We’re very pleased to kick off our discussion of Cécile Fabre’s Ethics paper, “War Exit.” Helen Frowe has written a critical précis, which you can find below the fold. We’re looking forward to a great discussion.
There is an abundance of literature on the conditions for justly declaring and fighting war – that is, on jus ad bellum and jus in bello. But comparatively little work has been done on the conditions in which one is obliged to end one’s war. Cécile Fabre’s careful analysis is thus a welcome and important contribution to this topic.
We might think that this topic is neglected because the answers are obvious in the following way: A belligerent whose war is just at its outset is obliged to stop her war as soon as (but not before) she has secured her just cause, and a belligerent whose war is unjust at its outset is obliged to stop her war as soon as it begins (since she was obliged not to fight it in the first place). But Fabre’s article suggests that we require a more nuanced account of the requirement to end one’s war. There may be compelling reason to continue to fight a war that was unjustly started. Conversely, there may be compelling reason to end a war that was justly started even if the just cause has not been achieved. For example, a war that had a reasonable prospect of securing a sufficient good at t1 may come to lack such a prospect as the war develops. If so, a war that was just at its outset will be unjust at t2, resulting in a prima facie obligation to end the war prior to securing the just cause. (It’s a prima facie obligation because, as Fabre argues, different ways of ending the war will impose different costs on the belligerents. Her subtle exploration of these ‘termination costs’, and how they might factor into a proportionality calculation, is a particularly interesting aspect of the article.)
Fabre raises a wealth of philosophical issues concerning both specific aspects of killing in war and broad methodological questions about just war theory. I think that the general thrust of her argument is wholly correct, so I’ll start with some general reflections on some implications of her approach, and then offer some more critical thoughts on a couple of her specific claims.
The first thing to notice is that Fabre’s ostensibly plausible target – the view that initially just wars may be fought until their cause is secured, and initially unjust wars must be halted immediately – is actually plausible only against a mistaken view of jus ad bellum. Fabre herself seemingly endorses this mistaken understanding when she says that the labels we typically employ in just war theory – jus ad bellum, jus in bello and jus post bellum – are “a convenient way to demarcate various phases in the initiation, conduct and termination of a war” (632). But jus ad bellum is not a set of principles about the initiation of war. For a war to be ad bellum just at any given point is for it to satisfy the ad bellum conditions at that point – not for it to have satisfied those conditions at t1.
Of course, this repeated evaluation of the war at the bar of the ad bellum principles is precisely what Fabre offers. Granting that jus ad bellum is a convenient label for thinking about the initiation of war thus undercuts the thrust of Fabre’s own argument. But once we recognize this, Fabre’s general argument is much less radical – indeed, her conclusion simply follows from the correct understanding of jus ad bellum. One may fight only ad bellum just wars, but the ad bellum justness of a war can shift over time such that a war might cease to be just or become just.
One upshot of this is that we probably need to rethink what it means to ask whether a war is or was ad bellum just. The question is typically interpreted as asking whether the war ‘as a whole’ was just. But thinking about ad bellum as a continual assessment of the war suggests that what we’re really asking is whether it satisfied the ad bellum conditions at given times. Whilst there might be some wars that consistently satisfy all the ad bellum conditions (and thus might be described as overall just in virtue of that fact), many will have the mixed ad bellum character that Fabre is exploring. With respect to these wars, we might only be able to say that it had a certain number of just phases and a certain number of unjust phases. There might be no ‘overall’ justness.
Once we’re thinking in terms of phases, though, we might wonder why we’re not thinking in terms of individual actions. This seems especially true if (like me and Fabre) one favours reductivism – the view that the use of force in all circumstances is governed by a single set of conditions. If this reductivism is true, any use of force must satisfy those conditions in order to be just. But this means that a combatant’s using force at t2 must satisfy the same conditions as a politician’s ordering force at t1. It’s thus unclear what it means to distinguish ad bellum justness from in bello justness.
Fabre remarks that despite being useful labels, the traditional categories of just war theory lack deep conceptual or normative significance. But I suspect that taking this lack of significance seriously requires rejecting the idea that these are even useful labels. The reason that reductivists usually give (or at least, the answer that I’ve usually given…) for endorsing the familiar framework is that these labels draw our attention to certain aspects of war – they tell us what we’re evaluating. We might agree that jus ad bellum is neither a one-off judgment at initiation, nor an evaluation of the war as a whole (given the mixed phases concern) but suggest that it evaluates the war as an enterprise at a given time. But judging the war as an enterprise at a given time seems to entail either evaluating how the war is actually being fought, which involves evaluating the individual actions that compose it (so there’s no ad bellum / in bello distinction), or evaluating whether the war could be fought justly, even if it’s in fact being fought unjustly. For example, we might judge at t2 that the war could be won with only a proportionate loss of life, and call this ad bellum proportionality. But if A’s soldiers are in fact causing vastly disproportionate harm, this understanding of ad bellum proportionality doesn’t seem terribly interesting. So, I think one of the most important contributions of Fabre’s article might turn out to be its part in engendering a more radical rethinking of the just war framework.
Some more specific thoughts: I wasn’t convinced by Fabre’s treatment of the putative examples of permissibly continuing unjust wars (Section III). Take the case in which A starts a war to bring about regime change in B that will be favourable to A’s interests, but creates a power vacuum in which a violent coup can be avoided only if A continues to use force. Fabre suggests that A’s “unjust cause at t1 (using lethal force to bring about regime change in B) has become just a t2” (646). But the fact that A aims at regime change in both cases doesn’t mean that the same cause changes from unjust to just. It actually seems conceptually impossible for an unjust cause to turn into a just one, because the cause must be grounded in rights. Even if I am aiming to topple precisely the same leader, if I do so out of greed at t1 and out of humanitarian concern at t2, my cause shifts from making myself better off to securing the basic rights of individuals. I might take identical action to achieve these different causes, but they are different causes.
One of the most interesting issues that Fabre raises is that of wars that have a just cause but fail some other ad bellum condition at t1, and then satisfy this other condition at t2 (651). Fabre argues that if the war becomes just through events beyond A’s control, A has some justification for continuing to fight and owes no duty to the wrongdoers in B to desist. But, if the war now satisfies the ad bellum conditions only because of A’s earlier wrongdoing, A must desist if it would be the beneficiary of continuing.
I don’t think it can be generally true that there’s a morally significant difference between these ways of a war’s becoming just, nor that A must desist when it satisfies the condition as a result of its own wrongdoing. Imagine that A’s war is unjust because it lacks a reasonable prospect of success. Now imagine that A’s chances of success drastically increase when B’s leader dies at t2. In one version of the case, B’s leader dies of heart attack. In another, B’s leader is killed by A’s combatants. It doesn’t seem to me that there is any difference in the permissibility of A’s continuing to fight in these two scenarios.
This might be in part because, given that A has a just cause, B’s leader is presumptively responsible for wrongdoing. Killing him as a means to prevent this wrongdoing doesn’t wrong him, and so even though the killing occurs during an ad bellum unjust war, it’s not in fact an act of wrongdoing. But even if the crucial event were an act of wrongdoing – say that killing B exposes civilians to disproportionate harm – I don’t think this would affect the permissibility of continuing to fight. Nor does it matter (for the permissibility of continuing) that A’s leaders will benefit from the continuation of the war and that they were responsible for the earlier wrong of fighting an unjust war. More generally, the fact that some of the beneficiaries are responsible for earlier wrongdoing it can’t be enough to make fighting impermissible, since there might be plenty of innocent beneficiaries as well. So I think some of these ideas warrant more careful scrutiny, and that there could be fruitful comparison of the wrongness of wars that fail different ad bellum conditions (although this would of course be beyond the scope of Fabre’s aims in this article).