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

Yitzhak Benbaji, Amir Falk, Yuval Feldman

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7 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)195-227
Number of pages33
JournalLaw and Ethics of Human Rights
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Nov 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 by De Gruyter.


  • commonsense morality
  • jus in bello
  • just war theory
  • moral self-regulation
  • revisionist approach


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