In this ELAC Colloquium, Professor Scott Sagan (Stanford University) and Professor Benjamin Valentino (Dartmouth) will present their paper entitled 'Just war and unjust soldiers: American public opinion on the moral equality of combatants'. Professor Jeff McMahan (Oxford) will serve as discussant and Dr Janina Dill (Oxford) will chair the discussion.
One of the most significant debates among contemporary scholars of the ethics of war centres on the principle of the moral equality of combatants. Traditional just war doctrine holds that only political leaders are morally responsible for the decision to initiate war, while individual soldiers should be judged solely by the nature of their conduct in war, not by the justice of the war’s cause. According to this view, therefore, soldiers fighting in an unjust war of aggression and the soldiers on the opposing side seeking to defend their country from attack are 'morally equal' as long as each obeys the rules of combat. 'Revisionist' just war scholars, however, object to the moral equality principle. These scholars maintain that soldiers who fight for an unjust cause bear at least some responsibility for their role in advancing an immoral end, even if they conduct themselves ethically during the war.
Utilising an original survey experiment, the authors find that the public’s moral reasoning is generally more consistent with revisionism than with traditional just war theory. Americans judge soldiers who participate in unjust wars as significantly less ethical than soldiers who participate in just wars, even when their battlefield conduct is identical. The authors also find, however, that the American public is willing to extend the ethical license of just cause significantly further than virtually all revisionist scholars advocate. A large proportion of the public is willing to support harsh punishments for soldiers for mere participation in unjust wars, a policy many revisionists explicitly reject. Furthermore, the study finds that half of the U.S. public is willing to overlook soldiers’ participation in unambiguous war crimes when the crimes are committed by combatants fighting for a just cause.
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This event is co-hosted by the Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC) which is based at the Blavatnik School of Government.