Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Combatants and human shields: some inchoate thoughts on the ethics of war

In Just War, Philosophy on July 14, 2014 at 5:17 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published at Harry’s  Place on July 10th 2014, 2:25 pm

The ethics of war, as we tend to understand it in the West, is handed down to us through the Catholic tradition. Just War Theory is broken down into two important areas (using pretentious Latin names) – jus ad bellum(legitimate reasons to go to war) and jus in bello (legitimate actions in war). For this post I am considering the actions in war: jus in bello.

There is a rule that is widely accepted and built into the Geneva Convention: non-combatants have immunity from attack. The term “non-combatants” tends to be used as opposed to “civilians” as it encompasses, as examples away from civilians, prisoners of war, army chaplains and army doctors who also cannot be deliberately targeted.

The Catholic tradition has built into it something known as the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE). This doctrine differentiates between what is intended and what is foreseen but unintended. Consider the following: a combatant from Ruritania fires a missile into a city of Boldavia with the deliberate intent of killing Boldavian non-combatants (civilians). This is clearly prohibited by the Just War Doctrine. It breaches the idea that non-combatants are not to be deliberately targeted. Now consider the Boldavians. Fed up with missiles being fired into their cities targeting civilians they fire a bigger missile back specifically at the Ruritanians’ missile factory. When doing so the Boldavians foresee that not only will they destroy the missile factory as intended, but they will also realistically kill some civilians who happen to be in the area. These civilian deaths are foreseen but unintended. Using a standard military euphemism, they are “collateral damage.”

A way to think of the differences between the two cases is that the Ruritanians will feel they have wasted a missile if they have not killed Boldavian civilians whereas the Boldavians would be delighted if there were no civilians killed when they destroyed the Ruritanians missile factory. The deaths of the civilians is a bad consequence of the Boldavian action not an intended one. The Doctrine of Double Effect sets out the conditions that allow these foreseen but unintended bad consequences. The key points being that the bad effects are not intended, the act itself was a good one (eg destroying the missile factory) and that the foreseen bad effect is proportional. What is and what is not proportional can be in practice a hotly disputed matter.

Now consider human shields. I will break them down into two types: non-voluntary human shields and voluntary human shields. A non-voluntary human shield is simple to comprehend. It could be, for example, a child who is kidnapped and tied to the front of a tank, or patients in a hospital from which missiles are being fired. It is in breach of the ethics of war to use such human shields. Doing so should be seen as a war crime. But does this mean that the use of such human shields prohibits the targeting of a building used in such a way? The answer, in standard war ethics, can be found by applying the Doctrine of Double Effect.

Imagine the Ruritanians are firing not very accurate or powerful missiles into Boldavia from the roof of a hospital that contains one hundred patients. The Boldavians could destroy that missile capability but to do so they would also destroy the hospital foreseeing the deaths of the patients. If, as said, the Ruritanians’ missiles are not very accurate or powerful and, in practice, strike terror into Boldavians as opposed to killing them, it seems disproportionate for the Boldavians to target the Ruritanians’ hospital missile base. However, if the Ruritanians’ missiles get more and more powerful and more and more accurate, then targeting the hospital missile base might well be justified as it could be proportional. Consider, in the extreme, that the hospital missile base contained a nuclear missile that could wipe out a city of millions. The hospital patients’ immunity from being killed by a legitimate military action by the Boldavians is greater the more ineffective the Ruritanians’ missiles are.

Voluntary human shields are a different case entirely. Imagine Ruritanian civilians who answer a plea from a Ruritanian military general to sit on the roof of a building that contains military weapons. The purpose of them sitting on the roof – they understand. They are to be human shields whose mere presence is to deter the Boldavians destroying the building. I wish to argue that because they voluntarily respond to a military call they cease being non-combatants and become combatants. To explain further. Imagine Ruritania has a population of one million with 50,000 combatant members of its army. They have 1,000 missile bases. In advance of any military actions the head of the army puts out a call and asks for volunteers to sit in or near these military installations. Imagine 20,000 volunteer to do so. These 20,000 people, I would argue, become crucial to the military strategy of the Ruritanians. Because of the nature of their role I take the view that it should ethically fail: the human shields become combatants and not non-combatants and are thus they lose their immunity from attack. The proportionality requirement is relaxed. Boldavians do not need to be as concerned if voluntary human shields seated on the roof of the missile store lose their lives in an attack on the missile store if the missile store is a legitimate target.


It has been brought to my attention on Twitter by Mugwump that my views on the differing treatment of voluntary versus non voluntary human shields are not original. They are in line with Yoram Dinstein’s interpretation of international law. These views were published in his book, The Conduct of Hostilities Under the Law of International Armed Conflict, (Cambridge University Press, 2004) pp.130-131. The relevant pages can be accessed freely via Google Books, here.

The Socialist Idea Refuted

In Libertarianism, Marxism, Nozick, Philosophy on June 30, 2014 at 5:23 PM

Book Review

Jason Brennan, Why Not Capitalism? (Routledge, 2014) 120pp.

In 2009 G.A (Jerry) Cohen’s short book, Why Not Socialism? defending socialism was posthumously published by Princeton University Press. Jason Brennan’s book, just published by Routledge, is a response to Cohen. A more accurate title for the book might have been Why G.A. Cohen is Wrong. However, as Brennan is defending capitalism, and no doubt with an eye on sales, his own choice of title more suits his purpose.

While Brennan’s book can be read and understood by those without the background, it is a work of political philosophy and will be more appreciated by those with at least an elementary background in the work of twentieth century political philosophers, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, and G.A. Cohen.

A similarity between Cohen’s book and Brennan’s book is the cover design. If a book defending socialism can have a single red rose on its cover, then a book defending capitalism can have a bunch of roses.  Perhaps Brennan’s cover design has a further resonance when one considers his final sentence prior to his concluding chapter. Turning Mao Zedong’s notorious statement on its head, Brennan asserts, “The slogan of a capitalist utopia might be something like, ‘Let a hundred flowers blossom.’”

In defending socialism Cohen came out with a thought experiment. He compares two different types of societies to two versions of a camping trip. In the socialist camping trip everyone mucks in. One person brings a tent, one person catches fish, one person does the cooking etc. Everyone assists each other and it is a wonderful way to live. In a capitalist camping trip, the owner of the tent would charge rent to other campers, the cook would want to charge people for cooking and so it goes on. Capitalism, in Cohen’s world, is awful. Greed and selfishness are features of capitalist society. And these features are morally repugnant.  The camping trip thought experiment is a powerful argument for socialism, or so it might seem prima facie. Brennan’s short book exposes a dramatic flaw that he has found in it.

Cohen’s fallacious reasoning is that he is comparing idealised Marxism with a realistic but flawed capitalist system. Brennan is justified in arguing that one should either compare realistic Marxism with realistic capitalism or idealised Marxism with idealised capitalism. If one were to compare realistic Marxism with realistic capitalism then a simple comparison would be Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China to Truman or Nixon’s America. Capitalism wins. Just as we have not experienced idealised Marxism so we have not experienced idealised capitalism. If Cohen can construct an idealised version of Marxism by using his camping trip example, then Brennan can construct an idealised version of capitalism. He does this by noting that life portrayed in the village of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is akin to idealised capitalism. Brennan parodies Cohen by setting up the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village whereby the villagers “cooperate with a common desire that everyone have the freedom and resources to flourish under their own conceptions of the good life. Everyone operates on principles of mutual concern, tolerance, and respect. They live together happily, without envy, glad to trade value for value, glad to give and share, glad to help those in need, and never disposed to free ride, take advantage of, coerce, or subjugate one another.”

Brennan notes that there is “an essential asymmetry in the capitalist and the socialist versions of utopia.” An idealised capitalist utopia would allow a group of people to set up a socialist commune. The socialists would be permitted to own property communally just as the capitalists would be able to own property individually. However, in the socialist utopia, all property would be owned communally and capitalist acts such as owning property individually would be forbidden. In part, this is a reason why idealised capitalism is better than idealised Marxism.

Brennan aims to show that idealised capitalism is better than idealised Marxism and that realistic capitalism is better than realistic Marxism. It is a tall order to suggest that he has managed to do this well enough to convince sufficient amounts of doubters in his short book, but what I think he has done well is demonstrate that Cohen’s argument based on the camping trip thought experiment is flawed.

UCL Student Union ban Nietzsche Club

In Freedom of Expression, Libertarianism, Marxism on June 9, 2014 at 12:15 PM

This is  cross-post. It was originally published at Harry’s Place on June 6th 2014, 5:40 pm.

The policy of “No Platform for Racists and Fascists,” historically adopted by many student unions, is ideologically appalling. Not only is it an affront to the doctrine of free speech, it has been thoroughly abused by its supporters. Anybody that they do not like can be targeted for banning. The latest successful attack is on the Nietzsche Club at University College London.

UCL Student Union have passed a policy to “ban and otherwise prevent the installation of any further publicity of [the Nietzsche Club] around UCLU buildings, and to urge UCL to adopt the same policy in the university buildings.” They have also resolved to “reject any attempts by this group to seek affiliation and official recognition from UCLU as an official club or society.” A further resolution passed is to “prevent any attempts by this group to hold meetings and organise events on campus.” However, this latter resolution is pending implementation subject to a professional opinion on its legality. Irrespective of the legal opinion, following the other resolutions passed, the Nietzsche Club will not be able to advertise their meetings in the Student Union or book a room to hold a meeting in the Student Union. In the language of student union politics, this is an effective ban.

The Student Union believe that “this group is aimed at promoting a far-right, fascist ideology at UCL” and that “there is no meaningful distinction to be made between a far-right and a fascist ideology.” There is no question that it is Marxist inspired political views behind this policy. The motion tells us that “the root cause of fascism [is] capitalism” and hence the fight against fascism is really one for a “socialist transformation of society.”  Moreover, among the crimes, according to UCLU, of Nietzsche, Heidegger and other philosophers that the Nietzsche Club wish to read, are that they are “anti-Marxist [and] anti-worker.”

There is no need to comment on the political views of the philosophers that the Nietzsche Club wish to read. Even if they are fascistic, that is no reason to ban groups who wish to read their works. It seems to me a small political step from UCLU wishing to ban the Nietzsche Club to wishing to march into UCL’s libraries, pulling books written by Nietzsche from the shelves, and burning them. At any rate, one wonders what UCLU wish to do with UCL’s own academic departments that teach Nietzsche on accredited courses for students. Does the Student Union wish to close down the courses and hound the lecturers from the College?

Nobody should be the slightest bit surprised that Marxists are behind the  hideous motion. Sam Bayliss, who proposed the motion, is a self-declared active member of UCLU Marxist Society and Timur Dautov, who seconded the motion, is the president of the very same Marxist Society. In hisTwitter biography Dautov admits to being a supporter of Socialist Appeal UK and the International Marxist Tendency, follow on organisations from the Militant Tendency, the Marxist organisation that caused mayhem in the Labour Party in the early 1980s. Marxist organisations are notorious for using and abusing the “No Platform” policy. In the past, the Socialist Workers Party used such a policy to ban Jewish Societies on the grounds that they were Zionist and hence racist.

The irony is that if any societies should be banned for promoting dangerous ideologies, after genocides in Communist countries in the twentieth century causing tens of millions of deaths, those that champion the ideology of Marx and Lenin should be high on the list. But surely, rather than banning either the Nietzsche Club or the Marxist Society, it is far better to champion free thought and free speech in our academic institutions.


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