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The moral equality of combatants
The moral equality of combatants

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3 McMahan’s criticism of Walzer

McMahan doubts option A. He generalises the point as follows:

Suppose a malicious person attacks you unjustly. Would you lose your right not to be attacked by him simply by trying to defend yourself? No. People don’t lose moral rights by justifiably defending themselves or other innocent people against unjust attack.

(2006, p. 379)

What matters here, McMahan is suggesting, is that the malicious person is in the wrong in the first place: that their attack on you is unjust and so impermissible. Suppose we find out the ‘back story’ to the photograph above: one of the gunmen has charged in, unprovoked, and attacked the other without good reason. Should this further information alter our judgement about the case?

One reason I called the view above the ‘simple view’ is that it says nothing about whether the sides are just or unjust. McMahan thinks we should add that in. Consider a situation in which an unjust combatant threatens a just combatant with lethal force. Does it follow that the unjust combatant is therefore liable to be killed? This seems to make sense. Now consider the counterpart: a just combatant threatens an unjust combatant with lethal force and the just combatant is therefore liable to be killed. This claim is not so obvious. McMahan thinks that it is false.

To see why he thinks it is false, we need to differentiate between ‘material non-innocence’ and ‘ moral non-innocence ’. A person is materially non-innocent if they pose a lethal force. A person is morally non-innocent if they are doing something that morally they should not be doing. Consider an example. In 1943, the Jews of Warsaw forcibly resisted attempts by the German army to round them up and send them to extermination camps. In such a case, it does not seem wrong to resist obvious injustice with lethal force. Indeed, it is easy to argue that one is morally obliged to defend one’s community against invasion, violation or extermination. And you cannot lose your right to life from doing what you are morally obliged to do. Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto did everything they could to present a lethal threat to the German army, which was seeking to destroy the Ghetto and kill its inhabitants. As they did pose a lethal threat they were materially non-innocent. They were not, however, morally non-innocent.

McMahan’s claim is that Walzer ignores the broader moral background. The morally non-innocent do not gain rights over the morally innocent but materially non-innocent by virtue of the latter’s attempts at resistance. The German army did not gain a moral right to kill the Ghetto resistors as a result of that resistance.

Building on this insight – if it is one – about the morality of self-defence, a number of recent philosophers have come up with a revisionist account of just war which says, more or less, that all the standard elements of the Just War Tradition as I have discussed it above are wrong . The view has important philosophical consequences, and significant real-world consequences. Let us see how it gets going.

Activity 5

Now read Reading 2 ‘McMahan on the moral equality of combatants’ at the end of this free course. This is an extract from McMahan’s article ‘On the moral equality of combatants’, which appeared in the Journal of Political Philosophy .

Link to Reading 2

Once you have read the extract, answer the following questions:

  1. What two distinct uses of ‘innocent’ does McMahan distinguish?
  2. What two requirements of JiB does McMahan think unjust combatants cannot satisfy? (He argues for only one of his claims in the reading.)
  3. McMahan finds two arguments for Walzer’s position; only the first of these is covered in the reading. What is that argument?
  4. What three objections does McMahan have to that argument?


  1. ‘Innocent’ meaning ‘civilian’ (or ‘non-combatant’) and ‘innocent’ meaning people who ‘have done nothing, and are doing nothing, that entails the loss of their rights’.
  2. He thinks they can satisfy neither the requirement of discrimination nor that of proportionality. (You might want to remind yourself of these by looking again at the start of the course.)
  3. ‘The boxing match model’: ‘combatants understand that they and their adversaries are all fulfilling their professional role and at least implicitly they consent to be done to by their adversaries as they are doing unto them.’

    • (i) Combatants do not always consent to being attacked by their adversaries.
    • (ii) Even if just combatants did consent, someone consenting to being killed does not always make it permissible to kill them.
    • (iii) Even if Walzer’s arguments worked, that would show only that unjust combatants could kill just combatants. However, unjust combatants’ actions would still be wrong because they are in service of an unjust cause.

The revisionist view denies the moral equality of combatants and the independence of the JiB and JaB conditions. The standard view of the Just War Tradition is that combatants on the unjust side in a war can fight justly if they obey the JiB conditions. But the revisionists say: they cannot obey the JiB conditions.