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ONLINE CPP Colloquium with Patrick Smith, Responsibility as Fairness: An Institutionalist Account of Collective Accountability for Just War

Thursday 30 April 2020
CPP Colloquia 2019-2020
P.J. Veth
Nonnensteeg 1-3
2311 VJ Leiden

The Center for Political Philosophy in Leiden is pleased to announce a talk by

Patrick Smith

Responsibility as Fairness: An Institutionalist Account of Collective Accountability for Just War


The purpose of this paper is explore how to appropriately assign responsibility for just war compliance in modern combat. This paper will argue that moral responsibility for the exercise of force ought to be understood as distributed widely across the defense-industrial complex rather than applied merely at the point of combat or solely within the military; soldiers do not operate in a doctrinal, training, and procurement vacuum and decisions necessarily made years in advance will structure the choice situation of any particular warfighter. What’s more, the very nature of fire and movement tactics in modern warfare make it difficult to ascribe responsibility for a bad act to a single warfighter. In response, we need to treat the defense-industrial complex—from defense contractors to legislators to the military chain of command—as a single but differentiated structure for generating either just or unjust behavior in order to appropriately respond to the disbursement of moral responsibility across the military qua institution. I then propose a Rawlsian account of how to fairly distribute responsibility throughout the defense industrial ecosystem: we imagine how we would want risk to be distributed if we did not know what position we might occupy, including civilians who might be subject to military authority or violence.

I then use a little discussed example to illustrate distributed responsibility: computer simulations in military procurement. In order to decide what kind of weapons soldiers will need, their numbers, their use, and their distribution, politicians and the military will themselves use or subcontract out the use of sophisticated computer simulations to help predict the consequences of changes in doctrine, equipment, or training. However, these simulations have a deep flaw: the simulators track when a weapon has been disabled and not whether a person has been killed or wounded. With soldiers, this latter consequence is then derived from historical averages (a disabled tank typically yields a certain number of casualties). However, when the fighting occurs in a civilian area, civilian casualties are not and cannot be accounted for. Those using the simulations have ignored this worry, assuming that other agents bear responsibility for minimizing civilian deaths after the procurement decisions have been made. I offer a “principle of liability,” according to which, these consultants are acting irresponsibly and show that they have an institutional obligation to offer a fuller understanding of the consequences of various tactical and procurement decisions. I then use these insights to discuss institutional responsibility in other, more difficult cases, such as lethal autonomous weapon systems. I conclude by looking at the objection that my principle assigns too much liability for some agents and too little for others. 


Patrick Taylor Smith is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Twente. Before coming to the Netherlands, Patrick received his PhD from the University of Washington Seattle, was a postdoctoral fellow at the McCoy Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University, and was Assistant Professor of Political Science and Global Studies at the National University of Singapore. While his primary research lies in global justice, has interests in the potential applicability or revision of just war theory in light of emerging military technology. On this topic, he has published numerous book chapters and articles, including essays in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, Philosophical Journal of Conflict and Violence, and Ethics and Information Technology. 

About the Center for Political Philosophy (CPP) Colloquia Series


The CPP is a collaboration between the Institute for Philosophy and the Institute for Political Science at Leiden University. Attendance of the Colloquia is free and there is no need to register. See CPP for more information. For further questions please contact dr. Wouter Kalf at w.f.kalf@hum.leidenuniv.nl

All are welcome!

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