The trouble with rights: moral sacrifice in just war theory


The images of soldiers which are commonly evoked on memorial days commonly include a number of different virtues: courage, loyalty, fraternity, etc. One ideal perhaps extolled above all others is that of sacrifice. Soldiers, according to popular moral platitudes, are lauded for the sacrifices they make for the common good. Implied in this is the expectation that soldiers ought to be the type of people who are willing to sacrifice themselves in defence of an ideal. However, within modern formulations of just war theory – the most popular framework for morally evaluating war – sacrifice is difficult to explain or justify. Why should a solider be expected to risk his life for that of somebody else? This is particularly complex in cases where soldiers might be asked to take on increased levels of personal risk in order to reduce the chance of civilian casualties in wartime and in cases where forgiveness appears necessary in the interests of peace. In this paper I will argue that the problem of sacrifice highlights a problem in formulations of just war theory which emphasise moral rights above other moral values. I argue that modern just war theories would be better equipped to explain the morality of sacrifice by seeing it as a function of virtue.


rights, just war theory, virtue, sacrifice, military, forgiveness, politics, humanitarian intervention


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