War Crimes, Character, and Responsibility

by Jessica Wolfendale & Matthew Talbert

John Doris and Dominic Murphy have argued that soldiers aren’t responsible for war crimes because situational factors undermine their capacity to recognize morally relevant environmental features. This raises two questions. First, is their explanation of war crimes correct, or are war crimes failures of character? Second, what are the implications of capacity/character explanations of war crimes for soldiers’ responsibility for war crimes?

Evidence from psychology suggests that character traits such as obedience can contribute to war crimes. If so, then war crimes could be failures of character. If failures of character don’t undermine responsibility, then soldiers wouldn’t be excused for war crimes.

However, several theorists have argued that responsibility requires that an individual control her acquisition of character traits. But it seems unfair to hold soldiers responsible for crimes that result from traits developed through military training.

We will explore an alternative view, in which an agent is responsible if her actions express attitudes that justify others blaming her, regardless of the sources of her behavior. If so, then questions of responsibility can come apart from whether or not behavior results from incapacity or flawed character.