The Moral Equality of Combatants

Authored by: Henrik Syse

The Ashgate Research Companion to Military Ethics

Print publication date:  January  2015
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9781472416285
eBook ISBN: 9781315613246
Adobe ISBN: 9781317042617


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The doctrine known as “the moral equality of combatants” (MEC) constitutes an important underpinning of the Laws of Armed Conflict. It holds combatants on both sides of a conflict to the same moral and legal standards, and thus holds them to have equal rights and responsibilities. While not an explicit part of classical just war tradition, MEC employs a crucial argument from that tradition, namely, that soldiers are not individually responsible for investigating the cause for which they fight and thus are normally not culpable if they fight in an unjust war. MEC also argues that soldiers should obey their lawful authorities and superiors, and that war is a collective enterprise. The proponents of the opposite view, the asymmetry thesis, argue that combatants on the unjust side of a war do not have the same rights as just combatants. Most particularly, they lack the moral right to kill combatants on the just side. According to this view, sometimes called the revisionist just war doctrine, soldiers and officers should carefully—when possible—evaluate the justice of the cause for which they fight, to avoid having to fight in an unjust war.

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