The moral equality of combatants
There is a third component in the arguments of many conventional just war theorists. This is the idea of the moral equality of combatants (MEC) . The exact status of this view is contentious. Arguably, the classical theorists of just war – Grotius and Vitoria – did not hold this view. But Michael Walzer, whose (1977) book Just and Unjust Wars set the parameters of the philosophical debate about war, does hold this view, and does so explicitly. What does ‘the moral equality of combatants’ mean, what are the implications of this claim, and how might it be justified?
The moral equality of combatants thesis states that:
Combatants on both sides of a war, regardless of the justice of their cause, are equally permitted to kill each other and equally liable to be killed. (In everyday language ‘liable to be killed’ means ‘likely to be killed’ but here the word has a different meaning: it establishes who, morally speaking, may be killed.)
We might think about this as follows: imagine two soldiers confronting each other. If they are morally equal, then they must have the same moral rights as each other. In war, this means the right to kill each other.
The idea is that we can abstract the individual soldiers from the overall justice or injustice of the cause that they are fighting for, and consider them as individuals confronting each other face to face. If we consider them as such, each threatens the other, so each is liable to be killed by the other, and each has a right to defend him- or herself from the threat of the other. Clearly, under some circumstances, the right to self-defence amounts to a permission to kill the person who threatens, because that is the only way in which I can defend myself. I hope that you can see the way that moral symmetry here seems to build up.
The idea of the moral equality of combatants can be put in a less analytical and abstract way. Walzer does so in the extract about Hitler’s generals, which I will ask you to read next. The extract starts by discussing the case of Erwin Rommel.