The Moral Responsibility of Unjust Combatants

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According to the traditional theory of just war we have got two sets of principles, ius ad bellum (that is, that govern the resort to and continuation of war) and ius in bello (that govern the conduct of war). The theorist of the traditional theory of just war, Michael Walzer, claims that those principles are logically independent, and the foundation of this claim is that it makes no difference to the permissibility of an unjust combatant’s conduct in war. Walzer implies that just and unjust combatant -in appeal to Doctrine of Moral Equality of Combatants which includes ius ad bellum – has “an equal right to kill”. This means that unjust combatants do not do wrong by participating in the unjust war (but they do wrong only if they violate the principles of ius in bello). Thus they are not morally responsible for participation in the unjust war.

Jeff McMahan polemicises with Walzer. He thinks that those principles are not independent. Unjust combatants cannot join the war and participate in war without doing wrong, thus they do not obey ius ad bellum principles and, automatically, they cannot comply with ius in bello principles. McMahan undermines the Doctrine of Moral Equality of Combatants. According to McMahan’s assumptions, what will the moral responsibility of unjust soldiers look like? To answer this question Jeff McMahan challenges Walzer’s arguments: The Argument from Coercion (The Gladiatorial Combat Model of War); The Argument from Institutional Commitment which includes The Subjective Justification - The Epistemological Argument (in McMahan’s term).

Walzer’s suggestion is that some of the unjust combatants are not doing wrong because they were coerced to fight. In this case the possible acts of crime during war are not directlythe attributes of soldiers but those who have coerced them. Soldiers are obliged to serve and follow the orders. That does seems to be analogous to the gladiatorial combat. Gladiators in the Rome’s arena were forced to fight,refusal would lead to death inflicted by their masters; each gladiator was permitted to kill the other and only the winner could be spared.

McMahan argues that most soldiers are rarely involved in the unjust war because they were coerced to fight. It’s more or less true that combatants will be killed by their leaders or that they will get severe rebuke if they will refuse to fight in war. The unjust combatants are fighting often because of the fight drawn profits or because they want to experience adventure, or they are directly involved in an unjust cause. And the most important, the threat to life does not give anybody a right for trying to kill somebody, no more than a failing organ would not give somebody the right to kill someone in order to help.

Walzer’s another proposal which supports his statement that the unjust combatants are not responsible is The Argument from Institutional Commitment. The existing governing institutions in the country are responsible for making goods, therefore, people have moral obligations to maintain these institutions. They may, however, be required to do wrong and illegal things that these people consider to be bad. Legal state system could not function properly if people were allowed to selectively enforce only those laws that they consider to be fair. Military institution operates similarly. Moral division of labor indicates who decides in matters of ius ad bellum, and who needs to submit, even when the combatant subjectively considers that the actions are unjust and whenhe does not agree with the decisions of the superior. There is a risk that the combatant will become the instrument of injustice, but his beliefs may be false and he has moral obligation to fulfill his designated function rather than acting on the foundations of personal judgment.

Jeff McMahan ascertains that this moral obligation arise only when the functioning institutions are just. There is no moral requirement to fulfill a role in the institution that does not serve moral purposes. Soldier, unfortunately, does not have access to information in which military activities he is participating; he is in epistemological unawareness - he has no personal knowledge. McMahan agreed in this matter with Walzer, he also shares the same opinion about the lack of knowing. Nevertheless, McMahan points out that there are certain circumstances that are willingly accessible to the potential combatant deliberating about whether a war is just or unjust. If a soldier, therefore, learned that he is participating in the unjust war he has no morally compelling reason to fight any longer, and he should stop doing it immediately.

Taking into account Walzer’s arguments in matter of moral responsibility of the unjust combatants, McMahan is saying that they are only excuses (while just combatants are justified).They may show that “unjust combatant is not a criminal and is not to be blamed or punished for what he does, but they do not show that he acts permissibly”. The morally responsible agent (which is the basis of moral liability to defensive force) is an agent with the ability for self-directed reflection and action. The unjust combatant causes an unjust risk, thus to some extent he is responsible for this threat, although he is not deplorable. He may, as it was shown earlier, have one or more of a variety of excuses, he might be coerced, manipulated or he just believed mistakenly, in the moral authority of military institution. These excusing circumstances will be convincing enough to clear an unjust combatant of all culpability for participation in the unjust war. But conditions of this sort are never satisfactory to absolve him of all responsibility for his participation, or for the unjust threat he poses.


  1. Michael Walzer, Wojny sprawiedliwe i niesprawiedliwe. Rozważania natury moralnej z uwzględnieniem przykładów historycznych. (Just and Unjust Wars.).Warsaw PWN 2010.
  2. Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing in War. Ethics 114, no. 4 (July 2004): 693-733. Condensed version in Philosophia 34 (2006): 23-41.
  3. Jeff McMahan, The Morality of Military Occupation. Loyola International and Comparative Law Review 31 (2009).
  4. Jeff McMahan, On the Moral Equality of Combatants. [in:] The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 14, Number 4, 2006, pp. 377–393.


Magister filozofii, etyk. Specjalizacja: etyka wojny i interwencji wojskowych. Zainteresowania: filozofia społeczna i polityczna, bioetyka, neuroetyka.
Obecnie pracuję dla Blackwell UK Ltd. i odbywam kurs Applied Ethics na Oxford University.
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