The Moral Equality of Modern Combatants and the Myth of Justified War

Theoretical and Applied Ethics 1 (4):35-44 (2012)
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In the tradition of just war theory two assumptions have been taken pretty much for granted: first, that there are quite a lot of justified wars, and second, that there is a moral inequality of combatants, that is, that combatants participating in a justified war may kill their enemy combatants participating in an unjustified war but not vice versa. I will argue that the first assumption is wrong and that therefore the second assumption is virtually irrelevant for reality. I will also argue, primarily against Jeff McMahan, that his particular thesis about the moral inequality of “just” and “unjust combatants” is an analytical truth which, however, does hardly apply to anything (there are few if any “unjust combatants” as he defines them). If one takes his thesis less literally, namely in the sense of a thesis about combatants participating in a justified war and combatants participating in an unjustified war, it is correct in principle, but still of little practical relevance even if one disregarded the fact that there are virtually no justified wars. One of the reasons for this is that, contrary to McMahan’s claims, justification does not defeat liability.

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Uwe Steinhoff
University of Hong Kong


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