Collectivism in the Morality of War

Collectivism in the Morality of War

Saba Bazargan-Forward
UC San Diego

Reductive individualism about the morality of war is broadly comprised of two claims. A) The morality of war is not sui generis – it is of a piece with morality governing conduct in everyday civil life. B) The morality of war just is the ethics of individual conflict writ large in that warfare is not a relation between warring states but a relation between warring individuals.

These claims have important implications. They together suggest that the permissibility of participating in a war depends on whether that war is just – contrary to the doctrine of the moral equality of combatants. They also together suggest that the doctrine of discrimination which grants civilians blanket immunity against intentional attack might be mistaken at the level of fundamental morality. Accordingly, reductive individualism is also called ‘revisionism’ about the morality of war.

This workshop we focus on collectivist challenges to reductive individualism in general, and to claim ‘B’ specifically, which largely overlooks the role that i) group agency, ii) collective responsibility, and iii) complicity might play in the morality of war.

Regarding (i), recent work done on group agency (notably by Christian List and Philip Pettit, as well as others) is ripe for application to the morality of warfare in the form of a response to the revisionist claim that war is fought by individuals: governments or states are themselves agents which war via their soldiers who in turn gain or lose rights and privileges by way of their constitutive relationship to the group agent for which they fight.

Regarding (ii), accounts of collective responsibility explain how an individual can be morally responsible for events caused by the collective of which she is a part despite limited control over what that collective does. This opens up the possibility that, unlike individuals fighting in a wholly private context, soldiers fighting in a war might be responsible for and answerable to the conduct of the state for which she fights, even if she has virtually no control over what the state does.

Even if we reject the possibility of group agency and collective responsibility, this does not mean we have to accept the revisionist claim that it is solely what a given civilian or soldier does which determines whether and the degree to which she is responsible for the harms of war. As (iii) suggests, the juridical concept of accomplice liability might provide grounds for thinking that one soldier can be responsible for what another does (and it might likewise explain why civilians are not responsible for what their soldiers do).

The ‘Collectivism in the Morality of War’ workshop will help explore these three anti-revisionist alternatives to reductive individualism. If interested in presenting on these issues (broadly construed) please send an anonymised abstract of up to 500 words to by 15 May 2017.


Notification of acceptance will be by 10 June 2017, allowing graduate students and retirees who have been accepted to apply for a bursary (the deadline for which is 16 June 2017).

The workshop is pre-read; papers will be circulated to participants in advance.

Deadline for submission of full papers (up to 8,000 words): 21 August 2017

All workshop participants must register for MANCEPT 2017. Registration will open in May.