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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.

The Time Travelling Philosopher

In Philosophy, Thought Experiments on May 15, 2014 at 3:52 PM

Regular readers of this blog will know that I find certain bizarre thought experiments dreamt up by philosophers in the ivory tower to be amusing. On a niche blog, avidly read by mathematical philosophers, Dr. Jeff Ketland has reported on a bizarre claim made, he states, by Benjamin Fardell, a postgraduate philosophy student at University College London (UCL).  If Mr. Fardell’s claim is accurate, then, as Dr. Ketland reports, Dr. Ketland would have had to be a time traveller. This is exactly the sort of bizarre thought experiment that I would normally find amusing. Except in this case, I do not find it amusing. The reason is because it is no laughing matter. In real life a 25 year old student committed suicide and an Oxford academic’s professional career and reputation is at stake.

The brief background is that Charlotte Coursier, described as a “talented and gifted” post graduate philosophy student at Oxford University, was Benjamin Fardell’s girlfriend. She became pregnant. Mr. Fardell told Ms. Couriser that he was not ready to become a father. Ultimately Ms. Coursier had an abortion. This is despite the fact that she believed abortion was murdering a child.  Last summer Mr. Fardell broke up with Ms. Couriser. According to Mr. Fardell’s own account,  “Charlotte pleaded with me not to break up with her.”  He went on to explain “She was crying and told me ‘I don’t want to live without you’.” Later that day Ms. Couriser hanged herself.

This is somewhat of a depressing story. However, it gets more intriguing.  The Daily Telegraph reports that Dr. Ketland “stalked” Ms. Coursier.  This is a very serious allegation. The alleged campaign of stalking seems to amount to what is described as some “crazed and rambling emails”  and an allegation that Dr. Ketland “followed” Ms. Coursier to Oxford.  It is this second claim that is the focus of this blog post. According to Dr. Ketland’s account, the person who made the allegation that he had followed Ms. Couriser to Oxford was none other than Mr. Fardell. It is here that the time travelling comes in.

Dr. Ketland explains:

The facts are these. I applied to Oxford on 20 November 2011, and informed her of this. I first informed her of my acceptance on 21 Feb 2012. She first informed me of her acceptance (and indeed that she had applied, and to nowhere else) on 7 March 2012. She applied, it turns out, on 6 January 2012.

For Mr Fardell’s account to be correct, my path through spacetime would have to have been as depicted in this diagram:

Similarly, Ms Coursier arrived in Oxford two months after I arrived there with my wife and son.

This sort of casual pathway involves time-travel and is physically impossible, so far as we know (unless our own physical spacetime violates Professor Stephen Hawking’s Chronology Protection Conjecture).

As I mentioned earlier, this would be very  amusing if it were not so serious. If Dr. Ketland’s account is correct then far from him following Ms. Coursier to Oxford it was Ms. Coursier who followed him to the city. This brings into question as to who, if anyone, was actually doing the stalking.

I do not know why Mr. Fardell made this allegation about Dr. Ketland, if indeed he did make it. As I write it has been 2.5 weeks since Dr. Ketland’s blog post and I cannot seem to locate any public response on the Internet from Mr. Fardell. Perhaps he is embarrassed about the situation. But this is not good enough. Dr. Ketland’s reputation is at stake. If Dr. Ketland is accurate about the time scale and that it was indeed Mr. Fardell who made the claim that Dr. Ketland followed Ms. Couriser to Oxford, then the least that Mr. Fardell can do is to publish a public apology to Dr. Ketland. I wonder if he will…..

Update, May 20, 2014:

Both Mr. Fardell and Dr. Ketland have commented in the comments section below this post. Readers of this post might be interested in their contributions.



Philosophers and bizarre thought experiments, No. 4 – Lava

In Epistemology, Philosophy, Thought Experiments on January 18, 2014 at 8:17 PM

And some wonder why it is called the ivory tower:

Suppose that the mountain erupts, leaving lava around the countryside. The lava remains there until S perceives it and infers that the mountain erupted.  Then S does know that the mountain erupted. But now suppose that, after the mountain had erupted, a man somehow removes all the lava. A century later, a different man (not knowing of the real volcano) decides to make it look as if there had been a volcano, and therefore puts lava in appropriate places. Still later, S comes across this lava and concludes that the mountain erupted centuries ago. In this case, S cannot be said to know the proposition.


Alvin I. Goldman, “A causal theory of kn0wing,” in Sven Bernecker and Fred Dretske (eds.),  Knowledge: readings in contemporary epistemology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.21.


In Animal Rights, Philosophy on July 18, 2013 at 5:18 PM

A philosophical question is if it is not morally acceptable to kill another human and eat it, on what grounds can we kill non human animals and eat them? Are we guilty of “speciesism,” the characteristic of which is an unjustified prejudice against other animals? Speciesism can be compared to racism, an unjustified prejudice against other races, or sexism, an unjustified prejudice against a different sex. Peter Singer, a prominent utilitarian philosopher, believes that  many people are  unjustifiably speciesist. A different prominent philosopher, the late Bernard Williams, an opponent of utilitarianism, believes it not to be so. Both Singer and Williams use aliens to make a related  point.

Peter Singer, (Practical Ethics, [Cambridge University Press, Third Edition, 2011], p.68) appears unhappy that we might identify as members of the species Homo-sapiens and would prefer it if we identified as “self-aware beings” or, perhaps, “sentient beings.” He comments. “Personally, I would feel that an intelligent alien with whom I could communicate and share feelings would have more in common with me than a member of my own species who is so profoundly disabled as to be unable to have any conscious experiences at all – even if the latter looked much more like me.”

Bernard Williams, (Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, [Princeton University Press, 2006],pp.149-152) implies that if aliens land on earth and wished to live with us, whether they look like us or whether they are slimy and disgusting, “opponents of speciesism [would] want us to join them— join them…on principle.” In his fantasy, such people, presumably Singer included, would be the “collaborators.” Against them would be the “resisters,” those “organizing under the banner ‘Defend humanity’ or ‘Stand up for human beings.'” It is a question of whether people can be loyal to other human beings. The question to ask is “Which side are you on?”

Considering these two positions, I think I would fall into Bernard Williams camp. The nearest real life event to any of these fantasies that comes to mind is when Gary Kasparov, the chess grandmaster, played the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue at chess in the mid to late 1990s. At that point in time I desperately wanted Kasparov to win.  The reason for wanting Kasparov to win was because “he’s one of us.” Perhaps I am prejudiced in favour of humans, but I am not convinced that this is unethical.

Philosophers and bizarre thought experiments, No. 3

In Just War, Philosophy, Thought Experiments on July 4, 2013 at 11:41 AM

Jeff McMahan wrote a book, published in 2009, that sought to turn on its head what we understand about morality in war which is based on the centuries old tradition of Just War Theory. In the traditional theory, the morality of war is broken down into two major areas: just reasons for going to war (jus ad bellum) and just actions in the conduct of war (jus in bello). It is accepted that there is a moral equality of combatants. Hence, even if one side was unjustified in going to war, it does not mean that the combatants on that side are war criminals unless they commit unjust actions such as deliberately killing civilians.

This can be illustrated by a good example. It is not particularly controversial to say that the Allies were the just side in the war against Nazi Germany in World War II and the Nazi side were the unjust side. According to standard theory, Nazi soldiers who were involved in permitted actions of a soldier, such as fighting other armies and not killing civilians, are not doing anything morally wrong. This means that while SS officers who were involved in killing Jews were war criminals, Rommel’s Nazi troops who stormed around North Africa but obeying the rules of war such as proportionality and not deliberately killing civilians are not morally blameworthy.

McMahan thinks this is wrong. He thinks that an unjust war should not be participated in and that soldiers are morally blameworthy if they fight for an unjust side. He would view, contrary to the standard theory, Rommel’s Nazi troops as war criminals.

A conflict can occur when a just side would kill innocent civilian without intent but as a side effect of a just action. McMahan argues that while soldiers on an unjust side should not engage in combat with a just side, innocent civilians on the unjust side are permitted to defend themselves from harm resulting from actions of the soldiers on the just side. McMahan’s case is illustrated with a very bizarre thought experiment:

Suppose that just combatants are justified in destroying a storage facility for chemical weapons, but that the destruction of the facility foreseeably creates a cloud of toxic gas that will soon engulf an area inhabited by innocent civilians. If the civilians could somehow blow the cloud of gas away, they would be permitted to do that, even if their only option was to blow it over the just combatants, who would then be killed by it.


Jeff McMahan, Killing in War, (Oxford University Press, 2009), p.47.

Philosophers and bizarre thought experiments, No. 2

In Philosophy, Thought Experiments on May 5, 2013 at 7:13 AM

In article published in 2000*, the Harvard philosopher Frances Kamm considered the question of whether distance matters in a duty to rescue. The following two cases were reasonably mentioned:

Pond: I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it. If I wade in and pull the child out, my $500 suit will be ruined. Intuitively, I ought to wade in to save him.

Overseas: I know there is a child starving to death overseas. To save him, I must send $500. Intuitively, I am not obligated to do so.

There is nothing too bizarre in either of those cases. However it was not to last. Reality went out of the window with this comment:

Suppose I stand in a part of France, but I have very long arms that reach all the way to the other end of France, allowing me to reach a child drowning in a pond at a distance….

*F.M. Kamm, “Does Distance Matter Morally to the Duty to Rescue?” Law and Philosophy, Volume 19, 2000, pp.655-681.

Off With Their Heads!

In Philosophy, Punishment on April 20, 2013 at 9:18 AM

The debate on the death penalty is an interesting one. There are many who wish it to be retained in the USA and those in the UK who would like it reinstated. I suspect that even of those who are in favour of the death penalty, not many would go so far as the late American philosopher, Louis P. Pojman:

My proposal is to broaden, not narrow, the scope of capital punishment, to include businessmen and women who unfairly and severely harm the public… the executives in the recent corporation scandals who bailed out with millions of dollars while they destroyed the pension plans of thousands of employees may deserve severe punishment and, if convicted, they should receive what they deserve. My guess is that the threat of the death sentence would have a deterrent effect in such cases. Whether it is feasible to apply the death penalty to horrendous white-collar crimes is debatable. But there is something to be said in its favor; it would certainly remove the impression that only the poor get executed.


Louis P. Pojman, “A Defense of the Death Penalty,” in Andrew I. Cohen and Christopher Heath Wellman, Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics, (Blackwell Publishing, 2005) p.121.

A Problem with Democracy

In Anarchism, Philosophy, Thought Experiments on February 23, 2013 at 7:03 PM

I have previously commented on my interest in thought experiments. Michael Huemer has posed a compelling one in his recent book, The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p.59. The term “tyranny of the majority” was popularized by Alexis de Tocqueville as he used it in his important 1835 book, Democracy in America. Michael Huemer provides a neat example:

Imagine the following scenario, which I shall call the Bar Tab example. You have gone out for drinks with a few of your colleagues and graduate students. You are all busy talking about philosophy, when someone raises the question of who is going to pay the bill. A number of options are discussed. A colleague suggests dividing the bill evenly among everyone at the table. You suggest that everyone pay for his own drinks. A graduate student then suggests that you pay for everybody’s drinks. Reluctant to spend so much money you decline. But the student persists: ‘Let’s take a vote.’ To your consternation they proceed to take the vote, which reveals that everyone at the table except you wants you to pay for everybody’s drinks. ‘Well, that settles it’, declares the student. ‘Pay up.’

Karl Popper, the Utilitarians, and the End of the World

In Philosophy, Utilitarianism on December 20, 2012 at 10:00 AM

In a recent blog post I commented that the basic principle of utilitarianism is Jeremy Bentham’s axiom:  “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”

We can construct the following hypothetical society: imagine a country where the majority take great delight in watching the torture of the minority. When individual members of the minority are tortured, hundreds of members of the majority come to watch and they have a seemingly insatiable appetite to view such a spectacle. The sum total of the additional happiness of those watching the torture is so great that it more than offsets the pain of the member of the minority being tortured. The utilitarians who follow Bentham’s axiom would know what to do: open torture theatres up and down the country and have numerous daily torture shows to maximise happiness.

The thought is horrific. Karl Popper was aware of such problems with standard utilitarianism. He wrote the following:

I suggest… to replace the utilitarian formula “Aim at the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, or briefly, “Maximise happiness”, by the formula “The least amount of suffering for all”, or briefly, “Minimize suffering”. Such a simple formula can, I believe, be made one of the fundamental principles (admittedly not the only one) of public policy. [1]

He went on to say:

A … criticism of the Utilitarian formula “maximise pleasure” is that it assumes, in principle, a continuous pleasure-pain scale which allows us to treat degrees of pain as negative degrees of pleasure. But, from the moral point of view, pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure, and especially not one man’s pain by another man’s pleasure. Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all; and further, that unavoidable suffering—such as hunger in times of an unavoidable shortage of food—should be distributed as equally as possible…. It adds to clarity in the field of ethics if we formulate our demands negatively, i.e. if we demand the elimination of suffering rather than the promotion of happiness. [2]

Professor Popper’s negative formulation (negative utilitarianism or NU for short) of the standard utilitarian principle has a fundamental problem pointed out by R.N. Smart in 1958:

Suppose that a ruler controls a weapon capable of instantly and painlessly destroying the human race. Now it is empirically certain that there would be some suffering before all those alive on any proposed destruction day were to die in the natural course of events. Consequently the use of the weapon is bound to diminish suffering, and would be the ruler’s duty on NU grounds.[3]

If the human race were to continue in existence for an infinite amount of time, no doubt there would be an infinite amount of suffering to go with it. According to this ideology, it is far better to have a finite amount of suffering and end the world now.

Bernard Williams concluded his critique of utilitarianism with the following words:

The important issues that utilitarianism raises should be discussed in contexts more rewarding than that of utilitarianism itself. The day cannot be too far off in which we hear no more of it.[4]

There are those who predict that the world will end tomorrow, December 21, 2012. NASA has denied that this will occur.[5] While those putting forward the prediction are not blaming negative utilitarians with a world ending weapon for this disaster, the negative utilitarians might look forward to its occurrence. I have been trying to think of any good that will come of the end of the world and have finally come up with something: Bernard Williams’ prediction that the day will come when we will hear no more of utilitarianism will finally be fulfilled.


[1] K.R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume 1: The Spell of Plato, (Fifth revised edition, Routledge, 1966), p.235n6(2).
[2] Ibid., pp284-285n2.
[3] R.N. Smart, “Negative Utilitarianism,” Mind, New Series, Vol. 67, No. 268 (October, 1958), pp. 542-543. A copy of this is available freely on line.
[4] Bernard Williams, “A critique of utilitarianism,” in J.J.C. Smart & Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: for and against, (Cambridge University Press, 1973,) p.150.
[5] http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012.html.


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