Justice Everywhere

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Why We (Usually) Shouldn’t Fund Rebellions

In this post, Helen Frowe discusses their recent article in the Ethics of Indirect Intervention symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how funding rebel fighters can cause unjust harm.


Consider the following scenario, Rebellion.

Rebellion: A rebel group in Eastland is waging an armed revolt against its unjust, murderous government. If they are successful, they will avert significant harm to their people. A foreign state, Westland, is providing the Eastlandic rebels with financial support, hoping that this will enable the rebels to replace their oppressive government and thereby save lives.

This kind of indirect support for foreign uprisings has been rather fêted in recent years. It enables governments to assist those in need without risking the lives of their own armed forces. But is it the right thing to do?

Philosophical discussions of the ethics of assisting rebellions have, thus far, focused on features of the rebellions. For example, they worry about the moral character and aims of the groups that are being funded, whether foreign support will prolong war, or render a new regime less stable, and how foreign interference bears on issues of self-determination. But in a recent article, I argue that there can be decisive moral objections to funding rebellions that are independent of these features of rebellions. These objections are grounded in the contours of our duties to rescue.

My argument begins with the observation that justified rebellions cause unjust harm – that is, harms that the victims have a right not to suffer. Grenade offers an example of a justified unjust harm:

Grenade: Villain has thrown a grenade towards ten people. It will kill the ten unless you kick it towards Villain and innocent Bystander, killing them both.

Many people believe that you may kick the grenade away from the ten. But the harm you thereby impose on Bystander seems quite different in moral character to the harm you thereby impose on Villain. Because Villain is morally responsible for the threat facing the ten, he lacks a right against being harmed to save the ten. He is not unjustly harmed if you kill him. Indeed, you may kill Villain to save just one person whose life he has unjustly endangered.  Bystander, in contrast, does suffer an unjust harm. Her right can be overridden – you are justified in killing her – but only because harming her will secure a significantly greater good. You may not kill Bystander to save one life.

Many of the people who will be harmed during a rebellion have rights not to be harmed. A war is proportionate only if the good that it is intended to achieve is sufficient to override those rights. These harms must be the lesser evil compared to the harms that would result if the war was not fought. But, as I argue, whether one has a lesser-evil justification for harming depends on one’s available alternatives. Suppose that in Grenade, Pete is able to save the ten by either kicking the grenade towards Villain and Bystander, or kicking the grenade into an empty building, harming nobody. Clearly, Pete cannot justify kicking the grenade towards Villain and Bystander on the grounds that you have a lesser-evil justification for doing so. Your justification reflects your options: you have no way to save the ten without causing unjust harm to Bystander. Pete, in contrast, can save the ten without harming anyone. Pete lacks a lesser-evil justification for harming Bystander because, for Pete, harming Bystander is unnecessary.

Now imagine that, for the same expenditure of resources as in Rebellion, Westland could save a greater number of lives by funding disease prevention. Several philosophers argue that, ordinarily, we ought to prevent all the harm we can for the resources we expend. I believe that, in addition, when we deliberately prevent a lesser harm, we typically wrong the person(s) facing the greater harm. On this view, when Westland decides to fund the rebels, it wrongs the people whom it could have saved by funding disease prevention instead.

I argue that thinking about Westland’s position reveals a further, different objection to a failure to minimise harm when saving. Consider Trolley Choice:

Trolley Choice: Trolley A is lethally heading towards five people (the As). You can divert Trolley A down a sidetrack where it will kill Workman. Trolley B is lethally heading towards five different people (the Bs). You can divert Trolley B down an empty sidetrack, killing nobody. There is time to divert only one trolley.

Given that there is no moral reason to prefer the survival of the As to the survival of the Bs, causing Workman’s death is unnecessary. I think it is clearly impermissible – and it clearly wrongs Workman – for you kill Workman to save the As, when you could have saved the same number of lives without killing anyone. Likewise, I think Westland wrongs the people whom it enables the rebels to harm, given that Westland could have saved more lives by treating disease without thereby enabling comparable harms. From Westland’s perspective, the harms it enables the rebels to inflict are unnecessary and unjustified, even if they are justified from the rebels’ perspective. I argue that this renders Westland liable to bear defensive and compensatory costs for the sake of the (prospective) victims of these harms.

In the paper, I remain neutral on how often these reasons against funding rebels obtain in real life, because the referees rightly pointed out that I was relying on unsubstantiated empirical claims. Here, I’m going get off the fence: I think that funding rebels will nearly always be rendered impermissible by the considerations that I identify. Moreover, I take it that the prima facie empirical case is in my favour, and thus the burden of proof lies with my opponents. Remember that my claims are comparative. I do not say that disease prevention, or other forms of aid, do not cause harm. On the contrary, I grant that aid programmes can inadvertently cause, for example, physical harm, unemployment, and displacement. My claim is that unless they cause harm on a par with a civil war, whilst preventing no more harm than a civil war, then these forms of saving lives are to be preferred to funding rebellions. I am reasonably confident that, usually, funding rebellions causes more harm, and saves fewer lives, than available alternatives.

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. I don’t see what’s so special about funding rebellions. By the logic of your argument, humanitarian military interventions (which tend to come with collateral damage) would likewise be unjustified if the money used for them could be used to save more people through disease prevention or food programs and without inflicting collateral damage – which means that in the real world humanitarian interventions would almost always be unjustified.
    Moreover, your Trolley Choice example is not analogous to the cases of funding (justified) rebellions or engaging in humanitarian interventions: in the latter two cases, one helps to resist or does resist an aggressor. As I argue elsewhere (in On the Ethics of War and Terrorism), there is a right to resist aggressor. Such a right can be overridden, of course, but rights have considerable weight in proportionality calculations. To be sure, the collateral damage inflicted can only be justified by a lesser evil justification, but if a right to resist an aggressor exists, then this right acts in the proportionality consideration as a counter-weight to the collateral damage imposed on innocent bystanders.
    To me, at least, it seems simply counter-intuitive to say, as the logic of your argument implies, that if I have the choice of a) stopping ten murderers from murdering ten people by stunning the murderers and collaterally a bystander, and b) saving 10 people by tossing them a life buoy (without stunning a bystander), then I just MUST choose option (b). The fact that option (a) not only saves people, but also saves them from aggressors by way of resisting them, thus defending the social-legal or moral order against these aggressors, should count for something. You surely haven’t shown that it does’t.

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