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Me, My Avatar, and War: The moral relationship between soldiers and civilians

  • Author(s): Dingman, Mary Carollyn;
  • Advisor(s): Walker, Brian D;
  • et al.

In Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer asserts that rank-and-file civilians are too alienated from government to be held morally responsible for war. Most attempts to refute this rely on unwarranted assumptions that citizens have duties to the state. I propose grounding civilian responsibility in a more general theory of special duties arising from our interpersonal relationships. To this end, I first demonstrate that rank-and-file civilians and soldiers are in a meaningful moral relationship that generates special duties to each other. Because the relationship is founded on the individual and institutional identities of civilians and soldiers respectively, it exists regardless of whether civilians can actually influence their government’s military activity or whether they owe anything to the state.

P.F. Strawson’s account of the importance of moral community and the role of participant reactive attitudes when making moral judgments motivated me to look for common moral stances that soldiers and civilians take toward one another and, from that, extrapolate relationship models. I found four historical models for the relationship: citizen-soldier, professional-soldier, family member, and warrior-hero. I next drew on Rawls’ methodology from Justice as Fairness to formulate the fundamental question driving Me, My Avatar, and War: what is the most acceptable political conception of the relationship between soldiers and civilians? Following Rawls, I assume that political conceptions are ideals that can be publically justified. In the case of preferring one relationship model to another, I posit that a model must promote reciprocity and equality between parties in order to satisfy public justifiability. But reciprocity and equality can only be achieved if the civilian-soldier relationship confronts the morally paradoxical nature of war and none of the historical models appear to do this. Therefore, Me, My Avatar, and War presents the principal-avatar model as the best conception of the relationship. Military-avatars, on my account, are real soldiers ideally conceived as embodying certain essential aspects of their civilian-principals. The near-identity relationship between principals and their avatars prompts the civilian-principal to perceive the soldier-avatar as her equal but the hierarchical underpinnings of the model means the principal retains moral custody of her avatar’s actions.

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