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Marcela Prieto wins NYU Outstanding Dissertation Award
USC Gould School of Law

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Prieto earned top dissertation honors for her juridical science doctoral research

By Jim Lee
Assistant Professor of Law Marcela Prieto recently earned New York University’s Outstanding Dissertation Prize Competition in the Social Sciences category for her juridical science doctoral research. Her dissertation, "The Laws of War: The Fragility in Regulating Killing," is a study of morality of war – specifically, the legal privilege of killing in combat and the possible justification of that privilege. Her research will also be the basis of a book that is forthcoming with Oxford University Press. Prieto talks about her interest in the topic and the impact she hopes her research will make. 

Can you briefly summarize your work? What are the main takeaways would you like people to have from this study?

The book aims to provide a moral justification for the legal privilege of combatants to kill each other during battle. Under the legal framework, combatants are legally equal (they can target each other) regardless of whether they're fighting for a just or unjust war. Yet, most philosophers (known as revisionists) think that this symmetry is not true of morality: unjust combatants who kill just combatants are engaged in what is the equivalent of murdering the innocent. This poses a problem for the justification of our laws: how can we justify the laws of war if they permit what is equivalent to murdering the innocent at a massive scale? The book provides a pluralist justification for this permission, and in doing so, it is forced to contest the analogy that revisionists draw, at the level of morality, between murdering the innocent and what unjust combatants do. 
I hope that people would be left with the idea that while the laws of war are a significant human achievement, the regulation of war itself is morally fraught, since it tends to entrench war. Thus, in a way, the fact that we have to have laws of war at all should also be a cause for sorrow. Additionally, I hope that the book provides a compelling account as to why even a just war is a moral tragedy in many ways, and why the pull of pacifism is strong. 
How did you develop an interest in this topic?

In Chile, I worked prosecuting crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship. In the course of this work, I learned more about the Geneva Conventions, and later my interest in the regulation of war grew. Eventually, I started reading accounts of the morality of war, and I wanted to provide an account about the relationship between law and morality.
What impact do you hope your research will have? 

I hope the book will have an impact in the philosophical discussion and provide a compelling middle ground between the revisionist account (which is the predominant view) and the orthodox account of the morality of war. I would also hope that some of the conclusions I draw about the necessity to change our laws of war will be persuasive. In particular, I argue that combatants should have a legal right to refuse to participate in a grievously unjust war, and that our laws of war should incorporate an obligation to minimize military casualties, to the extent possible.



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