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G.E.M. Anscombe on the evil of demanding unconditional surrender in war

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During military conflict, what are the constraints on the things that a warring nation may do to achieve their objectives? And what constraints are there on the objectives that such a nation should have in the first place? A traditional answer to the first of these questions draws a sharp line at the deliberate killing of noncombatants. Though it has been affirmed by many great philosophers and theologians, this restriction was violated repeatedly during the Second World War, most notably in the nuclear annihilation of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While an overwhelming majority of Americans supported US President Harry Truman’s decision to bomb those cities in the days immediately after the bombs were dropped, public opinion today is sharply divided, with just over half of Americans thinking that the bombings were justified. It was due to her conviction that the choice to bomb these cities made President Truman a murderer, that the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe gave a speech to her colleagues at the University of Oxford in June, 1956, attempting to convince them not to grant Truman an honorary doctorate. Anscombe was a Catholic convert and student of Ludwig Wittgenstein who then worked as a tutor at the all-women Somerville College. “If you do give this honor,” she asked rhetorically, “what Nero, what Genghis Khan, what Hitler, or what Stalin will not be honored in the future?” Despite her best efforts the motion failed badly, with only three or four other faculty joining her dissent. Anscombe’s critique of Truman is most often remembered for her challenge to the “consequentialist” thesis that it is always possible in principle to justify an action by appeal to the balance of consequences in favor of it. But Anscombe herself argued that the consequentialist defense of Truman took for granted a further injustice, namely the Allied powers’ demand for unconditional surrender by the Japanese. “Given the conditions,” she wrote in her pamphlet “Mr. . .

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News source: OUPblog » Philosophy

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