Morality and War

If I intentionally kill another person I will be subject to a long term of imprisonment or even, in some jurisdictions, the death penalty. But if I kill 1,000 people, I might receive a medal; or if a million, I might be promoted to field marshal or even president, provided only that those killed come from another side of a border in a state known as “war”.

There is, however, a tradition which, while not resolving the paradox, does something to mitigate its evil consequences. This is known as the Just War. The tradition has its roots in St Augustine, was developed further by St Thomas Aquinas and reached its culmination in the writings of the 16th and 17th-century jurists and theologians. Attempts were made to revive it in the second half of the 20th century, initially in response to the debate on the morality of nuclear weapons. In Morality and War, David Fisher seeks to develop it further in response to today’s circumstances. He is almost uniquely qualified for this task, having been trained as a moral philosopher and then having spent his career as a senior official in the UK Ministry of Defence.

The Just War doctrine has always insisted that “the onus of proof should rest on those seeking to disturb the tranquillity of the world by resorting to war”. It is permissible if and only if it is authorised by a competent authority, if it is for a just cause, if it is undertaken as a last resort and if the good likely to be achieved exceeds the harm of the war itself. And, of course, non-combatants should not be targeted.

Clearly these principles are subject to much interpretation. The author does not flinch from applying them to recent cases. After a detailed examination he considers the Nato war to free the Kosovo Muslims from the attentions of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic to have been justified both in content and execution. He also approves of the first Gulf war undertaken in response to Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait. But the second Bush-Blair Iraq war was undertaken “without sufficient just cause and without adequate planning to secure a just outcome”. Clearly the world would be a better place if its rulers were to observe Just War principles consistently, and if, as Fisher advocates, they were taught to all ranks and not just to leaders.

Nevertheless, the principles do not go far enough. Just War advocates tend to think implicitly of nations as persons. Once this is realised, questions about the first Iraq war need to be translated into questions about the likely sufferings of US-led troops, Kuwaitis and Iraqis compared with what would have occurred without intervention. And while not all the carnage of the first world war could have been foreseen, quite a lot of it could have been. It is indeed difficult to formulate a doctrine that would have required intervention to prevent the massacre of 800,000 people in the Rwanda genocide without encouraging busy-body intervention in most parts of the world at most times.

Fisher does insist in an eloquent chapter on adding humanitarian intervention to the list of Just War causes. I would go further and say that it is the only justification and that valid arguments about quarrels between states need to be translated into these terms. “Germany” did not invade Belgium in 1914 or Poland in 1939; German troops did; and the sufferings were of individuals. The question was not whether some treaty or other had been violated, but the harm likely to ensue. Cobden’s words on the unwisdom of most attempts to regulate the “affairs of other people” still apply.

Finally, there is a logical point of some importance. Fisher frets about the subjectivist view of moral judgments taken by many 20th-century philosophers. But this does not mean the death of morality; it merely means that such judgments cannot be derived by deductive reasoning or from empirical evidence. Some of us may remember letters to the press by groups of philosophers headed “Russell, Ayer” protesting at some evil in foreign or domestic policy. Yet both Bertrand Russell and AJ Ayer were renowned or even notorious for rejecting an objectivist view of ethics.

Fisher advocates what he calls “virtuous consequentialism”. By this he means that actions are to be judged mainly by their consequences, but taking intentions into account. For example, a competent swimmer is culpable if he or she fails to rescue a drowning child, but not to the same degree as if the child is deliberately pushed into a raging torrent. Of course, organised human life is impossible unless there is some overlap among the moral judgments of different people. But there is no need to fret about these judgments not being either mathematical theorems or laboratory discoveries.

Samuel Brittan is an FT columnist

Morality and War: Can War be Just in the Twenty-first Century?, by David Fisher, Oxford University Press, RRP£25, 320 pages

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.