Episode 17. Seth Lazar on Self-Defense in War

Why are soldiers allowed to kill in war? For philosophers who believe in what Seth Lazar calls the “new orthodoxy,” the answer is that soldiers can kill for the same reason anyone can kill: self-defense. War is just individual self-defense writ large. But self-defense, Lazar says, is a deeply problematic basis for something as important as the rules of war.

Seth Lazar is a research fellow at the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University. You can find many examples of his work on just war theory and other topics on his website.

Click here to download the episode (28:26, 20.5 mb, MP3), or click on the embedded media player below. You can also download the transcript.


The modern writer of the definitive traditionalist view of just war theory is Michael Walzer. Lazar mentions his hugely influential book Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, [1977] 2000).

Lazar ascribes the notion of a “reductive individualist” view of just war theory to the philosopher David Rodin. For more on that view, see Rodin’s War and Self-Defense (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

The “foremost advocate” of the new orthodoxy, as Lazar puts it, is Jeff McMahan. Longtime listeners will remember the PER episode he did back in 2009, on proportionality.

Lazar cites a statistic on the percentage of people in modern economies who work in war-related in industries. The source, as Lazar notes, is Alexander Downes, Targeting Civilians in War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008).

The discussion about the permissibility of killing executives from the United Fruit Company, in relation to the U.S. intervention in Guatemala, comes up in Jeff McMahan’s “The Ethics of Killing in War,” Ethics 114 (2004).

Leave a Comment

Filed under Episodes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s