Complicitous Liability in War

Philosophical Studies, (2013) 165:177-195

27 Pages Posted: 4 Feb 2017 Last revised: 13 Mar 2017

See all articles by Saba Bazargan-Forward

Saba Bazargan-Forward

UC San Diego; University of San Diego School of Law

Date Written: 2013


Jeff McMahan has argued against the moral equivalence of combatants (MEC) by developing a liability-based account of killing in warfare. On this account, a combatant is morally liable to be killed only if doing so is an effective means of reducing or eliminating an unjust threat to which that combatant is contributing. Since combatants fighting for a just cause generally do not contribute to unjust threats, they are not morally liable to be killed; thus MEC is mistaken. The problem, however, is that many unjust combatants contribute very little to the war in which they participate — often no more than the typical civilian. Thus either the typical civilian is morally liable to be killed, or many unjust combatants are not morally liable to be killed. That is, the liability based account seems to force us to choose between a version of pacifism, and total war. Seth Lazar has called this ‘‘The Responsibility Dilemma’’. But I will argue that we can salvage a liability-based account of war — one which rejects MEC — by grounding the moral liability of unjust combatants not only in their individual contributions but also in their com- plicit participation in that war. On this view, all enlistees, regardless of the degree to which they contribute to an unjust war, are complicitously liable to be killed if it is necessary to avert an unjust threat posed by their side. This collectivized liability based account I develop avoids the Responsibility Dilemma unlike individualized liability-based accounts of the sort developed by McMahan.

Keywords: Complicity, War, Moral Equality of Combatants, Just War Theory

Suggested Citation

Bazargan-Forward, Saba, Complicitous Liability in War (2013). Philosophical Studies, (2013) 165:177-195 , Available at SSRN:

Saba Bazargan-Forward (Contact Author)

UC San Diego ( email )

9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, CA 92093-0119
United States


University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States

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