Can Soldiers be Expected to Know Whether Their War is Just?

Authored by: Jeff McMahan

Routledge Handbook of Ethics and War

Print publication date:  July  2013
Online publication date:  June  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415539340
eBook ISBN: 9780203107164
Adobe ISBN: 9781136261008


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One school of thought about the morality of war holds that it is impermissible to fight in a war that lacks a just cause and that soldiers who fight in such a war cannot evade responsibility for their participation by claiming that the government alone is responsible for determining whether the wars it fights are just. It is, however, commonly argued against this view that it is unreasonable to expect soldiers to be competent to judge whether a war is just or unjust. They typically have limited factual information, believe that theirs is a just society incapable of unjust aggression, trust the claims of their government and superior officers, and so on. Soldiers who fight in wars that are objectively unjust because they lack a just cause (“unjust combatants”) therefore tend to have one or the other of two mistaken moral beliefs: either that their war is just or that, although their war may be unjust, their participation in it is nevertheless morally permissible. When this is so, does that mean that these soldiers are morally justified in fighting? If not, does it mean that they are at least morally excused — that is, that even though they act wrongly, they are not blameworthy for doing so?

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