IAN HEDGES, News Editor
On Wednesday, Feb. 22, Beloit College hosted the third Annual Keynote Address for the Selzer Visiting Philosopher, Jeff McMahan, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. According to Associate Professor of Philosophy Matt Tedesco, the Selzer lecture started because of a generous donation from a Beloit alumnus, John Selzer, to strengthen the philosophy education of Beloit students. “Phil [Shields], Heath [Massey] and I decided that the best way to do this would be to invite a prominent philosopher to campus for an event each year, to give a keynote address and to visit classes,” said Tedesco.
This year’s visitor, McMahan, is noted among philosophers for moral considerations, matters of life, death, the right to fight, self-defense and war and punishment, which all fall under the umbrella of Wednesday’s address topic—just war theory and “What Rights May Be Defended by Means of War.”
McMahan claims that since the ancient world, war has meant the brutal killing of men and the enslavement of women and children. The aggressors wanted territory and conquest. McMahan used the term “lesser aggression” to describe many of the modern day conflicts because killing and enslavement are not the aims of many country conflicts. He added that both law and common sense say that self-defense is justified and morally necessary in lesser aggression. McMahan raised many questions as to what is impermissible in war—inflicting harm to a large group of civilians or combatants’ relatives.
McMahan then brought some unconventional thoughts to the crowd. He raised the point that we as a society assume combatants are always liable to be killed. Most combatants do not make contributions to the unjust aims of their leaders, which complicates the general worldview that most combatants should be killed.
McMahan ended his lecture saying that the presence of full aggression is needed because our world would have no deterrence from lesser aggression. McMahan cited Margaret Thatcher and her decision to attack Argentina for trying to invade
the Falkland Islands in 1982. Even though the island only had 1,800 people, it still did not justify the 950 total soldiers killed and 1,100 soldiers wounded. However, Thatcher decided on this action because she wanted to deter smaller powers from making the same acts of lesser aggression.
Philosophy major Joe Moran’13 thought “that McMahan’s words were insightful when he was discussing the legitimacy of international law, and was impressed how, as an ethicist, McMahan avoided committing himself to a definite set of values.”
Moran additionally commented that, “McMahan demonstrated how adopting a concrete set of ethical values can be problematic, especially when doing so commits people to accept unsavory consequences.”
However, international relations major Emily Neigel ’12 said that she “felt particularly challenged by the idea that states should forgo their sovereignty if the violence that results of the defense does not justify the ends.” She then added, “As an IR major, we talk a lot about state sovereignty and I think I have a U.S. indoctrinated bias because U.S. collective identity is very important while other parts of our society are extremely individualistic. He argued that for many people, the state is not the most important collective and defending that might not be morally permissible proportionally to the amount of people who might die as a result. I just don’t see the state who is trying to defend themselves as being morally liable.”
As to why McMahan’s research was pertinent to Beloit College and the Selzer Visiting Philosoper program, Tedesco said, “We look for a philosopher who has made important contributions to the field, does work that connects with the interests of Beloit students and faculty beyond philosophy, we believe will be an engaging visitor with a real interest in connecting with undergraduates and does work that is different from the previous year’s visitor.”
McMahan concluded his lecture with a global proposition. He suggested that having a way of permitting defense for unjust aggression against countries is necessary, but also permitting large-scale actions to occur in conflicts. This deters other states from pursuing acts of lesser aggression towards other countries.
As part of his invitation to be the Selzer Visting Philosopher, McMahan went to a sociology class, two political science classes and three philosophy classes.