War and Murder

Last week, the news was going around that a 94-year old German man, Reinhold Hanning, had been convicted of accessory to murder. And this was not any old homicide; this was the murder of around 170,000 people in Auschwitz, the concentration camp in which Hanning had been a guard during 1944.

Quoting the news:

The prosecution’s case was built on the premise that, however low his rank, Hanning’s presence at Auschwitz made him part of the Nazi death machine and that he should therefore share responsibility for the Holocaust in which 6 million people, mostly European Jews, were murdered.

In just war theory, the philosophical theory which arguably best captures how people (politicians and legal scholars included) think, talk, and argue, about war, there is currently an intense debate going on between “the traditionalists” and “the revisionists”. The traditionalists say that war is weird. It is a context so divorced from our everyday experience, that when we think about war we need to think differently. Just war theory is an ethical theory, so it is mostly concerned with this difference when it comes to morality: we cannot apply the same moral principles in war as we do in peace, but we can apply some moral principles, and those principles are outlined adequately by traditional just war theory. So say the traditionalists. The revisionists disagree. Applying different moral principles in war makes no (logical, ethical) sense; we need to think about violence in war and peace as continuous, and therefore traditional just war theory commits a serious error by outlining a separate set of moral principles for war.

As the names of the warring parties suggest, the revisionists arrived on the scene more recently; on my reading it looks like the traditionalists dominated until McMahan (head revisionist) published Killing in War in 2009. (Incidentally, this book also launched my thesis.)

The trial and conviction of Hanning (along with Gröning, also from Germany; and, more recently, the trial of a US Marine) for murder looks to me like another blow to the traditionalists. Though, since not all philosophers care what moral judgments people do make (being more concerned with judgments they should make), perhaps I should be more circumspect: the trial and conviction of Hanning for murder, rather than for a war crime, suggests that people are not (no longer?) maintaining strict boundaries between war and peace. Some of the legal rules that we apply in peace, may in fact continue to hold sway in this weird other context, war.

“Some of the legal rules” does not mean “all of the moral principles”, obviously. But to what extent are legal rules grounded in morality, and how many of them do in fact translate across war and peace contexts? Who wins, the revisionists or the traditionalists? These are questions that I think moral psychology is well positioned to (attempt to) answer. Well, maybe not the last one. But if we can inform the philosophical debate, that is a good first step – and I’m currently writing a paper making this argument in more detail. Stay tuned…


I took the title of this post from this classic paper by Anscombe. Google can also tell you why war is not murder, in a few different ways

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