A leading philosopher will discuss a new account of the morality of war. Professor Jeff McMahan questions Just War Theory’s assumption that all civilians have an entirely different moral status from combatants in war. Wednesday, November 19, 2008

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY — Does morality become more permissive in war? Jeff McMahan, professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, will present “Killing Civilians in War,” a lecture that examines what protections civilians are entitled to during military conflict, on Wednesday, November 19. The program, which is free and open to the public, will begin at 5:00 pm in room 203 of Taylor Hall.

Vassar professor Jamie Kelly, who specializes in political philosophy, emphasized Professor McMahan’s leading role in critiquing just war theory, and urged the public to come to the lecture. “We live in a time when issues like war and terrorism are exceedingly important; the United States is involved in two wars ... and as a result ... we have to be thinking critically and carefully about what wars we are fighting and how we should be fighting them.”

“Heads of state have a requirement to make sure that the cause for war is just, but soldiers in war are on a level playing field,” stated Professor Kelly. However, he noted, “Professor McMahan questions that assumption; he thinks that it is the case that soldiers need to ensure that they are fighting on the right side.”

Prof. McMahan’s next book The Ethics of Killing: Self-Defense, War, and Punishment, to be published by Oxford University Press in May 2010, will explore this argument in depth and stress that, in most cases, it is immoral for soldiers to fight in unjust wars.

The MacArthur Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the US Institute of Peace funded the book as well as McMahan’s 2002 monograph, The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life, which dealt with the ethics of killing, especially in relation to abortion, infanticide, the killing of animals, assisted suicide, and euthanasia. Critics gave the book favorable reviews: the philosophy journal Ethics praised the publication as “an example of philosophy at the highest level,” and Philosophical Review applauded it as “an enormous achievement and required reading for anyone concerned with…issues of life and death.”

In May 2007, Professor McMahan was awarded the American Philosophical Association’s Frank Chapman Sharp Memorial Prize for “the best unpublished essay or monograph on the philosophy of war and peace” for the manuscript of an upcoming book, The Morality and Law of War.

Prof. McMahan earned his masters degree from Oxford and holds a doctorate from Cambridge. His work deals with ethics and political philosophy.

This lecture is part of Philosophers’ Holiday, a student and faculty run speakers program started in 1943 that has brought distinguished speakers such as Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt to Vassar (

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Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, November 12, 2008