:: Article

Understanding Defensive Killing

Interview by Richard Marshall.

I’ve always been a bit puzzled about (a) why Walzer uses this domestic analogy, and (b) why everyone makes such a big deal about it. Maybe it’s because it has a catchy name. I mean, clearly I can grasp that invading someone else’s country with murderous hordes of armed soldiers might be wrong without needing to think about how it compares to a bank robbery.

I don’t buy the conceptual division between war and ‘ordinary life’ – I think it’s just a hangover from Walzer – so I don’t want to talk of one as an extension of the other. Talk of ‘ordinary life’ conjures up an image of a peaceful suburb in New Hampshire, which is a pretty parochial way to think about morality. Some people live their whole lives in failed states. Some people grow up in dire poverty, surrounded by violence and lawlessness. Ordinary life might, to them, feel a lot like a permanent state of conflict. And we can have crises outside of war – outbreaks of disease or natural disasters, for example, that raise a lot of the questions that also arise in war (the distribution of resources, allowing harm, collateral harms, uncertainty and so on).

Helen Frowe works on moral and political philosophy, specialising in the ethics of war and defensive killing. She’s especially interested in the moral status of non-combatants and the permissibility of killing innocent people in self-defence. Her current research interests include the nature and force of agent-relative reasons, forms of moral justification, the idea of observation as wrongdoing, and the status of cultural property in war. Here she discusses why there’s an interest in the ethics of war, Walzer on war, the ethics of self-defence and the ethics of war, the idea of war as an extension of ordinary life, using force, the role of uncertainty, pre-emptive strikes, war as punishment, just wars by unjust means, the moral status of combatants and non-combatants, justice after war and the role of philosophy in the contemporary world. This one hums…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Helen Frowe: Hm. I sort of fell into being a philosopher, rather than deciding to be one. I originally planned to study history at university, but decided at the last minute to apply for a joint honours degree in history and philosophy so that I could try something new. My wonderful lecturer Robin Taylor wrote that my first essay showed real philosophical promise, underlined in red pen. I was totally hooked. Robin used to spend most of his time telling us stories about A. J. Ayer, but still I learnt a lot. The history department, in contrast, tried to fail me because I hadn’t attended enough Tuesday morning lectures (in my defence, the lectures were pretty dire. There was also a popular Union night on Mondays, which didn’t help). So I switched to a single-honours philosophy degree in my second year. My then head of department, Alan Thomas, suggested that I do a Masters’ degree and managed to wrangle me some funding. And, in the UK, once you start on the graduate path, it’s a pretty fast track to a PhD. I was applying for PhD positions before I’d even submitted my first Masters’ essay. The University of Reading offered to put me forward for AHRC funding (although Jonathan Dancy did telephone to say that my application was ‘a bit hopeless’, and helped me change it into something that, a week later, he pronounced ‘just about okay’. (Awesomely, the first time Jonathan phoned, my mother told him I was out. He told her he would call again the next morning; she explained I was unlikely to be much good for anything until at least mid-afternoon. Looking back, it was probably a pretty accurate first impression, although I think Jonathan was a bit taken aback at the time.) I managed to get a temporary lectureship at Sheffield lined up for after my PhD. I didn’t get any other interviews that year, so I would have been a bit stuck if Sheffield hadn’t fallen for my trolley problem cartoons.

3:AM: You’re involved in asking some deep philosophical questions about the ethics of war and peace. ‘Just War’ theories have been around for a long time but is there a renewed urgency to the question at the moment? Is this partly because for many a realist attitude is the right attitude to war – that is, that ethical questions don’t apply to war scenarios at all? Or is it that war just seems too strange for moral thinking?

HF: There has been a real surge of philosophical interest in the ethics of war over the last decade or so. But I don’t think this is because most people are realists about war. I think that the opposite is true – that most people think that war is clearly morally important, and they worry about the consequences of engaging in it, for both their own country’s armed forces and for the people in countries in which wars might be waged. Much of the anti-war sentiment concerning possible British intervention in Syria, for example, focused on the idea that foreign intervention would make things worse, costing British soldiers’ lives and exacerbating the already-dangerous conditions for Syrians. Of course, some people might voice these concerns to cover up underlying attitudes that conflicts overseas are nothing to do with ‘us’, which strikes me as a morally dubious position. But my feeling is that most people do approach war as a moral problem. Certainly, very few people think that war is too strange for moral thinking: our aversion to war crimes, for example, is clear evidence of our belief that moral principles constrain the fighting of war.

3:AM: You take a moral realist position whilst discussing the issues don’t you? What does ‘moral realism’ mean for you and why is it important that you take this view?

HF: I’m not a meta-ethicist, and I don’t have terribly sophisticated views about realism. I believe that there are mind-independent moral truths, and that things can be objectively right or wrong. I’m always surprised at the grip that relativism still has on many non-philosophers, and that’s partly why I’m so explicit about being a moral realist. There are certain things that we ought to condemn. We should not accept, for example, the oppression of women in another country as a justifiable part of that culture. People’s fundamental rights don’t vary on the basis of their nationality.

3:AM: What role has self-defence played in the construction of just war theories?

HF: Well, Walzer famously invokes an analogy with relationships between individuals (‘the domestic analogy’) to characterize the crime of aggression, likening aggressive invasions to acts of armed robbery in the domestic sphere. But for Walzer, this is a mere analogy: he doesn’t think that the principles of self-defence have much to do with war at all. In contrast, thinking about self-defence has been an influential part of the new wave of work on the ethics of war. This is largely because so-called reductivists about war, such as Jeff McMahan, Victor Tadros, Kai Draper, and me, believe that there is a single set of moral principles for governing all non-consensual harming. Roughly, force must be necessary for, and proportionate to, securing a just cause. There aren’t special moral principles for harming in war, or in self-defence, or whilst policing, or as part of a riot or revolution.

So, on this approach, work on the ethics of self-defence illuminates other forms of harming, including harming in war. This isn’t, of course, to deny that there are differences between war and self-defence. Wars are complex and unpredictable in ways that self-defence typically is not. But these differences don’t require us to have different moral principles. Uncertainty, for example, is a broad phenomenon that moral philosophers have been working on for a long time. And whatever we should say about acting under uncertainty in general is what we should say about acting under uncertainty in war. The same goes for moral responsibility, or causation, or intentions, or the permissible distribution of harm. These things don’t operate differently in war. One of the things I like about working in just war theory is seeing how we can both draw on work in other areas of philosophy to illuminate war, and also use war as a way of testing existing philosophical theories. For example, it’s plausibly a shortcoming of an account of joint action if it can’t capture joint action in war. Massimo Renzo and I have an ongoing project called ‘Conversations on War’ that aims to bring philosophers working on war together with philosophers working in related fields. They tell us about e.g. causation, and we tell them about killing. It turns out that a lot of things that we think are obvious strike them as implausible (and vice versa). That’s very helpful.

3:AM: Is Walzer right to argue that we can’t understand international aggression unless we use a domestic analogy?

HF: Er… to be honest, I’ve always been a bit puzzled about (a) why Walzer uses this domestic analogy, and (b) why everyone makes such a big deal about it. Maybe it’s because it has a catchy name. I mean, clearly I can grasp that invading someone else’s country with murderous hordes of armed soldiers might be wrong without needing to think about how it compares to a bank robbery. So no, he’s not right.

3:AM: And what do you make of the idea – associated in contemporary literature with Jeff McMahan’s individualism – that this shouldn’t be taken as mere analogy but that war actually is, literally, an extension of ordinary life.

HF: As I mentioned above, I think McMahan’s theoretical approach to war is fundamentally right, even though he and I disagree about various substantive issues. But, even though I know McMahan uses the term ‘extension’ in places, I’m not sure that’s the best way to characterize his view. I don’t buy the conceptual division between war and ‘ordinary life’ – I think it’s just a hangover from Walzer – so I don’t want to talk of one as an extension of the other. Talk of ‘ordinary life’ conjures up an image of a peaceful suburb in New Hampshire, which is a pretty parochial way to think about morality. Some people live their whole lives in failed states. Some people grow up in dire poverty, surrounded by violence and lawlessness. Ordinary life might, to them, feel a lot like a permanent state of conflict. And we can have crises outside of war – outbreaks of disease or natural disasters, for example, that raise a lot of the questions that also arise in war (the distribution of resources, allowing harm, collateral harms, uncertainty and so on). But diseases and hurricanes are not states of war, and we don’t describe a natural disaster as an ‘extension’ of ordinary life. And that seems right: it would be peculiar to divide the objects of moral concern up in this way. For the same reason, I’m skeptical of the idea of ‘business ethics’ or ‘medical ethics’. These aren’t special moral domains. So I think we should resist treating war as some independent moral phenomenon distinct from ‘ordinary’ human experience.

3:AM: What are the arguments you find strongest for justifying going to war in the first place, if any?

HF: I think we should unpack this question: again, I want to be a bit pernickety about how helpful it is to think about going to war, rather than about using force. I think that there are some ends that one is permitted to try to forcefully secure. But there’s a constraint on how much force one may use – about what will be proportionate to that end. Nothing shifts in this basic analysis once we reach a scale of force that might commonly be described as war. Given this, it’s perhaps less helpful to think about when war is justified than to think about how much force one might use to try to secure a given good, not least because wars vary significantly in their scale.

Formally, I think force on the scale of war is justified only to prevent the widespread violation of important human rights. Unlike some philosophers, I don’t think that ‘important human rights’ equates to ‘rights to life and limb’ – I think that one may sometimes use force to secure political rights as well, if the denial of these rights is making people’s lives go very badly.

I think the biggest problem surrounding the justness of war is, unsurprisingly, uncertainty – in particular, uncertainty regarding our estimates of how much damage we will cause, and about what will fill any political void we create. This makes it easier to justify some types of war compared to others: if we’re waging a war of national-defence, we don’t need to worry too much about creating a political vacuum if we’re successful, since we can assume our current government will remain in place. The same is true of wars of collective defence, when one goes to the aid of a foreign government resisting external aggression (such as the defence of Kuwait against Iraq). But it’s much harder to predict what will happen in a war of foreign intervention, where one aims to topple or weaken the ruling power. History suggests that our grasp of local politics is often insufficient for us to make reasonable predictions about what will happen if we depose a foreign leader.

3:AM: What do you make of the argument that its ethically permissible to make pre-emptive strikes – the sort of argument the Bush administration made in 2002?

HF: All defensive force is pre-emptive: one cannot defend oneself against a harm that has already been inflicted. The contentious claim made by Bush was that his administration would launch preventive attacks, which are not permitted by international law. The difference between whether an attack is pre-emptive or preventive is hard to characterize, but seems largely to be a matter of degree rather than a difference in kind. People tend to describe pre-emptive attacks as attacks aimed at ‘imminent’ threats when we suspect that an enemy is about launch an offensive, perhaps evidenced by the mobilizing of troops, evacuating of cities and so on. A preventive attack, in contrast, aims at knocking out the enemy’s capacity to pose a threat – for example, we might destroy a uranium enrichment plant before the plant has reached the stage of creating nuclear weapons.

The distinction’s significance seems to rest on an underlying moral concern about how certain we can be that a threat will eventuate in harm. Even if we think that, for example, a country is in the early stages of developing weapons of mass destruction, we can’t know what the political situation in that country will be by the time the weapons are ready for use. Perhaps the government in five years’ time might be less belligerent, for example. So we need to weigh the risks of uncertainty against any increased costs of waiting. If it is equally easy for us to destroy a weapons facility either now, or in a few years’ time, then we may as well wait. But if our capacity to defend ourselves will be in some way decreased if we wait, or if waiting will render our defence more costly, we may be justified in striking now. So, in short, I don’t think there is some significant moral shift once we move from pre-emption to prevention: it’s always the same considerations in play. It’s just harder to justify using force the less certain I am that force is necessary. And, the more temporally distant the threat, the more likely I am to be uncertain.

3:AM: Can we use war to punish evildoers, such as dictators?

HF: No. War is far too blunt an implement to be used as a form of punishment. Wars inevitably inflict harms on innocent people. It can sometimes be permissible to inflict such harms in the course of preventing even greater harms. But it cannot be permissible to inflict serious harms on innocent people merely to punish a wrongdoer.

3:AM: Can a just war be fought using unjust means – such as nuclear weapons against civilians of a fascist state?

HF: If by ‘just war’ we mean ‘a war that has a just cause’, then yes – clearly, I can pursue just ends in impermissible ways. It’s good to increase the number of bodily organs available for donation, for example, but it’s not good to do this by killing people and stealing their kidneys.

The more controversial claim is whether one can fight an unjust war with just means. The ‘standard’ view of the ethics of war with which most people are familiar – that defended by Michael Walzer, amongst others – holds that there is a kind of moral independence between whether a war has a just cause and whether the war is being justly fought. Walzer believes that a combatant’s actions can satisfy the moral constraints of necessity, proportionality and discrimination irrespective of whether her war is just. I think this is false. Proportionality weighs morally significant harms, such as collateral damage, against morally significant goods, such as preventing rights violations.

If someone is fighting for an unjust cause, she lacks morally significant goods that she can weight against the harms she cause. Thus, as McMahan and Tom Hurka have argued, nothing she does can be proportionate. By way of comparison, there’s no amount of force it is proportionate for me to use whilst wrongly stealing your wallet. The same is true of necessity. Necessity is a justification for force only insofar as the force is aimed at securing a morally good end. That stabbing you is necessary for taking your wallet doesn’t help to justify stabbing you. Similarly, the fact that those fighting for an unjust cause must kill enemy combatants in order to win cannot help to justify their killing those enemy combatants. I also reject the idea that discrimination – the requirement to aim force only at legitimate targets – requires discriminating between combatants and non-combatants. I don’t think combatants fighting justly for a just cause are legitimate targets at all, and thus combatants fighting an unjust war have no legitimate targets. They cannot satisfy the requirement of discrimination.

3:AM: What do you think the moral status of combatants is? Does the status of the cause matter in this?

HF: I don’t take the distinction between combatants and non-combatants to be in itself morally significant. I think that a combatant who is fighting for a just cause and whose actions satisfy the constraints of proportionality and necessity has the same rights as an innocent non-combatant. Killing the just combatant is as morally wrong as killing the non-combatant.

3:AM: And what of non-combatants? Are there times when it is ethically ok to kill non-soldiers?

3:AM: Yes, although in practice I think these times will be few and far between. I think that non-combatants can forfeit their rights against being attacked by responsibly contributing to an unjust war – for example, by making munitions or other military supplies, providing intelligence, providing medical supplies and so on. But there can be other moral constraints that mean that it is still impermissible to attack such people. It’s likely to be disproportionate to kill a civilian, for example, since it would be hard to do so without risking collateral damage to innocent people. And the good that one would secure by killing the typical contributing civilian would not justify those collateral harms.

3:AM: You say that the question of justice after the war is of pressing contemporary concern but is an aspect of just war theory that is relatively underdeveloped. Can you say something about this aspect of the ethics of war and peace and what you think are important developments.

HF: I think there are two components two justice after war. The first concerns the immediate aftermath of an war, at the point when the enemy is militarily defeated, and the invading force assumes de facto control. The importance of a plan for this period of a conflict became painfully after the 2003 Iraq war, where an initially swift ‘victory’ became an entrenched conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives. The plan for constructing an interim peace needs to be part of the initial justification for any kind of interventionist war. It cannot be an afterthought tacked on at the end of an invasion, not least because it needs to shape how the war is fought. If you’ve destroyed a country’s capacity for producing electricity, how well can you expect reconstruction to go? What will employment levels look like in that country? How will its citizens get clean water? The goal of a just war is securing important human rights, and one cannot permissibly do this by endangering many more people’s rights.

The second component of justice after war is more long-term, focusing on reconciliation, reconstruction and compensation – goals that one can properly pursue only once basic security and infrastructure are in place. Of course, these are wide-ranging and disparate issues, and making progress on any one of them requires us to draw on theoretical work in moral, political and legal philosophy. My doctoral researcher, Lisa Hecht, is doing fascinating work on how we conceive of victimhood in war, and how this affects claims to compensation – for example, whether someone who is unjustifiably harmed has a stronger claim to compensation than someone who suffered justified collateral harm. There is also relevant work exploring the aftermath of other types of conflict, such as the legacy of Apartheid in South Africa.

Of course, there’s an important empirical aspect to this topic as well: we want to know, for example, whether something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission actually helps a country to reconcile itself with the past and form a better, more stable society. Some writers believe that encouraging people to look backwards, focusing on the wrongs done to them, only hinders reconciliation. It’s also expensive, at a time when a country’s economy is already fragile. But it’s hard to ask people to simply forget decades of oppression, or the violence done to them in war. I think there’s so much work to do here, but sadly I haven’t yet got around to writing anything yet. However, Derek Matravers and I have just been awarded a £500k AHRC grant to work on cultural heritage in war, and part of this project will explore reconstruction after war, particularly of culturally important sites. There are difficult questions about how and whether one repairs war damage: after all, the war itself is now part of the country’s history, and people might object to attempts to erase evidence of the war. (I was recently given a tour of Beirut by Bashshar Haydar of AUB, who pointed out how bullet holes on statues have been left as they were after the most recent war, rather than being repaired.) And of course, there are philosophical questions about whether the replacement of some cultural object retains the value of the original. We have assembled a diverse group of people – philosophers, archaeologists, military practitioners and politicians – to help us work through these and other questions, so hopefully we will make some progress.

3:AM: John Searle recently criticized philosophers for no longer being enlightening, for losing track of the right questions. Are you and people working in your field an obvious counter-example? Is there still an important role for philosophy and philosophers?

HF: Just war theory is certainly an area of philosophy with direct practical implications. But I doubt that that is the criterion for something’s being worthy of philosophical exploration. Firstly, as I suggested above, much of the more abstract philosophical work on causation, intentions and so on feeds into our understanding of war, just as our accounts of death and personhood feed into our understanding of the permissibility of abortion and euthanasia. One can’t do moral or political philosophy in some sort of theoretical vacuum. We need people to do that kind of abstract work if our more applied philosophy is to have any robust foundation. Secondly, some questions are interesting even if they don’t have any practical implications. If Searle’s suggestion is that one should study only questions with some direct practical application, then I think he’s wrong. And if he’s suggesting that nobody is thinking about questions with such applications, that also seems obviously wrong. I’m a Professor of Practical Philosophy, after all. I’m very hands-on.

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

HF: Well, obviously I’m going to recommend my own book (Defensive Killing (Oxford: OUP), which is amazing.

Jeff McMahan’s Killing in War is the modern classic of just war theory, and essential reading for anyone interested in these issues.

I’d also recommend Victor Tadros’ The Ends of Harm, which rigorously interrogates a wide range of issues related to permissible harming (although it’s nowhere as good as his earlier work on Foucault).

I’d also recommend David Rodin and Henry Shue’s collection Just and Unjust Warriors, which set the scene for a lot of subsequent work in the field.

Finally, I’d suggest Judith Thomson’s Rights, Restitution and Risk, which I’ve been reading and re-reading since I started my PhD.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 30th, 2017.