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My dissertation, “The Ethics of Revolt: Just War, Moral Agency, and Civil Conflict,” is motivated by the great variation in rebel groups’ uses of violence when contesting the legitimacy and authority of a regime, and the puzzle of how revolutions and civil wars could ever be ethically justified when the outcomes are so often harmful to the political community. I ask three main questions: 1) When should a rebellion be seen as just or unjust? 2) What explains the emergence of “moral rebels?” 3) What do the unique moral ambiguities and difficulties in civil conflict imply for the role of the international community in assisting those oppressed by their government, and whom should the international community recognize as the appropriate authority in cases of contested sovereignty? I first provide a framework for just revolts grounded in a Thomistic-Aristotelian perspective on just war theory. Then, I offer a virtue ethics derived theory to explain rebel leaders’ behavior toward noncombatants in civil conflict, arguing that rebels do not just happen to exhibit ethically consistent behavior by chance, incentives, or socialization, but that they rigorously develop their moral lives before becoming leaders and throughout their time in leadership in order to be able to use violence justly. I test my virtuous rebel theory using case studies drawn from early 20th century China, a period of revolutions, warlords, contested sovereignty, and civil war, showing that the ability of rebel leaders to act with ethical consistency cannot be sufficiently explained as either the incentives of rational actors or by socialization processes, but by examining rebels as moral agents.

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