Integrating the Individual into Military Ethics

Research by Dr David Rodin helps to reshape contemporary military ethics.

When thinking about the morality of war, which actor is more important, the state or the individual? The traditional view of military ethics is state centric. According to just war theory, states are the basic unit of moral analysis in war. In the last decade, however, revisionist accounts have challenged this approach. As a key part of this new wave of scholarship, Rodin argues that traditional accounts of military ethics are overly permissive, consistently granting states and military actors more latitude for inflicting harm than is morally defensible.

This revisionist turn in military ethics has implications not only for academic research but also for military doctrine and practice. This shift means that human rights become the foundational moral framework for thinking about military ethics: all is certainly not fair in love and war.

Dr. Rodin's work touches on a number of areas. He argues that if human rights are the basis for our thinking about right and wrong during war, then particular attention should be paid to ideas of self-defence and moral justification. He also suggests that combatants are not morally equal – for example, those fighting in an unjust war do not possess the same rights as combatants in a just war.

Dr. Rodin has also pioneered a new field in military ethics. Just war theory is traditionally divided into three sections: jus ad bellum (the morality of going to war), jus in bello (the morality of the conduct of war), and jus post bellum (the morality of action after war ends). Rodin adds to this typology a fourth concern (in parallel with Darrel Moellendorf at San Diego State University) jus terminatio, which speaks to the moral considerations governing the termination of war and the transition to a state of peace.

Dr. Rodin's book, War and Self-Defense, which won the American Philosophical Association Sharp Prize, is used in military ethics courses in the US, UK, and Australia. The US Military Academy West Point, for instance, now emphasises human rights as the foundation for both the theory and the legitimisation of the use of force in military operations. Since 2002, Rodin has contributed directly to ethics teaching at the UK Defence Academy, training officers in the ethical questions raised by military operations.

Rodin's research also led to policy changes. He was involved in drafting the 2010 US Army White Paper, The Profession of Arms, which led to a new Army Doctrine Publication. In the UK, conferences organised by Rodin and the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict in 2010 and 2011 brought together academics, senior officials in the Ministry of Defence and members of the British Red Cross to discuss the challenges of ethically aware decision making, as well as the need for revised military doctrines.

Further reading/viewing:

David Rodin, 'Justifying Harm', Ethics, Vol. 122, No 1, Symposium on Jeff McMahan's Killing in War (October 2011), pp74-110

David Rodin on the Ethics of War, Carnegie Council, June 27 2014

David Rodin Ethics of War and Conflict, Carnegie Council 2009


David Rodin