Diminished moral responsibility of many enemy combatants

The straightforward examples used in my baseline argument for the moral justification for killing in war are not representative of many of the enemy combatants that we kill in the current wars. Many of those attackingIndigenous Security Forces or Coalition Forces (the good guys) are doing so solely to pay the bills, to put food on the table; others are uneducated and misinformed about the goals of each side in the wars. In other words, many of the attackers are not fully morally responsible for their actions. In terms of domestic self defense, they are more like: a drug addict who commits armed robbery and murder to finance his addiction; or a mentally disabled person who watched a violent movie, came across a loaded weapons, and is now “living the fantasy” by shooting innocent people; or like a man who mistakenly thinks that you raped and killed his mother and is coming to kill you.

In such cases, I think, we would say that using lethal force to stop the attack and protect the lives of innocent people is indeed still morally justified…but it is not satisfying, and is even tragic. When an attacker is not completely responsible for his life-threatening actions, it is sad—but nonetheless necessary and morally justified—to use lethal force in defense of the innocent.


Justin said...

How far would you suggest extending the moral responsibility to the agents who cause today's combattants to act in hostility?

Certainly a blackmailing agent must hold some (if not most) of the moral responsibility for the actions of the combattant.

What about the pamphleteer, who only gives an argument why the combattant should fight?

What about the public officials responsible for creating an economic environment of poverty where the combattant thinks he must take insurgent money and fight in order to survive?

What about international agencies or other nations that have caused a similar economic environment by embargoes or exploitative policies?

Things are guaranteed to get blurry when we start assigning moral responsibility to agents other than the original actor, but I believe that parallels your original position exactly.

I believe that is also what makes moral decisions in modern conflict so hard. I applaud your encouragement of leaders having these exact types of discussions with their troops.

Pete Kilner said...


These are interesting questions, although they are outside the scope of what I address with the moral justification of killing.

Although moral responsibility for the war belongs primarily to the political leaders who commit their militaries, each individual combatant is responsible for his/her actions. Anyone who is acting for an unjust cause, and therefore is threatening others rights, has forfeited his own right not to be killed.

Unknown said...

Two questions on your last comment Pete:
First, you say that if a soldier is fighting for an unjust war, he forfeited his right not to be killed. Examples of just war are pretty rare, do you mean that any soldier would forfeit his right to be killed, just because he belongs an army who has been told by its political leaders to lead an unjust war?
Second, if someone forfeited his right to be killed, do you think he could be killed in any way? Would it be moral to shoot him in the back, to trap him in a surprise attack, or in an ambush?

Pete Kilner said...

I disagree that just wars are rare. Almost every war includes an unjust aggressor, but it also includes a just defender of rights. Right now, the US's efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are just wars.

As to how you kill someone...those who fight for an unjust aggression have forfeited their right not to be killed, whether or not they realize that they are in the wrong. When it comes to how to kill someone, I think that there should be no attempt to cause unnecessary suffering. But there's nothing wrong with an ambush. Remember, the person you're ambushing is fighting on behalf of an unjust cause.

Apolloin said...

This point was brought clearly home to me recently when reading an interview the BBC had done with a suicide bomber whose charge had partially failed.

The boy (a teenager) had survived, albeit maimed, and spoke frankly about his reasons for carrying out the suicide attack. His naivety was completely out of step with the hateful nature of his action - all of it justified through religion.

Essentially the thrust of it comes down to this. The local Taliban spent a lot of time reading the Quran, so he assumed they were learned and holy. They told him that if he sacrificed himself killing infidels then he'd go straight to heaven. His Imam had told him that going to heaven was the sole purpose of a good life - so he figured that by becoming a Martyr he was simply skipping the drudgery of a life in poverty and cutting in line.

So he strapped an explosive vest on and detonated himself in a bank, which he was assured was full of infidels.

My head was ripped out of the clouds in the instant I read this. He didn't care about Israel or sovereignty or Danish cartoonists or anything else that I had assumed was important. He simply trusted his religion much, much more than his own inbuilt morality and common-sense.

As he lay in his hospital bed considering a life sans three of his original limbs he said that he now saw his original folly clearly - but we can't rip the arms and legs from every 15 year old tribal villager to make them see, can we?

At the same time his naivety was so total and complete that I couldn't muster up the usual contempt and anger that suicide bombers usually instill.

Pete Kilner said...

@ Justin: Another thought as I just re-read your post.

I'm thinking (not sure) that there's a thick line delineating those who engage with ideas (advocating for war) and those who take warlike actions.

We need to protect freedom of speech, even speech that we don't want to hear. Every heuman being has the right to engage with ideas. Ideas don't burst bubbles. Free speech is a condition for freedom and consentual rule of law.

But when someone takes an idea and uses it to violate the core rights of another, that is something that should be stopped.

In practical terms, the challenge we'd had with this in recent wars (and maybe all of them) is that so many people are uneducated, ignorant, and thus not capable of engaging in critical thinking about ideas, that ideas become de facto calls to arms.

As for those in the supply chain of a warlike act, I'm all for holding them fully accountable. Even in domestic law, conspiracy to commit murder is punished as harshly as acts of murder (or so I'm told). But thre has to be a "direct link." Kill the guy transporting IED components? Yes. Kill the politician whose bad policies created conditions in which a guy decides to transport IED components? No.

beauty tip said...

something hard to explain in wars is if you will be thinking of the morality aspect of killing will it still be important of the idea of killing or be killed weighs more.

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