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Just War

Interview by Richard Marshall

The issue can be characterized like this: how do we best respond to a concern for the innocent? On the one hand, it seems that wars cannot be justified because they necessitate killing the innocent; on the other hand, some wars do indeed seem justified on the grounds that they are waged to protect the innocent. We can reinterpret this dilemma in contemporary terms as a clash between two competing moral reasons: a deontological reason not to be the one who harms the innocent, and a consequentialist reason to make it so that innocents are not harmed.

Most wars are just too big to be proper objects of moral evaluation. A typical war includes multiple phases and aims which together resist an evaluation of the war en toto. Think of World War II. It’s just procrustean to ask whether what the Allies did was just or unjust. This is because much of what they did was just – such as doing what was necessary to defeat Germany. But much of what they did was unjust – both the terror-bombing of Dresden and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were gratuitous.’

‘...it’s really hard to point to an historical example of a just war. There seem to be none. This is a powerful recruitment tool for pacifists – they will say that even if some of the wars we have fought are indeed just, we cannot reliably determine which ones they are or will be. In light of this, they argue, we should eschew war as a policy altogether, in the same way that we eschew terrorism or torture as a policy; even though there might be circumstances in which resorting to them is just, a policy permitting us to do so runs the risk of yielding too many false-positives. And so it is for war.

… we live in what is still essentially a Westphalian anarchy. I guess the ICC is the closest we have to an institution with the legitimacy and the authority to render a reliably just verdict against individual civilian and military leaders accused of crimes against peace — but it lacks the means to enforce such a verdict against the world’s most powerful countries. We’re still in the Wild West.

Saba Bazargan-Forward works primarily in normative ethics, with a focus on the morality of defensive violence, the morality of war, and complicity. He also works on a variety of other issues in normative ethics, including: the moral analysis of coercion, the bases of rectificatory liability, the grounds for associative duties, and the morality of mediating agency. He is currently authoring a book on complicity and the morality of war. Here he discusses the just war theory, its relationship to pacifism, collaterally enabled harm, the reprisal dilemma, human shields and moral coercion, the moral responsibility of soldiers, whether it’s ever ok to back an unjust war, non-combatant immunity and war profiteering, just war theory and the law, and the legal responsibility of leaders. This one keeps it real…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Saba Bazargan-Forward: I was in an undergraduate Sociology class on political violence when the professor mentioned that during the week following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, protests and riots resulted in 505 fires in the Hill district of Pittsburgh. Now, how would someone with an interest in, say, psychology respond to this fact? Maybe by wondering about how individuals can come to act together spontaneously in this way. Someone with an interest in medicine, on the other hand, might respond by imagining the burns and smoke-related injuries that would have to be treated in the hospital emergency rooms. An individual with a predilection for chemistry might wonder how the materials out of which the buildings were constructed affected the physical characteristics of the fires. And so on. But my reaction was – for better or worse – this: how in the hell do you count fires? The professor had given an exact figure: 505. If a fire set in one store spreads to an adjacent one in the same mall, is that two fires or one? What if it spreads to another building? If a lit car crashes into a building, setting it alight, are there now two fires? When I realized, in a moment of reflection, that this was my reaction, I appreciated the fact that my intellectual temperament was philosophical in character. I shortly thereafter declared my major in philosophy. I had taken a couple classes by then, and recognized them as my natural academic home.

In retrospect, I’m embarrassed that upon learning about a painful upheaval in the history of Black liberation, my immediate reaction was to speculate about the ontology of fires. Indeed, I had originally patted myself on the back for having had this response on the grounds that it was more ‘fundamental’ than the reaction a sociologist, or psychologist, or chemist might have. My early education in philosophy reinforced that insipid response. It took a decade for me to begin putting my analytic temperament to good use. I’d like to think that I’ve since then harnessed my interest for philosophical analysis by directing it toward more worthwhile inquiry.

3:AM: You’re a specialist in the ethics of war. The Just War tradition is something that grew out of theological commitments didn’t it. Can it be still relevant even in a secular setting?

SBF: The Just War tradition developed kind of as a way to unshackle early Christianity from an absolute version of pacifism. The early Church Fathers – most notably Tertullian and to a lesser extent Origen – argued at length that a commitment to Christianity was incompatible with military service. They believed that just as Jesus eschewed violence, so should his followers (though the consistency of their putative commitment to pacifism is subject to debate). This was the orthodoxy in early Christianity, at least until Augustine. Borrowing from the teaching of Cicero and Plato, he argued that a resort to warfare can be compatible with Christianity. When the innocent are threatened by unjust aggression, and when all other remedies have failed, a resort to warfare in defense of the innocent is compatible with the sort of self-sacrificing charity that Jesus espoused. Turning the other cheek is laudable when we are attacked, but such a refusal to take up arms seems less praiseworthy when the attack is mounted against others unable to defend themselves. This notion that justifiable war was not a form of self-help but a form of charity itself suggested conditions governing permissible conduct in warfare – conditions further refined much later by Aquinas and the Protestant Reformers.

Though contemporary thought in the Just War tradition among analytic philosophers is not particularly informed by a commitment to religion, the basic dilemma Aquinas wrestled with persists today I think. The issue can be characterized like this: how do we best respond to a concern for the innocent? On the one hand, it seems that wars cannot be justified because they necessitate killing the innocent; on the other hand, some wars do indeed seem justified on the grounds that they are waged to protect the innocent. We can reinterpret this dilemma in contemporary terms as a clash between two competing moral reasons: a deontological reason not to be the one who harms the innocent, and a consequentialist reason to make it so that innocents are not harmed. From an exegetical standpoint it is anachronistic to interpret the early architects of the just war tradition as having attempted to reconcile the deontological/consequentialist divide. But it’s nonetheless a fruitful way to contemporize the dilemma they were facing. Freed of dubious theological moorings, the competing reasons in question – to not harm and to help – not only survive but are eminently recognizable in contemporary debates in normative ethics. Indeed, they characterize debates not just about warfare, but about the kinds of ethical reasons we have at the most general level.

All this being said, David Rodin once remarked that the just war tradition is one of the few basic fixtures of medieval philosophy to remain substantially unchallenged in the modern world. Though the religious foundations of its early development do not vitiate its application in contemporary life, it’s still in need of revision. That’s precisely what those working on the ethics of war today are doing.

3:AM: Can you sketch for us the central components of a just war theory – after all, it may seem to many that it seems to be a contradiction in terms – wars just seem terribly immoral things.

SBF: There are two closely related, ineliminable, and central components of the just war tradition, fundamental enough to inform not just orthodox accounts but revisionist ones as well (at least in the sense that we can contemporize older accounts, in the way I alluded to earlier). The first component informs how we can treat innocents in war, and the second component informs how we can treat non-innocents. Common to both components is the view that everyone has by default a right against being killed. There are certain circumstances, though, in which it can be permissible to kill someone nonetheless. There are broadly speaking two such circumstances, composing the two central components of just war.

First, it might be that the decisions an individual has made are what grounds a permission to kill her. For example, it might be that the only way to prevent the murder of an innocent is by killing the individual attempting that murder. If we think that it’s permissible to do so, then presumably this is because the person’s culpable conduct has made it so. Or consider a different sort of case: an individual agrees to take on grave risks where necessary to save another. If we think that it’s permissible to impose such risks on her then presumably this is in part because the person’s autonomous decision has made it so. Though these cases are quite different, they share an important feature: in both cases it is the individual’s conduct that partly grounds the permission to kill or to impose grave risks.

Second, it’s sometimes permissible to kill because doing so is the only way to prevent a morally catastrophic harm to others. Take a simply trolley case, in which there are a hundred innocents trapped on one side of the forking track, and just one innocent trapped on the other side, with a trolley headed toward the latter. If we think that it’s permissible to divert the trolley away from the hundred and toward the one, we think that there are circumstances in which it is permissible to kill someone where this permission does not advert to anything the victim has done.

Now, the first kind of case – in which we ground a permission to kill in what the individual has done – helps explicate in the just war tradition the permission to kill soldiers. What exact conduct grounds that permission is controversial. Maybe it’s that they are responsible for participating in an unjust war. Or maybe it’s that they have made themselves into dangerous people. Or maybe they are responsible for taking on a professional role in which waiving a right to be killed is implicit. These different accounts have different consequences regarding which soldiers in which wars have made themselves permissible targets of attack. But what these various accounts have in common is that it is their conduct that grounds such a permission.

The second kind of case – in which we ground a permission to kill by looking to the harms it averts – helps explicate, in the just war tradition, (the highly circumscribed) permission to kill civilians. Generally, the harm that must be averted in order to justify killing someone who has not done anything wrong must be much greater than that killing, precisely because they have done nothing to make themselves permissible targets of attack. That’s why killing civilians is usually much worse than killing soldiers.

So these two components of the just war tradition – the first grounding a permission to kill those who have made themselves permissible targets and the second grounding a much more limited permission to kill those who have not – together explain how wars might be just.

Now, so far I have answered this question in highly abstract terms. Let me get back down to Earth for a moment and talk about power and privilege. I once volunteered to teach a public lecture on the ethics of war. I braced myself for an onslaught of hawkish criticism from war-mongering conservatives and ex-military-types. Instead, I got the opposite: a bevy of erstwhile liberal hippies claimed that my abstruse argumentation trivialized war by draining it of its essential horror which, once properly appreciated, reveals warfare as always unjustified. I was accused of providing warmongering officials with the concepts for rationalizing unjust wars. This is a criticism I hear now and then. Insofar as it is a personal criticism – a criticism not of my arguments but of my alleged failure to appreciate the horrors of war – I feel that it entitles me to respond in kind. I pointed out to these detractors that they live in a safe and free environment. They are not Palestinians, or Tatars, or Kurds, and so on. It’s easy, I pointed out, for those with privilege protected by the most powerful military in the history of humanity, to regard the resort to war as necessarily wrong. Such an argument seems self-serving: war can get them nothing since they already have it all: peace, prosperity, and security. They might see things differently, though, if they were brutally and systemically oppressed by a domestic or foreign regime. Living under such conditions can provide reasons for resorting to organized violence, in spite of its horror, when everyday life is a horror. The abstract theoretical apparatus of the just war tradition governs what we can do under those kinds of circumstances.

3:AM: A pacifist might argue that because we can’t ever know whether a war is just or not we can’t wage war. How does working out how to evaluate morally heterogeneous wars help answer the pacifist challenge?

SBF: Most wars are just too big to be proper objects of moral evaluation. A typical war includes multiple phases and aims which together resist an evaluation of the war en toto. Think of World War II. It’s just procrustean to ask whether what the Allies did was just or unjust. This is because much of what they did was just – such as doing what was necessary to defeat Germany. But much of what they did was unjust – both the terror-bombing of Dresden and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were gratuitous. It might be tempting to weigh the good and the bad against each other to reach a moral verdict. But this strategy only works when the bad is instrumental to achieving the good, in which case we can deploy familiar consequentialist reasoning to determine whether achieving the good was morally worth it. Where the bad is gratuitous it cannot be justified by adverting to some other good which by hypothesis the bad doesn’t help achieve. And most wars are like this – they’re what I call ‘morally heterogeneous’. They have good parts and bad parts that cannot be usefully combined to reach an overall moral verdict for the war.

What does this have to do with pacifism? Well, it’s really hard to point to an historical example of a just war. There seem to be none. This is a powerful recruitment tool for pacifists – they will say that even if some of the wars we have fought are indeed just, we cannot reliably determine which ones they are or will be. In light of this, they argue, we should eschew war as a policy altogether, in the same way that we eschew terrorism or torture as a policy; even though there might be circumstances in which resorting to them is just, a policy permitting us to do so runs the risk of yielding too many false-positives. And so it is for war.

This is a compelling line of thought. But a reason why it’s so difficult to find an historical example of a just war is that wars are typically morally heterogeneous. And for the reasons I just adumbrated, wars with gratuitously unjust elements resist univocal evaluation. So the goal of finding a just war fails. But the lesson here is that we should rethink the level of moral analysis when we evaluate wars. The proper object of moral evaluation is not the war en toto but rather specific aims and phases of the war. Recalibrating our level of moral analysis in this way allows us to determine which aims and phases are just and which ones are unjust, in an otherwise morally heterogeneous war resisting univocal evaluation.

Once we recognize that there is neither any way nor any need to reconcile the just and unjust aims and phases of a morally heterogeneous war, a central premise of the pacifist’s claim – that we cannot reliably distinguish just wars from unjust wars – becomes irrelevant to assessing whether we are permitted to resort to military violence on particular occasions. This is because we do not need to determine whether a war is just en toto in order to determine whether it is morally permissible to resort to military violence in furtherance of a this or that military aim. So the short of it is: a war is not a proper object of moral analysis – only its parts are. Once we recognize this, we can answer the pacifist’s challenge.

3:AM: What do you mean when you talk about a ‘collaterally enabled harm’, and what challenge do they provide for the just war theorist?

SBF: Collaterally enabled harms are a specific kind of side-effect resulting from fighting the enemy in a war: these are the harms that the enemy will commit should we fight them – and which the enemy would not otherwise commit. Here’s an example. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 unintentionally but foreseeably sparked an insurgency the members of which intentionally killed thousands of Iraqi civilians. The aim of this insurgency was largely to undermine the coalition-organized security and reconstruction apparatus by exposing its weaknesses and by threatening perceived collaborators. These acts of terrorism would very likely not have been committed had the US and its allies not invaded Iraq. The US and its allies enabled these harms as a side-effect of invading Iraq. That’s why I call them collaterally enabled harms.

Now, the challenge they raise is this. For any given conflict to be just, it must satisfy what’s known as the proportionality constraint, which says (very roughly) that the harm the war causes cannot be outsized relative to the benefits of achieving the war’s aims. The issue, them, is whether the collaterally enabled harms ought to be included in the ‘costs’ column of our proportionality calculation – and if so, whether their weight should be diminished in light of the fact that enabled harms are committed not by us, but by others.

3:AM: How do you propose to answer the challenge?

SBF: Well, I don’t take myself to have answered it, so much as have addressed an aspect of it – specifically, its application to conflicts in occupying military zones (in my paper ‘Proportionality, Territorial Occupation, and Enabled Terrorism’). The basic idea is simple. It’s bad for anyone to infringe your right not to be harmed. But it’s doubly bad for those who are professionally tasked with protecting you to do so — such as doctors, police-officers, and fire-fighters. That’s what many critics of the Black Lives Matter movement fail to understand when they compare statistics of so-called “Black-on-Black” crime with shootings of unarmed Black men by police-officers: it’s a more egregious rights-violation when you’re harmed by someone who was supposed to be protecting you. The same goes, I argue, for enabling third parties to commit harms.

Now, I argue that when an occupying military force imposes martial law, it is obligated to provide at least minimal protection for the civilian population over which it has de facto political authority. So when an occupying force enables the very harms that it is supposed to prevent, it not only fails in its task, but it does the opposite of what it’s mandated to do. It’s doubly bad.

Ok. So now back to proportionality. Recall the issue was: how do we weigh collaterally enabled harms? Should we give it diminished weight in the costs column considering that it technically wasn’t we who committed it? Normally, the answer might be ‘yes’. But not when it’s an occupying force that collaterally enables the harm. Why? Because they have a special obligation to protect the civilian population. So, basically, I argue that when an occupying force enables an insurgency to commit acts of terror against the local population, those harms ought to be weighed at least as heavily as the equally severe collateral killings that the occupying military force commits directly. (This scenario describes the situation in Iraq following 2003).

So the upshot is that if my arguments are correct, it’s significantly more difficult than it is often thought to satisfy the constraint of proportionality in wars where a military force occupies a foreign territory. Of course, this hardly addresses the issue of collaterally enabled harms in war in general.

3:AM: One of the problems with the just war theory is its focus on the ‘moment of crisis’. It misses the fact that sometimes a state when considering whether it should have a war is creating conditions to go to war. How does the notion of compensatory liability help address this? Is it enough?

SBF: This is an under-addressed problem with just war theory, which I call the ‘Reprisal Dilemma’. A toy example will help here. Suppose Imperioland unjustly invaded Petrostan twenty years ago, causing many deaths, much destruction, and long-lasting hardship to the people of Petrostan. Now, twenty years later, the dictator of Petrostan, in order to galvanize his people and to divert attention away from domestic social and economic strife, uses that unjust invasion as a pretext for a series of unjust attack on Imperioland. Now, in this toy example, Imperioland has a moral right to protect itself against Petrostan. But if this is the final word, it should leave us a bit unsatisfied. Why? Because it ignores that Petrostan’s attack is blowback. Petrostan is acting unjustly – terribly so – but there’s a sense in which Imperioland made its own bed. But it’s certainly no solution to just say that Imperioland is obligated to allow itself to be bombed. So what sort of judgment do we render here?

Just war theory has no answer to this – unless we supplement it with an account of compensatory liability. Imperioland owes Petrostan for the deaths, destruction, and long-lasting hardship it inflicted in the war from 20 years ago. Suppose Imperioland never paid up. And now suppose Imperioland defends itself against Petrostan’s unjust attacks by resorting to military force which foreseeably causes more death, destruction, and long-lasting hardship to the civilian population — the very people who were owed compensation.

Now, it’s one thing to collaterally maim and kill foreign civilians in necessary defense against an unjust attack by their country. But it’s another thing to collaterally maim and kill foreign civilians to whom we owe compensation! The second is much worse. When doing the proportionality calculation there’s going to be a thumb pressed down on the scales when the people you have to collaterally kill are the people you are supposed to be compensating for having wronged in the past. (They don’t need to be the very same people, by the way. Leveling a county’s infrastructure and economy can have downstream effects on morbidity and standard-of-living which can be felt for generations, and which continues to call for compensation even after the original victims are dead). This doesn’t mean that morally waging a defensive war is impossible. But it’s going to be damned hard.

We end up, then, in an interesting place: sometimes, in order to wage a defensive war permissibly, we first have to discharge compensatory duties.

3:AM: Sometimes civilians are used as human shields. This is an example of what you call ‘moral coercion’ isn’t it? What are the ethical challenges thrown up by these types of situation?

SBF: Yes, so using an involuntary human shield – as when civilians are strapped to a tank, or when a mortar attack squad fires from within an apartment complex of unsuspecting civilians – is a lot like hostage-taking in which a villain says, “your money or she dies”. In the hostage-taking case the villain issues a conditional threat; not so in the human shield cases. But they both qualify as instances of moral coercion. That’s when a wrongdoer intentionally denies you the option of preventing both of two distinct harms from befalling others; the wrongdoer does this in order to provide you with a moral reason to commit or allow the lesser of the two harms, thereby achieving the wrongdoer’s goal. So, by shooting from within a crowd, the shooter knows that you have to decide between allowing him to commit a harm, and committing a possibly worse harm yourself. You do the moral thing, which is to stand down, thereby allowing the least harmful of the two option you were given. You’re a victim of moral coercion. But moral coercion also includes cases like this: a wrongdoer threatens to kill a hundred hostages unless you kill his innocent enemy. It might be that you’re morally required to do so.

Moral coercion raises a host of ethical challenges. For example: to what extent, if at all, are you morally accountable for the harms you foster when you responds to moral coercion by committing or enabling the lesser evil? Also, acceding to moral coercion seems to allow “evil to succeed”. How do we make sense of this intuition?

3:AM: What do you propose? How can we not accede to such moral coercion and not attack the shields even though legitimate targets lie behind it? Is this equivalent to the dilemma of a hostage taker: do you argue that we shouldn’t pay even if innocent people are harmed?

SBF: I don’t really say what we should do in these sorts of cases (all of which count as varieties of moral coercion). Instead my goal is to a) provide some pieces of the puzzle determining what we should do, and b) provide a framework for understanding our moral ambivalence when we’re morally coerced.

Regarding (a)- When deciding whether we ought to accede, we have to do a proportionality calculation – we have weigh the goods and bads. In general, intentional harms ought to be weighed more heavily than merely foreseen harms in such a calculation. Now suppose a wrongdoer is trying to morally coerce us into a committing a harm which we merely foresee but don’t intend. So it might seem that acceding to this kind of coercion is less problematic than acceding to one in which a wrongdoer is trying to morally coerce us into intentionally committing a harm. But this isn’t so. I argue that when you accede to moral coercion, the wrongdoer’s intentions are manifest in your actions, even though you are not intentionally cooperating with the wrongdoer. The result is that the harm ought to be weighed as heavily as an intentional harm in your proportionality calculation, even if you commit the harm collaterally rather than intentionally. This also explains the sense in which acceding to moral coercion allows evil to succeed – though it might be that sometimes doing so is preferable given the relevant alternative.

Regarding (b)- we are repulsed by the way our moral commitments are plied in cases of moral coercion. I make sense of this by arguing that the wrongdoer intentionally puts you in a position where your moral commitments become self-undermining, in that you worse-achieve the object of you commitments because you have those commitments. Putting you in a position where your moral commitments are used in the service of the very ends that they are tasked with avoiding uses you in an especially iniquitous way.

3:AM: Should soldiers be held to be morally responsible for their actions in war. So for example, should all Nazi soldiers be held morally responsible even though some of them might have hated the Nazis and were just following orders?

SBF: Orthodox just war theorists generally say that soldiers are never responsible for their participation in an unjust war. They’re only on the hook for violations of the codes of conduct in war. So a Nazi solider, on this account, does no wrong in participating in the Third Reich’s nakedly aggressive war – even if he fully supports the war and willingly contributes to it – so long as he doesn’t violate the rules of combat by, for example, mistreating POWs, massacring civilians, and so on. But as Jeff McMahan has argued forcefully over the past decade, this view just can’t be right. It’s true that what the Nazi soldier does is legal. But the function of international law of armed combat is to minimize bloodshed rather than promote justice. So whether participating in a war is legal is a poor proxy for determining whether participating in a war is morally right.

But even if a soldier’s participation in an unjust war is wrong, that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily responsible for choosing to participate. It’s really going to vary from soldier to soldier, because there’s so much that goes into the hopper. Is the soldier coerced into participating in the war, either by his economic and social circumstances or by outright threats from his government? How severe are the consequences of disobedience? Does he have the option of merely putting on the appearance of participating in an unjust war without actually contributing to the war effort (e.g., by rarely firing his weapon, or by doing so without endangering anyone?) Or suppose he fights willingly. Is the soldier young and cognitively under-developed? To what extent has he been indoctrinated by the military, his government, his family, and his society and culture at large into the belief that the war is just (or that it isn’t his place to evaluate his country’s wars)?

To make matters more complicated, the conditions for blame vary with the severity of the wrong you commit. It’s pretty easy to get off the hook for wrongfully slapping someone in comparison to wrongfully killing someone. So we have to ask: what is it that the soldier is doing? Is he an elite commando? A combat engineer engaged in explosive ordinance disposal? A convoy soldier driving military supply trucks? A field medic? A technicians aboard a navy combat ship? An active duty military lawyer? A member of a Special Operations Force engaged in reconnaissance? Combat division military police charged with manning traffic control checkpoints?

When you put together the various factors affecting the ‘mental’ elements of responsibility with the various kinds of contributory harms which a soldier might be responsible for, you get a complex soup of possibilities. Since responsibility is scalar, we’ll have some soldiers who bear a lot of moral responsibility for what they do, some who bear very little, and many in between. One of the challenges of those working in morality of war over the past dozen or so years has been to try to explain how killing enemy combatants can be morally justified given that they can vary so widely in how much responsibility they bear. I address this issue in my paper ‘Complicitous Liability in War’, in which I argue that though soldiers on an unjust side in a war vary widely in their responsibility, they are all, in effect, co-accomplices and can be treated as such.

3:AM: Is it ever ok to back an unjust war? What are the salient issues this question raises?

SBF: There’s a pretty safe rule of thumb that says: if a war’s unjust, then supporting it is wrong. But sometimes this rule of thumb gets things wrong. Suppose our government is deciding whether to wage a war to stop a genocide in a foreign country. Maybe this war is just. But now suppose that if our government wages that war, it will take the opportunity to wrongfully seize the country’s resource-rich oilfields in the process of stopping the genocide. With the gratuitous addition of that aim, the war is unjust. (Maybe our government is owed something by way of compensation for the assistance it provides, but suppose that what it seeks to take is far greater than what is owed). Ok. Now suppose that we have to decide whether to support our government’s war. What should we do? Obviously, we should petition our leaders to stop the genocide without annexing the oilfields. But suppose that’s not an option: the only political positions the leaders are taking are either pro- or anti- war. And we have to choose sides. What do we do?

I argue that it might be permissible for us to support the war even though it is impermissible for our leaders to do so. This might seem contradictory or inconsistent, but it’s not. In general, what you’re permitted to do depends on what the alternative options are. We’re faced with two options: a) support leaders who wish to go to war with the aim of stopping a genocide and wrongfully annexing land, or b) support leaders who wish to do neither. Our leaders, though, have a third option: to go to war with the aim of stopping the genocide, without annexing any land. I argue that the presence of that third option makes it impermissible for them to choose one in which the gratuitously unjust aim of annexing the oilfields is tacked on. But that third option is unavailable to us – so what counts as the least bad option for us isn’t the same as what counts as the least bad option for our leaders.

The point can be put like this. Just because someone’s doing something wrong, doesn’t mean it’s wrong for you to support them, if there’s no way to get them to do right, and if your only other alternative makes things go even worse. Everyone knows that we can’t just blindly follow our leaders when they act unjustly; but what I point out is that we also can’t just blindly defy them either.

3:AM: What are the ethical issues around non-combatant immunity and war-profiteering? It seems that in wars the immunity is not enforced (look at Syria) and war-profiteering is everywhere.

SBF: There’s a general presumption that civilians can’t be permissibly targeted in war. Orthodox just war theorists regard this as a hard and fast moral principle. But along with many revisionists about the morality of war, I think this is a mistake. We carve out immunity in a different way: whether you’re immune depends on what you do, rather than on who you are. On this view, a scientist working on technology crucial to developing weapons for use in an unjust war is not morally immune to attack, even though she’s a civilian. In general, on the sort of revisionist view I support, civilians who are responsible for contributing substantially to an unjust war can be permissibly targeted if doing so is an effective and least harmful means of saving innocents lives threatened by the war their side is waging.

Because on this view it’s your actions rather than your status that determines whether you’re immune, some civilians can fall outside the umbrella. This includes certain kinds of war-profiteers. I define a war-profiteer as someone who derives substantial monetary benefits from an unjust war by either a) selling goods and services supporting the war (this includes defense contractors, private security contractors, and risk-management companies), b) trading in resources misappropriated in the course of that war, or c) selling services or goods aimed at post-war re-construction. Though such civilians will be in principle targetable, it will rarely be permissible to do so, because it will rarely be the case that killing them does any real good. And it’s wrong to kill needlessly. So war-profiteers are lucky that way, I guess.

Regardless of how we carve out the relevant criteria for immunity – whether it’s according to who you are or whether it’s according to what you do – you’re right that immunity is too often ignored. I think your next question rightly presses me on this.

3:AM: How much of just war theory has been converted into law, and is there evidence that these laws are effective? Again, a cynic will point to the awful plight of non-combatants and the growth of arms industrialists and wonder if the laws have teeth?

SBF: Much of in international law as it applies to warfare reflects orthodox just war theory. And even revisionists tend to think that that given the absence of any global, impartial body capable of adjudicating and enforcing verdicts on whether a given war is just or unjust, there is only so much which can be done to improve international law insofar as its function remains to minimize bloodshed rather than promote justice. And even when it comes to that limited aim, it seems all too ineffective, as you suggest. Civilian and military leaders are just going to ignore the laws if they can, right? And they’ll certainly ignore whatever papers philosophers write or talks philosophers give on the morality of war!

But my target isn’t the current crop of military and civilian leaders. There’s little I can do to persuade them I think. Rather, what I hope to affect is the next generation of citizens in the world. I teach about 500 undergraduates a year on the morality of war. By getting them to see the hidden assumptions they harbor about war – assumptions so entrenched in our culture that they’ve remain unchanged and unchallenged for half a millennium – I hope to help them question the view that warfare is a domain of human activity in which somehow morality is different or diminished. This goal is far more basic and fundamental than the goal of changing policy or law. To understand the nature of this goal, a quote from John Maynard Keynes is helpful here:

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”

My hope is that in tandem with the many others doing what I do, I will help change how people think about the morality of war, from the ground up, with the ultimate aim of reforming warfare as an institution.

3:AM: Do leaders have a moral responsibility and should they have a legal liability if they wage an unjust war?

SBF: Oh yes. There are all sorts of complications about how to enforce legal liability given that we live in what is still essentially a Westphalian anarchy. I guess the ICC is the closest we have to an institution with the legitimacy and the authority to render a reliably just verdict against individual civilian and military leaders accused of crimes against peace — but it lacks the means to enforce such a verdict against the world’s most powerful countries. We’re still in the Wild West.

3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?

SBF:

Jeff McMahan – Killing in War

Victor Tadros – The Ends of Harm

Thomas Nagel – The View from Nowhere

Michael S. Moore – Causation and Responsibility

Christopher Kutz – Complicity

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, April 8th, 2017.