Short critique of Igor Primoratz

Igor Primoratz argues the view that Michael Walzer’s position on civilian immunity because they are not responsible for the wars that their governments wage(Primoratz, 2002:221) is false. Primoratz argues that in many cases civilians should be considered viable targets during war because supporting or failing to oppose a war is an act of war. I will argue that Primoratz’ position opens innocent civilians to be collateral damage and is thus unjust.

In contrast to Walzer’s position that civilians are not responsible for the wars their government wages, Primoratz holds the view that civilians in liberal democracies are very much responsible and far from innocent in the wars that are waged in their names. Primoratz holds that instead, democracy and popular sovereignty carry with them harsh implications for the citizens of nations which go to unjust wars (Primoratz, 2002:236). Primoratz even goes to the extent to then claim, that citizens “don’t really have the option” to abstain from voting or voicing an opinion when it comes to acts of war, “their refusal to be involved is tantamount to passive support of the government and the military,” (Primoratz, 2002:237) and thus are also viable targets for attack in a war. The right to not take part in politics he claims is a right only suitable for peacetime, that during times of war, citizens have a moral obligation to stand against unjust wars.


Primoratz position hinges on that the notion that supporting or failing to oppose war makes individuals guilty of an act of war. Whilst he makes the claim that military leaders should not begin to target civilians due to a likelihood of killing innocent civilians in the process, this does not adequately protect the innocent. It indeed opens them to being justified collateral damage and misses the point of what it means to be just in war.                      Non-combatant civilians who support war are not a direct threat to the safety of any individual. In what way does their death serve to end the war or lead to victory? It could be said, that by indiscriminately attacking the civilians of a nation, the government may indeed surrender quickly in order to curb the deaths of their people. Such an action could be justified as preferable to trench warfare, in which stalemates may be reached with deaths potentially outweighing civilian deaths many times over.

But if a military were to choose the bombing of civilians in order to subdue an opposing nation it would undoubtedly kill many innocent civilians in the process. Whilst Primoratz concedes to this, his position does not make claim to what point the costs outweigh the benefits. If a military has intelligence that a neighbourhood with a 25:1 spread of war-supporters to war-opposers, is it justified in striking that neighbourhood? Is the death of an innocent war-opposer justified to save the lives of “guilty” soldiers? How many innocent deaths is acceptable to end  war? Allowing the deaths of innocent civilians in order to save the lives of guilty soldiers/civilians is counter intuitive. Primoratz’ position opens the possibility for innocents to die as collateral damage to save the lives of those who are in support of a war. This is an unacceptable position in the name of justice when viewed through the lense of Primoratz criteria of “guilt or innocence”.


Igor Primoratz, “Michael Walzer’s Just War Theory: Some Issues of Responsibility,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 5 (2002), pp. 221–43.


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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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