The ethics of war

The ethics of war

Christopher Finlay (courtesy of the interviewee)

Christopher Finlay is Professor in Political theory and Deputy Head at the School of Government and International Affairs in Durham University. He studies the ethical dimensions of war, especially Just War Theory (JWT). In this interview, we focus on the importance of such approach to war.

We generally see war as a very violent phenomenon, where ethics has no role. We see that as brutal. My first question then would be: how to do war and ethics interrelate, in your opinion? What can we do with ethics and what has the study of ethics in war done to understand this phenomenon?

I suppose the first point to say in response to that is that there is this famous line from Cicero that in war the laws are silent. That somehow, once things get to the point of armed conflict, the law, ethics, morality, they go out the window. There’s something about the nature of that sort of engagement that means that it’s somehow unrealistic to think about ethics, maybe it’s just so evil, or so corrupt that ethics is muted; justice is gone. […] The common start for anybody thinking in terms of just war or war ethics is that view is implausible, is unlikely to be true. But I suppose there are two reasons for that. It depends on why you think that the law is silent in war.

There are two reasons why you might: one is just because war is, in itself, so evil it couldn’t possibly be justified. That sounds like it is heading towards pacifism, that is saying that it is intrinsically bad so you just shouldn’t do it; and the other reason you might think that ethics has nothing to do with war is because you think something to do with what Clausewitz calls the ‘fog of war’, that something about the experience means that you lose your capacity for moral agency. So, if you’re a soldier, or you’re a general, or a president, and you’re engaged in this, you are no longer in control and you are governed entirely by necessity. In some deep, metaphysical sense, your capacity to make morally-informed choices is gone. And I think that there is probably some truth to both of those ideas. That war is intrinsically evil, that there’s something deeply wrong with it, that is true. It’s not necessarily as true as the radical statement of that position. […] And there is probably some truth in the other idea, the empirical idea that participants in war suffer significant detriment to their ability to make informed moral choices and to follow them through.

But again, a just war theorist would be sceptical just about how strongly one can state that. Sometimes you might panic to the point of losing your agency entirely, and just shooting your way out of the situation you find yourself in. That’s likely to happen sometimes, but much of the time people are thinking; they do have a capacity to reflect that remains intact, or if not intact, at least partially operational. The further you are from the battlefield the more likely this is to be true. The president is in the office, presumably, thinking ‘what should we do next?’, and not, one hopes, in a state of panic. The generals may also have some distance from frontlines.

If it is right to be sceptical about those two more extreme claims, then there’s still some space to think about two things.

One is action guidance. So, if you are a participant in war or if you find yourself in a theatre where war’s occurring, maybe as a civilian, then action guidance is about what should I do, what I’m permitted to do, what have I good moral reasons to do and what things are there compelling war reasons for me not to do. Just War Theory offers a moral frame of reference in which to try to inform those decisions. The second thing the ethics of war or Just War Theory can offer is equipment for a third party who is not himself or herself in that situation but is looking on […]. They can make moral judgements about what those other people are doing. If the two extreme propositions were true – that those people have, in effect lost their minds – then it would be meaningless to try and make moral judgements, because it would be meaningless to offer them action guidance and meaningless to ask them to follow moral rules. But we assume that’s not the case (at least uniformly) in war.

So, the short answer is twofold: ethics offers some guidance to those who still retain an ability to think about their actions and then, secondly, it allows the rest of us to think as observers: ‘should they have done that?’, ‘should they be doing this?’, ‘what might they do next?’

How does this entire field has been changing throughout years? From Just War Theory towards later scholars that also criticized JWT, as well. How did the field change throughout time? It added some different approaches, some different ideas, from your point of view?

If we talk about JWT, or theories of the ethics of war, very broadly, there are of course rival views outside that camp. Usually they are characterized as being, on the one side, different kinds of realist views and, on the other side, various kinds of pacifist views. And those might be related to those ideas of your first question. There is this sort of scepticism on the part of both realists and pacifists that ethics and war really have a productive relationship with each other: that ethics really can meaningfully guide participants in war or those who are considering going to war. The realists would assume that self-interest, national interest, security and so on would compel you to act in ways that may or may not appear to be moral, but that it’s really your interests and strategy that would guide you. Ethics has nothing to do with it. Pacifists would say ethics should always guide you, but should never guide you to go to war, that’s just the wrong place to go.

Within the JWT camp, broadly speaking, there are wide differences between different views. There was a significant amount of change over time, so JWT – if we use that term to describe the field as a whole – is often dated back to Saint Augustine, within the European Christian tradition. Saint Augustine is credited with having invented something like Christian Just War Theory, as a way to reconcile the pacifist instinct of the early Christians with the need to engage with politics in the Roman Empire. But he himself drew on Cicero, […] who commented both on the justification of going to war and the sort of conduct that would be appropriate in war. And some historians would look back even further to the Greeks, even to Egyptian thought and to other sources. To add to that, outside of European traditions, there are also Islamic variants, perhaps Chinese variants, and so on.

In contemporary thought I suppose that the major divisions in scholarship are between three approaches, roughly speaking.

One is the kind of historical approach that has been with us maybe a little bit longer than the other two. JT Johnson, for example, is one of the leading proponents of a view that what we need to do is turn to the tradition. If we want to think about war and ethics, we need to look at the historical sources and discourses and arguments through which different generations have thought about these problems. Tradition itself has a kind of conceptual, normative salience; the fact that this is how it has evolved and taken us to this point is important. That’s one way of doing it. Johnson’s work, for example, draws on Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, or Vitoria, Vattel, and so on. In terms of ethical debates about what actors ought to be doing now are concerned, and debates about contemporary war, like the Ukrainian war, the other two schools of thought are probably more immediately salient. One is sometimes identified as ‘orthodox’ or ‘traditional’ – although the historians would dispute that it is truly either traditional or orthodox; the other one is sometimes described as ‘reductivist’ or ‘revisionist’ and sometimes identifies explicitly with cosmopolitan political philosophy.

The traditional view is rightly or wrongly identified with Michael Walzer, who recently wrote on the Washington Post on the Ukraine war, and his book Just and unjust wars is probably the most famous modern book on JWT. Published in 1977, it has gone through various editions since […]. Very roughly […], the two major components of Walzer’s view are these: one, he sets a view of war in which the paradigm case of justified war is national defence. Your State is the best chance you have of having your human rights respected and of being able to engage with others in collective self-determination. He thinks that generally (with some exceptions) States should be left alone to facilitate those goods and those values and should be able to defend themselves from others who try to prevent them from doing so. He thinks that each State should be seen as part of a society of States, an international society governed by a bare minimum set of rules […]. The central rule is non-aggression. There are very few places where humanitarian intervention could be justified, but that is very emphatically the exception rather than the rule. That’s one part of the theory. The other part of the theory is the bit that’s probably had most critical attention for the last generation or so. It centres on what’s sometimes called the moral equality of combatants, sometimes called the ‘doctrine of moral equality’. And that’s the idea that when we think about the ethics of the conduct of war – the technical term often used is jus in bello – everybody in the same role has the same rights. The soldiers on side A have the same rights as the soldiers on side B. They also have the same duties and the same liabilities.

In a nutshell, whether you’re fighting on the side that’s aggressing and invading the other country or on the side that’s defending against that aggression, you equally have the right to try and attack and kill the soldiers on the other side; you equally have no moral complaint if the soldiers on the other side trying to do that to you. And similarly, you have no right to direct force intentionally against non-combatants on the other side, no matter how responsible they may be for the situation, no matter what you think or believe about them. They are immune. But both sides are permitted to carry out action that will foreseeably do some collateral damage, as long as the damage is not disproportionate to the aims of the action. So, even though – to take a contemporary case – you’re fighting on the Russian side, you’re invading Ukraine, when you use artillery you’re not morally in the wrong, trying to use it against Ukrainian soldiers, once the war has started, as a soldier. And similarly, if you can predict that there’s unavoidable risk to some civilians in the surrounding area as a result of attacking those soldiers, then, as long as it’s not disproportionate to your military aims, you’re permitted that, too. So, that’s the bitter pill you have to swallow with the traditional or orthodox view of just war. By and large, international law follows that pattern too, and you will not be treated as a war criminal simply by virtue of the fact that you fought in your side’s war, even if you cause collateral damage, if it’s not excessive.

Those are the two major commitments of the traditional view. […]

Against that, the cosmopolitan view, or the revisionist/reductive view says that’s just a really counterintuitive view of international politics of war. Revisionist philosophers challenge both of those components to different degrees.

A case like Ukraine, which is a democracy, cosmopolitans would argue, does have a right to defend itself from a State that is wrongfully invading and is threatening democratic institutions, that’s threatening human rights violations and so on.  But this doesn’t mean necessarily that the paradigm case of just war is war of national defence. The logic of the cosmopolitan view and revisionism more generally is dictated by the individuals and individual rights. Wars that seek to preserve them are more likely to be justified; those that seek other goals are less likely to be justified, or unlikely to be justified. It’s a much more individualized understanding of what’s called jus ad bellum, the right to go to war, the justification for war. Whether you’re defending a State or intervening in a State to save people, it’s always about individual people and individual lives.

On the other side, a lot of arguments, for the last generation, have been about the thought that the source of our thinking about justifiable violence should be the simplest and most intuitive case, and that’s the case of individual self-defence. If somebody wrongfully attacks another person and the only way for the innocent victim to defend themselves is to use force, then it seems intuitive that doing so would be justifiable. The ethics of war should be compatible with that idea. That leads many philosophers to think it cannot be true that soldiers on both sides of a defensive war have the same rights. […] A lot of effort has been about developing that idea, that the ethics are morally asymmetric, that there is no moral equality between opposing soldiers in a just war […].

How all this thinking relates with the law? Some of the concepts and ideas that were into this field were very much close to international law. You mentioned jus in bello, jus ad bellum, these are all terms used in international law. How do you think these two fields, ethics in war and international law relate?

I think it depends on the school of thought that you subscribe to. To take those last two schools, orthodox vs. revisionist, in a nutshell, if you follow Michael Walzer or if you defend a theory that is like Walzer’s in its key commitments, as many philosophers do, on that view, JWT and international law are quite closely aligned. […] The general shape is similar. So, for example, Walzer grounds this idea that a society of States with rights against aggression and a right of national defence on the UN charter and its idea that at least until the international community decides how to respond, any State that’s subject to aggression by another State is entitled to defend itself. He sees that as being in harmony with his concept of JWT.

Similarly, international legal jus in bello doesn’t generally distinguish between soldiers of unjust invaders and the soldiers who defend against them. Once you’re a soldier, once it’s recognized that you’re a combatant, once you are subject to a chain of command and so on, your responsibility is to follow the principles of discrimination and of proportionality in choosing what you do. […] So there is a degree of harmony at the level of jus in bello between the orthodox view and the view of international law. Recent defenders include Yitzhak Benbaji and Daniel Statman who offer a contractarian view designed to defend the Walzerian commitmen to a symmetrical jus in bello (in other words, the moral equality of combatants).

It’s different if you’re on the revisionist side. If you’re a revisionist then the law goes in a straight line and moral theory goes in a line that diverges from it. So, a tension or sort of disharmony occurs between law and morality, at least to some extent, and the question is which you follow: do you follow morality, or you follow law? There’s a brilliant and well-known paper by Jeff McMahan, who’s one of the leading revisionists, called The morality of war and the law of war, published in 2008, in which he argues that morality, strictly speaking, would permit things to just warriors that it wouldn’t permit to unjust warriors. It could even permit some things that the law would not permit. Hypothetically, there could be circumstances in which it might not be wrong to attack civilians – if they are morally responsible for the situation giving rise to the need for defensive force. It might even be justifiable, morally speaking, to inflict harm on captured enemy combatants. He thinks that it would be unusual for this to happen, but at least there are hypothetical or theoretical cases where it could happen. And similarly, there’s a radical breach, he thinks, between what law permits and what morality permits to unjust combatants, people who are fighting in an aggressive war. Basically, the law does not prohibit them from fighting. Morality does prohibit them from fighting.

As for what to do about the tension between morality and law, McMahan says two things. One is that it’s probably a good idea to leave the law as it is, even though it’s not in harmony with morality. Unless there are radical changes in international institutions, there are very good reasons to let the law continue to diverge from morality. It comes down to a worry about what the effects would be on people’s behaviour if we changed the law and let it track morality directly. So, if you’re fighting in what you had reasons to believe is an unjust war, and you felt compelled to fight anyway, and if the law did not permit you to attack enemy combatants – if you were just as likely to be prosecuted for killing soldiers as for killing civilians, then you might think: ‘what’s the difference?’ You might choose whichever actions are most likely to prove effective and disregard the principle of discrimination. […] Similarly, if you were afraid of prosecution even having fought discriminately, you might fight longer and be reluctant to capitulate, and so on. There are various prudential reasons for letting the law diverge from morality.

The other thing he says is that there are still ways in which morality can guide you, even if you leave the law as it is. If morality says something might be permissible, but the law says it’s prohibited, it may be best to follow the law. But, if the law says something is permitted and morality says it’s not, it is simply wrong, you should still follow morality. So, if you realize the war in which you are fighting is not what your government told you it was – say, a ‘special military operation’ for ‘humanitarian purposes’ to defeat the ‘Nazis’ in the country you have invaded – and if, in fact, it is simply a war of international aggression, and if you’re reading Jeff McMahan on the frontlines, the guidance presumably will be: ‘you should just stop fighting’. The law would not necessarily see you as being in the wrong – or at least liable to prosecution – for fighting discriminately. But the moral theory of the just war would say: ‘you should desert or surrender or defect; you should refuse to fight and object against your side’s war’.

So, on one view, there’s a quite close convergence of law and morality. On the other view, there’s a divergence and then there are various philosophers who want to have it both ways or want to capture or to continue to benefit from the rich analysis that revisionists bring to this, while at the same time arguing that the law has some sort of independent authority. Adhil Ahmad Haque, for example, in a brilliant book, argues for the authority of law over soldiers, something that’s got much stronger salience, for example, than Jeff McMahan thinks.

That’s kind of a complex issue that has no definitive solution, after all. The overall dilemma between ethics and the law has been going on since the Greeks.

There’s been a long discussion about how we should understand the overall field of international relations, on whether we live in a system where States act for their own interest, or if we see a community emerging that can also empower the ethical understanding war. How do you think we should side in this debate. Are we in an anarchic system where things happen because of power, or should we rely on an existing international community?

For what it’s worth, my own thinking on this is that I do worry that just war theorists have sometimes passively, tacitly, relied on a sort of implicit model of international order when they’re thinking about what might be permissible in war. And very brutally, it’s the thought that at least a large part of the world will be governed by liberal norms and that they are likely to be underpinned by more or less dominant Western military power. […] But I think that the assumptions you adopt about the nature of international politics and balances of power between different types of state are likely to have some effect on what you think is morally justifiable in war. Just how these assumptions register depends on the perspective in which you try to work the ethics of war out.

One perspective is a kind of third-party perspective that looks at war as a practice within a global order, and what the consequences of a particular theory of the ethics of war might be in terms of creating precedents, in terms of determining future behaviour, given certain institutions and given a sort of balance of power, and so on. And then, the other perspective is unilateral. It says: ‘Okay, if I’m the president of a democratic State, in whatever kind of war, what would be permissible to me should I be attacked, or should I find myself worrying that people in another State are subject to atrocities?’. The kind of theory you get, if you only or chiefly work unilaterally might look quite different from the theory you would get if you worked it out from the point of view of a global and impartial perspective. Partly this is because the things that you might permit to the unilateral perspective of the democracy would be things that you would not necessarily want generalized to any State that claimed to believe that it had just cause. The worry is that a theory that is very permissive to states with genuinely just cause for war will create opportunities for more sinister powers which they will exploit. It’s not quite clear which side to sacrifice when you have a tension between those two things – what a state with just cause might regard as permissible looking at things unilaterally and what the practice of war more generally might look like if we work out its ethical parameters from a global perspective.

We talked about soldiers in war. I wanted to ask you a bit more about soldiers and civilians, what’s the difference when targeting them, especially because there are some categories that are really in between. We mentioned non-democratic regimes, where often people are forcibly conscripted, so they don’t really have a choice. There are Palestinian terrorist groups saying: ‘we target Israeli civilians because they all get conscripted’. Also, there are soldiers not actively fighting, not on the frontline, but back in the mainland. How do we address this distinction?.

It’s immensely complicated. And I think the revisionist movement in JWT has helped to show just how complicated it is, at least up to a point. But it might be even more complicated than revisionism necessarily recognizes. One way to think about it is to consider two facets of this, or two ways to trying to answer those questions: one is a sort of natural, or naturalistic way of doing it, the other one is a conventionalist way. And I think that there’s maybe a sort of intermediate or a third element in between.

What I mean by naturalistic way of doing it is the thought that maybe it’s not a question who’s a combatant and non-combatant, it’s a question of who’s liable to harm. This is the question that revisionists try to answer. Whether you’re a combatant or not may affect whether you’re liable to harm – often it will affect whether you’re liable to harm – but it’s not the only factor. In principle, sometimes it is non-combatants that are liable to harm; and often there are combatants who are not liable to harm. This is because it really comes down to something like moral responsibility for wrongdoing, or moral responsibility for injustice. If what makes it not wrong to harm you is the fact that you’re doing something wrong or you commissioned some wrongdoing, then sometimes civilians will be liable to defensive harms, harms necessary to defend against the wrongdoing they’ve commissioned. And sometimes combatants will not be liable – often because they are fighting against injustice, not contributing to it.

And if, as you suggested, sometimes soldiers are conscripted to fight in unjust wars and they are forced to do so, they are lied to, they are subjected to propaganda, they really don’t know what they are involved in, and they are under duress, and so on, then the degree of moral responsibility that they bear for those wrongdoings would be reduced considerably. They have excuses for what’s happening. Whereas maybe sometimes civilians do not have an excuse, because they are free agents. These are hypothetical possibilities, but they show how if you are looking for an objective standard, or a natural standard, by which to determine who is and who is not an appropriate target for violence, it might not entirely be determined by deciding who is and who is not a combatant. Much revisionist analysis has been pushing on that track in trying to think what are the conditions of liability versus immunity.

There can be various problems in going down that road. One is that if you follow a purely moral objective analysis of who is morally liable and not in your just war, you might also have to take into account that the other side will also think they’re fighting a just war. And they may follow your lead and follow a bogus version of the same rule. And, so, if you start killing their civilians, they’ll start killing your civilians, and then you end up in something like an increasingly total war.

And the war cannot be stopped. Because everybody’s right!

Everybody’s right. The idea, I think, that Cicero is associated with (and Arthur Ripstein shows that Kant had a similar view) is that, whatever way you fight, it shouldn’t be such as to foreclose the possibility of peace. It shouldn’t poison the soil on which you should be able to build peace afterwards. And the wars that abandon combatant/non-combatant discrimination are likely to do that.

That’s one direction – the revisionist analysis based on moral responsibility for unjust threats. If you’re not going to do it that way, you need to do it in some other way. And that might be to follow some sort of conventional rule of thumb that you can agree with your opponent will be applied to decide who is and who isn’t a legitimate target. The convention on which you might agree would say: ‘Although some of my civilians might be regarded as responsible for some aspect of this conflict and we see some of your civilians as being responsible, we shall agree as a matter of convention to treat them as they are immune. And although I know that you conscript your soldiers and so they may not really know what they’re doing, you permit me (you treat it as not a crime) to attack them, as long as you’re allowed to attack mine’. Something like that. That’s one way of understanding how the law works; it’s sort of a conventional coding of the battlefield rather like the rules of a game […].


But I want to come to the third thought that I was suggesting, one that sits between the kind of natural objective liability view and the conventional approach. The third thought is about a political dimension to the problem. Let’s assume we agree: ‘Your soldiers are liable, my soldiers are liable, none of our non-combatants are liable’. So, we agree on something that accords with international law. But we also have to recognize that who is and who is not a soldier (a combatant) is not itself a natural, objective fact: we must decide who is. My society may already have decided that in part before the war by recruiting people to the armed forces […]. But even then, we must decide for the purpose of this war which of my citizens to call up for active military service. In every conflict there is a political decision about how much of your population you expose through combat to the dangers of war.

And then, with that, there is another question of how far away you put them from your civilians. There was an Amnesty report that criticized Ukraine recently, for example, for having military operations that were too close to civilian areas. But there is, in relation to this sort of issue, a moral and political decision that the State has to take. It’s a decision that it might take through deliberation, to some extent, and through consensual procedures: it needs to decide just how much risk its population is willing to expose itself to. It has to decide, for instance, how sharply to differentiate between its civilians and its combatants, how much risk it imposes on its combatants, and how much risk it thereby diverts away from its civilians. I think to some extent there’s a degree of agency that communities have in deciding how to expose themselves to war. Some of it comes down to the question of how much a cause is worth to us. How much of a disaster is losing going be, and how beneficial would winning be, and how much risk are we personally prepared to expose ourselves to in order to secure victory?

It’s a democratic issue as well. Because if you carry on with the war without the people wanting that, you’re a going for a disaster, as well, but you’re also going towards a non-democratic decision.

There’s a moral issue there, as well as a strategic issue, I think. Following the reporting we’re seeing in the Ukrainian case, it seems that Ukraine has been benefitting to some degree, both morally and strategically, from widespread support, democratic support for war. By contrast, Russia is suffering, morally and strategically, due to a more coercive approach to its soldiers. There’s a degree of support in terms of general public opinion in Russia for Putin, but intelligence reports suggest that Russian soldiers are not as fully on board with their war as the Russian command needs them to be. This may be because, in many cases, they don’t know what the fighting is for or they were misled about the real reasons they’re there. It matters morally because you can justify making strategic decisions that expose some of your citizens to risk, if those citizens have consented to that. It’s harder to justify doing that if they have not consented to that, and sometimes it’s impossible to justify it.

You wrote a very fascinating paper on the ticking bomb terrorist, the very idea that we have to make split-second decisions, while often this is not true. And terrorists are very peculiar actors, because they are conducting violent actions, but they are not soldiers, they are not in an army. They are somewhere in between, they are politically activated citizens, somehow. How do we account for them, as targets?

It depends. To think about that, we need to think about what we mean by terrorist. Who are we talking about? My feeling is that the best account of what we ought to mean by the word ‘terrorist’ would be the one focused on means primarily, rather than aims. It’s the methods, it’s the tactics, it’s the kind of violence you’re using, it’s about the targeting of that violence, how you’re using that violence to achieve your purposes. […] If that’s the right way of conceptualizing terrorism, then we shouldn’t assume that the terrorist will always be a citizen that is simply politically activated. Sometimes politically-activated citizens would do that sort of thing, but sometimes soldiers in uniforms under the command of governments would also do that sort of thing. Possibly the largest scale cases occurred in the Second world war and were carried out by allied bombers in Germany and Japan. What we are talking about is deliberately attacking civilians, non-combatants, most of whom, by any analysis, must be regarded as innocent, and as immune, with a view to creating a leverage, psychologically and politically, that will affect the decision-making of another political agent. The two atomic bombs […] were very directly, strategically aimed at affecting the decision-making of the Japanese high command.

So, on that analysis of what ‘terrorism’ means, we’re not just talking about the Red Army Faction or Hamas or Irgun and so on, we’re also talking about the State. And with that, answering the question of how one ought to respond is going to vary according to the context, according to the actor, and according to the end for which the violence is being used. For instance would we think, in 1941, if there was an allied bomber flying over a German city carrying a pilot towards civilians, that it would be better that that the plane be destroyed? Would we think it morally right for the Luftwaffe or for artillery on the ground to shoot that plane down? Do we think that would be a good thing? I’m not going to say what the answer to that is; it’s a complex question […]. Civilians would die if it drops its bombs, but if it doesn’t drop its bombs maybe there’s a greater chance that Germany will successfully invade Britain. That would bring terrible consequences, too. So, that’s a very difficult question. And it’s a question that takes us back to the ethics of war, jus ad bellum, jus in bello, the law vs. morality, and questions about whether you could morally justify the breach of international law in certain extreme circumstances. Michael Walzer, one of the most dramatically interesting philosophers on this question, had this idea of a ‘supreme emergency’ that could excuse measures such as that, in some circumstances.

As we go back to the activated citizens, I think it’s much more likely that a citizen who is engaging in terrorism – in the strict sense in which I mean – will put themselves into position where they are liable to use of force against them, to defend the innocent civilians. But this sort of case too raises difficult questions and should be approached cautiously. In a hypothetical situation where the terrorist is in a van driving towards the shopping centre with a suicide belt attached to them, might a drone strike be used to stop them? In that case, it seems quite simple. And as my article – that you kindly referred to – suggested, it seems simple, emotionally and morally, when we respond to the ticking bomb terrorist hypothetical, that to save two-hundred innocent people we should use necessary force against the captive terrorist who knows where the bomb is. We can feel compelled by that story. But they are just stories, and they’re very carefully curated, manufactured stories, which are intended to create that response. So, I think we should be very careful about them. I think the ticking bomb hypothetical in all its forms is deeply suspect. It has heuristic value in philosophy, but it has little or no value in practical ethics […].

You mentioned not only the complexity, but also the intricacy of ethical thinking, when you really get into thinking about these issues in depth. Thinking about some of the exercises, when you are presenting ethical dilemmas, for example, the first thing coming to my mind is game theory, where the more you have actors, the more things get dramatically complex. How do we address this complexity? Should we just make our best guess and go with that, because we have to, or do we come up with a thought that things are more complex than we can understand them, or schematize them?

That’s really interesting. One way to answer might be to go back to the beginning of our discussion to those sceptical ideas about cases where we think moral action guidance or judgement are irrelevant. Maybe there is actually a third version of that thought, which  is that the kinds of context in which we might like to have moral guidance are so complex meaningful instruction is impossible: morality cannot tell you what to do, no code of ethics will tell you what to do, because there are going to be too many people with too many purposes interacting with each other in unpredictable ways. So, for instance, you just can’t guess how morally responsible the conscripts are: how on earth would you make a judgement about this? You’ve got to think about the ends that you and others are pursuing, the means that might be adopted, and maybe it’s all just too hard, too complicated.

To which, I suppose, the philosopher’s response – and indeed the lawyer’s response – might be: ‘that’s why we have laws, and we have conventions. We try to straighten out complexity, in a practical way by having conventional rules.’ So, that’s a second thought, maybe. Out of the despair of thinking it’s too complicated, maybe we can simplify in the conventional way. I think what I would want to say is two other things, though, that maybe aren’t discussed as much. One gets a little more attention, the other less so.

One is that what we’re talking about here is mostly a theory of political action. If we go back to Hannah Arendt’s writing about action, she rightly places emphasis on the inescapable riskiness of action. Once you commit to act it will have ramifications and consequences that you could not have anticipated. And there will be the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns – as Rumsfeld said. […]. So, it is complex, we can only hope, as Arendt would say, to understand just the most immediate consequences of what we’re going to do. This is especially true when you start using violence, which is such an unstable, volatile element. I suppose it means you ought to be quite convinced that you really must act, if you are going to do that, but you also must recognize that there will be risk, there will be uncertainty, and you’ve got to try to exercise judgement in relation to that.

Perhaps the point, then, is to reintroduce a more moderate scepticism that says we do need action guidance, we do need to think about ethics and morality, we do need to think about law, but we shouldn’t expect those things to tell us like an algorithm exactly what to do. There will always be remainders and imponderables and all sorts of things that will go wrong, that we didn’t expect. Occasionally it might even be the case that something will go right that we didn’t expect either, but more often it will be bad things that happen unpredictably.

The other thought is again coming from Arendt. Even if these reflections and frameworks don’t precisely tell us what to do, or even precisely tell us how to judge other people, they at least allow us a degree of thoughtfulness in our response to situations – to try and think through the consequences of what we’re considering doing, to try to empathize with – and maybe think through – the ends and means that other people are trying to work with in those circumstances. This is one of the thoughts that Arendt has in her most controversial books, Eichmann in Jerusalem, the thought that the source, the explanation of the evil of Eichmann was that he was completely thoughtless. He is characterised as just designing the means to carry out objectives that he hadn’t really reflected on adequately. He wasn’t really considering the perspective of others, he was just thoughtlessly developing and applying instruments, not reflecting.

I think we don’t want ethics to tempt us to do anything like that. We don’t want ethics to become a sort of instrument that just thoughtlessly guides us do to certain things, some kind of checkbox exercise that leads inexorably to conclusions in a bureaucratic way. If ethical theory is valuable, above all, it’s by enabling us as citizens, or as participants, or as observers, to think as precisely as possible, as empathetically as possible, and as humanely as possible about what the possibilities are. But we should recognize that, in doing so, we are not going to get a determinate conclusion most of the time and that there will remain scope for conscientious thought and careful judgement.

Maybe, thinking about the Covid crisis, as well, my thinking was that we do really lack hope. And you can’t really go through ethical thinking, if you don’t have hope. There is this idea, referring to the Nazis, as well, that the Nazi thinking has been a nihilistic movement. I don’t 100% agree with that, at least we really need to understand what we mean with ‘nihilism’. There really can be no room for ethics, if you don’t have hope, if you really think that you can’t have any role, that there is no room for change. […]. Do you think there is a relationship between hope and ethics, from some point of view?

It brings something to mind something that I read over the summer that maybe speaks to your point. (Though I think your question is bigger than the answer I’m going to give. I think it’s probably true, I need to think more carefully about it, that ethical reflection relies on some degree of hopefulness.) I was reading the last novel by Vasilij Grossman, the Ukrainian novelist – I think he might have been described, until recently as a Soviet novelist, or as a Russian novelist, but he was from Ukraine. The novel’s called Everything flows […]. Its hero, Ivan, finds himself in a prison. He’s subject to interrogation by the secret police and he’s sharing a cell, one night, with somebody he describes as the most brilliant, but the most terrifying person he’s ever met. […] What this guy presents him with, the thing that terrifies him the most, is this idea that there is a fixed quantity of violence that never varies, and if there is less violence here, there is more violence there. […] He argues that violence just continues inexorably and in perpetuity. It’s like a reductive materialistic physics of violence.

Grossman’s hero finds this the most terrifying thought because it threatens to rob him of the hope that the novel ends with. Despite the fact that this poor guy comes back after thirty years in the camps, to cities and to the village where he grew up that no longer resemble the places that he lived in [Cut), he finds hope, because he thinks that, much as you can crush human freedom and you can inflict violence on people for a period of time, it just has a tendency to spring up again. You can’t actually extinguish it as a human possibility and it keeps coming back.

And I think implicitly that, in dialogue with the pessimistic view, the hopeful view is that violence can be diminished, and can be diminished in a sustained way. Violence and freedom in Grossman’s characterization are antinomic: the more you have of one, the less you of the other. […] What this helps to throw into relief is a belief underpinning JWT or any kind of ethics of war: it is the thought that you can diminish violence over time, or, if not diminish it, at least prevent it from increasing. If you think it’s a constant, if you think that violence that you diminish here in a defensive war will just pop up over there, then at least from a global perspective, there’s no moral justification for violence, not really. Your violence doesn’t change anything.

As a sort of counterpoint to the pessimistic view that Grossman puts up, we can use this term that Sheldon Wolin used when he was trying to characterize and, in some ways, defend Machiavelli’s political philosophy: this is the term ‘economy of violence’. It’s the idea that the prince should know when, and how, and to what extent to use violence in order to ensure that the quantity of violence that everybody experiences diminishes over time. If he doesn’t use violence sometimes, other people will, and they will be emboldened. They will use it more and more and you will see civil conflict, greater oppression, and so on. The prince’s responsibility is to use a judicious, almost surgical amount of violence in the short term to ensure that on the long run there’s less violence.

I think that this incapsulates what a great deal of contemporary just war thinking is also committed to, the idea that a judicious, discriminate, proportionate application of violence now, in Ukraine, or Syria or wherever it might be, may be necessary in order to ensure that the violence doesn’t increase and will even decrease over time. If you didn’t believe that to be true, then why would you add to the violence? Why would you commit more violence yourself?

So, in at least this very crude, practical, material, strategic sense, just war ethics is committed to some hope, a hope that you can diminish violence over time. But the very peculiar commitment of the just war theorists is that the means of reducing violence over time is to increase violence now.

[…] Quite often we talk about moral decisions made by leaders, or the military, or people who are in power. While indeed most people who are involved in the conflict or witness it, as of today, and try to make a moral judgement about the war. We are common people, basically, who have little to no power on the conflict. What does ethical thinking help us doing, as external actors, from your point of view?.

[…] I suppose those that are not in the conflict should never really forget that they might find themselves in a conflict. They shouldn’t take their enjoyment of peace and security for granted. […]. I think we need to recognize and be deeply mindful of the things that protect us from violence. And that includes things like having – or hopes of having – a democracy, of having freedoms that prevent you from being subject to domination by other people. The distance between those of us who live far from war and the Ukrainians is not defined entirely by the presence of a violent, aggressive neighbour. It’s also defined by the existence of institutions that prevent that sort of violence within the State. We shouldn’t see political philosophy and its wider concern with the foundations of democracy, freedom, and equality as radically discontinuous from thinking about the ethics of war. Because both of them are crucially about the question about what we value, about the weight we give to those values. In the case of war, it’s the crude but inescapable question of what values of freedom, and dignity, and pluralism are worth: are they worth dying or – more difficult – are they worth killing for? Are they worth fighting for? The morality of that is very difficult, that’s where war ethics come in.

For those who are not in the conflict, there is a reminder that these values don’t exist purely in their inscription in political texts or by writing them on the wall of classroom, or by going through the motion of voting every so often. These institutions that the Ukrainians are being forced to defend, can be encroached upon and destroyed also by other factors that come from within. Timothy Snyder […] is really good on this. He has written about the relationship between the recent international aggression by Russia and the atrophy and deterioration of political institutions, and civic engagement and public debate within Russia. […].

Also, the Ukrainian conflict is a very big reminder, because when we see Ukrainian people, we see people that are quite often like us. It helps us connect, to some extent, this idea.

It does. A State that you are not particularly aware of, that was not in someone’s thoughts, might come to be in their thoughts if there is a war. Not much of a silver lining, but at least there’s this sort of expansion of consciousness and empathy and awareness in other States. It is a good thing that we recognize our connectedness perhaps to those States. But of course, in the Ukrainian case, there was a lot of controversy in the first few weeks with some statements by politicians and others suggesting that Europeans really feel this one because they are seeing people they can identify with under attack. This implied that people didn’t identify with other war-torn countries such as Syria. But we should certainly identify with people suffering in both contexts.

It can be a leverage, though. Seeing them as like us can help to see others, maybe.

If, in any sense, war is coming closer to European States, in some ways it may be a symptom of failing to identify with and recognize the suffering of and the political importance of States that are perceived as in some sense more remote from Europe. I think the failure of Western action in Syria has probably done a great deal to embolden Putin and may have something to do with what we’re currently seeing in Ukraine. If there is greater empathy now in the West with Ukrainians than there was with Syrians, it’s a symptom of something that perhaps contributed to that situation.

It is very difficult for an external actor to see through these dilemmas they live. One thing coming to my mind when re-reading your materials was the whole theory of reasonable success, the very idea that you need to be able to predict your success to risk fighting, the overall dilemma about that. That indeed is a very dramatic dilemma, while for us it’s a kind of decision you are thinking about making that is really not your choice to make, sometimes. It looks like that. You say: ‘well, they should be fighting for their freedom’. Well, you don’t have guns pointed at you.

The question of the success condition and of futility was a really big feature of thinking about the war in Ukraine, back in February and at least for a couple of weeks afterwards. It raised this dilemma, in JWT, that has been with us for some time, between, on the one side, the intuition that to fight a war that has no chance of success is surely a terrible thing, because people would die for no achievable purpose, so it seems that there should be chances of success, before you fight. Many people thought that Ukrainians simply didn’t have that chance. But, on the other side, there is the appeasement principle, as Michael Walzer calls it. It’s a deeply obnoxious thought that anybody attacked by a really powerful State is morally obliged not to resist it because it would be futile. It gives moral capacity to really powerful States and deprives weaker, smaller States of rights. That seems unacceptable. […]

To go to your point about making decisions for other people, it is one of those cases where I think consent in Ukraine was extremely important. The fact that there was widespread support and willingness to engage in resistance was a strong signal […]. But, again, is one of those cases where uncertainty comes in and judgement is required and there is risk. And is one of those very rare cases where risk is that things will go better than you thought. Because, surprising many, the Russians messed up the drive towards Ukraine so badly that they retreated soon after. So far, at least, the conflict has not gone the way anybody predicted.

We talked about the past and the present, but I wanted to ask you some final questions about the future. One thing is, we talked about the development of the ethical study of war. I wanted to know you thinking about where it is heading.

Maybe we should talk about three topics there. […] One is about irregular conflict. The second is about what’s called ‘force short of war’. The third thing is about cyberwar and this sort of diversification of coercive or destructive instruments.

One thing that a lot of people writing about the war generally and ethics specifically tended to say in the last twenty, thirty years or so is that the old State on State regular war paradigm has deteriorated and there’s place for seeing increasing irregular, asymmetric wars. Therefore, war ethics shouldn’t be built on the traditional conflict you might have seen in the eighteenth century, with the red-jacketed army fighting the blue-jacketed army, where everybody can see everybody else, and so on. But how far that’s true, I’m not entirely sure. It’s a somewhat blinkered view of what conflict looked like in earlier areas to imagine that it was all well-regulated and formal like that. Because, of course, asymmetric wars against colonial populations were widespread. Nevertheless, there has been a lot of work in recent decades where there wasn’t so much before, on asymmetric conflicts and non-state actors engaging in war that might be justifiable. So, that’s one area.

A second area is the other side of that coin and goes back to what you said about terrorism earlier. There is this question about how we should think about practices such as the use of drones and similar technologies to carry out targeted killings. One answer would be to condemn them, rejecting them and forgetting them, from an ethical point of view. But, as with many forms of violence, there’s more than the suspicion that occasionally there might be a justification for employing them, that there might be circumstances where States have to use limited means of violence but for purposes that go beyond normal law enforcement within the State. There’s a really good book that was published last year by Daniel Brunstetteron this idea of ‘force short of war’. […] This is a term that Walzer first introduced to think about what had been happening in Iraq before the invasion in 2003. He uses the phrase to refer to armed measures that can have very beneficial effects in protecting human rights, but that it doesn’t amount to engaging in full-scale war. But they are very clearly not just everyday law enforcement activities. They are outside your own State, they involve using war vehicles and missiles, perhaps special forces, and so on.

That’s another area. […] I wasn’t necessarily persuaded, before reading it, that we needed a different frame of reference for things like force short of war, but actually I think that Brunstetter makes a very good case for it. There are these liminal cases where States may be compelled to use force, but it is dangerous to try to assimilate them to the sort of law-enforcement norms that govern domestic policing because you don’t want the police doing these things in pursuing ordinary criminals. On the other hand, it’s also dangerous to see these things as naturally escalating towards war. […].

Then, the third area – I guess – takes us back towards Russia, but also towards other States and also non-state actors, and this is again something of a liminal zone between peace and war. On the face of things, cyber-attacks often have a very different appearance from the use of ‘kinetic’ military force. But if a State is mounting cyberattacks towards infrastructures in the health sector, or in government, or in the major newspapers and so on, maybe shutting them down through DDOS and that kind of things, these can have a rather war-like appearance. For instance, sometimes they affect directly the things that that we need for staying alive. If you shut down a hospital, that may actually lead to death. If you shut down aircraft control in a particular area, that could lead to crashes. There have been cases of contaminants being released into drinking water in the US, by means of cyberattack. These sorts of things slide over towards what looks what they call ‘kinetic violence’ rather than ‘cyber violence’.  But even if I destroy everything on your computer by means of a cyber-attack without destroying the computer, without hurting you physically, I will hurt you a great deal. The result would be much like burning down someone’s office fifty years ago. Destroying data has a very strong affinity with physical violence. That introduces a complexity, I think.

In one way, it looks more complex when it occurs during war. So the Russians and others make widespread use of cyberattacks on the opposition’s defences, in tandem with attacking them. That complicates war, because now there are cyberwar actions alongside kinetic attacks. But what’s even more complicated is when you’re using cyberwar but not using warplanes. How do you respond to that? Do you treat that as violence or not violence? As war or not war? And there are other related things such as interference in elections, in referenda (in the Brexit referendum, in electing Donald Trump, for instance), through social media, through bots and so on. These are very directly detrimental to political culture, to political institutions, in a way that’s not entirely dissimilar from the effects of invading a Country and overthrowing its institutions. It’s not the same as invading the Country, but you are actually overthrowing the institution, or deteriorating it.

Not violent, but hostile.

Yes, exactly. I wrote a piece, actually, in 2018, in a journal called “Philosophy & technology”, in which I argue that a lot of these attacks actually are violent, not just ‘like’ violence. Some cyberattacks match what I define violence to be. It’s just that they do it with different means or against different targets. But many of these cases will, as you said, not actually belong within the category of ‘violence’ and yet they will be hostile. Therefore, it’s much harder to figure out where to put them. And I think that it just means that the boundaries of hostility, of enmity have become much blurrier, in many ways. Or at least it seems that way. Maybe I’m failing to recognize the historical antecedents of election interference of other kinds, but it looks like the range of tools available for States that want to change the international order has expanded considerably.

So, I think those are three areas to think about. Actually, I suppose a fourth area exists too:  a lot of ethicists are interested in artificial intelligence, for instance, when employed in so-called ‘killer robots’ and unmanned vehicles that make their own decisions.

One last question. We talked about the future of the ethical study of war. But there also is another future, so to say, in real life. There was a very interesting article by Giacometti […] about the ‘tribes of collapse’, arguing we are heading towards a future that can easily go towards a direction of isolated individuals, who prepare themselves for what’s coming with climate change, but are not able to build up communities, as needed. you think, in this sense, that a new centrality of ethics – or even a new ethics – can be possible, or desirable, to some extent?

Yes. When I teach these materials and I’m using definitions through my slides from several years ago, I’m increasingly inclined to think that, given where we are […], defining as violence only things that affect humans seems deeply wrong-headed. Definitions of violence are very anthropocentric in their moral focus, in their moral concern. […] But why should it be focused only on humans, and not other animals? And, of course, our sphere of concern ought to expand and expand, once we start thinking about climate change and the environment. There a brilliant book called Naming violence by Mathias Thaler, which I certainly recommend, that considers this problem. He uses the idea of ‘aspect change’ to capture how we can learn to see things in a new way by challenging the assumptions embedded in the way we use the term ‘violence.’  […] The unintended but foreseeable consequences of large-scale action, such as climate change, have a moral significance that goes way beyond much of what we identify as violence. Yet we treat them as not being violence. So, he’s right, I think, in challenging us on this. And he has a new book just out, No other planet […]. It’s precisely about reimagining things […].

Interview by Francesco Finucci

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