U.S. Military Academy chose university for expertise of ‘just war’ philosopher Jeff McMahan

Rutgers senior Jimmy Goodrich, center foreground, is flanked by West Point cadets Theo Lipsky and Anna Gulbis.
Nick Romanenko

“There are a fair number of cadets who don’t realize the implications of what they are going to do, killing people who have nothing to do with war, and that is really awful,” Fishback said. “You need to come to grips with it now or you probably need to seek another profession.”


In the military, questioning authority – especially during war – isn’t exactly encouraged.

But when ethical lines are being crossed, knowing when to challenge an order may be essential.

A new Rutgers philosophy seminar aims to arm future officers and civilian leaders with a better understanding of war’s moral complexities so they are equipped to make those hard decisions.

In what is possibly the first seminar series in the country to bring together civilian and military institutions and their students in one classroom for an advanced interdisciplinary study of morality in war. West Point cadets and Rutgers undergraduate and graduate philosophy students gathered May 28 through June 12 at 1 Seminary Place in New Brunswick to discuss the ethics, law and effectiveness of political violence.

“There are still many open questions about war,” said West Point’s Major Ian Fishback, who developed the three-week pilot program, “Normative Dimensions of War,” with Rutgers philosophy professor Jeff McMahan. “To the degree we can reach better answers to those questions, we will be able to be more effective at war, mitigate the costs of war and obviate the need for war.”

While all cadets are required to take ethics at the military academy, establishing strong ties between civilian philosophers and the military academy is paramount to Fishback.

“Both bring important strengths to the table that help us achieve a better understanding of war,” he said. “It is especially important in contemporary American democracy where there is a growing gap between civilians and the military that we have a thoughtful dialogue between learned persons in both sectors of our society.”

Time magazine named Fishback one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2006 for facilitating the creation of anti-torture legislation. In a 2005 letter to Sen. John McCain, Fishback expressed his concerns about the unethical treatment of prisoners he witnessed during his four combat tours with the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

West Point's Maj. Ian Fishback and Rutgers' Jeff McMahan teamed up to teach possibly the first war ethics seminar in the country linking civilian and military institutions and students.
Nick Romanenko

“Normative Dimensions of War” stems from Fishback’s experiences wrestling with ethical questions as he led troops in combat and as a West Point professor striving to prepare young soldiers for what may lie ahead.

“There are a fair number of cadets who don’t realize the implications of what they are going to do, killing people who have nothing to do with war, and that is really awful,” Fishback said. “You need to come to grips with it now or you probably need to seek another profession.”

During his graduate studies in philosophy at the University Michigan, he reached out to McMahan after reading some of his essays exploring just war theory. Their paths crisscrossed at lectures and conferences, and a friendship blossomed. Once the idea of this course came to Fishback, he said there was no question which school he wanted West Point to partner with.

“Rutgers was our first choice for the mini-seminars because of Professor Jeff McMahan and the overall quality of the Rutgers philosophy department,” he said. 

McMahan is a world-renowned “just war” ethicist and a member of the university’s revered philosophy department, ranked second in the nation. He has dedicated nearly 30 years to writing and researching the topic of “just war.”  It is his hope that this experimental seminar builds on courses at Rutgers that explore the ethics of war and prepares students for contributing intelligently to national dialogues.

“Just getting more people to think about the issues and think about them in a rigorous philosophical way will ultimately shape the way policy makers and opinion leaders are thinking about these issues,” McMahan said.

Rutgers provided living quarters for Fishback and the cadets at University Center at Easton Avenue Apartments and classroom space. Half a dozen guest lecturers donated their time to present during the series, open to Rutgers students by invitation only. Neither Rutgers students nor the cadets are taking the course for credit.

But that didn’t deter Jimmy Goodrich, 21, an incoming Rutgers senior from attending the seminars. The philosophy major from Houston, Texas, said Rutgers students have much to gain from collaborating with cadets and Fishback who are knowledgeable about history, strategy and contemporary wars.

“The typical view is that philosophy doesn’t have any practical import,” Goodrich said. “But then you have someone like Maj. Fishback who was influenced by the just war tradition and able to have a very extreme impact for the good. So I wanted to have interaction with him and the students he works with because they will all serve in the military put some of this to use.”

Cadet Theo Lipsky, 19, of Brooklyn, N.Y., said civilians have just as much a place at the table discussing ethics of war as soldiers.

“It’s the civilian authority that decides when to go to war,” Lipsky said.  “The military is the one who ends up prosecuting the war.”

The seminar is far from armchair philosophy for cadets such as Anna Gulbis. One day the 18-year-old from Michigan will be an officer with soldiers looking to her to guide them. She called on the French philosopher Voltaire to best explain her reason for taking a noncredit course.

“Voltaire said ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,’ “ said Gulbis. "We are here to seek objective truth so that in the future when we say something to our soldiers, it is not absurd and the resulting action is good."