Ethics & International Affairs Volume 20.4 (Winter 2006): Articles: Killing Soldiers [Abstract]

Nov 28, 2006

A riddle in the ethics of war concerns whether lethal defensive force may be justifiably used against aggressing soldiers who are morally innocent. In this essay I argue that although there might be reasons for excusing soldiers as individuals, one may be justified in using defensive force against them provided that they have initiated threatening behavior and that our interpretation of that behavior as threatening is reasonable. I go on to investigate various implications of being in conflict with aggressing soldiers who are morally innocent, arguing that different restrictions apply to the use of defensive force when the aggressors cannot be held morally responsible for being aggressors. My argument has important practical implications both for deciding whether to go to war and for deciding how to fight a just defensive war.

Concerning the ongoing Iraq war, for example, it suggests that if it were only a matter of killing culpable members of the Republican Guard, invasion could perhaps have been justified. Since any attack would involve killing innocent conscripted soldiers as well as innocent civilians, however, there were good reasons to wait to see whether options other than intervening militarily would become available. If we are engaged in a just defensive war, my argument implies that we must accept a higher level of risk and more harm if we can assume that the aggressors are innocent rather than morally responsible for their harmful or threatening behavior.

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