Philosophers On The Russian Attack On Ukraine

On February 24th, Russia began an invasion of Ukraine, starting with missile strikes on several locations, including Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and since then has continued its attack via air and ground warfare, despite near universal international condemnation of its actions.

As the Russians, according to The New York Times, move to “encircle and capture critical cities in Ukraine,” ordinary Ukrainian citizens have taken up arms, volunteering to defend their country against Russian aggression. Meanwhile, the international community has responded with economic sanctions and other measures to financially coerce Russia to end its attack, and various countries have supplied military and humanitiarian aid to Ukraine. A helpful video explainer on the background of Russia’s attack on Ukraine can be viewed here, and you can get a sense of how things are inside Ukraine during the war via the Twitter feeds of Ukraine News Now and The Kyiv Independent, among other sources. If you are interested in helping the Ukrainians, there are several sources of information about how to do so here.

The midst of a war, with people being killed and injured, homes being destroyed, lives being disrupted, and dictatorship threatening, might seem like a poor time for philosophy. Yet the urgency of war and the significance of its effects makes it all the more important that those whose jobs involve thinking through the thorny moral problems war presents contribute to public discourse. The moral questions war raises have long been of interest to philosophers, and contemporary philosophy of war is a very active field.

For this installment of Philosophers On, I asked philosophers who have written about war and conflict to turn their attention specifically to the issues raised by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The contributors are Saba Bazargan-Forward (University of California, San Diego), Jovana Davidovic (University of Iowa, U.S. Naval Academy)  Christopher J. Finlay (Durham University), and Helen Frowe (University of Stockholm). I’m grateful for their willingness to contribute to this post on rather short notice.

(Philosophers On is an occasional series of group posts on issues of current interest, with the aim of showing what the kinds of thinking characteristic of philosophers and scholars in related fields can bring to popular ongoing conversations. Contributors present not fully worked out position papers but rather brief thoughts that can serve as prompts for further reflection and discussion.)



War Ethics and Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine” by Saba Bazargan-Forward

Why Russian Soldiers Should Lay Down Their Arms” by Jovana Davidovic

Arming Democratic Rebels Abroad” by Christopher J. Finlay

Ukraine and the Ethics of War” by Helen Frowe


[Explosion in Ukraine during the Russian attack. Source:]

War Ethics and Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
by Saba Bazargan-Forward

It might seem that the study of war ethics has little to add when it comes to morally evaluating Russia’s war in Ukraine. Consider Vladimir Putin’s motivations for the invasion. His goals might be security-driven, in that he fears NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe. Or perhaps a revanchist nostalgia for the Russian empire is what motivates Putin. Or maybe he seeks to re-litigate the outcome of the Cold War. Or maybe Putin fears that the recent liberalization and democratization of Ukraine might spread to Russia, threatening his brand of kleptocratic authoritarianism. What is notable about these (and other) candidate explanations, is that none of them morally justify invading a peaceful, sovereign nation. His purported justifications are risible and fail to withstand even cursory examination. It is luminously obvious that Putin’s war in Ukraine is unjust. Given this, what can the study of war ethics, with its myriad principles, distinctions, and doctrines, possibly add to a moral evaluation of this war? Bringing the study of war ethics to bear on the invasion of Ukraine seems, to borrow a phrase from Hermine Wittgenstein, like using a scalpel to open up crates.

It turns out, though, that there is much to consider. I will focus on just one issue. A foundational principle in war ethics is that we ought not to resort to ineffective or unnecessary bloodshed. It might be argued that Ukraine is violating this constraint. After all, Ukraine’s resort to defensive violence will result in the loss of life and limb. And to what end? Though Ukrainian forces have proved quite robust much to the surprise of Russia and the rest of the world, Putin’s forces could respond with overwhelming brutality from land, sea, and air. The use of nuclear weapons is a possibility as well. Alternatively, Putin might adopt a more insidious approach, by blockading the Black Sea ports of Mariupol, Kherson and Odessa, which are crucial to Ukraine’s economic viability. Putin could then just wait until Ukraine collapses into a failed state. In any case, if we suppose that the Ukrainian military is unlikely to emerge victorious against Russian forces, the continued loss of life—especially of Ukrainian civilians—does not seem to achieve a good sufficiently important to justify that bloodshed. As a result, some might argue that Ukraine should surrender, thereby saving the lives of many Ukrainians who would otherwise have died for no seemingly useful purpose.

To be clear, this is not a pacifist argument. The claim is not that it is wrong to defend ourselves against unjust aggression. Neither is it wrong to ‘go down fighting’. Rather, the issue is whether Ukrainian armed forces, as a whole, should fight to the bitter end when doing so will mean that those they are charged with protecting—namely, Ukrainian civilians—will be maimed and killed in the continuing conflict. In some circumstances it is heroic to sacrifice yourself when the alternative is capture. But sometimes the best way to protect others might be to forego a heroic death in favor of surrender. And the purpose of the armed forces is, after all, to protect the people. The claim, then, is this: if we suppose that defensive violence has little chance of ultimate success, and if we suppose that a resort to such violence will cost the lives of many innocent civilians (which is always an outcome in war) then military surrender is preferable. Or so it might be argued.

I believe, though, that this argument, though compelling, is ultimately mistaken. There are three reasons why.

First, fighting to the bitter end does indeed serve a useful and morally important purpose: it imposes a cost on unjust international aggression thereby making it less likely that the aggressing party will resort to such measures against other countries in the future. If Putin’s forces were able to just waltz into Ukraine, Putin might be more likely to do the same in other ex-Soviet bloc countries. Ukraine’s military resistance, even if it fails to repel Russian forces, helps increase the chances that other countries will remain free from Russian aggression. And that is an important good.

Second, though Ukrainian armed forces are ultimately charged with protecting Ukrainian citizens, those citizens might actually prefer that the armed forces continue fighting even if it increases the chances that those civilians will be maimed and killed. In such a case, the decision to continue fighting does not violate the rights of the civilians consequently killed if such civilians antecedently indicated a willingness to accept that risk. Of course, not all civilians might agree to this gamble. And some, such as children, cannot even in principle agree to it. But reports indicate not only widespread civilian support for military resistance, but also widespread civilian participation in such resistance, which suggests that they are willing to risk life and limb in the face of overwhelming odds—at least for now.

Third, and relatedly, fighting in the face of overwhelming odds serves another useful and morally important purpose: it helps preserve the self-respect of the Ukrainian people. Self-respect is seldom invoked by my fellow war ethicists. Perhaps they are inclined to think that though preserving self-respect is important, it is not sufficiently important to warrant killing or dying. But I believe this underrates the importance of self-respect. Perhaps the most influential 20th century political theorist, John Rawls, said in his groundbreaking work A Theory of Justice that “perhaps the most important primary good is that of self-respect”. He defines self-respect as including “…a person’s sense of his own value, his secure conviction that his conception of the good, his plan of life, is worth carrying out.” Construed in these ways, an individual’s self-respect is every bit as important as her own life.[1] If the prospect of surrendering to foreign oppression is sufficiently inimical to the self-respect of the Ukrainian people, then such resistance achieves an important good after all, regardless of whether it succeeds in military terms.

So, even if we suppose that Ukrainian resistance is unlikely to succeed, it is still worth it. Such resistance does not violate the constraint against unnecessary or ineffective bloodshed, even if we suppose that Russian forces will ultimately prevail. Nor does it violate the duty that Ukrainian forces have toward their civilians, even if such resistance puts those civilians at risk. (This might change, though, depending on the military tactics Russia adopts).

There is much more for war ethicists to assess as far as the war in Ukraine is concerned. For example: are the Russian combatants, by waging an unjust war, violating the rights of Ukrainian soldiers? Does the US have the moral standing to criticize Russia’s aggression given the dubious basis for the 2003 US-led war in Iraq? What duties of aid do other countries have toward Ukraine – especially the countries that enriched Russia, and thereby indirectly funded its military by purchasing Russian oil and gas?

I fear countless other ethical quandaries will arise, given the horrors to come.

[1] To be clear, we can indeed force individuals to act in ways that violate their sense of self-respect if their self-respect is grounded in behavior that wrongs others. For example, a racist who supports segregation might allege that dining at the same restaurant as a Black family violates her sense of self-respect. The racist cannot defend her conduct by invoking her sense of self-respect because it is grounded in morally wrongful conduct.

Why Russian Soldiers Should Lay Down Their Arms
by Jovana Davidovic

Video after video shows lines of Ukrainian men and women waiting to sign up, join up, and fight the Russian invasion. They walk up as ordinary citizens; Zakhar, an aspiring actor, Hlib, a scruffy computer programmer, Olena, a business manager from Kyiv, Stepan, a student no older than 20, and Sergiy, more life-worn, but just as ready to fight, all wait to join up. They walk up ordinary citizens and walk out as some kind of soldier. As Hlib puts it, “I am just a regular civilian. I basically have nothing to do with war or anything like it. And I wouldn’t really want to participate in anything like this, but I have no choice, this is my home.”

To me, born and raised in the Balkans, this seems all too familiar. Every generation in my family as far back as I can see lived through and fought in wars. All four of my grandparents fought with the partisans against the Nazis. My paternal grandmother spent three years in a concentration camp for fighting with the Sarajevo underground, and then mere weeks after her release from the camp she rejoined the partisans, this time in the hills. Like Hlib, she felt she had no choice, this was her home.

Who in their right mind would have called her a moral equal to a Nazi soldier, and who in their right mind would call Hlib a legitimate target for the Russian military. And yet, traditionally in just war theory, and legally in practice, we think of combatants fighting in the war as moral and legal equals regardless of the justice of their cause. The moral and legal equality of combatants is so deeply embedded in our societies that we see no dissonance in supporting the troops even when we do not support the war. Soldiers are never prosecuted or held responsible simply for fighting in unjust wars. And combatants on all sides of the conflict are seen as legitimate targets; equally justified in killing the enemy. The reasons behind this widely spread (moral, legal, and social) norm of combatant equality are varied.

Three common arguments given in support of the equality of combatants include arguments from consent, arguments from ignorance, and institutional stability argument. Some scholars, for example, believe that those that pick up arms, in virtue of doing so, consent to being seen as targets. This, consent-theorists argue, makes them legitimate targets and as such- it makes them equals to all others that are fighting in that war. Others argue that we cannot hold combatants responsible for decisions that politicians make. “Theirs is not to reason why.” These scholars argue we cannot expect soldiers to know or question whether their wars are just, making them equally justified in fighting in wars their politicians send them to. And yet others worry about undermining our military institutions. How could we protect sovereignty and human rights, they argue, if we had soldiers disobeying orders to go to war because they didn’t believe in that war. Whether their arguments are grounded in consent, ignorance, or institutional stability these scholars believe that we cannot hold soldiers responsible simply for fighting in unjust wars. We can hold them responsible for how they fight in wars, we can hold them responsible for obeying the Geneva Conventions, we can hold them responsible for that which is within their control, but we cannot hold them responsible simply for fighting in an unjust war.

If there ever was a time to reconsider this view, this seems to be that time. Regarding arguments from consent, those that join up solely to fight in a single war against occupation cannot be moral equals to those that occupy. Their “picking up the arms” cannot signal consent to being a target, even if we think that joining a standing military ordinarily does. Regarding arguments from ignorance, those soldiers whose military crosses someone else’s borders, cannot claim ignorance. At a minimum those that cross the borders have strong reasons to question whether their country is the one engaging in self-defense. And those that worry that without obedient armies we will lose just wars, have only to look at what happens when one needs to fight a war of just self-defense like Ukrainians are doing now.

The arguments from consent and ignorance, and the argument for importance of obedience all fail when faced with examples such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But one final argument for the equality of combatants remains. Even if we accept that a Russian soldier today is not a moral equal of a Ukrainian civilian that has just picked up arms (or a Ukrainian soldier for that matter), it doesn’t follow that we should have laws that prohibit fighting in an unjust war and that ask soldiers to question the justice of the wars they fight in. If we attempted to pass laws that would hold soldiers responsible for fighting in unjust wars we would end up with bloodier, more deadly wars that would get fought until the bitter end. What soldier would put down her arms if she thought she’d be prosecuted simply for fighting in a war. But is this really the case? This common argument envisions that instead of equality of combatants and justification for soldiers fighting unjust wars, we would simply have a prohibition. But there is no reason for such limited imagination. The alternative to moral and legal equality is not simply its rejection, but creative mechanisms for allowing soldiers the path and the understanding they need to choose not to fight in wars of aggression. This can take a form of selective conscientious objection, changes in the social norms around why and when we praise our soldiers, and encouragement to soldiers fighting in unjust wars to stop. In the recent days we have heard such encouragement from President Zelensky, Estonian president, a brave Belorussian lieutenant commander, and others. Encouraging Russian soldiers today to remember what honorable fighting looks like, and put down their arms, is maybe a pie in the sky, but changing our norms regarding equality of combatants and what legitimate fighting in a war looks like, is not. Seeing at least some in the Russian military stand up against this unjust invasion will pay dividends in the days and years to come. Long-lasting peace can only come from respect and reconciliation. And knowing that at least some Russian people and Russian soldiers did the right thing can help sustain a healthy peace one day.

Arming Democratic Rebels Abroad
by Christopher J. Finlay

Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign, democratic state, presents western democracies with an acute moral and strategic problem. One way to solve it is to arm popular resistance against a possible Russian occupation. The fact that so many Ukrainians have expressed support for insurgency means that doing so is likely to be justified. But it’s a possibility that takes us right to the borders of the ‘just war’ framework that many philosophers use to make sense of the ethics of force. If things were simpler, the right thing to do might seem obvious: democracies ought to defend the sovereign rights of Ukraine and the democratic rights of its citizens by sending their own military forces to assist in national defense. This would be right both for the sake of Ukraine and its people and for the sake of other states in the region fearful of what an emboldened, unresisted aggressor might do next.

But things are rarely simple and this case is no exception. Any state joining forces in alliance with Ukraine would thereby find itself at war with Russia. European states rightly fear that this would bring war into their own territory. And all states must consider the extraordinary danger of escalating conflict with a power that has already signaled a willingness to consider using nuclear weapons.

The tension between a moral duty to protect victims of aggression and the duty to avoid uncontrolled escalation has led some US policy-makers to consider a possible middle way: instead of sending soldiers to Ukraine to thwart Russia’s invasion plans, it might be better to prepare for the eventuality that Ukraine’s regular forces might be defeated and then resist Russia’s occupation by arming Ukrainian guerrillas.

Philosophers have often debated the question of whether assisting rebels abroad can be justified. Still probably the most influential argument is Michael Walzer’s advocacy of non-intervention which draws on J S Mill’s essay ‘A Few Words on Non-Intervention’ from 1859. Both Mill and Walzer thought that intervening in a purely domestic foreign conflict—between rebels and indigenous government forces—would be wrongheaded. It would distort the foreign state’s historic process of political struggle, violating its people’s right of self-determination.

Of course, a Ukrainian insurgency wouldn’t be a purely domestic struggle: it would be a national liberation war waged against a foreign occupier. Then again, Russia might install a puppet regime headed by compliant Ukrainians. But, even so, Mill and Walzer argue that assistance to foreign rebels might be permissible in cases where another power has already interfered in the process of national self-determination. So, in cases like Ukraine, even the Mill-Walzer account endorses ‘counter-intervention’ if it could restore to people the ability to shape their own political destiny. It would do so by resisting the foreign forces that Russia has intruded into Ukrainian politics.

Recent public debate tends to litigate arming Ukrainian insurgents in terms of the interests of others rather than of the rights of Ukrainians defending their independence. Former Ukrainian Minister of Defense, Andris Zagorodnyuk, advocates arming resistance as a means of imposing costs on Russia, thereby diminishing the chance that Putin will go on to ‘dismantle the entire post-Cold War European security architecture and reestablish a Russian sphere of influence over Eastern and Central Europe.’ Increased costs might deter ‘additional acts of Russian aggression from the Baltic to the Balkans.’ From the other side of the debate, Ted Galen Carpenter argues that the US mustn’t arm insurgents because ‘[a]ssisting guerrillas to maim and kill Russian soldiers might well create an irreparable breach between Russia and the West.’

These arguments deflect attention from the moral concerns motivating most philosophers arguing in the wake of Walzer’s Millian account. Any analysis of the ethics of assistance to resistance groups must surely start with the rights and interests of the Ukrainians themselves. The interests of citizens in other states potentially under future threat from Putin are part of the wider moral picture too. But they could have little claim on either the insurgents themselves or on states assisting them were it not for the primary fact that the Ukrainians have a right to resist forces attempting to snuff out their political freedom.

Then again, we shouldn’t rush to conclusions either. While the claims of Ukrainians might support an in-principle justification for assisting insurgents, it’s also possible to imagine them pointing in the opposite direction. As Carpenter points out, what a successful intervention of the kind President Biden currently contemplates looks like is full-scale civil war. And we hardly need to invoke Thomas Hobbes to be reminded why outsiders shouldn’t be hasty to wish this on Ukrainians—just cast your mind back over the past eleven years or so in Syria.

So it looks like Ukrainian citizens face a terrible dilemma: should they choose the rock of capitulation to Russian domination or the hard place of civil war? Their interests are objectively conflicted in this case, so appealing only to their right to resist won’t provide unequivocal guidance. That being the case, those considering intervention must ask: what would Ukrainians prefer? They ought to respect Ukrainians’ right to choose: would they support resistance and welcome the gift of more arms from the west or not?

While some philosophers argue that widespread popular support is usually required for armed resistance to be morally legitimate, Allen Buchanan questions how realistic it is to expect the leaders of rebellion against violently oppressive regimes to satisfy this condition. Interveners shouldn’t expect too much. But Ukraine is an unusual case. Not only does it already have legitimate leadership as a result of its democratic institutions, but there is also polling evidence indicating support for resistance. Just over 50% said they would resist, with one in five respondents saying they would be willing to engage in civil resistance, and one in three that they would take up arms. Reports and images of citizens stepping forward to claim weapons and take up training from the government abound.

Whether this level of support is enough to justify taking on the risks of insurgency is an interesting question. But, as Jonathan Parry recently argued, it could be: the good of defending just over 50% of Ukrainians might be enough on its own to justify the risks and costs of resistance. Another worry, as Carpenter insists, is the US’s record historically of supporting groups that were worse than the ostensibly oppressive regimes they were funded to challenge. He highlights the danger that support might find its way to the Azov Battalion, a far-right unit in the Ukrainian National Guard.

If it does support insurgents, the US should certainly be careful about which elements it assists. This is all the more important because the factions that benefit most militarily from that assistance are also likely to increase their influence politically. Analysts of civil war like Stathis Kalyvas have shown how political allegiances often follow military successes. This suggests that any military force that outsiders introduce within Ukraine will likely leave an imprint on the political complexion of the country. And this cuts both ways. Supporting democrats may be politically beneficial. Failing to assist them would leave the field open to other political influences. The current Russian leadership has an acute sense of how to reshape the political map of a foreign state in whatever way best suits their interests, as it has demonstrated in Syria and elsewhere. And the invasion of Ukraine shows that it has even fewer scruples about doing so than observers realized.

So, offering arms to Ukrainian insurgents no doubt poses risks, but then so does non-intervention. If more assistance is coming, it should arrive sooner rather than later, while democratic political forces in Ukraine remain strong.

Ukraine and the Ethics of War
by Helen Frowe

You don’t really need a just war theorist to shed light on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s campaign has already killed or injured hundreds of people and displaced thousands. Best guesses about the motivation for the war range from Putin’s having read some dodgy history books whilst developing lockdown-induced mental instability to a long-held desire to return Russia to its USSR glory—an agenda now being pursued via a charade of saving people from genocide in a country where no genocide is occurring. Unsurprisingly, neither explanation—nor even their combination—constitutes a just cause for war.

Nevertheless, the war does shed light on one of the central debates in recent work on the ethics of war. According to what we might call the traditional view of the ethics of war, the fact that a war is unjustified has nothing to do with whether it is being justly fought. This position is famously defended by Michael Walzer in his seminal 1977 book Just and Unjust Wars. It continues to dominate public and political discourse about war, not to mention international law. On this view, the fact that Putin’s war is unjustified is no bar to its being justly fought. This is why, faced with an unjustified war, commentators routinely debate whether its particular offensives are proportionate, or suitably discriminate, or satisfy the criterion of necessity. But such wars make a nonsense of these criteria. There is no number of casualties that is proportionate to achieving the occupation of Ukraine. Proportionality requires that the morally good end that one (reasonably hopes to) achieve outweighs the morally significant harms one expects to cause. The fact that an offensive will promote the wrongful ends of occupying Ukraine and toppling its democratic government is just a further moral evil, incapable of justifying any harms caused by Russian troops.

The same goes for necessity. The fact that a harm is unavoidable if one is to achieve some morally good end can help to justify causing that harm. But the fact that a harm is unavoidable if one is to achieve an impermissible end has no justificatory power whatsoever. Adding the prefix ‘military’—implying some special category of military necessity—doesn’t somehow enable us to ask sensible moral questions about whether, for example, besieging Kyiv is really justified, as a matter of necessity. Such questions might make sense in discussions about strategy or expedience—what is the best way to grind a people into submission?—but treating them as plausible parts of discussions about the ethics of war is fundamentally misguided. It lends credence to the idea that some Russian offensives—the necessary parts of the aggression—might be morally permissible and, if so, then the combatants who carry out these offensives do nothing wrong. This kind of vertigo-inducing moral reasoning is clearly mistaken.

We are already seeing, as always, a sharp distinction being drawn between civilian and combatant casualties in Ukraine, as if it matters, morally, which particular innocent people are being killed in pursuit of Putin’s expansionist aims. I think we should resist this distinction in general: it’s typically no morally better to kill combatants in the pursuit of unjustified ends than it is to kill civilians. Indeed, as Victor Tadros has argued, insofar as killing combatants makes it more likely that the unjustified war will succeed, there’s at least one important respect in which killing combatants is morally worse than killing civilians. Killing combatants isn’t just wrong in itself; it’s also a means of achieving further grave wrongs.

The fact that Ukraine’s defence looks set to be waged in large part by conscripts and civilians who have voluntarily taken up arms makes the pernicious nature of this distinction all the more apparent. Of course we want to condemn the killing of civilians. But doing so by emphasising that the victims are civilians gives a veneer of legitimacy to the killing of combatants, implying that they, at least, are legitimate targets. We should be unequivocal: Russia has no legitimate targets in this war. Ukraine’s existing armed forces are made up of Ukrainians who have either been conscripted or who have chosen to enlist primarily because of the threat that their country faces from Russia. None of these people forfeit their usual rights against harm by trying to defend themselves and their co-citizens against Russia’s unjustified attacks. Their deaths do not count for any less than the deaths of unarmed civilians. None of this is to say, of course, that unjustified wars cannot be morally better or worse. An unjustified war that causes more harm is worse than one that causes less harm. But all we have here are degrees of wrongness. All the harms caused by Russia forces are impermissible.

There’s nothing that those of us who work on the ethics of war can do to curtail Russia’s aggression. But we can at least refuse to entertain the idea that there might be permissible ways of pursuing this aggression. This means, amongst other things, resisting the habit of reverting to the in bello checklist when news outlets ask us to comment on the war. Ukraine is an abject lesson in why we should reject the idea that the fighting of war is morally independent of the justness of the war itself. It is also a lesson in why we should, in general, resist the idea that there are special moral principles that govern war. Our very ordinary moral principles, familiar from everyday life, tell us that it’s impermissible to use force to try to acquire something to which you’re not entitled in the first place. Nothing changes when that force is deployed by states or other political collectives: the Russian regime does not enjoy special permissions to do violence that are denied to individuals. Putin’s war wears its injustice on its sleeve; it is condemned by our most familiar, fundamental convictions about people’s rights against harm. Again, you don’t need a just war theorist to tell you that.

Discussion welcome.


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Patrick Lin
2 years ago

Nice clutch of timely articles!

For anyone interested in the information warfare or propaganda aspect of the conflict, here’s a Twitter thread by Peter Singer (no, not that one), which is best thing I’ve seen on the subject to date:


2 years ago

Thanks to all the contributors for making important points and raising important questions that are too often neglected. I have been pondering the issue raised by Saba’s contribution and so I will comment on that. It seems to me that Saba’s conclusion–“even if we suppose that Ukrainian resistance is unlikely to succeed, it is still worth it”–doesn’t follow from his premises. He has not shown that the horrible costs of resistance for Ukrainians (and, yes, also for Russian soldiers and their loved ones too), added to the risks of escalation such resistance entails, are outweighed by the expectable benefits of resistance in terms of reducing the likelihood of future Russian aggression against other states and preserving self-respect (I would hope that the average Ukrainian citizen’s self-respect doesn’t hinge on whether they choose to resist overwhelming force). He rightly emphasizes that many if not most Ukrainians may want resistance on their behalf, which does change the moral equation in the way he suggests, but it can still be wrong to put someone at risk even if they consent to your doing so, and (as he concedes) many persons whose lives or wellbeing are at stake in this conflict do not consent. There is also the issue that resistance can come in many forms and violent resistance is only one option. Violent resistance may not be worth it when nonviolent resistance is an option. None of this is to suggest that Saba’s conclusion is false. But I am not yet convinced.

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  Maggie
2 years ago

Thanks for this. For what it’s worth, I agree that I haven’t conclusively shown that Ukrainian resistance is worth it. I probably should have prefaced the claim you quoted with “I believe” or “it seems to me”. I instead took myself to be presenting several reasons that ought to be included in the calculus determining whether resistance is worth it (including at least one oft-neglected consideration). The reader can then draw (as I do) her own conclusions about whether these reasons are weighty enough to warrant resistance. Though at this point I tend to believe that (violent) resistance is indeed worth it, I share a version of your worry: should Putin choose to escalate, surrender might be morally preferable given the carnage resulting from such escalation.

Reply to  Saba Bazargan-Forward
2 years ago

Thanks for the reply. I so hope that somehow the carnage is avoided but I am very pessimistic about that.

I am not sure what to think about the self-respect consideration you raise. I guess I don’t know how to estimate how many Ukrainians need to resort to violent resistance to preserve their self-respect. I also am inclined to think that no Ukrainian’s self-respect should require them to resort to violent resistance and, if it does, I am not sure what weight should be given to that sort of reason for violence.

Saba Bazargan-Forward
Reply to  Maggie
2 years ago

Great questions. I address them more fully here:—dignity,-self-respect,-and-bloodless-invasions.pdf

In that piece, I point out some of the moral costs of resorting to inter-generational, non-violent resistance as a means of liberation from oppression.

(Maybe it’s cheating to just point you to a paper, but it really gets at exactly the kind of challenge you raise!)

Reply to  Saba Bazargan-Forward
2 years ago

Thanks for the pointer. I look forward to reading it.

Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

This is a really excellent collection of articles. They each provide us with an interesting analysis on how to conceptualize the nature of combatant, the value of self-worth, the utilitarian calculus of fighting on vs. surrundering, or about what it means for civilians to consent to continued guerilla war, etc. One topic/theme I would have liked to have seen someone mention, however, is on the nature of duties that citizens and governments of non-combatant countries have in unjust wars of agression like the one we’re living through now.

I have family all over the Americas and Europe and the #1 topic of discussion among us hasn’t been these (esotric seeming) questions about whether citizen-combatants should be treated differently from soldiers (etc) but instead on what *we* (those of us watching from the sidelines) should be doing either directly (in terms of sending money or, in some cases, our selves, to Ukraine to help the fight) or in terms of pressing our governemnts to do things? What, in other words, are individuals suppose to be doing right now?

For example: Should we be giving money to Ukraine? Should we be pressing our governments to give money? Is money the right or best thing for us to be giving? Is it right for governments to provide arms and ammunition (as many EU and NATO countries have been doing)? Is it right for us to press our governments to provide more direct military equipment (as Turkey has been doing)? Are sanctions the best tool for our governments to be using? Is it worth it for citizens to press their governments to engage in actings that might risk a broader war in the pursuit of justice for Ukraine?

I had a debate with an uncle this morning (to give one example) about whether his (EU) country should be doing more than sending ammunition. He was in favor of more direct engagement (as in literally sending volunteer soldiers) even though that would clearly put him and his family at risk of Putin’s nukes. In a post filled with such excellent analyses, I was hoping for one that would address these more applied questions that are so urgently being discussed now.

Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

Thanks for reading. In my view the starting point for such analysis- what to do, as an organization, country, or person might proceed through similar principles (just war theory principles). So first: what is the aim/cause of your proposed action (sending aid, sending troops, isolating Russia, divesting from X). Second, is your proposed action likely to help achieve that aim. Third and fourth, it is proportionate to that aim and is it necessary.

If you are simply considering helping refugees, likely no one gets hurt by those actions, so I would think then it is a question of how burdensome that is on you (but all things considered it seems like there are good moral reasons to aid refugees when it is not too burdensome). There is some difficulty I think around whether there is something wrong with not having helped refugees 5 years ago from Syria or Iraq, etc. For those of us who are American, given our country contributed to that harm more directly, I’d think we have more obligations (all other things being equal) to aid Iraqi refugees. But the fact we might have failed those refugees doesn’t mean that we cannot both still help those refugees (from Iraq etc.) and also help refugees from Ukraine. We might want to think of this as time that woke us up to our responsibilities as global citizens and our responsibilities as citizens of countries that cause some of those harms. So all in all seems like when it comes to aiding others/refugees there are strong moral reasons to do so. In my, not carefully considered view, if one is trying now to decide whom to help – the extra moral reasons to help Iraq/Syria/Afghan refugees (grounded in our contributions to those conflicts) are equal to the extra moral reasons we have to Ukrainian refugees (in virtue of current scale and present danger).

It gets significantly more complicated when it comes to engaging in actions that might kill people (fighting in war) or significantly harm people (sanctions that are not just aimed at war effort, but could harm people of Russia). In that case, one must ask themselves those just war theory questions I mentioned above: what is the cause?; am I likely to contribute to that cause meaningfully if I do this?; are there alternative- less harmful- ways to achieve the same aim?; and are my actions proportionate. The answer to these questions will depends on one’s skill set or ability to affect outcome meaningfully. If you are a translator, or can help with logistics of body armor delivery, if you advise or work with an oligarch and can maybe encourage him to take a stand on the issue or if you work with an organization that can divest or act in a way that will affect change (e.g. Microsoft in this article), these are all meaningful ways to contribute assuming the above careful analysis has been undertaken: am I likely to contribute, am I likely to harm someone in doing so – collaterally, and if so can I do something else instead that can have the same effect. (By the way this was mostly on whether we are permitted, how and when, to engage with this conflict/i.e. war effort; whereas the above was mostly about how strong are our positive reasons to help).

Hope this is helpful.

David Dzidzikashvili
2 years ago

What is happening in Ukraine today these events had been happening for the past 20+ years, when Putin came into power by bombing his own people – civilian apartments and committing atrocities against the Chechen people. The response from the US, EU and NATO had been just complete silence and welcoming Putin to the summits and holding red carpet meetings for him. This further emboldened Putin who attacked Georgia in 2008 and conquered Abkhazia and Samachablo. What did the Western powers do? Absolutely nothing! Reset by the Obama Administration and warm handshakes by Merkel, total ignorance of the international laws and Putin’s war crimes against the Georgian people. What happened afterwards? Putin invaded Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. What did the Western powers do? Bare minimum of symbolic sanctions that continued to feed Putin’s war machine. Then Syria, use of chemical weapons, more atrocities… What did the Western powers do? Absolutely nothing!
So we are here as a result of Putin’s false perception that he could chew more than he could bite and the 20+ year ignorance from the EU, US and the NATO. Today there is strong response and sanctions that will take the Russian economy back to the 1990s indicators, however it is too late and too little. Ukraine needs the Patriot missiles, S-400s, S-300s, missiles to shoot down airplanes and incoming rockets at much higher altitudes than Stingers could reach, Ukraine needs much more firepower and the ability to control and close its own skies. Lets help Zelensky establish the No Fly Zone! The Biden administration looked weak, but slowly they are starting to wake up and see the true face of evil – Vladimir Putin who is trying to restore the new Russian empire… 

2 years ago

Nice series of articles. I especially liked Helen Frowe’s, and found her argument pretty compelling. What response(s) do just war theorists give?

Phil Tanny
1 year ago

DailyNous is a very well established blog which seems a leader in covering the field of academic philosophy.  And so, the following fact has great meaning for me.

If you search this blog for “nuclear weapons” you are then presented with links to six articles. Six.

This is not a complaint with this blog, because six articles that mention nuclear weapons is way more than one will usually find on a philosophy blog.

Instead, it is a complaint with the entire field of academic philosophy.

As the war in Ukraine is increasingly illustrating, nuclear weapons are the single biggest most imminent threat to the civilization which academic philosophy depends on for it’s continuing existence. Just this week President Biden declared this the most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis. That seems true, but we’ve been in this perpetually dangerous moment since nuclear weapons were first mass produced in the 1950s.

In spite of that, academic philosophers seem more interested in almost every other topic in the world than they are in nuclear weapons. While I mean no disrespect to any individual, I am sorry to report that witnessing this inability to prioritize the importance of topics has almost fatally undermined my confidence in the rationality of the profession. As example, were I given a vote on the matter I could no longer support public funding of academic philosophy.

To be fair to philosophers, our entire society is a like a man with a loaded gun in his mouth who rarely finds the gun interesting enough to discuss. I can accept that from waitresses and truck drivers, but have a much harder time accepting it from highly intelligent PhDs.

Ok, we’ve reached the point in the show where you get to yell at me. 🙂 Go for it!