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  • Writer's pictureHelen Frowe

Combatants and Civilians: A Pernicious Distinction

The traditional approach to the ethics of war – famously defended by Michael Walzer in his seminal 1977 book Just and Unjust Wars – places enormous moral weight on the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. On this view, it is morally impermissible for Russian combatants to target Ukrainian civilians. This chimes with most people’s intuitions about the war: such attacks are, indeed, clearly morally wrong. But, according to this view, the flipside of this claim is that it is morally permissible for Russian combatants to target Ukrainian combatants. The moral protections afforded to civilians are, in effect, bought at the cost of combatants’ rights against intentional harm. As a result, the traditional view holds that Russian and Ukrainian combatants are on a moral par: all can fight justly, irrespective of the justness of their war, and neither does anything wrong in killing the other. Of course, the traditional view does permit the unintended, collateral killing of civilians, although such killings are, at least in theory, constrained by considerations of proportionality and necessity.

This traditional approach to the ethics of war, with its strong asymmetry between combatant killings and civilian killings, dominates public and political discourse about war. It also dominates international law. Russian soldiers are not liable to prosecution for targeting Ukrainian combatants, although they can be prosecuted for targeting civilians. It is also widely reflected in reporting on the war in Ukraine, where news outlets routinely single out attacks on civilians for particular condemnation (although this special condemnation is compatible with the weaker claim that while targeting Ukrainian civilians is morally worse than targeting Ukrainian combatants, targeting Ukrainian combatants is also wrong).

We should reject the idea that killing civilians is morally worse than killing combatants and, correlatively, the idea that targeting civilians is wrong and targeting combatants is permissible. This rejection has two key dimensions. The first is a rejection of the claim that civilians can never be legitimate targets in war. Whether a person is wronged by being attacked turns on facts about what she has done or will do. Both combatants and civilians can do things that cause them to forfeit rights against intentional harm – that is, each can contribute to unjustified wars in ways that make them liable to attack, including lethal attack.

Although this claim matters, and should inform our discussion of the permissibility of imposing sanctions on Russia, it is not my interest here. Rather, my interest lies in rejecting the view that combatants are always legitimate targets, even if they are engaged in justified defence, along with the somewhat weaker view that targeting such combatants is morally better than targeting civilians, even if both are wrong.

We should reject the idea that killing civilians is morally worse than killing combatants and, correlatively, the idea that targeting civilians is wrong and targeting combatants is permissible.

The war in Ukraine shows us, very starkly, just how implausible these purported asymmetries are. This is in part because it’s so transparent that everything that Russian combatants do is impermissible: that they have no legitimate targets at all because theirs is an unjustified war. The traditional, Walzerian view that Russian combatants can justly pursue a war of unjustified aggression is clearly false. We cannot carve off the morality of how a war is fought from the reasons why it is fought in the way that Walzer supposes.

It’s also in part because we’ve watched as Ukrainian civilians have either volunteered or been conscripted into the Ukrainian army. It is very hard to believe that targeting these people is either not wrong at all, or morally better than targeting someone who has not enlisted. To be clear, my claim here is not that Ukraine is a special case, where the usual significance of the combatant / non-combatant distinction somehow fails to obtain. All armed forces are made up of people who have rights against harm, and they don’t lose those rights by engaging in justified defensive actions. That’s as true for regular combatants as it is for conscripts and other irregular fighters.

News reports and political discussions often emphasise the defencelessness or vulnerability of civilians as a means of underscoring the badness of civilian killings, whether intentional or not (see e.g. here and here). Some philosophers also point to these ideas to motivate the thought that killing (or at least targeting) civilians is morally worse than killing combatants. But this doesn’t seem very persuasive. Anyone who has been killed by the Russians was, by definition, defenceless against being killed. Having access to ineffective means of defence doesn’t make one any less defenceless. Likewise, anyone who has been killed was, clearly, vulnerable to being killed. So the putative difference between combatant killings and civilian killings cannot be a difference between those who are defenceless and vulnerable and those who are not.

Rather, appeals to defencelessness and vulnerability seem to rest on the claim that it is morally significant that a civilian is more likely to be killed by an action compared to a combatant. After all, it’s true that a combatant is often more likely to be able to protect or defend herself than an unarmed civilian. But it’s hard to see why we should care about this difference when both the combatant and civilian are unjustifiably killed.

To see this, imagine the following scenario. Villain has only two bullets in a six-chambered gun. He unjustifiably shoots and kills Victim (and had a 1 in 3 chance of doing so). He then unjustifiably shoots and kills Second Victim (and had a 1 in 6 chance of doing so). Is the killing of Second Victim is morally better than the killing of Victim merely because it was less likely to happen? It seems doubtful. The victims’ ex ante chances of being killed seem irrelevant to our judgements of the badness of unjustifiably killing them. Likewise, the fact that the possible worlds in which a combatant survives a given attack are closer than those in which a non-combatant survives seems irrelevant to judging the badness of these killings. Of course, how likely an action is to cause harm can bear on whether the action is justified. But when the action is unjustified, as Russian actions in Ukraine are, these differences in the likelihood of causing harm do not seem important for our judgements about the badness of any resultant harms.

Anyone who has been killed by the Russians was, by definition, defenceless against being killed.

We might try to support the worseness of killing civilians by pointing to the fact that killing civilians can be a terroristic form of killing, where the civilians are killed as a means of coercing other people to perform certain actions, such as surrendering. In contrast, combatant killings are typically eliminative – that is, they aim at eradicating the threats that the combatants pose. I agree that it’s especially hard to justify harming a person as a means. Such useful harming is justified only when the victim has a duty to harmfully treat herself as a means for the sake of the end. For example, I may lethally shove you in front of a runaway trolley, using your body to block its path and thereby saving five lives, only if you have a duty to lethally jump in front of the trolley. Since we only very rarely have duties to incur lethal costs to ourselves for the sake of others, it is only very rarely that others are justified in lethally making use of us. The same is not true of imposing collateral harms; one can sometimes be justified in imposing a collateral harm on a person even if she has no duty to incur that cost. Collateral harms are thus easier to justify than useful harms, including terroristic harms.

But, again, I doubt that this matters much when it comes to comparing the badness of unjustified killings. The fact that it would have been comparatively easy to justify collaterally killing a person does not make collaterally killing her any morally better when she is killed for no good reason at all. This is why, for example, a person may plausibly use as much defensive force against an attacker who will otherwise unjustifiably collaterally kill her as she may use against an attacker who will otherwise unjustifiably usefully kill her. Moreover, even if this difference is morally significant even in the context of comparing unjustified killings, it will not support the worseness of civilian killings in general but rather only the worseness of some subset of civilian killings. And yet the popular view condemns civilian killings in general as worse than combatant killings, whether those killings are terroristic or not.

Another reason why people tend to believe that it’s especially bad to kill civilians is, of course, that civilians are (for the most part) harmless – that is, they’re not threatening the enemy forces. It’s probably this that explains why civilians are often described as ‘innocent’; after all, such a label can hardly be intended to describe the content of their characters. But this is not very compelling as an explanation of an asymmetry between civilian killings and combatant killings when combatants don’t act wrongly by threatening enemy forces, as is the case when Ukrainian combatants threaten Russian forces. The Ukrainian combatants might threaten harm, but they are no less morally innocent than their civilian counterparts.

The Ukrainian combatants might threaten harm, but they are no less morally innocent than their civilian counterparts.

Moreover, the fact that Ukrainian combatants are threatening Russian forces is one reason why killing members of the Ukrainian armed forces is at least sometimes morally worse than killing civilians. Killing Ukrainian combatants weakens the Ukrainian army and makes the Russians’ unjust war more likely to succeed. This means that killing Ukrainian combatants is not only an injustice in its own right, but also a means to a further grave injustice. In his recent condemnation of the war, Pope Francis lamented that the killing of “unarmed civilians” had “no valid strategic reason”. But this criticism seems wrongheaded. The Russians have no valid strategic reasons for any part of their war, if this is meant to refer to morally valid reasons. And if the underlying thought is, rather, that these killings are ineffective as a means of securing Russia’s aggressive aims, then it is hard to see how can this fact can make them worse than killings that do help the Russians to secure these aims.

We might object that Ukrainian combatants prefer that they be targeted rather than civilians. But even if this is true – and we should not assume that it is, not least given the make-up of the Ukrainian armed forces – it will not vindicate the claim that killing those combatants is permissible or morally better. Such a preference should not be mistaken for a type of consent, whereupon combatants waive their rights against being harmed in exchange for civilians’ being spared. Ukrainian combatants have not consented to being attacked by Russian soldiers. That Russia has forced them into a position where their best hope of protecting other people involves drawing Russian fire towards themselves does not make their deaths better than the deaths of civilians, let alone morally permissible.

Nothing I have said here will be news to philosophers who work on the ethics of war – nor, indeed, to anyone even roughly familiar with the shape of the debate over the last twenty-odd years. This is striking in its own right (and not merely as evidence of my own lack of originality). Hardly any scholars in this area endorse the strong traditional view that combatants are always legitimate targets and that, therefore, Russian combatants are morally permitted to kill Ukrainian combatants. Philosophy is famous for the slow burn, but it’s hard to think of many areas of public life in which the public and political discourse is dominated by a view that is almost universally rejected by experts in the field. Many philosophers also reject the view that killing justified combatants is morally better than killing civilians. The war in Ukraine is a powerful illustration of why they do so, and why we should stop emphasising the combatant / non-combatant distinction in describing the killing of Ukrainians and identifying only a subset of those Ukrainians who are killed as defenceless or innocent. All of those who have been killed were defenceless in the relevant respect. All of these people are also morally innocent in the relevant respect – that is, they have done nothing to forfeit their rights against harm in a way that could make them legitimate or permissible targets of Russian attacks or justify imposing collateral harms upon them. Our continued use of the combatant / non-combatant distinction to describe their deaths serves only to inadvertently imply a legitimacy about the killing of Ukrainian soldiers. And yet such killings are not only wrong but also every bit as morally bad as the killing of Ukrainian civilians.

Helen Frowe is Professor of Practical Philosophy and Knut and Alice Wallenberg Scholar at Stockholm University, where she directs the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


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