The Moral Equality of Combatants

In Seth Lazar & Helen Frowe (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Ethics of War. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2017)
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The doctrine of the moral equality of combatants holds that combatants on either side of a war have equal moral status, even if one side is fighting a just war while the other is not. This chapter examines arguments that have been offered for and against this doctrine, including the collectivist position famously articulated by Walzer and McMahan’s influential individualist critique. We also explore collectivist positions that have rejected the moral equality doctrine and arguments that some individualists have offered in its favor. We defend a non-categorical version of the moral equality doctrine, according to which combatants on either side of a just war sometimes (but not always) have equal moral status. On our view, some degree of culpability is necessary for liability, and non-culpable combatants may therefore sometimes remain non-liable even when they fight for an unjust cause.
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