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Killing Innocent People is Wrong

Does that make war immoral?

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One of the most common antiwar arguments is the fact that wars result in the deaths of innocent people. This objection accepts that a state may have a vested interest in pursuing attackers and even killing them, but points out that the justice involved with such actions is quickly offset when innocent lives are put at risk or even lost. This deontological position argues that genuine justice requires that we preserve the lives of the innocent: terror is not a moral response to terror and killing innocent people is not a moral response to the deaths of innocent people.

This can be a powerful argument because it cuts right to the heart of even the most justified wars. For example, if a nation is the victim of an unprovoked attack and thousands of citizens and/or military personnel who have done nothing wrong are killed, there is an immediate desire to retaliate and punish those responsible. Surely if any war is justified, then such a war of self-defense and retaliation should be.

However, if the responding nation also kills innocent people as part of its quest for justice, isn't it committing an injustice of similar scope as that which caused it to engage in warfare in the first place? Why was it wrong for the attacking government to kill innocents as part of its goals, but not wrong for the responding nation? Aren't both cases examples of serious (even if not quite equivalent) injustice?

A further pragmatic point is that if the killing of innocents is part of even a justified response to an attack, this will cause resentment and hatred which will, over time, simply fuel a continual circle of violence and counter-violence. Thus, even if there are no deontological reasons to refrain from a retaliation which kills innocent people, there may be very sound pragmatic reasons to hesitate and/or seek other solutions.

Upon closer inspection we can find that this argument suffers from a number of weaknesses. The primary problem comes in distinguishing between the "innocent" and those who are justified targets of warfare. Traditionally this distinction is the same as the one between the military and civilians or combatants and noncombatants, but that isn't always justified. Who is a more justified target: a conscript on the front lines who would rather be home tending a garden, or a political functionary back home who is happily in charge of conscripting gardeners?

Who is a more justified target: a general who disagrees with the war but feels that he must "do his duty" and follow the orders of his political superiors, or a propagandist who would never actually join the military herself but who actively supports the war and is in fact personally responsible for whipping the populace into a war-frenzy? Neither the military/civilian nor the combatant/noncombatant distinction appears entirely justified here.

There are also further complications when we consider the situation of democracies. In a democracy the people are sovereign, and as such can be held accountable for the actions of their government. Even those who vehemently disagree with the government participate in the democratic process and as a consequence implicitly accept the fact that the results may be disagreeable. If all participants share some responsibility for the results, can it really be said that anyone of voting age in a democratic state can be excluded as a legitimate target in a war?



Finally, if the argument that "killing innocent civilians is wrong" is allowed to serve as a reason to reject warfare completely, we are led to adopt the principle that there is a genuine moral difference between acts of commission and acts of omission. To understand why, it must be kept in mind that this position rejects the possibility of any war in which innocent civilians must die being just or moral.

It is easy to imagine that a dictator is repressing a religious minority, even to the point of possible extermination, but economic and political sanctions have failed to cause any change in his policies. If the people are to be saved, only military action will suffice - but that, unfortunately, will result in the death of civilians, including some of those of the minority we are hoping to rescue.

If wars are immoral when they cause the deaths of innocent people, then such a war of liberation must also immoral. Does that mean that our only moral course of action is not to act at all, even though by not acting we allow innocent people to be exterminated anyway? Isn't such inaction at least as immoral as action?

The argument that we should not act in order to avoid killing innocents suggests that such an act of omission isn't as immoral as the act of commission (war). That is a deontological position because it privileges a moral rule (do not kill innocents) over the possible consequences (saving even more innocents); as such, it is something which might be argued by a deontological pacifist, but not a pragmatic pacifist.

Perhaps that is the most reasonable and most moral position available to us, but that isn't obviously true and there are good reasons to think that such a war, even if it has some unjust consequences, is ultimately the most just and moral course of action. It seems to be an error of this argument to assume that the deaths of innocent people always means that war is wrong, but it may nevertheless be a valid objection which a particular war must overcome in order to be justified.


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