I’m currently working on a paper about terrorism, and I decided my first post would concern one of the main issues in that paper. It might seem to be common sense that what is wrong with terrorist acts like the attack on the World Trade Center is that such acts target innocent persons. In fact this is pretty much the traditional account: traditional just war theory states that one limitation on the conduct of war is that one may never intentionally kill innocent persons. (However, in a just war it is sometimes permissible to do things that you foresee will result in the unintended deaths of some innocent persons, via the Doctrine of Double Effect or something like it.)
Now I happen to think that the traditional account is true: what makes terrorism particularly morally abhorrent is that it takes innocent persons as its targets.
However, many philosophers reject that claim, and the account as a whole: they say that, to the extent that there is reason to distinguish between combatants and civilians (so that in a just war, the former may be killed intentionally, but the latter may only be killed unintentionally), this is not because civilians are innocent and combatants are not. Why not? The most common answer is: because combatants may be innocent too (and, by extension, civilians may be guilty.)
Thus, George Mavrodes writes: “a young man of limited mental ability and almost no education may be drafted, put into uniform, trained for a few weeks, and sent to the front as a replacement in a low-grade unit. He may have no understanding of what the war is about, and no heart for it. He might want nothing more than to go back to his town, and the life he led before. But he is “engaged,” carrying ammunition, perhaps, or stringing telephone wire or even banging away ineffectually with his rifle. He is without doubt a combatant, and “guilty,” a fit subject for intentional slaughter. Is it not clear that “innocence,” as used here, leaves out entirely all of the relevant moral considerations—that it has no moral content at all?” (“Conventions and the Morality of War,” Phil & Public Affairs 1975, 117-131.)
To me, though, this objection to the traditional account just doesn’t get off the ground. Why place so much importance on how a person feels, as opposed to what he does? Suppose someone working for the mob, before killing a suspected informant, sincerely says “I really regret having to do this; I’m only following orders, you know. I’d much rather be sitting at home right now. In fact, I don’t really even understand what this is all about.” Would this defense fly in a court of law? Suppose the killer is not too bright and has no education. Would this incline the family of the victim to forgive him? Would it so incline us? Mavrodes’ argument seems to be a version of what I call the Sentimental Fallacy: that, morally speaking, a person’s feelings matter far more than their actions. (Stanley Milgram writes compellingly about how people in his obedience experiments often tended to forgive themselves for (as they thought) giving painful shocks to innocent persons by telling themselves, ‘I don’t really want to do this, I’m not this kind of person,’ etc.) So, contra Mavrodes’ claim, ‘innocent’ has here a great deal of moral content: a child, for instance, is clearly and uncontroversially innocent, while a soldier, having chosen to be on the battlefield, is not.
I’d like to know what people think about the Sentimental Fallacy, and whether they agree that it really is a fallacy; also, whether people think the traditional account of the distinction between combatants and noncombatants can be sustained. (There are certainly issues here that I have not broached, for reasons of space.) My core view, by the way, is based in a kind of individualism: because war is such a terrible thing, people should have the right to opt out of it; the mere fact that Peter’s country is at war should not make Peter a legitimate target, unless Peter himself has, in some strong sense, chosen to go to war. Combatants, of course, have made that choice; so they are legitimate targets. (This is true even in conscription—a draft order is just another order that need not be obeyed—though admittedly the issue is tougher here because there are penalties for disobedience. But then again, the penalties are usually not as bad as going to war is.)