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Some important distinctions

It occured to me recently (while showering, when most good ideas emerge) that much of the discussion about the morality of killing in war is ineffective because important distinctions aren't made clear.

First, there's the essential question. Is it ever morally justified to kill enemy combatants? If killing the bad guys is not morally justifiable, then all participation in war is immoral. I feel very confident that killing combatants who fight for an unjust cause is morally permissible and perhaps obligatory for soldiers waging a just war. In fact, I find that many people who oppose war on moral grounds don't have a problem with killing enemy combatants of an unjust aggressor.

What they they have a problem with is believing that the unjust enemy combatants can be held responsible for their actions. This leads to the question, Does it matter (morally) if the enemy combatants have been coerced (to some extent) into fighting? And what, after all, constitutes sufficient coercion to absolve a person of his moral responsibility?

Finally, there's the question of the unintentional killing of noncombatants. Even if it's morally permissible to kill the enemy combatants (free and coerced), should you do so if you can reasonably foresee that non-combatants will be killed as well?

In short, the issues of moral responsibility and collateral damage are central to almost all discussions about the morality of killing in war, although too often we don't make these distinctions explicit. I think that I make a good case for the morality of killing unjust enemy combatants, given that I hold myself (and others) to a high standard of autonomy and moral responsibility. The collateral damage piece I'm still trying to think, through. Our enemy in the current war uses noncombatants as tools to gain an advantage, so we cannot hope to avoid the issue.


RJO said…
"If killing the bad guys is not morally justifiable, then all participation in war is immoral."

Just being an analytical philosopher and (I hope) helping to refine your positions:

I think your leap to "all" participation is too quick, because surely participation in war involves far more than just killing. Are you speaking of participation-as-an-individual or participation by a state (as a whole)? Certainly many individuals participate in war, often in very important ways, and never kill. Indeed, to win without being put in a position where you must kill is sometimes considered the highest accomplishment.

I do understand your point, however. It might be more clearly worded: "Some people believe that killing bad guys is never morally justifiable, and for them, the killing that takes place in war will simply always be immoral. But...."

(I passed by West Point last week for the first time, on the Hudson Line train going north. I wouldn't want to have to scale that eastern wall overlooking the river any time soon. ;-)
If a unit is being attacked by soldiers who've been coerced, it would seem the blame ought to go on the one forcing them to fight, not on the troops who are returning fire. We perceived the Iraqi troops in Desert Storm as victims of Saddam, and when captured they were treated with sympathy and compassion (I was there).
Excellent content, thanks for your point of view.