Commonsense Morality and the Ethics of Killing in War: An Experimental Survey of the Israeli Population

Forthcoming Law and Ethics of Human Rights

45 Pages Posted: 30 Jun 2012 Last revised: 4 Dec 2015

See all articles by Yitzhak Benbaji

Yitzhak Benbaji

Tel Aviv University - Buchmann Faculty of Law

Amir Falk

Bar Ilan University, Department of Psychology

Yuval Feldman

Bar-Ilan University - Faculty of Law

Date Written: March 05, 2014

Abstract

The morality of killing in war, which has been the subject of debate among philosophers and legal scholars, focuses on two main approaches: the “traditional” and the “revisionist.” The traditional approach argues for symmetry: soldiers of both sides are liable to be killed, whether or not the war they fight is just; civilians are immune from being harmed whether or not they are responsible for the evil against which the just side fights. Recently this approach has been challenged by a revisionist viewpoint, which derives the morality of killing in war from facts concerning the responsibility of individuals for wrongful threats. Killing soldiers who fight a just war is morally impermissible, whereas in certain cases killing civilians who are involved in an unjust aggression is permissible. The present study uses an experimental survey to examine whether moral attitudes toward targeting individuals in war are shaped by the factors underlying this debate: the cause of the war, the status of the targeted individuals as soldiers or civilians, and their involvement in the war effort. Respondents comprised a representative sample of the Jewish population in Israel. Our findings reveal a complex interplay between the factors, demonstrating the relevance of each factor to moral judgments. Notably, participants did not consider decisions on the battlefield to be independent of the justification of the war, a result which is consistent with the revisionist approach. We discuss the potential consequences of our findings on the understanding of commonsense morality and on the law. We also suggest that concepts derived from the social-psychological literature concerning moral self-regulation may help explain some of our findings.

Keywords: Common sense morality, Moral intuition, Experimental Philosophy, Collateral damage, Rules of engagment, Experimental field research

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Benbaji, Yitzhak and Falk, Amir and Feldman, Yuval, Commonsense Morality and the Ethics of Killing in War: An Experimental Survey of the Israeli Population (March 05, 2014). Forthcoming Law and Ethics of Human Rights . Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2094022 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2094022

Yitzhak Benbaji

Tel Aviv University - Buchmann Faculty of Law ( email )

Ramat Aviv
Tel Aviv 69978, IL
Israel

Amir Falk

Bar Ilan University, Department of Psychology ( email )

Israel

Yuval Feldman (Contact Author)

Bar-Ilan University - Faculty of Law ( email )

Faculty of Law
Ramat Gan, 52900
Israel

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