover, all civilians are regarded as innocent. However, contingent pacifists argue that innocence refers to responsibility for a wrong. By claiming that unjust combatants act under duress or ignorance, contingent pacifists believe they are not culpable as McMahan states moral responsibility presupposes culpability.

McMahan disagrees heavily with the concept that unjust combatants wave any responsibility for their actions due to distress and/or ignorance. In investigating ignorance, McMahan concedes that there is often information in regards to the...
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