Public Ethics Radio: Jeff McMahan on Proportionality

Jan 28, 2009

Israeli officials insist that their attacks on Gaza were judiciously planned so as to minimize harm to civilians. What role do civilian casualties play in assessing the justice of war?

Out of some 1,300 Palestinians killed in Gaza, Israel claims that it can name more than 700 of the dead who were Hamas fighters. Claiming precise knowledge of their targets, Israeli officials insist that their attacks were judiciously planned so as to minimize harm to civilians. Despite this apparent caution, however, any assault on Israel’s enemies makes certain the deaths of innocent civilians.

This Public Ethics Radio broadcast discusses the role that civilian casualties play in assessing the justice of war.

For a war to be just, it must satisfy what is known as the proportionality principle. In a disproportionate war, the harms caused by going to war are so evil that they outweigh the benefits of an otherwise worthy goal. Considerations of proportionality are also relevant to the assessment of particular tactics undertaken in an ongoing war.

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