In this post, Helen Frowe and Massimo Renzo introduce a recent symposium they edited in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how accounts of causation bear on ethics in war.

Causation, and differences in types of causal contribution, underpin various issues in the ethics of war and defensive harming. For example, one of the key ideas about defensive harming is that of moral liability to defensive harm. A standard view of liability is that a person forfeits her right not to suffer harm if she is morally responsible for a threat of unjust harm to others. Her specific connection to the threat might matter in several ways – the degree, type, and proximity to causation might all make a difference to her liability. Some writers argue that although civilians causally contribute to threats of unjust harm in war, they do not contribute enough to render themselves liable to (lethal) attack. Others argue that making distinctively military causal contributions, such as providing weapons, makes one a candidate for liability, but contributing food or medical supplies does not. Still others argue that one’s position in the causal chain bears on one’s liability: only those who directly pose threats of unjust harm, or who are sufficiently causally proximate to them, are liable to defensive harm.

However, despite their centrality to some of the most important issues in the ethics of war and self-defence, there has been very little exploration of whether these claims withstand scrutiny from the perspective of our best accounts of causation. To cast some light on this, the Conversations on War project, which is run by the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace and the YTL Centre at King’s College, London, set out to explore how philosophers working on the ethics of war can draw on research in other areas of philosophy to improve our accounts of harming in war, and how research on the ethics of war might challenge or illuminate work in those other areas. In this post, we summarise our introduction to a symposium that arose from these conversations that offers a substantial critical analysis of the role of causation in contemporary work on the ethics of war and self-defence, and is an important move towards making work on just war theory and defensive harm less insular.

In ‘More of a Cause?’, Carolina Sartorio explores the claim that liability to defensive harm can depend on the extent of a person’s (responsible) causal contribution to an unjust threat. Sartorio argues that there is no plausible sense in which something can be ‘more of a cause’ of an outcome than something else, at least not in any sense that bears on an agent’s moral responsibility for an outcome. If Sartorio is correct, this has significant implications for the ethics of harming in war. Most obviously, her claim undermines accounts of civilian immunity that depend on the idea that civilians do not do enough to render themselves liable to attack.

In ‘Causal Contribution in War’, Helen Beebee and Alex Kaiserman argue that whilst causing does not admit of degrees, the degree to which causes contribute to an event’s occurring can differ. They suggest a probabilistic method for understanding degrees of causation, where something is more of a cause the closer it comes to being individually sufficient for bringing an outcome about. But, despite their sympathy with the idea that causal contributions come in degrees, Beebee and Kaiserman doubt that this will vindicate familiar claims regarding civilian immunity. In general, the degree of contribution actions make to a threat depends “very sensitively, not just on the intrinsic properties of the actions themselves, but also on those of the other causes, the presence or absence of potential back-up causes, and other factors besides.” This broad sensitivity means that the probabilistic method is unlikely to provide a robust basis for establishing immunity to defensive harm.

In ‘Causation and Liability to Defensive Harm’, Lars Christie challenges the idea that being causally responsible for posing an unjust threat is required for liability to defensive harm. Christie considers individuals who behave in identical ways, but only some of whom pose threats, because of causal factors beyond their control. Holding constant the moral responsibility of these individuals, what could justify treating some of them as liable, but not others? One suggestion is that each agent effectively takes a gamble, and it is fair that gamblers are made to bear the relevant costs when they turn out to be unlucky. Christie argues that the analogy with gambles is misleading. Gamblers at a casino agree to play knowing that they are liable to bear the cost of their unsuccessful bets. But unlucky threateners cannot be expected to know that they will be liable to bear the costs of their threats. Indeed, establishing that they are liable to bear such costs is precisely what the gambling analogy is supposed to show. Other defenders of the causal requirement have appealed to the distinction between doing and allowing harm, and the distinction between exploitative and non-exploitative harm. Christie argues that, if we carefully isolate the different wrongs discussed in these arguments, we realize that none of these strategies is successful. If correct, Christie’s arguments have a significant impact on how we should think about the morality of harm.

Each of the three papers in this symposium raises distinctive challenges to causal requirement for liability to defensive harm. Challenging this requirement is tantamount to challenging the standard understanding of notion of liability that lies at the heart of how most philosophers think about the morality of harm. The implications of this challenge extend well beyond work on the ethics of war. We hope that the papers in this symposium will be of interest to those working in philosophy of causation, the ethics of self-defence, moral responsibility, and punishment, as well as those working on war.

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.