Ethics and War

Sep 3, 2014

"In this talk I want to consider how the ways in which we assess the morality of war are changing. My concern is not to judge the morality or otherwise of any particular war, but rather to say something about the enterprise of thinking morally about war, an exercise bound tightly to our deepest political and moral identity."

DAVID RODIN: The generation that experienced the First World War is passing. But my family still has one living connection to the Great War. My grandfather, Ian Rodin, was born in 1912 in the Jewish East End of London. He was six years old when the war ended, and he still talks of his memories of the war. The memories are those of a child, the kind that strangely seem to grow more vivid with age: of soldiers dressed in khaki on the streets, the bombs that fell on the city from German zeppelins, the craters that they left behind, and the palpable, but, to a child, mysterious atmosphere of wartime excitement that pervaded the city.

In this talk I want to consider how the ways in which we assess the morality of war are changing. My concern is not to judge the morality or otherwise of any particular war, but rather to say something about the enterprise of thinking morally about war, an exercise bound tightly to our deepest political and moral identity.

In 2008, my youngest son, Alexander, was born and the prospects are good that he may live to see the end of the 21st century. This period between my grandfather's childhood and my child's old age gives us a span of almost two centuries, a personal arc linked by the living memories of those present today. How has our thinking about the ethics of war changed in the period from 1914 to today, and how might it evolve in the future? That is what I want to address in this talk.

So the story I want to tell you today is an intellectual story, a story of the development of ideas, but it's a story told with the belief that those ideas can matter, that people can only fight if they believe that fighting is moral or at least if they believe that morality does not apply to the fighting. One way of addressing the problem of war is to address those ideas.

The First World War shattered the optimism of internationalists who, like Andrew Carnegie, believed the world to be on the cusp of a new age of enduring peace. But at the same time the magnitude and the horror of the war generated a profound moral revulsion and a widespread desire to submit war to effective moral and legal regulation.

This impulse, which was to bear so much fruit through the 20th century, required an intellectual framework, and the framework that was at hand was an ancient body of thought that had fallen into neglect, but which was ripe, at that moment, for re- invigoration. That body of thought was just war theory.

Originally developed by early Christian thinkers in the early Middle Ages, just war theory was characterised by an attempt to find a middle path between the pacifism of the early church and an older tradition of political realism that denied the very possibility of submitting war to moral assessment.

Just war theory sought this middle path by affirming that states possess a moral personality and status, in some ways analogous to that of individual persons. This idea was given striking visual form in the famous frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes's book Leviathan. In this illustration, the sovereign is depicted as a giant figure bestriding the landscape, in turn composed of the individual subjects of the land. The state here is literally a person, made giant like the borders of the state.

This image contained an implicit moral argument. Just as an individual person is morally permitted to kill in defense of his right to life, so a state is permitted to engage in a war in defense of rights to sovereignty. As the defensive rights of an individual are morally limited and constrained, so are the war rights of the state. Thus we have the balance of war rights and responsibilities that is the characteristic of just war theory.

A consequence of this view was to separate quite radically different aspects of the ethics of war. The great questions of recourse to war, or jus ad bellum, in the ancient terminology, are delegated to states and to the sovereigns who rule them, whereas individual citizens and soldiers are subject to a more limited set of so-called jus in bello rules, a code of conduct covering what you may or may not do in the course of war. As long as soldiers do not directly target civilians or act disproportionality, they do not act wrongly if they fight in an unjust war, a war of aggression, for example.

The great development of international humanitarian law that gathered pace after the First World War built upon and incorporated central elements of just war thinking, including the distinction between jus ad bellum, the ethics of going to war, and jus in bello, the ethics of action within war. There should be no doubt as to the scale and consequence of this achievement.

But at the moment of its seeming triumph, just war theory and the legal frameworks that were built upon it found themselves profoundly challenged by the increasing ascendance of another moral idea: that of universal human rights.

Human rights gain their power from the hugely attractive idea that our shared humanity implies a set of minimal moral protections owed to each individual person, irrespective of their origin or political association. Since the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the end of the Second World War, the idea of human rights has come to play a dominant role in many aspects of political morality.

It should be no surprise that human rights pose a fundamental challenge to this older tradition of just war thinking. Just war theory is a pre-modern construct, one which gives a central role to the notions of authority and community. Human rights is a paradigmatic modern idea, a product of the Enlightenment. By placing the individual moral agent front and center, it fundamentally challenges the claims and status of many traditional sources of authorities.

In the context of war, this challenge was to play out in a number of ways. First, human rights change the conversation away from issues of self-sacrifice and on to issues concerning the infliction of harm. As Margaret MacMillan pointed out in her remarks this morning, at the time of the First World War it was possible for states to pose the moral problem of war as primarily that of duties to serve and to sacrifice, as we find in the iconic recruitment posters with tag lines like "your country needs you." But human rights focus attention on the victims rather than on the agents of violence. We thus see a rebalancing of our thinking of the ethics in war away from the ethics of dying towards the ethics of killing.

Related to this, human rights weaken the role played by the virtues in the ethics of war. Just war thinking had historically drawn heavily from codes of chivalry in which acts of restraint, humanity or discrimination were essentially opportunities to display virtues of an often-aristocratic warrior caste. But human rights completely inverts this order of priority. A civilian or a citizen who bears rights possesses a claim—that is to say a normative capacity to demand certain kinds of conduct or restraint from others. It is a very, very different ethics that places the claims of potential victims, rather than the virtues and values of military actors, center stage.

Finally, human rights greatly elevate the role and status of the individual in comparison with that of the state. Human rights theory conceives of individual persons as the primary bearers of moral value. States possess value and rights only derivatively and conditionally through their role in protecting and promoting the welfare and rights of persons. One consequence of this has been to open the way for justifications of humanitarian military intervention to prevent a state from conducting atrocities against its own people. For example, the hugely influential doctrine of responsibility to protect, which Michael Ignatieff was instrumental in developing, draws from the idea that the sovereign rights of states are conditional on human rights. Although, human rights have, in many ways, had the effect of making the ethics of war more restrictive—and I'll indicate a number of those in a moment—this is one context in which they have expanded the rights of war.

These large-scale normative trends have informed a revolution in the philosophy of war ethics—my own specialized field—as theorists have in recent years tried to reconceptualize the ethics of war around rights. This movement is often called revisionist just war theory and its implications are potentially far-reaching.

Revisionsist theory is often associated with the rejection of the so-called symmetry thesis: the idea that we encountered earlier, that soldiers fighting in both just and unjust wars possess equal war rights and equal responsibilities. As we have seen, this idea was implicit in traditional just war theory. But revisionists were quick to point out that from the perspective of human rights this symmetry makes no sense. If soldiers are fighting in a just war, then how could they be liable to be killed by enemy soldiers who are fighting for an unjust cause? And if they are not liable to be killed, then it would seem to follow that the unjust soldiers, those fighting in an unjust, regressive war, commit a profound moral wrong by killing them. Practically, this conclusion implies that soldiers have a moral requirement to consider and reflect uopn the justice of the wars in which they fight and to refuse to serve in an unjust campaign. Perhaps it also means that armies have the obligation to allow this by permitting selective conscientious objection.

But the revisionist approach has implications far beyond the rejection of symmetrical war rights. It also entails a far more stringent standard of proportionality for military operations than has traditionally been observed. If civilians possess rights, and they possess those rights even in the context of war, and those rights are fundamentally the same rights as they persist outside war, then the way we think about collateral harm should perhaps be closer to the way that we think about it in the context of domestic policing action. And indeed, throughout the West, militaries have accepted progressively more stringent limitations on their right to inflict collateral harm on civilians, though it remains considerably more permissive or allowed a higher degree of collateral harm than we find within typical police work.

A final challenge posed by this revisionist school of thought is very, very basic indeed, and concerns what can count as a just cause for war. The primary just cause for war has always been self-defense against attack by another state or group. It is indeed, the only unilateral permission to engage in war recognized under the United Nations Charter. But revisionists have questioned whether states do in fact possess the right to fight wars of national self defense, since sovereignty and territorial integrity can be attacked in ways that do not threaten the vital interests of individual citizens.

Russia's annexation of Crimea was like life imitating philosophy, in the sense that it provided a real world example of a famous revisionist thought experiment which considers whether it would be permissible to resist a bloodless invasion with lethal force. The reaction to the Crimea Crisis suggests that many side with the revisionist in feeling that it would not.

The fundamental move that we find in revisionist theory is to deny that war rights and responsibilities are a matter of status: civilian vs. combatant. Rather, it tells us, we must look in a more granular way at particular individuals within the conflict: What is it that they are responsible for? What is it that they liable to? And what rights and protections do they consequently possess?

Critics of this approach claim that it is precisely this granular individualism which renders the theory useless. No commander could possibly know the individual liability of all persons within the battle-space and tailor his use of force to it. Revisionist theory in this view is not an ethics of war because it simply renders the idea of just war itself impossible. No war could possibly be just on this account.

Revisionist theorists such as Jeff McMahan have labored mightily against these criticisms, but I tend to think that, on the point of compatibility, the critics are right. The question is then, if we cannot have a just war theory consistent with the universal aspirations of human rights, which will give way? My guess is that over the longer term—the lifetime of my son, say—it will be the commitment to rights that will prove the more durable and that we will eventually give up on the idea of just wars as we now understand them.

It would be foolish to base such a claim simply on the strength of abstract arguments. As in all cases of significant social transformation, change happens when powerful ideas align with broader economic, cultural, and political trends. The human rights revolution has been sustained by a number of countervailing mega-trends that have gathered momentum over decades and show no signs of abating any time soon.

The first of these is individualism, the tendency of people to perceive themselves as independent agents possessed of overlapping identities and affiliations. The second is the radical empowerment of private actors by technologies from mass travel through to Internet connectivity. These technologies enable individual persons to undertake many actions and functions that were previously the preserve of states. A third mega-trend is democratization, which creates strong expectations for the delivery of basic rights.

More narrowly, military trends are also pushing in the direction of individualization and empowerment. For example the idea of the so-called strategic corporal reflects the fact that today even very junior personnel are required to act and decide independently in at the chain of command. Indeed when I speak to younger officers today—the captains and majors who have spent the last decade deep in counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan—they tell me that revisionist theory is more useful and relevant to their experience than the just war theory, for example, of Michael Walzer. [For more from Michael Walzer on just war, check out his Carnegie Council talk, Arguing About War. ]

If any of this is right, how might we expect the ethics of war to develop as we proceed further into this century? I have two tentative predictions or perhaps, better, suggestions.

The first is that I think a new accommodation will be reached with pacifism. Or perhaps, better, the settled state of our ethical theory will be a position intermediate between just war theory and pacifism as we now understand those ideas, but of the two, it will be closer to pacifism. Many people find pacifism to be so preposterously implausible, that they are willing to undertake all manner of contortions to avoid it. But the pacifist impulse is more understandable if we see it not as an opposition to all violence, but more narrowly as the rejection of war, and moreover if we conceive of war in a way that Clausewitz would understand as fundamentally a form of violent politics.

Revisionists can and do endorse the right of self-defense, and they can also support the large-scale, coordinated use of force to stop an imminent atrocity as we find in humanitarian intervention, or at least in the potential for humanitarian intervention. But though such acts may look like war on the surface and they are currently conducted by our war-fighting institutions and organs, it is not clear if they are properly concieved as instances of war in the Clausewitzian sense, at all. For the interdiction of an imminent atrocity need not be an attempt to conduct politics through violent force, and it is that latter feature that we properly object to when we morally reject war.

The second prediction, is that the ethics of war will be greatly enriched and strengthened by expanding its temporal field of view. One of the ways in which just war theory has done a great disservice to the ethics of war—it's done many, many services, but this is one disservice I think it's done—is that it has focussed our attention narrowly and almost exclusively on moments of crisis. Jus ad bellum concerns the decision that we make when we are under attack whether to fight or to back down. Jus in bello considers the obligations of actors right there in the heat of conflict. More recently we have begun to expand this field of view by reintegrating an account of so-called jus post bellum. That's the set of considerations around the ethics of action after conflict ends. And we have for the very first time started to theorize the ethical considerations governing the way in which we exit war, the way in which war is brought to an end. This is a field of enquiry that I have called jus terminatio and Darrel Moellendorf has independently called jus ex bello. [Editor's note: See Darrel Moellendorf's Ethics & International Affairs article, Jus ex Bello in Afghanistan.]

But many of the most important factors in conflict concern the periods between these moments of crisis: how we equip, train, and develop doctrine for our armed forces; our alliance structures and the way that we signal both to our allies and adversaries; the procurement and deployment of weapons systems; the way that we build and support relevant institutions. These issues have been almost entirely neglected by philosophers working traditionally in the ethics of war, and yet they are often among the most important. When an opponent of war is challenged to say whether he would prefer to fight an aggressor or to appease them, the right answer is often that we only face this dilemma because we have failed to do things that we morally ought to have done prior to that moment of crisis. The right answer is to try to step back and address those issues before they develop to the moment of crisis. We need to develop what we might call a jus inter bellum, an ethics of action between wars and conflict to address these issues and to fully integrate them within the ethics of war.

There is nothing inevitable about the Long Peace experienced by much of the world after the crisis that began in 1914 and really only fully ended in 1945. But the major trends and indicators do seem to be heading in the right direction. We are demonstrably living in a more peaceful world today than we were at the beginning of the last century. I believe that the world of 2114, 100 years from today, can be more peaceful still. But if that is to happen, then we will need to carefully and honestly work towards a shared understanding of our moral obligations in this area. And as Carnegie Council celebrates its Centenary, I'm proud to say that it is at the forefront of this ongoing work.

Thank you.

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