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Just War and Unjust Soldiers: American Public Opinion on the Moral Equality of Combatants (ELAC Colloquium)

Tuesday 13 November, 3pm
Senior Common Room, Nuffield College
Members of the University only, booking not required

Organised by Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC)

Professor Scott Sagan (Stanford University) will present his paper with Professor Benjamin Valentino (Dartmouth), entitled “Just War and Unjust Soldiers: American Public Opinion on the Moral Equality of Combatants”. Professor Jeff McMahan (Oxford) will serve as discussant. The session will be chaired by Dr Janina Dill (Oxford).

ABSTRACT: One of the most significant debates among contemporary scholars of the ethics of war centers 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. This article examines the attitudes of the American public regarding the moral equality of combatants. Utilizing an original survey experiment, we 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. We 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, we find 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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