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Moral Equality of Combatants

  1. Saba Bazargan

Published Online: 1 FEB 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee343

The International Encyclopedia of Ethics

How to Cite

Bazargan, S. 2013. Moral Equality of Combatants. The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 FEB 2013


The moral equality of combatants (MEC) is a doctrine about the principles governing the conduct of combatants in a war (where “conduct” is taken to include not only how combatants are permitted to fight, but whether they are permitted to fight). According to MEC, the principles governing the conduct of combatants in a war do not depend on what side in the war the combatants are fighting on. Thus, if MEC is correct, then for any side in a war, the principles governing the conduct of the combatants do not depend on whether that side is fighting a just war. Consequently, if it is permissible to fight in a just war, combatants do no wrong by fighting in an unjust war. The most distinguished supporter of this application of MEC is Michael Walzer. In his influential book Just and Unjust Wars (2000), Walzer argues that the responsibility for waging an unjust war rests with military and civilian leaders – not with combatants who typically have no control over the decisions made by their leaders, and who typically are subjected to deception, indoctrination, and coercion by the state. Thus, in a war with a just and unjust side, the combatants fighting on the unjust side (unjust combatants) are typically no less morally innocent than those fighting on the just side (just combatants). Walzer argues that since both just and unjust combatants are morally innocent (unless they commit war crimes) the principles governing combat ought not to distinguish just combatants from unjust combatants.


  • practical (applied) ethics;
  • war and conflict