Vulnerability and Defencelessness in War
This paper is part of a monograph in progress, in which I seek to defend the following principle:
Distinction: In war, killing nonliable noncombatants is systematically more wrongful than killing nonliable combatants.
My approach is to advance a number of arguments that focus on properties that systematically co-vary with combatant/noncombatant status, and then to argue that while there may be exceptions to each argument, their effect when taken together is to provide decisive support for Distinction. In ordinary thinking about the morality of conflict, three properties of noncombatants stand out as the pretheoretical grounds for protecting them against the ravages of war. First, and most commonly, their moral innocence. Second, their harmlessness. The third is that noncombatants are especially vulnerable, or defenceless in war time. In this paper I focus on the last property. Part of the great crime of harming noncombatants is that you subject people to violence who are especially ill-equipped to resist and survive that violence. Killing nonliable people who are weak and defenceless seems prima facie more wrongful than killing the strong, when other things are equal. Nor is this view confined to the morality of war. The vulnerability or defencelessness of one's victims can aggravate the wrongdoing involved in crimes against persons—this is one reason why seriously harming children and the aged tends to attract special opprobrium. And if a social policy has disproportionate negative effects on the most vulnerable, that is typically viewed as a major count against it.
With this background in mind, in this chapter I seek to defend the following two theses, and then use them to support Distinction:
V: Other things equal, harming a nonliable person is more wrongful the more vulnerable that person is.
D: Other things equal, harming a nonliable person is more wrongful the more defenceless that person is.
I begin by analysing the concepts of vulnerability and defencelessness. Although they are closely related, vulnerability is the more inclusive concept. I then present a series of arguments for V and D, also explaining why their scope is restricted to nonliable victims. I then apply these to the justification of Distinction, arguing that nonliable noncombatants are indeed systematically more vulnerable and defenceless than nonliable combatants.
Seth Lazar’s research is in ethics and political philosophy, with a focus on the ethics of war and killing. His work includes articles on war and self-defence in Ethics and Philosophy and Public Affairs, as well as papers on associative duties, corrective justice, rights, and citizenship. For more on his work see sethlazar.org. He is also an award-winning photographer; for his pictures of Oxford see oxford-panoramas.co.uk, and for his travel photography, sethlazar.com.
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