This isn’t a post about whether the American Sniper film is propaganda, or whether Chris Kyle is a hero or a psychopath. Rather, it’s just about the ethics of sniping.

I’ll start with personal history. For a couple of years in middle school, I had quite a few fist-fights. I don’t tolerate people bullying me, so whenever someone attempted to do so, I fought back as hard as possible. I usually won, and so the bullying stopped.

Why convey this all-too-typical description of American public school boyhood? Well, there’s a recent internet spat about whether snipers are “cowards”. Here’s the bourgeois media tycoon Michael Moore on his dad‘s view of snipers:

“Lots of talk about snipers this weekend (the holiday weekend of a great man, killed by a sniper), so I thought I’d weigh in with what I was raised to believe about snipers. My dad was in the First Marine Division in the South Pacific in World War II,” Moore wrote. “His brother, my uncle, Lawrence Moore, was an Army paratrooper and was killed by a Japanese sniper 70 years ago next month. My dad always said, ‘Snipers are cowards. They don’t believe in a fair fight. Like someone coming up from behind you and coldcocking you. Just isn’t right. It’s cowardly to shoot a person in the back. Only a coward will shoot someone who can’t shoot back.'”

Moore’s dad seems to think war is a like a large-scale schoolyard fight. Schoolyard fights, stupid and worthless as they are, still tend to be governed by a sense of honor. This leads to various informal norms, such as a norms against kicking in the groin, sucker-punching the opponent, or fighting two-on-one. It’s supposed to be a fair one-on-one fight. The fight’s supposed to stop if the opponent goes down and stays down. Etc.

Perhaps these norms are appropriate for the schoolyard, but let’s ask whether they apply to war.

In war, the main moral questions are whether one is the rightful or wrongful user of force, whether one is justified in killing or not, and whether one is liable to be killed or not. To illustrate, consider the following dialogue, between Iggy the Unjust Invader and Kylie, the Defensive Sniper. Suppose Iggy has unjustly invaded Kylie’s homeland in order to steal its resources and enslave its people. Kylie has just shot Iggy from a roof from 2000 feet away, and has now come over to have a chat with Iggy before he dies. (Suppose she can’t save him.)

Iggy: “No fair! I had no chance of shooting you back. I couldn’t see you. I was in danger and you weren’t. It wasn’t a fair fight.”
Kylie: “Why should it be a ‘fair’ fight?”
Iggy: “Because we’re both soldiers!”
Kylie: “Yes, but I’m defending my homeland against your aggression, while you are aggressing against us. So, again, why should I expose myself to any danger at all? Indeed, it would be even better if I could waive a magic wand from the comfort of my home that would simply kill all of you, without exposing me to any risk or discomfort whatsoever.”
Iggy: “But that’s cowardly! We couldn’t shoot back!”
Kylie: “You shouldn’t be shooting at all, let alone shooting back. You shouldn’t be here at all. You’ve committed a serious injustice, an injustice so severe that it makes you liable to be killed. I have not. No one is justified in harming me in any way. To stop you from committing injustice, someone will have to bear various burdens. Ideally, all of the burdens will fall upon you and your fellow aggressors. Ideally, no burdens will fall upon me–the innocent victim. The fact that I’m even out here in the cold in the first place is an injustice I shouldn’t have to bear. That you’ve exposed me to any risk of death at all is unjust. I should be home playing foosball with my friends.”

Take this back to Lawrence Moore. I don’t think it’s an interesting question whether the sniper was a coward or not. Rather, what matters is whether Moore, or the sniper, were justified in killing each other. In this case, let us suppose that Moore has the just cause and the sniper did not. If so, then the reason the Japanese sniper shouldn’t have shot Moore wasn’t that sniping is cowardly, but that Moore was not liable to be killed at all. The sniper should instead (if he could have) surrendered, or if he was under duress from his superiors and could not escape, should have sabotaged his shots in various ways rather than kill Moore. On the other hand, if the moral status of the combatants were reversed, if Moore were liable to be killed and the sniper had just cause, then I’d say, “Hey, man, nice shot. Good for you for killing the enemy while minimizing your own exposure to risk. After all, you shouldn’t be exposed to any risk whatsoever.”

Isn’t this just obviously true? There remains a widespread belief in the “moral equality of combatants,” which treats the ethics of war as if it were a sport governed by norms of equality and fair play.  But this view is not defensible. Rather, war is almost always a game in which at least one side has a duty not to play.



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The Cambridge book is finally out. Published it with my older son, Kevin Munger, a PhD student in Politics at NYU.

The book: HERE

Ancillaries, including PPTs for the chapters: HERE


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Our deadline is approaching (Feb 1), so I thought I would repost.  Those interested in BHL and grad studies in philosophy should apply!

I am very happy to announce a new scholarship in Georgia State University’s highly ranked terminal MA program in Philosophy.  Our new graduate “Scholarship in Liberalism” is a competitively awarded scholarship for an outstanding student with a demonstrated interest in the arguments of historical or contemporary philosophical liberals (in the tradition of figures such as Locke, Smith, Hume, and Mill) about issues such as freedom, justice, political authority, social order, and related themes. We expect the award would provide a $15,000 stipend for each year in the two-year program plus a full tuition waiver.  (This is but one of several available special awards.) Some further details are here.

Here is the Department website.  We’ve long had a strength in Social and Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Law and we place many of our graduates into excellent PhD programs.

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