Purity of Arms: Combatants as Voluntary Actors in a Social Contract

In this article, Paul Madariaga seeks to draw military ethics into the political philosophy of contractarianism – or the theory that society is founded upon an implicit social contract. In defending a contractarian thesis, he claimes that war can be deemed an extension of the social contract theory and is found in the varieties of types of war from ritualized warfare to wars committed under international treatises and agreements on the ‘laws of war’; he draws attention to the problem of draftees or conscripts being obliged to join an armed force as well as to military actions affecting civilians. In all cases, the social contract theory, he argues, can included ostensibly difficult dilemmas but is emphatic that war, as an extension of the social contract, should only involve combatants. (Alexander Moseley, ed.)


One of the arguments made by pacifists against war is that killing is always wrong, and that this may be supported by the presence of our instinctual desire to live. Yet, for many reasons that are their own, people often show this assessment to be in error. Evidently, they are willing to die, and kill others, for ideals they value more than their own lives: freedom, autonomy, dignity, the lives or well being of others, their families, money, etc. At the same time we see in many communities throughout history a desire to reduce if not outright eliminate the instances of non-combatant casualties both intentional and unintentional. What follows is a theoretical analysis of how social contract theory – an influential doctrine in political philosophy describes the status of willing combatants and unwilling non-combatants, and which seeks to justify the former fighting each other while keeping the latter from intentional harm.


The genesis of modern social contract theory can be traced to the 17th and 18th century philosophers Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, all of whom presumed humans to behave with varying degrees of rationality and self-interest. In all three theories derived by these philosophers, people come together to form societies in order to satisfy their needs and live in a more secure environment, free from the anarchy which would keep them constantly in fear for their lives and livelihoods. In return for the protection and opportunities afforded to them by this arrangement, they are bound to participate in civil society and submit to its authority.

Hobbes believes people by default exist in a 'state of nature' in which warfare would be constant and people struggling with each other to satisfy their desires. Since they are reasonable as well as self-interested, they instead decide to come together and submit to an authority structure that ensures their safety, and an orderly society where they can all pursue their interests. Locke's own conception of the 'state of nature' is one wherein everyone is content by themselves, but rising populations and resource pressures prompt them into civil cooperation to avoid conflicts that would impinge their self-interest. His viewpoint also incorporates property as a foundation for this civil society, wherein society is conceived as a way of ensuring everyone is allowed to keep and maintain enough property for the needs of themselves and their families. Rousseau, in contrast, believes this very situation created and reinforced inequality of property, and thus a 'normative' social contract was needed to remedy the problems that arose from this unequal distribution of goods. He also saw it as a remedy for the greed, envy, and conflict spawned as by-products of civilization and its instruments such as property, division of labor, and the inevitable human conflict that arises when people live in proximity to one another.

A modern explanation of social contract theory is found in John Rawls' “theory of justice” (1971) where he asks us to consider a system of government and societal organization that is impartial to us regardless of status, ability, gender, race, etc. We are to approach the conception of society from a Kantian perspective of universality, from behind a 'veil of ignorance' wherein we can never be certain of what our attributes or place in society will be. Building on the idea of people being reasonable and self-interested, we should opt to choose a society that favors us regardless of who we are or could be and thereby form a reasonable social contract that we should all accept.

There is another wrinkle to the idea of the 'veil of ignorance': given the myriad influences on our lives that impact us for good or ill, be it our inborn natures, luck, and/or the influences of our parents, neighborhood, social safety nets, etc., any member of society could be characterized to exist behind a 'veil of ignorance' as their lives unfold. For example, I cannot know if I will be born with intelligence, athletic talent or ambition, nor can I guarantee my parents will be supportive or abusive, or that I will be surrounded by peers or a neighborhood that is safe or conducive to learning. Rawls uses these premises to divorce societal achievement from morality, and draws upon them to add weight to the need to adhere to the social contract. To wit, we owe society, from our parents to peers to institutions, duties for any largesse they have given us. By extension we could also arguably have an obligation to those less fortunate to gain the benefits they were denied by happenstance, and rehabilitate criminals to the extent possible. As Alasdair MacIntyre of Notre Dame University puts it succinctly: “I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations, and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my life its own moral particularity.” The social contract is a sort of payback we give to the aforementioned groups, even as they in turn support us and allow us to thrive. One is also reminded of the Confucian ideals of loyalty to superiors on behalf of their subordinates, in repayment for the benevolence they show in kind.

Hence, support for the implied social contract and the duties we owe can be appealed to on the basis of the benefits we are granted by our community. We are in essence born with a debt we owe to a society, community and government that provides us with infrastructure, services and security, as much as we are born with a debt to our parents for the care and upbringing they give us. In return, society has an obligation to provide such services, and families must give us the tools we need to interact with the rest of society at large. We can abandon our obligations to society and the state or even family, but in doing so we would have to give up completely the boons they extend to us.

Some criticism of the social contract comes from the perspective of feminists and race-conscious philosophers, who argue that classical social contract theories do not account for the roles of women and minorities. However, this seems to be more of a historical artifact rather than an innate flaw in the system: societies have, and still are, incorporating equality of race and gender into their social contracts, and Rawls' theory of justice implies being both color and gender neutral.

A more solid critique of contractarian theories concerns their view of human nature, specifically egoism. Hobbes especially, but to an extent Locke and Rousseau, all seem to start with the assumption of humans as being mainly out to maximize their self-interest, and incapable of regarding others with anything approaching that level of interest we reserve for ourselves, if at all. Yet, people seem to display an ability or willingness, be it from instinct or reasoning, to take actions that do not seem to have any benefit to themselves, or even endanger their interests, on behalf of advancing the interests of others.

The very fact that the subject of military ethics is broached in the first place incorporates the tacit observation that people are indeed willing to voluntarily give up their lives, health and comfort for people or ideals apart from themselves. While it can be argued, as by Hobbes, that we do such actions only because we create in the subject of our assistance a desire or need to reciprocate that help, no reasonable person can expect that everyone we help will be willing or even capable of returning the favor in kind. Psychologist Martin Hoffman, among others, has also observed that altruistic acts are prompted often by spontaneous sentimental feeling instead of rational deliberation. Meanwhile, our innate empathy given by our neurobiology seems to enable us to see our desires in others and compels us to act in accord. The broad occurrence of reflexive altruism seems to be a strong case against the existence of egoism in human nature, and the classic 'prisoners dilemma' seems to reinforce the notion that cooperation can provide better benefit to one's self than acting solely out of one's self-interest alone. While it may seem as if such cooperation is just a better route to egoistic ends, the fact that one's happiness or well-being is best tied to the same in others precludes these actions as egoistic by definition.

However, there does not seem to be any indication that the nature of a social contract is endangered by its participants not being mainly self-interested to begin with. If the 'prisoners dilemma' is any guide, cooperation and reaping benefit for one's self need not be at odds with each other. Moreover, the willingness and ability to participate in society can be reasoned to benefit if people who are willing to give of themselves to the good of others – which would inevitably mean that the rest of the group also would assist the individual. So long as people retain some elements of self-interest, even if their actions are not dominated by it, social contract theory seems to hold.


Turning to how the social contract theory may relate to military ethics, we can note that in many wars, the combatants on both sides have volunteered to take up arms. This is the case of any American soldier since the end of the draft in 1973; even warlords, partisans, terrorist groups, the Taliban and other insurgents have voluntary membership. On the other hand, many nations make military service a required part of their larger national social contract and hence conscript or draft civilians into the armed forces. But regardless of how they got there, it can hardly be said that people go into war without expecting danger. To anyone with common sense, all warfare involves the risk of death, or permanent or temporary injury, to say nothing of other hardships such as exposure to the elements, fear, boredom, and hunger (depending on how effective and reliable your logistics trains are). At the same time, implicit in participation in warfare is the fact that you will either directly or indirectly be responsible for inflicting these depredations and risks on those of the opposing side, and expected to do so.

Since both the risk of death and the infliction of death on the opposite force are assumed and known by both sides, the act of volunteering for war can be said to reflect an implied social contract all its own. This social contract is entered into with the full consent or knowledge of all combatants (which would also preclude the use of child soldiers, who are deemed not to be part of the social contract below a certain age). The conditions of the contract would be that each side will do its best to bring about the defeat of the other by ways up to and including killing each other and destroying their equipment. This contract can also be given an explicit oral or written form under various descriptions: ritualized warfare in tribal societies that, for example, forbade spearing women; feudal warrior ethos in Japan and Europe; the Law of Land Warfare, the Geneva Conventions, and other documents adhered to by various nations and military organizations, all spell out the conditions of acceptable behavior in war. These social constructs in effect set the conditions of the contract (which can and often is called the 'rules of engagement') between two belligerents.

The issue of draftees and conscripts may appear, at first glance, to stand in defiance of the existence of voluntary combatants. Can one who is pressed into service by coercion of some sorts be truly said to be willing to lay down his life for the war aims of his community – aims he may disagree with? The very involuntary nature of conscription means that those participating in a conflict cannot be said to have fully entered the conflict as voluntary combatants, thus exempting them from the pressures of war and making war. On the other hand, obligatory military service (or at least some sort of state service) can be justified as an extension of the social contract and its obligations, regardless of the particular goals of a certain conflict. People in any society benefit from the security against external threats that its armed forces provide, and can also be said in many cases to receive the largesse of resources and interests, the acquisition of such sometimes using the armed forces. Hence, to enjoy security and the benefits of international position can be justified as reason to participate in, and contribute to, the very service which makes such possible in the first place. Compulsory education and jury duty already exists for the purposes of obligations toward the educational and criminal justice system, and military drafts can be seen as a similar extension of an obligation towards national security.

Yet, the dangerous nature of military service deserves more attention than having to go to school or serve on a jury. Conscription has often come at the expense of the poor or uneducated, with wealthy or college-bound individuals being given a pass. The deleterious effects on morale and performance, as evidenced in the Vietnam War or the Soviet war in Afghanistan, also provide caution against conscription. Finally, if military obligations can be a valid method of repaying the debt one owes to society, so too can any government service. After all, one cannot serve in every single government agency just because they benefit from it, especially since the population supports the government in general through taxes as part of every social contract.

In response, supporters of a draft should rely on safety valves such as a system that does not have preferences or deferments, and allows for conscientious objectors, can also alleviate some of the concerns surrounding conscription. For example, Germany allows service in hospitals as an alternative to serving in their military.

While the issue of conscription offers interesting debate for social policy and social contract theory, combatants face an altogether more immediate dilemma: is it permissible to kill someone who does not share their willingness to engage in the social contract between two warring parties? Apart from the justification for conscription noted above, using force on draftees can be appealed to on the grounds of self-defense: if the draftee is attacking, that in itself can be an implicit entry into the social contract of combat, since he cannot expect to not be attacked in return. Conceivably, even providing support functions can be said to be helping the war effort and result in the same implicit contract. On the other hand, what if the draftee in question is actively refusing to fight or provide support for the fight? It seems in this case that if knowledge of such intransigence is apparent, that person would no longer be eligible for targeting since he is trying to actively avoid being a combatant at all. However, in absence of such knowledge due to the fog of war, an attacking force would be justified in assuming he is still a combatant.

So we can claim that killing other combatants in wartime is acceptable from the standpoint of both parties accepting the explicit and implicit risk of such, and thus entering into a sort of contract with each other wherein they expect to possibly kill and be killed. So long as they are aware of the risks and willing to accept them for ideals they value more, we cannot fault them for performing their duties even at the costs of their lives. Societies have recognized this, and allow in certain cases such as war and police activity for killing to be sanctioned.

Social contracts in military affairs can also be domestic: the United Kingdom has its own 'military covenant', a kind of social contract, between its armed forces and its society. In the covenant, the army is allowed to carry on the business of war and agrees not to sue the government for compensation. In return, the government has the obligation to provide for the care of the armed services: not only during service but also after service for any injuries incurred, and also provide for families of those killed in war. Other nations, even if not explicitly stated, also have this sort of covenant: most armies are supported by their governments, and those nations that are able have pension and health care services for their veterans. The UK covenant also has an injunction on the public to honor its military, expressed most poignantly by the public participation in Remembrance Day by laying flowers; in America the yellow ribbon provides an equivalent solidarity with the armed forces on behalf of civilians.


A more pressing ethical concern for contract theory is that of actual noncombatants, such as civilians and aid workers, who did not volunteer either for using force or for the according risk of death. This is where modern military laws and ethics comes into play: for one, the expressly codified contracts many nations have entered into forbid the intentional killing of noncombatants. But what of collateral damage, wherein noncombatants are killed during the course of two combatants engaging each other? International law also has something to say about this: briefly put, collateral damage is acceptable if the military necessity was enough, and if all steps were taken to reasonably ensure that no noncombatants would be killed. Certain places like museums and hospitals are also off limits unless their status is compromised by using them for military purposes. So again we see war as a social interaction and implied contract being governed explicitly to limit the fighting to the belligerent parties, expressed explicitly under the Geneva Conventions and just war theory as 'the principle of discrimination'. The ethos is that war is for warriors – and should remain so.

There is however an allowance for unintentional noncombatant deaths under the concept of 'the principle of proportionality' under the Geneva Conventions. This is underpinned philosophically by deontology: the ethics of duty, the meta-ethical system that focuses on the intent of an action rather than the consequences; it is concerned with means and motives instead of end results. From this perspective, targeting combatants with all reasonable precautions against collateral damage taken, would mean that a military force would be absolved of such deaths. The key word here is reasonable: leveling a whole city to take out one insurgent is hardly fitting of that term, but a stray bullet or a blast effect that collapses a wall that kills someone during the course of attacking an enemy stronghold, is. This is with by the principle of 'double effect' under just war theory.

A similarity, one which ethics students have to ponder, to these conundrums might be drawn between the classic "train switching" dilemma posed in ethics classes: suppose you have a train approaching five workers on a track who cannot escape and are sure to be killed. You can switch the tracks so the train avoids the men, but in doing so the train will hit a sixth man instead. In studies, most people will opt to switch the tracks (showing how most people deep down inside admit that some things are worth losing a life over)...but why? From a consequentialist (ends justify the means) perspective, one simply weighs the loss of one against the loss of five and chooses the lesser of two evils. However, from a deontological viewpoint (ends do not justify the means), the switching is justified because the intent is to save the five men, by switching the tracks so the train avoids them. Whether the sixth man was present or not does not matter since you would have switched the tracks anyway: your intent was never to kill the sixth man.

However, if the only way you could save the five men by pushing a sixth man into the path of the train yourself, most people would not do it for the same reason: you are actually killing someone intentionally regardless of the outcome. Thus, killing civilians or protected buildings with knowledge and intent to do so, in the hope of some hypothetical military gain, would violate these principles and would thus be a cogent aspect of social contract theory.

In warfare and other dangerous professions such as law enforcement and firefighting, the life on the line on the other set of tracks may very well be that of the person throwing the switch. This brings us full circle to the truism that some people are willing to sacrifice their own lives for the welfare of others. In modern war, we have done our hardest to ensure that only those so willing actually do undertake that risk.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan.
Locke, John. Two Treatises.
MacIntyre, Alasdair.
Rawls, John. A theory of Justice. 1971
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract.

1st LT Paul A. Madariaga

Article by Lt Paul Madariaga
Added Sat, 18 Jun 2011 19:05

Web design by Island Webservices.