Complicity and the responsibility dilemma

  • Morten Højer Jensen


Jeff McMahan famously defends a moral inequality of combatants, where liability to be attacked and potentially killed in war, should be grounded in the individual combatant’s moral responsibility for posing an unjust threat. In a response, Seth Lazar shows that McMahan’s criterion for liability leads to an unacceptable dilemma between “contingent pacifism” and “total war”, i.e. between war being practically infeasible, or implausibly many civilians being legitimate targets. The problem is that McMahan grounds liability mainly in the individual’s causal responsibility for posing an unjust threat, but where a large proportion of combatants and civilians are approximately equally causally responsible. Recently, Saba Bazargan has come to the aid of McMahan by injecting an alternative supplementary criterion for liability, namely the individual’s complicity in a group act. This criterion is supposed to uphold the noted moral inequality, while avoiding the responsibility dilemma, by grounding moral incrimination in the individual’s participatory intention, instead of her causal contribution. I argue that the complicity account fails to resolve the dilemma. It fails because complicity grounded in a causally inert participatory intention is insufficient for liability. Further, I show why this reveals a deeper problem with the complicity account itself, namely that though it purports to ground incrimination non-causally, it fails to do so to any serious extent.


Moral responsibility Complicity Just war theory Responsibility dilemma Moral equality of combatants Liability Causal responsibility 



I wish to thank Olof Leffler for helpful comments on a section of an early draft of the paper as well as Morten Dige and Raffaele Rodogno for helpful feedback during a ELPP research seminar at Aarhus University (23/11/2017).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Viby JDenmark

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