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Interview with Helen Frowe, author of The Ethics of War and Peace, 2nd Edition

The Ethics of War and Peace is a lively introduction to one of the oldest but still most relevant ethical debates. In this interview, author Helen Frowe discusses some of the key questions the book raises.


Can we ever be certain that the choice to go to war with another faction is truly the ethically correct decision?

This depends in part on how we judge rightness. Some people think that rightness is all about evidence: if all the available evidence tells me that I ought to go to war, then I will have acted rightly by going to war even if the war goes badly, is more destructive than I had anticipated and so on. Other people think that there are objective facts that can make an action wrong no matter what my evidence. To paraphrase a famous philosophical example, even if I have no reason to believe that turning on my light switch will cause my neighbour to suffer an electric shock, a fact-relative account will hold that I still act wrongly in turning on the light and thereby shocking her.
If we have the evidence-based view of rightness, then provided we had been sufficiently diligent in gathering our evidence about the war, it could be the case that I can be sure that I ought to go to war, because I could be sure that my evidence tells me that that’s the right thing to do. But I tend more towards the fact-relative view: I think that even if all my evidence tells me I ought to wage war, I might still act wrongly if it turns out that, for example, I end up killing far more people than I had anticipated. But it’s worth noting that there’s nothing special about war in this respect: we can rarely be certain that we are doing the right thing. When a judge hands down a ten-year prison sentence, she cannot be certain that this is morally correct punishment for the crime, even if the defendant is guilty. He may deserve less, or more, punishment. And of course, she cannot usually be certain that the defendant is guilty. We don’t normally demand absolute certainty before we permit people to act, but there are lots of interesting moral questions about what we should do when it turns out that the facts were not as our evidence suggested. Uncertainty about war is particularly troubling, since the costs of war are so often very high. Wrongly imposing these costs is very morally serious indeed. But the costs of refraining from war can be morally serious as well: the lack of international intervention in Rwanda, for example, seems to be a cause for very serious moral regret.

How is the moral way to conduct a war identified?

Well, I think the best way (or an important part of the best way) is to do moral philosophy! War is morally important and morally complex. It involves the intentional and foreseen infliction of the gravest of harms, often on wholly innocent people. Its consequences resonate for decades. Determining how to fight a war requires careful, prolonged reflection on the permissibility of harming. Of course, we want our theories to interact in some way with how wars can be fought: it’s a familiar criticism of much recent work on the ethics of war that it is too removed from the battlefield, and ignores the circumstances in which soldiers find themselves. But we can grant that there are constraints on how people can or will act in a given situation, without thinking that those constraints somehow limit on our moral theories.
We can make a helpful comparison here with the domestic criminal law on self-defence. In the UK, a defender may use force only when she sincerely believes herself to be under threat, and she may use only force proportionate to that threat. Most people who find themselves in the unfortunate position of needing to physically defend themselves against an attacker will be extremely frightened. They will have little time to deliberate about what to do – they may not, in their panic, really deliberate much at all. But few people think that, in order to develop legal principles to govern defensive harming, we should try to get ourselves into a panicked state of mind, and then frantically write down what seem like the best laws when we are in that situation. On the contrary: we want our laws to be the result of calm and considered reflection by people who have a good grasp of the aims of the law, and of the consequences of its implementation. Similarly, we should not take the conditions of war as a starting point for trying to understand the permissibility of harming.

Is peace ever unethical?

It depends what you mean by ‘peace’. One might have a deeply oppressive state that is peaceful in the sense that the law is strictly enforced and there’s very little crime or unrest. But it might well be unethical not to resist such a regime – for example, if it consistently targets some minority group with random imprisonment or torture. But if you mean ‘everyone living harmoniously and under conditions in which their rights are respected’, then it’s hard to see what could be wrong with that!


How can we know if it is ethical to become involved in another nation’s war?

Well, as above, we might never know, in the sense of being certain, that we ought to act in a particular way. But there might be times when it at least seems like the right thing to do: Rwanda and Kosovo both seem like examples of wars that should have been fought (although there is disagreement about the permissibility of how the Kosovo intervention was conducted). In general, I think, the conditions that warrant wars of intervention aren’t different to the conditions that warrant wars of national-defence: there should, plausibly, be a widespread and serious threat to important rights that it would be proportionate to resist with force on the scale of war, and that cannot be averted by less harmful means. However, interventionist wars also raise issues of self-determination: we might think that the people whom we seek to defend should get to decide whether or not we defend them. I’m not sure how important consent is for intervention: I think that whilst competent adults can refuse to be defended by third parties, they can’t refuse consent on behalf of other people, including their children. However, a lack of general support in the population might give us pragmatic reason not to intervene, because it makes the war less likely to succeed. The less certain we are that force will avert the threat, the harder it is to justify waging war.

The Ethics of War and Peace looks at the ethical issues surrounding these topics. How did you approach writing the book?

I’d been thinking about several of the issues for a while, and had taught a course on the ethics of war when I was a lecturer at Sheffield. So I had an idea of the issues that most interested students, and also of how much great new research was being done on war by philosophers. It was a particularly good time to write the book, because Jeff McMahan’s seminal Killing in War had been recently published, and there had been a flurry of critical interest in traditional ways of judging war. I was also very clear from the outset that I didn’t want the book to be a defence of any particular theoretical approach. I don’t like teaching from textbooks that push a particular view, because it tends to limit the students’ own reaction to the subject. I instead wanted the reader to get a sense of the range and depth of the moral issues relevant to war, and to understand how and why philosophers disagree about these things, whilst forming their own views.

Could you tell us a little about your background? Where did your interest in this area come from?

I did an undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of Kent, and wrote my doctoral thesis on harming the innocent at the University of Reading. I was initially interested in bioethical issues, such as abortion and euthanasia. But I became interested in the ethics of self-defence against innocent people – for example, against a toddler who has innocently picked up a gun and is about to accidentally shoot someone. I spent most of the last year of my PhD at Rutgers working with McMahan, which was when I became interested the relationship between war and self-defence. Given my existing interest in harming the innocent, I started to think about harms to civilians in war, and harms to bystanders in general. After finishing my PhD I held a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Sheffield, where I did much of the research for what would later become my book Defensive Killing. I’m now Professor of Practical Philosophy at Stockholm University, where I hold a Wallenberg Academy Fellowship and direct the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace.

What is one thing that you think it is important to highlight about the issues covered in the book?

I suppose the main idea that I wanted to convey is that nearly all of the issues I cover are controversial. People often talk of ‘just war theory’ as if it’s a settled view about when and how to fight war on which everyone agrees. But there is very little consensus about either substantive or conceptual issues in the ethics of war. And that’s not new: there’s always been disagreement between the historical giants of this field. This matters not merely because of the political importance of how people invoke ‘just war’ ideas to justify the use of force, but also because it should give the reader the confidence to form her own opinions and develop her own views.

What do you hope students will take away from the book?

I suppose I’d like students to see that philosophy can be politically important, and that applied philosophy can be theoretically rich. I don’t generally pay too much attention to whether something is applied ethics or (its allegedly more sophisticated cousin) moral theory. But many people think of applied ethics as philosophy-lite: as not really doing the hard, abstract work. I think the past ten years of work in the ethics of war shows that you can explore fundamental philosophical issues through the prism of a practical subject, and that this can be both exciting and fruitful.


Can you sum up the book in one sentence?

It’s an accessible, comprehensive and critical snapshot of the issues currently puzzling philosophers who work on the ethics of war.

  • The Ethics of War and Peace

    An Introduction, 2nd Edition

    By Helen Frowe

    The Ethics of War and Peace is a lively introduction to one of the oldest but still most relevant ethical debates. Focusing on the philosophical questions surrounding the ethics of modern war, Helen Frowe presents contemporary just war theory in a stimulating and accessible way. This 2nd edition…

    Paperback – 2015-10-22
    Routledge
    The Ethics of ...