A Journal of Philosophy, Applied to the Real World


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Seth Lazar’s “Associative Duties and the Ethics of Killing in War” is an original, rich, challenging, and intricately argued contribution to our understanding of the ethics of war. Its main aim is to explain how fighting in a war can be permissible when warfare inevitably involves the killing of people who are not liable to be killed—a problem that is more extensive than it may seem.

Civilians are almost inevitably killed in war and Lazar accepts that few if any civilians are liable to be killed in war. In principle, of course, a war could be fought without killing civilians, and certainly without killing them intentionally. Yet it is scarcely possible to fight a war, or at least a war in the familiar sense, without intending to kill enemy combatants. Lazar believes, however, that many combatants are not liable to be killed. As I and others have argued, those who fight for a just cause in a just war (“just combatants”), and by permissible means, do nothing to make themselves morally liable to be killed—that is, they do nothing to forfeit or lose their right not to be killed. And Lazar himself has argued, in previous work, that many combatants who fight in wars that lack a just cause (“unjust combatants”) are also not liable to be killed. This is because the harm that, as individuals, they threaten to cause is insufficiently great or because the degree to which they are responsible for the harm they threaten is too low. I think he is right about this, though I think the proportion of unjust combatants who are not liable to be killed is in most cases lower than he thinks it is.

Like Mele and Shepherd, I don’t believe that the news coming out of the cognitive sciences is as bad as some prominent scientists have claimed. The situationist literature on which they focus, for instance, demonstrates only that autonomous agency is sometimes constrained in ways we might not have suspected, not that we are never autonomous agents at all; much the same message is appropriately drawn from work on nonconscious biases and priming. Moreover, I agree with Mele and Shepherd that the same sciences that deliver us this moderately bad news also deliver good news, in the form of findings about how negative influences on our behavior from situational forces and nonconscious biases may be counteracted. However, I think the news is overall less good than they think, and our capacity to counter the negative influences through education (in particular) is more restricted than they claim. I will briefly explain why education is less powerful than Mele and Shepherd believe, before ending with some good news of my own

After outlining the ways in which situations can exert an unexpectedly large influence on behavior, Mele and Shepherd argue that we can counter these effects when we are aware of them. If I know about the bystander effect, for instance, I can wonder if it is at work in reducing my motivation to help in a particular case. By imagining how I would react were I the only witness, I might counteract the effect and produce better behavior in myself. I do not deny that this might sometimes work. But I think there are a number of reasons to doubt that educating people about the bystander effect will have any significant effects. First, there is a great deal of resistance among ordinary people (including educated people) to believing findings like these. Second, and worse, even among those who accept the findings there is little acceptance that these kinds of influences affect them (the great majority of physicians, for instance, accept that gifts from pharmaceutical companies influence their colleagues, but most deny that it influences them).