Philosopher Jeff McMahan Lectures at Bowdoin on the Morality of War

Jeff McMahan, the White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford, spoke at Bowdoin recently about the responsibilities of participants in war. McMahan’s talk, “Individualist and Collectivist Approaches to the Morality of War,” explored the view that soldiers must be able to morally justify the killing of others, even if they do so as uniformed members of an armed service.

On the more commonly held argument, it is states — rather than individuals — who wage war, and who ultimately bear the responsibility when wars are entered into unjustly. On this view, soldiers are deemed mere instruments of the state, and their actions are not subject to the same kind of moral scrutiny as are those outside of the context of war.

McMahan has written extensively on normative and applied ethics. His publications include The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of LifeKilling in War, which argues against foundational elements of the traditional theory of the just war, The Morality of Nationalism, and Ethics and Humanity.

During McMahan’s visit at Bowdoin, he visited Assistant Professor of Philosophy Kristi Olson’s two classes — Morality of War, and Moral Problems. He also spoke to students in one of Associate Professor of Philosophy Larry Simon’s classes, Environmental Ethics.

Olson, who invited McMahan to Bowdoin, is bringing another philosopher to campus May 5 to speak about war and more specifically, torture. Harvard University professor Frances Kamm, an American philosopher specializing in normative ethical theory and applied ethics, will discuss the conceptions and ethics of torture, as well as the particular ways of deciding about its permissibility or impermissibility.

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