The Moral Equality Of Combatants

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A Critical Notice – “On the Moral Equality of Combatants” * Jeff McMahan It has previously been the view that combatants on both sides of a war act permissibly, even if the war is unjust, so long as they obey the laws of war. Jeff McMahan’s paper is an alleged refutation of this just war theory. His main points concern the culpability of combatants fighting in war for an unjust cause and the innocence of those being attacked, who are merely using legitimate force to defend themselves. His main contemporary opponent on this matter, Michael Waltzer claims that civilians are innocent because they have “done nothing wrong, and are doing nothing that entails the loss of their rights.” McMahan’s claims that this is also true of combatants who have a just cause to fight, or who are defending themselves. He illustrates this claim by saying that a person who acts legitimately in self-defence is not considered guilty and does not render his or her rights forfeit. McMahan concludes that just combatants are every bit as innocent as civilians. Several challenges might be posed to this, though I take particular reservation with McMahan’s view that combatants using self-defence are morally equivalent to civilians in terms of their innocence. Terrorists, for example consider themselves justified in combat. In the case of jihadist Muslims there is a definite conviction that God has charged them with duties, some of which entail ending the lives of those who do subscribe to their messianic reign of terror. McMahan is wrong in this instance if he is suggesting that Islamic fundamentalism is innocent in combat, simply because the allied forces went to war for an unjust cause. One side is every bit as culpable as the other. McMahan must concede then that he has rendered his distinction of a just war subjective, thus soldiers may be making
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