Degrees of Wrongness: Judging combatants’ actions in war

War casualty

Hanne Melgård Watkins, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Imagine a soldier shooting an enemy soldier at war. How do people make moral judgments about this soldier and his actions? Uncovering the answer to this descriptive question matters, because making judgments – moral and legal – about combatants and their actions is one way of regulating the scope and violence of war. When I first became interested in this question, as a student of psychology I naturally looked to the social psychology and moral psychology literature for answers. 

Judgment by Social Psychology: In-Group Bias

I found that the typical social psychology answer would be: “the judgments people make will mostly depend on whether the soldier is from their country or not”. Decades of research have shown that people strive to maintain a positive image of their own group – whether it’s their family, sports team, or nation. As a result, they will view the actions of their own country’s soldiers more positively, and be motivated to distort and bend the facts to excuse, justify, or disengage from any immoral actions those soldiers perform. A soldier from a different country, on the other hand, will not be viewed as positively; and if this soldier does something immoral the same excuses are not applied. Ingroup bias and moral disengagement are powerful and familiar phenomena, often evoked to explain many kinds of violence and immoral behavior.

Judgment by Moral Psychology: Generalising from normal life

A moral psychologist, on the other hand, will most likely be thinking less about groups, and more about the various factors that contributed to the soldier’s actions in a given scenario. Did he cause harm? Did he act intentionally? Was he obeying orders? Could he have done otherwise? These factors – harm, intentionality, duress, constraint – are among the many that have been shown in experimental studies to influence moral judgments. But, by and large, these factors have not been studied in war. Thus, a moral psychologist will be in the slightly tricky position of trying to generalize from a body of research primarily conducted in an “everyday”, default, context – which generally concludes that one of the gravest moral wrongs is intentional harm – to the starkly different, violent, context of war. 

But the moral psychology perspective taught me one especially important thing, which is missing from the social psychological perspective. Moral psychologists have recognized that third-party observers play an important role in morality. That is, our social world is made up not just of first-party perpetrators and second-party victims (or benefactors and beneficiaries), but also of third-party observers: observers who judge, condemn, praise, and punish; and in doing so, help regulate people’s behaviour and facilitate cooperation. These third-party observers could quite easily be from a third country, rather than from the same country as the soldier (or his enemy!) fighting in war.

This third-party perspective was one I was drawn towards. This in turn led me to study the philosophy and laws of war, which also generally take a third-party perspective. Specifically (and recognizing perhaps a human tendency towards ingroup bias), many just war theorists insist that the principles governing the conduct of war should apply to all combatants, no matter whether they are from your country or not. Combatants on both (all) sides of the conflict ought to abide by the principles of discrimination and proportionality; combatants on neither side of the conflict is permitted to use weapons that are mala a se. These principles, discovered and developed by philosophers, have also made their way into international laws of war. The International Criminal Court, and other international tribunals – while no doubt imperfect in many ways – strive for fairness and even-handedness when dealing with perpetrators and victims of war crimes. 

Philosophers and lawyers differ from moral and social psychologists in that their focus is on a prescriptive question: how should we judge a soldier at war? However, my research eventually resulted in a synthesis of these different elements – social psychology, moral psychology (which already share a lot of methods and theories), and the principles of the conduct of war (from international law and just war theory) – to develop a framework for studying moral judgments made about combatants at war

War and Peace are not the same: Context matters

From the prescriptive perspectives, I take the assumption that war is very different from peace; we therefore can and should investigate the moral judgments people make and the values they hold in a way that incorporates the context at play. I also argue, in contrast to the social psychological perspective but consistent with much philosophical theorizing on war, that we can investigate moral judgments made about combatants independently from judgments made about their countries. (Given the strength of ingroup bias, and the general groupishness of humans, this may, however, be a more difficult task). And finally, applying this framework means eliciting judgments about soldiers’ actions in various scenarios from third-party observers (i.e., not from ingroup members) and experimentally varying different factors in a given scenario, in order to discover how people do, in fact, make moral judgments about soldiers and their actions in war. 

This research is still in its early stages, but my colleagues and I (and other researchers) have already found that the principle of discrimination is generally upheld in these types of experimental studies; that even in war, there are degrees of wrongness; that people in general are quite bad at separating the soldier from the war (“hate the war, love the warrior” doesn’t pan out in practice; and that (holding all else equal), the war context makes people slightly more likely to accept a “utilitarian” trade-off (killing one person to save five). Taken as a whole, this work suggests that the philosophy and laws of war sometimes align well with a “commonsense morality” of war, other times not; and also, importantly validates the intuition that context matters. 

Towards an interdisciplinary perspective on war situations

These findings would not have been established – partly because the questions would not have been asked – if we had followed social psychology’s habits of thinking about war from the perspective of “ingroups vs. outgroups”, or if we had followed moral psychology’s habit of thinking about morality as (fairly) decontextualized. Specific, unique, laws and moral philosophy have been developed for the (international) domain of war (as opposed to the domestic domain): Experimental social and moral psychology should follow suit if we want to learn something about how people make moral judgments in this context as well.

Going forward, I’m excited about the many ways that the behavioral sciences – including psychology – are contributing to policy in a variety of fields, and that experimental lab studies and public opinion are finding their place in policy discussions. To understand moral judgments in war, and for psychology to contribute to foreign policy as well, we will also need a broad interdisciplinary perspective which puts the unique features of this context at the core.