Issue #27 December 2019

Self-Defense, Necessary Force, and the Ethics of Modern Warfare

In this interview, Daniel Rhodes talks with Dr. Helen Frowe, Professor of Practical Philosophy at Stockholm University and Director of the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace. Dr. Frowe has published widely on topics including ethics of war, ethics of self-defense, and, more recently, moral justification, agent-relative reasons, and duties to rescue. Frowe’s forthcoming paper, “The Duty to Save and the Duty to Minimize Harm,” was awarded the 2019 Sanders Prize in Political Philosophy, and it is here that our conversation begins.

DR: While reading through your work, it struck me that many of the arguments and considerations that are traditionally deployed to deal with war — such as lesser evil, last resort, proportionality, and the doctrine of double effect — might also be employed by environmentalists to define the moral boundaries of ecological exploitation for human goals. Are you aware of any cross-pollination between the two fields?

HF: Well, as a reductivist, I think that moral principles apply quite generally — there aren’t, in my view, principles for war, and then different principles for environmentalism. If the doctrine of double effect is true, then it’s true for everyone, all the time. So environmentalists can certainly justify certain things as the lesser evil, or foreseen but not intended, and so on, because these are general moral principles. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the literature on environmentalism, though, so I can’t tell you whether people are in fact using these ideas or this kind of language in the way you suggest. There are lots of interesting questions about what activists are permitted to do in the face of climate change, of course — whether they may use force, and so on. Again, the answers to these questions are provided by the general constraints on using force: that is, whether force is necessary and proportionate.

DR: While there have certainly been major improvements in the manner in which states speak about war, it seems less obvious whether these formal recognitions of wartime rights and conventions have actually affected military decisions. Especially since the rise of non-state military actors, and the need for conventional armies to adapt to these tactical changes, many of us can’t help but agree with General Shermer’s remark that “war is hell.” What is your response to this charge?

HF: I don’t know if it’s a charge, so much as a description. Just war theorists certainly aren’t committed to the view that war is not hell. Most of war seems pretty hellish for everyone involved (although as a civilian who has never lived in a war zone, I can’t really speak to just how bad it is). I don’t know whether the rise of NSAs has really made the conditions of war worse — it’s true that conventional armies often need to use different tactics in the face of NSAs, but it’s an empirical question whether that in itself has made fighting war worse than, say, fighting in the trenches in WW1, or in the jungle in Vietnam. It’s not obvious to me why it would, but I’m the wrong person to ask. You need to ask some soldiers!

But in terms of unethical behavior in war — it’s hard to say whether the kind of legal or formal rights that you mention have made things better or worse, morally speaking, because that depends on counterfactual claims that are hard to test. Some people think that the laws of war have made things better by prohibiting attacks on civilians. But the laws don’t prohibit attacks on combatants fighting for a just cause. For me, these killings are at least as bad as attacks on civilians. And, the number of civilians who are collaterally harmed in war is enormous. Part of the problem is that whilst the law demands that collateral harms be proportionate and militarily necessary, the concepts of proportionality and military necessity aren’t clearly spelled out. This not only leaves them open interpretation and abuse, but also makes them hard to enforce.

DR: At the very least, you’d agree that war represents humanity at our absolute worst. With an abundance of research fields open to an aspiring philosopher, why does someone choose to get involved in war ethics?

HF: Actually, I wouldn’t agree — or at least, I don’t think this is straightforward. Some people carry out acts of enormous bravery and heroism during war — we might think that such people, acting in war, represent the very best of humanity. Of course, war also contains some of the worst instances of human rights abuses, and is (as above) hellish in all sorts of ways. But there’s plenty of serious wrongdoing that takes place outside of war — slavery, human trafficking, grinding poverty, the everyday violence of failed or failing states. This isn’t to say that war isn’t horrific, but only that it might not be uniquely awful.

That said, war does exemplify many important moral challenges, which makes it a rich seam for thinking about moral and other philosophical problems. It raises questions not only about permissible killing and duties to save, but also about moral responsibility, justification, causation, acting under uncertainty, acting with others, the nature of political goals, the importance of sovereignty and authority, aggregation… the list is endless, really. I don’t really think of myself as working on war, as such. I work on problems that are exemplified in war (but not uniquely so).

DR: There’s an impression that fewer and fewer philosophers are writing content for a non-philosophical audience. At the same time, philosophers (particularly in the US) are reluctant to comment on current events. As someone who both writes for a lay audience and has critically engaged with perhaps the most divisive issues today, the middle east conflict, has this had a noticeable effect on your thinking? Have there been any surprises in how your work has been received?

HF: Talking to non-philosophers definitely informs and influences my work. This is especially true of my work on protecting heritage in war — I’ve spent a lot of time talking to archaeologists and other heritage professionals, and I’ve learnt a lot. I’m always (pleasantly) surprised at how receptive members of the armed forces are to philosophical work on war. Civilians often tell me that I’m not entitled to a view on the ethics of war because I’m not a combatant. No combatant has ever said that to me. I’m lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time talking to cadets from USMA West Point, and I’m always impressed by how reflective and serious they are, and their willingness to engage with moral questions arising in war. And, again, I learn a lot from these conversations, both about how wars are being fought, and about how soldiers understand their moral obligations. These conversations can be quite challenging, especially for a reductivist like me. But they’re incredibly valuable.

DR: What are some of the next frontiers for just war theorists?

HF: Hm. There’s a lot of work being done on AI at the moment — on whether the increasing reliance on AI by the military raises new moral questions (or new versions of old moral questions) for war. I’m currently thinking about the nature and scope of our duties to rescue — I think this is the best way to understand various pressing political problems, such as the ethics of indirect foreign intervention (funding or training rebels, for example), and our duties to refugees from both conflict and climate change. I think that the ethics of resource wars will be important in the future, as climate change increases the scarcity of essential resources and forces people off their land. The protecting of heritage in conflict is also attracting some attention.

More generally, I think it’s really important for philosophers working on the ethics of war to try to broaden their research base, so that our accounts of war are informed by the best accounts of, for example, moral responsibility, causation, authority and so on. Just war theory has become far too insular as a whole: people in the field tend to engage primarily or solely with other just war theorists, even though the underlying questions are broad philosophical questions. It’s unlikely that just war theorists will have the best understanding of causation, or aggregation, or acting under uncertainty. We need to read work by specialists on those topics, and engage in those discussions as best we can, in order to develop the best possible accounts of the ethics of war. There are vast resources out there on which we should be drawing. But we should also remember that thinking about war can, in turn, cast light on those topics. Accounts of collective action, for example, might be challenged by the complex collective structures involved in war. Work on moral responsibility might struggle to capture plausible views about responsibility in war. And so on. The best work on the ethics of war, in my view, not only draws on those other areas of philosophy, but contributes to them.


December 2019


Self-Defense, Necessary Force, and the Ethics of Modern Warfare

Daniel Rhodes in conversation with Helen Frowe

Frantz Fanon: Anticolonial Revolutions and Revolutionary Theory

by Timofei Gerber

How to Drive a Car: A Defense of Achievement as Competence

by Christopher Carroll

Why Thoughts Are Not In The Head: Frege on Sense

by John C. Brady