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Selling Weapons to Oppressive Regimes: Does it Make a Difference?

In this post, James Christensen discusses their recent article in the Ethics of Indirect Intervention symposium in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how selling weapons to oppressive regimes harms their victims.

Liberal states often promote arms sales to oppressive regimes. Though these sales are controversial, politicians and other public figures often seek to defend them. According to one line of defence, the sales are inconsequential; they make no morally relevant difference to the harms that oppressive regimes can inflict. This is said to be because these regimes would inevitably acquire weapons from somewhere. In defence of an appearance he once made at a Dubai arms fair, it has been alleged that Prince Charles once argued: “if the UK doesn’t sell [arms] someone else will.” A similar argument was made more recently by former British foreign secretary Philip Hammond. We can refer to this line of defence as the inconsequence argument. In a new article, I offer a reply to this argument.

As a first step toward formulating this reply, let me note an ambiguity in the inconsequence argument. Notice that there are two distinct types of act that a proponent of the inconsequence argument could be trying to defend: the conditional sale of weapons to oppressive regimes and the unconditional sale of weapons to oppressive regimes.

A transfer is made conditionally if the exporter thinks: “I will sell these weapons only if the sale is unlikely to make a difference.” A transfer is made unconditionally if the exporter thinks: “I will sell these weapons regardless of whether the sale is likely to make a difference.” Perhaps a particular sale is unlikely to make a difference. But it is a further question whether this fact plays any role in an exporter’s decision to sell. This observation highlights the distinction between conditional and unconditional sales.

Conditional and unconditional exporters are distinguished by their intentions, and some philosophers think intentions are relevant to moral permissibility. Intentions are thought to be able to make an act wrongful in a number of ways, including by affecting the act’s meaning. Consider discrimination. Thomas Scanlon points out that discriminatory acts can be wrongful “because of their meaning – the judgement of inferiority that they express and thereby help to maintain.” If an employer refuses to hire you not because you’re unqualified but because, say, you’re black, the employer insults you; he communicates the view that, because of your skin colour, you are in some way inferior.

If intentions are relevant to permissibility, there’s a relatively straightforward way to criticize unconditional arms sales. When exporters make unconditional sales, they intend to sell the weapons irrespective of whether this will make a difference. Perhaps the sale will badly affect the lives of innocent people; perhaps it won’t. To unconditional exporters, these considerations are irrelevant; the wellbeing of the innocent people they might harm doesn’t enter their deliberations. This is a callous attitude. If this attitude is expressed by arms sales, the sales can be criticized on those grounds. They can be criticized on the grounds that they send an insulting message. The sales communicate to innocent individuals that their basic interests have been cruelly disregarded. And if their interests have been disregarded, this must mean that the exporter doesn’t really think they matter.

But what about conditional arms sales? A conditional exporter intends to sell weapons only if the sale is not expected to make a difference. Such an exporter does not obviously disregard the interests of those who might be affected by her actions. Because the intentions behind a conditional sale are different to those behind an unconditional sale, it might be said that the two types of sale mean or express different things.

But this is too quick. After all, we can never know with certainty what someone’s intentions are. All we can be certain of is what they do. And what conditional and unconditional exporters do is, in a relevant respect, the same: they sell weapons to oppressive regimes. They provide oppressive regimes with the tools of oppression. Whatever the intentions of exporters, it certainly looks like the victims of oppression are disregarded. And appearances matter. Suppose that an employer declines to hire you because another candidate is better qualified. But suppose that, due to certain features of the situation and the way the employer behaves, you reasonably infer that you’ve been rejected on racist grounds. The employer sends an insulting message, whether she meant to or not.

We can capture this point in the following way. We should care not only about what an act means to the subject (the person performing the act) but also about what the act means to the object (the person whom the act affects). In other words, in addition to caring about an act’s subject-centred meaning, we should also care about its object­-centred meaning. Conditional sales might be unobjectionable in virtue of their subject-centred meaning (the exporter intends to sell weapons only if the sale is unlikely to make a difference); but conditional sales might nevertheless be objectionable in virtue of their object-centred meaning. Conditional sales involve transferring, to oppressive regimes, the instruments of oppression. In many cases, it will surely be reasonable for the victims of oppression to perceive these sales as insulting. It will be reasonable for them to believe that their interests have been callously disregarded.

One lesson we can draw here is the following. Arms sales don’t contribute to harm only by providing other people with the means to inflict harm. Arms sales can be harmful – expressively harmful – in themselves. They can communicate the message that certain people’s interests have been coldly set-aside, that these people “don’t matter”. We can therefore object to selling weapons to oppressive regimes even if the sale won’t enable those regimes to be any more oppressive than they would otherwise have been.

When we focus exclusively on the material harms to which arms trading might contribute, it’s natural to limit our attention to arms sales. But once we broaden the scope of our inquiry to include expressive harms, we are quickly led to the realization that arms sales are not the only part of the arms trading practice that can produce such harms. Offers can also be expressively harmful. So, too, can the related practice of inviting representatives of oppressive regimes to arms fairs. By offering to sell weapons to a tyrant, one can express disregard for the tyrant’s victims. One can also do this by inviting the tyrant to arms fairs.

This is important for replying to the inconsequence argument, because offers and invitations made by one state do not substitute for offers and invitations made by other states. In this sense, offers and invitations are importantly different to sales. If an oppressive regime wishes to acquire a particular set of weapons, and it purchases that set of weapons from state A, it will not purchase the weapons from state B. By contrast, offers and invitations can be made by multiple states simultaneously. Thus, the expressive harms associated with offers and invitations are not substitutive, but additive. Each offer and each invitation sends an additional insult.

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. Максим

    We had a very clear purpose, a real mission. It was to explain the different facets of America’s relationship with China, the massive imbalances in that relationship that have built up over decades, and the Chinese Communist Party’s designs for hegemony. Our goal was to make clear that the threats to Americans that President Trump’s China policy aims to address are clear and our strategy for securing those freedoms established.

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