The violence of theoretical abstraction

two problems with reductive individualism as a moral philosophical approach to international war


  • Regina Sibylle Surber University of Zurich


ethics of war, just war theory, justified killing, self-defense


This essay discusses revisionist just war theory's most prominent theoretical approach -- reductive individualism. It carves out both reductivism's and individualism's distinct normative core. On this basis, it presents two arguments. (I) With individual moral liability, reductivism provides a criterion for assessing who can be permissibly killed in war, which it borrows from the morality of peace. Individualism puts the human in the center of moral concern. War being organized mass killing, an individual soldier's moral liability is indeterminable, pushing for the abstraction of individual of moral statuses and undermining individualism. (II) Reductivism claims that the moral rules governing individual self-defense in ordinary life are directly applied to individual interactions in war. However, it adjusts for the asymmetry between individual aggressor and defender in war to capture the moral status of the collective belligerent party. Reductive individualists are no real individualists and no real reductivists.

Author Biography

Regina Sibylle Surber, University of Zurich

I am a PhD candidate at the Center for Ethics at University of Zurich, from which I also earned my BA and MA in Political Science, Philosophy, and Law. My doctoral research is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and is centered around the question `Why do soldiers, exactly, have to die in war'? I have a great interest in grounding the more anodyne philosophical theories about war and peace - my project will focus on Kant's theory of perpetual peace through law - in real human experiences of war and military training. Supervisors are Prof. Francis Cheneval (Political Philosophy, UZH), Prof. Jeff McMahan (Philosophy, Oxford University), Dr. Susanne Burri (Philosophy, LSE), and Prof. Andreas Maercker (Psychology, UZH). I also work as a senior advisor to the ICT4Peace foundation and I co-founded the Zurich Hub for Ethics and Technology (ZHET). Topics cover social, ethical, and international political challenges resulting from emerging technologies, especially autonomous software and Autonomous Weapons Systems.


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