In this post, Helen Beebee & Alex Kaiserman discuss their recent article in the Causation in War Symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how a probabilistic account of causation speaks to civilian immunity in war.
According to orthodox just war theory, combatants in armed conflicts don’t have rights against being intentionally killed. But this position has come under sustained attack from moral theorists in recent years. What grounds permissible killing in war, many argue, is just what grounds permissible killing in ordinary life.
It’s not OK to kill someone out of revenge, or even because they just stole your expensive laptop and that’s the only way to retrieve it; but it is OK to kill them if they pose an immediate and unjustified threat to the life of you or your neighbour or a stranger, and killing them is the only way of averting that threat. Similarly for combatants: the right to life is universal, so if a combatant lacks such a right, it’s not in virtue of being a combatant, but rather in virtue of having forfeited her right by wrongfully contributing to an unjustified lethal threat to another person, thereby rendering her liable to be killed in self- or other-defence.
One consequence of this approach is that not all combatants are equal. If the armed forces of Aggressorland unjustifiably threaten the citizens of Victimland, they may forfeit their rights not to be killed by the armed forces of Victimland. But in threatening to respond in this way, the armed forces of Victimland do not forfeit their rights against being intentionally killed, because the threat they pose is justified. In some ways, then, this revisionist approach to the ethics of war offers more moral protections to agents in armed conflicts than traditional just war theory.
The focus of our paper, however, is on the consequences of such a view for non-combatants. On the face of it, if combatants shouldn’t be stripped of their rights to life simply in virtue of being combatants, then neither should non–combatants be allowed to keep their rights to life simply in virtue of being non-combatants. The civilians of Aggressorland may have wrongfully contributed in all kinds of ways to the unjustified threat to Victimland: by voting for the war, manufacturing arms, providing food and medical assistance, or writing pro-war articles, for example. The revisionist seems forced to concede that these civilians, as well as the combatants they support, are legitimate targets of defensive attack.