Justice Everywhere

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A Symposium on The Ethics of Indirect Intervention

In this post, Helen Frowe and Ben Matheson introduce a symposium they recently edited in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the ethical issues that arise in indirect interventions.


Recent years have seen a marked shift in political responses to humanitarian crises abroad. In the aftermath of disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, governments are increasingly reluctant to engage in direct foreign intervention – that is, to put ‘boots on the ground’ in overseas conflicts to try to protect foreign citizens from harm. Several countries are, instead, increasingly advocating and employing indirect forms of intervention, such as overtly funding, arming, or training foreign rebel groups. France, Turkey, the UK and the US have armed and trained rebels in Syria, for example.

We might think that indirect intervention avoids the moral perils that arise in cases of direct intervention. But, to the contrary, indirectly contributing to war raises a host of moral concerns, as a growing body of literature in the ethics of war attests. And, of course, not all indirect contributions to foreign conflicts fall under the description of aiding foreign citizens. On the contrary: governments sell, or facilitate the selling of, weapons and equipment to authoritarian states that use those weapons to harm their citizens. Just as we ought to be concerned about vaunted attempts to influence foreign conflicts by supporting rebels, we ought to be concerned about third parties’ rather less publicised roles in suppressing resistance abroad. In this post, we summarise a symposium exploring some of these issues, presented at a workshop organised by the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace.

In “Selling Arms and Expressing Harm”, James Christensen argues that we should reject what he calls the inconsequence argument about arms trading. The inconsequence argument holds it is permissible to sell arms to oppressive governments – or ‘outlaw states’ – because the victims of such governments are thereby made no worse off than they otherwise would be, given that those oppressive governments would just source arms elsewhere. Because the harm is substitutive, it is claimed to be morally irrelevant.

Christensen argues that selling arms can disrespect outlaw states’ victims, inflicting what he calls expressed harms on those victims. And, he argues, these harms can be caused not only by arms sales, but also by offers of sales, and related acts such as issuing invitations to arms fair. Moreover, the expressed harms of offers, unlike sales, are additive rather than substitutive. Such offers can be made simultaneously, by multiple states. Christensen argues victims of outlaw states often have good reason to believe that arms exporters who make offers to these states do not care about the victims. Thus, in many cases, the inconsequence argument fails to vindicate arms sales.

In “Liability for Wrongful Assistance: On Causing Unjust Harm in the Course of Suboptimal Rescue”, Helen Frowe argues that it can be impermissible for foreign governments to assist even justified rebellions. Rebellions typically cause unjust harms, such as the collateral deaths of innocent people. Assisting rebels enables these unjust harms. Frowe argues that enabling unjust harm is impermissible when the assistors could have prevented more harm without enabling comparable unjust harm, and without incurring a (significantly greater) supererogatory cost to themselves. If, for example, a government could have prevented more harm by funding disease prevention, without thereby causing comparable levels of unjust harm or incurring a greater cost to itself, the government acts wrongly by assisting the rebellion. Even if, given their available options, the rebellion is justified from the rebels’ perspective, it is unjustified from the assistors’ perspective, given their available options. Frowe argues that governments that wrongly assist rebellions incur liability to bear costs for the sake of those who are unjustly harmed as a result of their assistance.

In “Assisting Rebels Abroad: The Ethics of Violence at the Limits of the Defensive Paradigm”, Christopher Finlay identifies two practical dilemmas for would-be interveners. The first is that interveners can either fully support the rebels’ ends, adopting them as their own, or offer support only as a means of redressing an imbalance of power, in order to give the rebels more scope for self-determination. The first option is problematic because rapid victories lack the deeper changes required to turn authoritarian states into democratic ones, and thus often fail to lead to free, democratic successor states. The second is problematic because longer civil wars are typically more destructive.

Finlay’s second dilemma concerns cases in which interveners must choose between rival rebel groups. Finlay outlines a series of legitimacy conditions that rebel leaders ought to satisfy, to some extent, in order to be permissibly supported by interveners. When there is established and legitimate rebel leadership, interveners can avoid an overly creative role in the rebellion and thereby better respect the citizens’ self-determination. But sometimes there are multiple rebel leaders, who do not satisfy many of the legitimacy conditions, and who act wrongly in terrorizing their own people and attacking other rebel groups. If interveners wait to see how things play out, then while a strong rebel group may emerge, they may not be the most morally legitimate ally. This gives interveners reasons to cultivate more morally promising rebel groups early on in a domestic conflict. There is a tension, then, between respecting homegrown rebel leadership and acting such to counterbalance the artificial effects of greater military capacity.

Finlay concludes that indirect intervention does not have a purely defensive justification, and is more complex than direct intervention. If a direct intervention will cost more lives than it saves, then it is unjustified. But, according to Finlay, it is less clear how to compare the value of a possible future with democratic governance and the value of the number of lives that might be lost in the fight for that possible future.

As the papers in this symposium attest, assisting others to inflict harm in pursuit of political ends raises distinctive moral problems that are overlooked in the broader literature on intervention. Exploring these problems sheds light not only on the ethics of indirect intervention, but also on the nature and scope of our duties to rescue and our duties not to harm.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.

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1 Comment

  1. Helen Frowe and former postdoc Ben Matheson have edited on symposium in the Journal of Applied Philosophy on the ethical indirect interventions. The symposium follows a workshop held in Stockholm, May 2019.

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