A widespread tactics in war consists in using civilians as shields, eg by taking the fight into densely populated areas, or by more or less forcibly placing civilians in the line of fire – in the hope that the enemy will hold fire, take fewer risks, etc. Most people believe that resorting to such tactics is morally wrong (as well as unlawful as per the Geneva Conventions.) Yet, there are some other, widely held intuitions which seem to conflict with that view – in particular the intuition that military conscription is permissible.
In one-to-one cases, forcibly using someone as a shield in self-defence clearly is impermissible. The same applies in war, one might think.
But perhaps this is too quick. Take the case where B uses its own non-combatants. However, S’s case might be thought to differ in one crucial respect from the case of human shields, to wit, that non-combatants(B) are asked to incur high risks of harm, not for the sake of other persons, but for the sake of prosecuting a war in the success of which they, as members of B, have a strong interest. And in some cases, one might argue, conscripting individuals into the army to fight such a war is permissible. Might that also apply to shields?
A standard case for conscription appeals to the principle of fairness. As a rough sketch, here is how the argument might go: In so far as a just war is one which is fought for a just cause such as blocking serious rights violations, the benefits it confers are such that one is under an enforceable duty to contribute to it, whether or not one has consented to having those rights secured for oneself, and provided that one stands a higher chance than not, not merely of surviving the war, but of enjoying a minimally flourishing life after the war.
If there is an enforceable duty to contribute to the war effort, as the case for war-time military conscription suggests, then is there not an enforceable duty to contribute as a shield? There is a further twist here. For quite often, B will use non-combatants as shields in the expectation that its enemy will, as a result, desist from shooting, or at least exercise greater caution than if they were not faced with human shields. It might well be, then, that the risks incurred by shields would be lower than the risks incurred by conscripts on the battlefield. If individuals are under a duty to incur a given risk R whilst fulfilling combating roles, it seems hard to object to holding them under a duty to incur R-n, which would thus help justify conscripting them into ‘shielding’.
This is all speculative as yet…Three loose ends need tying (at the very least.) First, I would say that not everyone should be used as a shield: infants, the very elderly, etc. But I am not sure how I can support this intuition.Second, more work would need to be done on penalties for dereliction of duty (a conscript who absconds is usually sent to jail; what of a shield?) Finally, there is the problem of intervening agency: suppose that B's enemy do not desist from shooting, as a result of which shields incur a greater risk of harm than they are under a duty to incur. To what extent does this affect the moral status of B's resort to the tactics?