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‘Unjust on almost every possible count’ Philosopher Cécile Fabre on the moral criteria for war and whether Russia’s assault on Ukraine is comparable to the U.S. invasion of Iraq
For over a year, Russia’s leaders have been justifying their full-scale invasion of Ukraine by claiming that it’s part of an effort to “protect” their own citizens as well as the Russian-speaking population of the Donbas. They also frequently bring up the fact that the U.S. and NATO have invaded other countries before, saying this makes their criticisms of Russia’s actions hypocritical. French philosopher Cécile Fabre, an expert on military and political ethics and a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University’s All Souls College, spoke to Meduza about why these arguments fail to justify Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Why do we need military ethics?
This is a very important question. Most people, when you ask them whether a country should go to war or why soldiers should be allowed or forbidden to fight in particular ways during a war, will say, “Well, that’s the morally right thing to do,” or, “That’s not morally right.” For example, some people will say that soldiers are not morally allowed to kill innocent civilians, but they can kill any number of enemy soldiers.
So most people have moral intuitions about the right things to do in war, but quite often moral intuitions are misleading: they do not necessarily get us to the right judgment. So one of the points of studying ethics in military conflicts is to try and make sure that we are reaching the right judgment when it comes to deciding whether a war is just or not. That’s important not just because generally we ought to say things that are true to the best of our knowledge, but also because when the army goes to war as ordered by the government, it does so on our behalf. And it seems to me that as citizens we have a particularly strong responsibility to make up our minds as to what we want and are willing to allow our soldiers who fight for us (or claim that they fight for us) to do.
And I also think that, to the extent that during the war or after the war is over we will want to punish enemy soldiers who have committed very severe wrongdoings, we need to have a clear sense in our minds, as citizens, as to whether or not what they did is the morally wrong thing to do.
Who determines what is ethical and what is not?
I have no doubt whatsoever that some people in Russia, and particularly President Putin, believe that for Russia, invading Ukraine was the right thing to do. On the other hand, Ukraine clearly believes that it was not the right thing to do. So who is to decide? The answer depends on your prior view about the nature of morality. I am one of those philosophers who believe that there are certain things which it is always morally wrong to do, no matter what. I believe that unprovoked military aggression on another country is morally the wrong thing to do.
I’m not the only one who believes this: the norms which I espouse as a citizen and as a philosopher, for the most part — not all of them, but for the most part — have been enshrined in the laws of war. And I think it’s important to remember that UN member states are bound by the laws of war. Some people will not be satisfied with what I’ve just said, but I think it’s useful to bear in mind that across time and cultures and civilizations, there’s been a remarkable degree of consensus that there are some things that soldiers ought not to be allowed to do, and that deliberately killing innocent civilians and deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure such as hospitals or schools is both morally wrong and now a war crime. The mere fact that a government says “Our war is just” does not make it just.
Are there more detailed criteria for when military actions are morally and ethically acceptable?
Such criteria have been articulated and framed in the West but not only in the West. The first and most important one is that in order for a war to be just, it has to have a just cause; the defense of one’s country against unwarranted military aggression is generally considered a just cause for war. There are other just causes for war; for example, the protection of innocent civilians from genocide at the hands of their own regime is now regarded as a just cause for war. That would be a war of humanitarian intervention.
There are other criteria [for a just war]. The war has to be the option of last resort, so you have to try diplomatic negotiations first. Another criterion is that you should have a reasonable chance of success. The thought here is quite easy to grasp but nevertheless very important: when you go to war, you kill enemy soldiers and enemy civilians, and killing is the most morally significant act we can commit. So when you decide to order your armies to go and kill people, you’d better have a sense that the war is likely or has a reasonable chance of succeeding. Otherwise, you will start the war already knowing or thinking that killing those people will have been in vain. That is a serious wrong to do to someone.
Another criterion is that the war should be a proportionate response to the wrongdoing that it is meant to counter — this is known as a requirement of proportionality. And then we have a final requirement: it should be declared by a legitimate authority. Except in very rare circumstances, citizens can’t really decide on their own relation to go to war. (One such circumstance is when the country is invaded by a foreign power, and the government has fallen apart, or has decided to collaborate with the enemy.) To put the point in the context of the current war, let us suppose — for the sake of argument — that lots of Russians agree with President Putin’s view that Russia was under threat by Ukraine. And suppose that President Putin had not declared the war in February 2022. Then, according to the criterion of the legitimate authority, it would have been wrong for thousands of Russian citizens on their own to take matters into their own hands. The war is legal (and, in some views, moral) only if the relevant authorities in the country decide to declare war, to initiate it.
And then once the war has started, there are criteria that apply to what you are allowed to do on the battlefield. The most important of these criteria is the principle of non-combatant immunity, which says that soldiers are not morally and legally entitled to target innocent civilians.
The Russian authorities have been claiming for more than a year that the war they initiated is fair and justified, and they try to justify it under the same criteria. How well do these criteria actually apply to Russian aggression?
The Russian authorities have satisfied the principle of legitimate authority. The question arises as to whether or not they had a just cause, and in particular whether they were entitled to say that the survival, the integrity of Russia, were under threat at the hands of Ukraine and NATO.
In reality, Russia did not have a just cause to invade Ukraine in February 2022 and it does not have a just cause to continue now. And even if it was true that Russia was under threat, the condition of last resort would not have been met. Russia could have tried diplomatic channels to present its grievances. Even if Russia had a justified grievance about NATO, going to war against Ukraine clearly would have been a disproportionate response. Finally, on the battlefield, we know civilians and civilian installations are being targeted deliberately every day by Russian forces. So the war, as far as I can tell, is unjust on almost every possible count. From the moment you establish that Russia is fighting for an unjust cause, the game is over, morally speaking.
The Russian authorities regularly cite the regular shelling of the Donbas by the Ukrainian authorities as a justification for their war against Ukraine. Is this a fair reason for war in terms of humanitarian intervention?
The single best thing Russia could do today to stop exchanges of shelling between the two parties would be to declare an end to the war and give up the territories it has annexed since 2014. There is no evidence that Ukraine has committed or would commit the kind of large scale atrocities against civilians that would justify a war of humanitarian intervention.
The Russian authorities also say they acted preemptively, and that if they had not launched the invasion, the West would have attacked them first. How convincing is this as a moral basis for the war?
Any claim that a country would be attacked if it does not attack first has to be justified on the grounds of factual evidence. There is no factual evidence that I am aware of that Western powers in general (in other words, NATO) would have waged a war of aggression against Russia if Russia had not invaded Ukraine.
In the process of justifying their actions, Russian officials and propagandists often engage in “whataboutism,” recalling highly controversial past actions by NATO or the U.S. Let's pretend their arguments are sincere. If war crimes and abuses are also committed by Western countries, how are their actions around the globe different from Russia’s?
We have to distinguish two variants of the “whataboutism” view. The first version says that the U.S. and NATO are guilty of aggression against Russia and that therefore they cannot criticize Russia for invading Ukraine. The response to that version is that NATO and the United States were not invading Russia militarily leading up to the war.
There’s also a more interesting version that says, “Look what they did in Iraq in 2003. The U.S. mounted unprovoked aggression on the country (and in fact, quite a lot of people argue that 2003 was an unlawful as well as an unjust war), so the US cannot criticize Russia for invading Ukraine.”
My response to this generally goes like this: yes, you are right, this was both unlawful and unjust, but even if this denies the United States and NATO the standing to criticize what Russia is doing, it doesn't follow that Russia is morally entitled to do what it does. Suppose that I commit an act of theft and you criticize me for an act of stealing, but I turn around and say that you did it yourself. All I've managed to show is that you are being hypocritical, I haven't managed to show that I am entitled to do this myself. That's the first point.
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The second point is even if it’s true (and I think it is true, that the war in Iraq in 2003 was unjust), the regimes that authorized that war in the US and the United Kingdom are not the same regimes that operate there now. When we criticize a country for doing something or having done something in the past, we have to pay attention to who is in power at a particular point in time. I don’t want to deny that there is a good deal of hypocrisy in the West, but I do not see why that would enable Russian authorities to say that they are justified in trying to impose their own will on Ukraine by force of arms.
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Can we say that the US or NATO admitted their mistakes and took steps to prevent doing them in the future? Would it make a difference between this case and the Russia case?
I'm not sure that there is sufficiently strong recognition in the US and the UK that the Iraq War was incredibly problematic from a moral and legal point of view. It would be better if there were wider recognition of the fact in those countries; it would make it [morally] easier for these countries to criticize what Russia is doing now.
But this raises another question. If you are hypocritical and refuse to admit your past mistakes, and if you're hypocritical in criticizing Russia, are you morally entitled to come to Ukraine's help? Are you morally entitled to supply weapons, or to impose economic sanctions? And I would be inclined to say that you are morally entitled to do so. Even if you are hypocritical, that doesn't mean that you are morally disallowed from helping innocent people to survive a serious threat to their life, and to the territorial and political integrity of their country.
I can give you an example that illustrates how a lot of us in philosophy think about those things. We want to work out whether the fact that someone is hypocritical means that they cannot respond to wrongdoing another person has committed if they’ve done something of the same kind. One strategy for thinking about this is to look at hypothetical scenarios.
Suppose that you have someone, I'm going to call them Smith, a typical American or English name. Smith is about to murder an innocent person and he has no justification for doing so. And there is a bystander on the scene, let's call him Jones. He sees Smith is about to kill an innocent person and intervenes, prevents Smith, or tries to stop him. At that point, Smith says to Jones: “Jones, you are being completely hypocritical, you yourself killed someone last week!” Suppose that Smith is correct: Jones did do it. Now, the whataboutism view says that Jones is being hypocritical and is therefore not allowed to stop Smith from killing an innocent person. That seems very counterintuitive.
I fail to see intuitively why it provides Smith with a justification for killing someone, and I also fail to see why it deprives Jones of the permission and the right to protect this innocent person. Look at this from the point of view of the innocent person: they are going to die because Jones committed murder the week before. And that seems wrong.
Russian propaganda and the Russian authorities bring up the so-called “genocide” of the people of the Donbas and say that other countries are wrong to side with Kyiv. Everyone is entitled to help the innocent, but are these countries entitled to make the judgment of who is right, given the context?
Of course, states and their citizens should always ask themselves whether they are reaching the right judgment. They should exercise some degree of humility. But this does not preclude saying that some acts are morally wrong, period. If you agree with me that Jones, who has committed a serious wrong, is entitled to protect an innocent person from Smith, then you are in effect conceding that Jones is entitled to reach the judgment that Smith is about to commit a wrong.
This war has raised questions not just for the authorities and organizations but also for ordinary citizens. Especially at the beginning of the war, the media often talked about conflicts within families when people broke off ties because of incompatible attitudes. Ties between residents of Russia and Ukraine were severed. Where do ordinary people look for ethical guidelines in times of war?
In a way, the guidelines are the laws of war and the moral norms that shape these laws. In times of war, compliance with these norms can be very difficult. And then the question is not so much what people are justified in doing as what they can be excused for doing. It's another area where it's very difficult to answer in the abstract: we would have to think about particular dilemmas that some people might have.
I often think about this in the context of my own family history during the Second World War, when France was occupied by the German army. On one side of my family, my grandmother’s side, the house in Normandy where my family was living had three floors. Between 1940 and 1944, five German soldiers lived on the second floor. I often ask myself what my great-grandparents would have done if, for example, they had been interrogated by those soldiers about the activities of the Resistance in town under the threat of the murder of their daughters. When I think about this scenario, I think about what I would do as a parent. I might decide that the right thing to do is to prioritize my children’s lives over the lives of the resistance fighters or I might decide that this is the other way around. But even if I would have had a clear judgment, it’s not clear to me that under those circumstances, I would have the reserve, the willpower, and the moral strength to do the right thing.
Even if there is clear guidance, even if we have a really strong sense of what is morally right to do for ordinary people, before we judge those people, we should be very careful and ask ourselves what we would do under those circumstances. It doesn't necessarily help us arrive at the right judgment, but it helps us have some humility before we rush to judgment. War is horrendous not only because of the physical and psychological suffering that it inflicts on people, but also because of the moral suffering it causes. That is a profoundly human dimension of warfare and it ought to be better recognized than it is.
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