The International Ethics Research Group brings together international relations, political theory and moral philosophy to address ethical questions in international politics. It’s an increasingly prominent academic field of research and one in which UNSW Canberra has unique strengths.
Our outstanding research record, combined with our proximity to the military, government and on-site facilities, means UNSW Canberra is unrivalled in Australia to pursue research in this field.
Justice in a globalised world explores global distributive justice, immigration, multiculturalism, gender and identity-politics, and climate change – encompassing different variations on cosmopolitanism as an approach to international politics.
The ethics of international security looks at force and coercion short of war, ‘information warfare’, terrorism and counter terrorism, global and regional security governance, humanitarianism, the responsibility to protect (R2P), cyber security and nuclear weapons.
Moral responsibility and formal organisations explores the duties of states, multinational corporations, international financial institutions and intergovernmental organisations within the context of environmental harm, human rights, financial crises, genocide prevention and foreign aid.
Corporate social responsibility explores the moral duties of private, profit-driven enterprises. Do these institutions have ethical responsibilities beyond wealth-creation for their shareholders, and in addition to legal compliance?
Uwe Steinhoff’s 'The Ethics of War and the Force of Law' (Routledge 2020) provides a critical overview of the current debate on the ethics of armed conflict and develops a modern just war theory that can give practical action-guidance by recognizing and explaining the moral force of widely accepted laws of war. This symposium brings together esteemed scholars from around the world to discuss and debate Professor Steinhoff’s analysis.
In Ethics, Security, & The War Machine, Ned Dobos argues that we have not sufficiently calculated the true (non-economic) costs of the military, and that if we did, having a standing defence force would begin to seem less like a good idea. Dobos pushes us to reflect on something we have taken for granted: that one of the biggest institutions in our society, which is supposed to keep us safe and allow us to lead our own lives, may in fact pose great dangers and risks to us both physically, morally, and culturally. These risks and dangers may be so acute that in many cases we should rethink the need to have a military at all.
Dr Peter Balint
Convenor, International Ethics Research Group
School of Humanities & Social Sciences, UNSW Canberra
Just war theorists who argue that war is morally justified under certain circumstances infer, illicitly, that establishing the military institutions needed to wage war is morally justified. In this paper, I mount a case in favour of a standing military establishment: to the extent that to go to war is to discharge duties to protect fellow citizens and distant strangers from grievous harms, we are under a duty to set up the institutions which enable us to discharge that duty. I then respond to four objections drawn from Ned Dobos’ recent book Ethics, Security and the War Machine.
Prof Cécile Fabre
All Souls College
University of Oxford
Suppose you cannot swim but could easily learn. Suppose further that, at some point in the future, it is foreseeable that you will encounter a drowning child that you will only be able to rescue if you do learn to swim. In this scenario, arguably, you act culpably if you decline to take swimming lessons. You have a “prospective duty” to learn to swim given that this will be necessary to perform the future rescue.
In her commentary, Cécile Fabresuggests that creating and maintaining a military institution could equally be seen as a prospective duty. If a state knows that it is likely to encounter situations where the use of military force will be necessary to defend either its own citizens or foreign nationals against grave threats, and the state can build a military without incurring prohibitive costs, then it has an obligation to do so.
There is indeed a strong intuition that you are obligated to take swimming lessons in the scenario described by Fabre. But I suspect that a number of unstated assumptions do a lot of work in pumping that intuition.
First, we are assuming that learning to swim is the only thing you can do in order to prepare yourself for the future rescue, and we are assuming that the future rescue attempt will certainly succeed. In other words, if you learn to swim there is a 100 percent chance of the child surviving, otherwise there is a zero percent chance. Further, there is no possibility that your rescue attempt might actually reduce the child’s prospects of survival. And we are told that it is reasonably foreseeable that you will find yourself in this situation.
If we tinker with any of these details, however, the intuition that you are morally obligated to take swimming lessons becomes considerably weaker.
First, suppose that instead of a high probability of encountering a drowning child, there is only a moderate to low probability, as is actually the case for most ordinary people. Suppose further that even if you did learn to swim, you might still fail to save the child. Moreover, imagine that learning to swim is not the only thing you can do to prepare for the emergency. You could instead take the money that would otherwise be spent on swimming lessons and invest in a portable rescue device to carry around with you. So, instead of there being a 100% chance of survival if you do learn to swim, and a 0% chance otherwise, let us assume the probabilities are closer: X% if you learn to swim, and X-n% if you invest in the rescue device instead. Finally, let us allow some probability that your attempted rescue of the child will actually decrease her overall prospects of survival.
Are you still under a “prospective duty” to learn to swim? It is not so clear anymore. With this in the background I would make the following observations about militaries:
If learning to swim is not a prospective duty in my modified version of the drowning scenario, then I submit that building a military is not a prospective duty for most states in the real world given these points of similarity.
I would actually suggest that there is a more fitting domestic analogy that we should rely on in this space to guide our thinking.
In 2019 mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso led to renewed calls for tighter gun control in the United States. High-capacity assault weapons were at the centre of the conversation, with many demanding that they be prohibited. In response one twitterer (@WillieMcNabb) asked what alternative he had if he ever needed to shoot “30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play”.
McNabb was attempting to justify the private ownership of semi-automatic assault rifles by describing a scenario in which only some such weapon would suffice to neutralise a particular kind of threat to his children. Essentially, he was trying to pass off assault-weapon ownership as a “prospective duty”. A state’s invocation of prospective duties to justify its war-making institutions is a lot closer to this, I think, than invoking this principle to justify taking swimming lessons.
A starting point for thinking about war and preparations for war today is that the average citizen in Western countries has absolutely no interest in fighting in a war themselves. The best study of this phenomenon rightly notes that what might be called “the great refusal” of ordinary people to involve themselves in actual war-making reflects what might be called “the great disillusionment” with war itself. But this has not meant the end of war, or of preparations for war, just their transformation, from a “nationalized” to a “post-nationalized” arrangement. The costs associated with preparing for war today cannot be fully understood in abstraction from this development.
Prof Cheyney Ryan
Director, Human Rights Program
Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict
Blayatnik School of Government
University of Oxford
In Ethics, Security, and the War-Machine I set out to identify some of the costs that all militarised societies bear, to a greater or lesser extent, just in virtue of being permanently prepared for war. The discussion is therefore largely abstracted from the features of particular societies. But as Cheyney Ryan points out, the kind of polity we are talking about, and its mode of war-preparation, surely make a big difference here. Hence the consequences of militarization in the US are quite unlike the consequences of militarization in France, say, even though the two societies are otherwise comparable in many respects.
Ryan emphasises the difference between “nationalized” and “post-nationalized” war-preparation in particular, the defining feature of the latter being that all the actual fighting is assigned to a small group of paid professionals while most ordinary citizens do not participate at all. But what Ryan is inviting us to think about more generally is how war-preparation affects different kinds of polities in different ways. In this connection I think there are a couple of other distinctions worth making.
The first is that between what we might call “introverted” and “extroverted” military establishments. In Militarization, Democracy, and Development, Kirk Bowman tries to figure out why militaries have been such a cancer on Latin America countries in particular over the last century. At the risk of oversimplifying, his answer is that most countries in this region face no credible foreign threats, and armed forces with no external enemy to absorb their attention will tend to become introverted (read: meddlesome in domestic affairs), with the consequence of eroding individual freedom and political voice. On the basis of this we might speculate that a military is likely to be more dangerous/costlier to a society with no foreign enemies than to a society that does face credible external threats.
A second distinction worth making is that between states that are “prepared for war” in a narrow sense, and states that are “prepared for war” in a broader sense.
A state that concentrates on maintaining the means to rebuff foreign conquerors is prepared in the narrow sense. A state that is equipped to repel aggressors, but also to engage in expeditionary wars to further its economic interests abroad, to engage in humanitarian operations against oppressive regimes, and so on, is prepared for war in a much broader sense. I think we should expect there to be more significant costs associated with the latter kind of war-preparation—not just financial (obviously), but moral and political as well.
In their recent book Tyranny Comes Home (highly recommended!), Abigail Hall and Christopher Coyne discuss what they call the “Boomerang Effect”. Basically, in the course of preparing itself for certain kinds of armed conflict abroad—humanitarian intervention and regime change, for example—a state must develop means of social control for use against the target population. The trouble is that, after the conflict ends, these methods of social control that have been fine-tuned abroad are now innovations that might be—and often are—used in domestic governance. The boomerang might take some time to return, but Hall and Coyne suggest the effect is difficult to avoid entirely:
While some of the domestic effects of foreign intervention are direct and immediate, others seep into domestic life in a slow and unpredictable way, eroding individual freedom over time. Foreign intervention can create institutional possibilities that lay dormant for years, if not decades, until they are revived and exploited in new and previously unforeseen ways by the political elite (171).
What this suggests is that a military that is prepared for war in a broad sense may pose risks to its parent society over and above the risks posed by militaries that are prepared for war in a narrower sense.
Ryan is absolutely right in saying that the effects of militarisation on a society are going to depend on actual features of that society, and the way that it prepares for war. Is the state’s military nationalized or post-nationalized? Introverted or extroverted? Prepared in the narrow sense or the broad? These are a few of the variables that will probably have some influence, but I am sure there are others.
Dobos highlights several negative consequences of the preparation for war for individuals and states. I think he misses the biggest consequence for democracies. While some argue democracies need strong militaries and that long wars can build democracies and states I argue that this is shortsighted. War and militarism are antipodal to democracy and undermine it. Their normative bases are conflicting — democracy takes force off the table, whereas force is legitimate in war. Militarism and militarization undermine democratic practices.
Prof Neta C. Crawford
Professor and Chair of the Department Political Science
Last week the Prime Minister of Armenia alleged an attempted military coup against his government, led by the Armed Forces Chief of the General Staff himself. A few weeks earlier, the government of Myanmar became the latest in a long list of democratically elected regimes to actually be ousted by its own military. Coups are bound to happen from time to time, on account of the so-called “Civil-Military Problematique”.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that militarization threatens democracy only because it introduces the risk of coup. Neta Crawford emphasises how war-preparation erodes democracy in much more indirect and often subtle ways, which are admittedly largely neglected in my book. This is an incredibly important insight, since many citizens (particularly in the world’s more “mature” and affluent democracies) are probably inclined to think that, insofar as their state is not particularly “coup prone”, their military poses no threat to the health of their democracy and so there’s nothing to worry about. Crawford shows that such complacency is unwarranted.
She identifies broadly two forms of “democratic erosion” caused by militarism. The first is the direct erosion of democratic norms, institutions, and practices. We see this, for example, when the courts and legislature completely defer to the defence establishment on all matters related to “national security”. The result is a reduction in transparency and accountability. The second kind of erosion is indirect; it happens because of the stress that war-building and war-making put on state capacity.
I would add a third source of tension between militarism and democracy, which I will come to shortly. But first, I think we ought to consider whether there are any respects in which militarism might actually be good for democracy.
There is a considerable literature on the modernizing effects of militaries in the third world (the work of Erich Weede, for instance). The argument, if I recall, goes something like this. If a government wants to create a powerful military, it needs lots of highly disciplined soldiers, who can work within hierarchical organisations, who have technical prowess, and so on. These same skills/attributes are necessary for a society to modernise and develop. Therefore, by building up a military, a government puts its country on the path to economic and political modernization even if the government is not consciously motivated by any such thing.
This kind of argument says that militarization begets development and democracy in the third world, but maybe we can say something about the developed world as well. William James (among others) has this idea that militarism is good for national unity. If so, then arguably militarism can play a role in preventing a particular kind of threat to democracy—namely the fracturing of the demos into opposing camps that do not share a common identity.
If there is truth to these claims, then maybe there are at least some respects in which militarism is actually conducive to the health of a democracy, in which case the question becomes whether militarism is good or bad for democracy on balance.
I indicated that there may be a third source of tension between militarism and democracy, and here it is. Liberal democracies have certain normative commitments that define them. Arguably thecore “identity-grounding” commitment of liberal democracy is that all citizens enjoy equal protection under the law. No political community can properly call itself liberal-democratic unless it is committed to the realization of the equal rights of all citizens.
But we are constantly told that military institutions cannot give their members the same rights and liberties that the rest of us take for granted, as this would make them ineffective in battle. If this is right, the maintaining an effective army requires a kind of moral stratification; the consignment of certain citizens to a separate class that must remain effectively walled-off from the rights and freedoms extended to everybody else.
But such stratification is incompatible with the defining normative commitments of liberal democracy!
Proponents of nonviolent methods often highlight the extent to which they rival arms as effective means of resistance. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, for instance, influentially compared civil resistance techniques favourably with armed insurrection as means of bringing about progressive political change. And Ned Dobos cites their work in support of the claim that similar methods - organized in the form of Gene Sharp’s idea of Civil Defence Systems - may be substituted for regular armed forces in the face of international aggression. I deconstruct this line of pacifist thought by arguing that it builds on the wrong binary. Turning away from a violence/nonviolence dichotomy structured around harmfulness, I turn to R B Gregg and Hannah Arendt for an account of nonviolent power defined by not being coercive. Whereas nonviolent methods of coercion still have the potential in the wrong hands to subvert democratic institutions just as armed methods can, Gregg’s and Arendt’s conceptions of nonviolent power identify a necessary bulwark against both forms of subversion. The effectiveness of non-coercive, nonviolent power is illustrated by the resistance of US democratic institutions to largely nonviolent attempts at civil subversion by supporters of Donald Trump seeking to overturn the election in 2020.
Prof Christopher Finlay
Professor of Political Theory
Deputy Head of School for Research
School of Government and International Affairs
Civilian defence systems (CDS) of the type proposed by Gene Sharp are a potential alternative to military institutions. We have reason to believe that they can be effective, and on the face of it, “trans-armament” away from an organisation that relies on violence to a purely non-violent defence force looks like a step in the right direct, morally. But on closer inspection, maybe not.
Even if these civilian defence systems eschew physical violence and destruction, Christopher Finlay points out that insofar as they still rely on coercion and domination, they can be expected to produce some of the same risks and costs that professional militaries presently do. For instance, civilian defence forces might use their non-violent techniques to stage coups or insurrections; the same kind that we saw in Washington DC on January 6 of this year.
This is an excellent point, and I will admit that I did not consider it carefully enough in the book. We cannot completely rule out the possibility that a CDS will produce adverse consequence that are comparable (or even worse) than those associated with military establishments. But if we cannot have any such confidence, then arguably this is a decisive consideration against trans-armament, given the transition costs that this would entail.
In his farewell address President Dwight Eisenhower issued a warning about the unchecked growth of the “military-industrial complex” in the United States. He was concerned that civilian institutions were becoming increasingly dependent on and beholden to the Pentagon. In the decades since, the complex has only spread and become more deeply rooted; it has mutated into a “military-industrial-technological-entertainment-academic-media-corporate” complex, to quote Nick Turse. The effect of this integration is to make demilitarization a catastrophically disruptive proposition.
The dissolution of a country’s armed forces could also induce a general state of anxiety. Individuals that have grown accustomed to carrying a firearm for self-protection often report feeling insecure, vulnerable, or “naked” without it. Dispossessed of their armed forces, members a political community might feel the same way.
The work of anthropologist Andrew Bickford is instructive in this connection. He says that organising a society for war is not simply a matter of acquiring weapons and training people to use them effectively. It also involves “produc[ing] citizens and soldiers who see the world as a place requiring weapons”. Our armed forces are only able to reproduce themselves and command such a large share of the national budget because enough of us believe that our military is what keeps us safe from outside harm.
That being so, some of us are probably going to feel acutely unsafe in the absence of a standing army. This is a predictable consequence of dismantling the physical institution without dismantling the mindsets and worldviews that underpin it.
If Finlay’s worries are well-founded, and a CDS is likely to cause problems comparable to those associated with militaries anyway, then maybe these transition costs are just not worth bearing. I’m curious to hear what others think.
My view is that we should be prepared to accept that, occasionally, nothingisbetter thansomething. A military might, on balance, do more harm than good to its parent society, and if a CDS would prove equally problematic, then the country in question might be better off without one of theseeither. Systems of national defence are a kind of insurance. What is an acceptable price to pay for insurance? If the answer is anything other than “infinity”, then sometimes we will have to acknowledge that remaining “defenceless” or “unprepared” is the rational choice.
One way to tell the story of contemporary ethics of war is as a gradual expansion of the period of time that theorists attend to from ad bellum and in bello to post bellum and ex bello. Ned Dobos, in his new book, invites us to expand this attention further to the period between wars, which he calls jus ante bellum. In this essay I explore three significant implications of this shift in normative focus. First, I argue that it opens up an important and productive field of the ethics of military policy making outside of conflict, including procurement, training, force posture, and military diplomacy. Second, I argue that attending to the relationship between ante bellum and ad bellum considerations contains the seeds of a powerful pacifist argument. Third, focusing on military policy outside of war making raises difficult questions about the suitability of applying standard normative concepts like self-defence coherently to the military domain.
Prof David Rodin
Chief Executive Officer
Director of Research at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics
Pacifism is the view that waging war is never justified. Military abolitionism is the view that the existence of a war-making institution is not justified. In the book I try to philosophical de-couple these two positions; to show that one can be an abolitionist without being a pacifist. David Rodin does not deny this, but he thinks the same considerations that support abolitionism can be extended, via the principle of necessity, to support pacifism.
Rodin offers the following example to illustrate. You are a doctor supporting an expedition in a remote territory. One of your patients develops an infection in his leg. The only way to save his life if to amputate, so that is what you do. Without being given further information we would be confident saying that you did the right thing here.
But now suppose that if you had only brought some antibiotics along on the expedition, the amputation would not have been necessary. And (importantly) your reason for leaving the antibiotics behind was an unequivocally bad one (ie. you are a ‘penicillin sceptic’). This complicates matters. Now we think you are blameworthy. Your negligent failure to bring antibiotics on the trip, Rodin says, “reaches forward and contaminates with culpability” an action (the amputation) that would not otherwise have been culpable.
If some of the key claims made in support of military abolitionism are true, Rodin says, then otherwise justified uses of military force might be similarly contaminated.
Suppose a state is attacked by a neighbour, and it has no recourse other than to use military force to defend itself. But the reason the state has no other recourse is that it has declined to make any investments in non-violent arrangements for national defence, despite proof of their effectiveness. Is this state’s use of military force not culpable, despite being “necessary” in a narrow sense, just as in the amputation cases?
Ultimately, the answer is going to depend on whether we agree that a state’s decision not to invest in the alternatives is indeed culpable.
One might try to deny it, for any number of reasons: because creating a whole new defence system would extremely (prohibitively?) costly and disruptive; because creating some such system would conflict with pre-existing commitments and obligations (to domestic agents or allies); or because such systems contain hidden dangers (see Christopher Finlay’s contribution to this symposium).
Whatever the particulars of the argument, as long as one can say that states have some good reason notto invest in civilian-based alternatives, then one can also deny that a decision to use force where it is the only feasible option is morally contaminated by earlier decisions in the way Rodin describes.
Whether states have an obligation to abolish their militaries and/or invest in alternatives are what I would call jus ante bellum questions, or questions of justice before war. Rodin, perhaps more fittingly, describes them as questions of policy between periods of conflict. And he thinks that there is potentially a whole new area of ethical inquiry here, where we ask not only whether states should have militaries, but also how militaries should be structured and run. This would cover everything from procurement and training to military diplomacy to mobilisation.
If other researchers do decide to turn their attention to matters of justice before/between war, there are more than a few questions that I think are in urgent need of attention. In closing I will just flag just one and hope that others add to the list.
As discussed in the first chapter of my book, military conditioning is morally damaging not by accident, but by design. Combat training is aimed at making recruits more comfortable with killing, so that they can do it repeatedly and efficiently in battle. But being desensitised in this way is not a morally virtuous state for a person to be in. My question is: Do governments have any obligation to restore the moral faculties of their desensitised military personnel post-discharge, and if so, what would that even look like?
In Morality and Ethics of War (Bloomsbury Academic 2020), Deane-Peter Baker goes beyond existing treatments of military ethics to address a fundamental problem: the yawning gap between the diverse moral frameworks defining personal identity on the one hand, and the professional military ethic on the other. Baker argues that overcoming this chasm is essential to minimising the ethical risks that can lead to operational and strategic failure for military forces engaged in today's complex conflict environment. He contends that spanning the gap is vital in preventing moral injury from befalling the nation's uniformed servants. Drawing on a revised account of what he calls 'the Just War Continuum', Baker develops a bridging framework that combines conceptual clarity and rigour with insights from cutting edge psychological research and creates a practical means for military leaders to negotiate the moral chasm in military affairs.
Presented by the UNSW International Ethics Research Group, this symposium brings together esteemed scholars from around the world to discuss and debate Associate-Professor Baker’s analysis.
Deane-Peter Baker is an Associate Professor and Co-Convener (with Prof David Kilcullen) of the Future Operations Research Group in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Canberra
Peter Lee is Professor of Applied Ethics and Director of Security and Risk Research and Innovation at the University of Portsmouth, UK
Pauline Shanks Kaurin is Professor and Admiral James B. Stockdale Chair in Professional Military Ethics at the US Naval War College
Charles Anthony Pfaff is Research Professor for Strategy, the Military Profession, and Ethics at the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), U.S. Army War College, and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council
Valerie Morkevičius is Associate Professor of Political Science at Colgate University
Michael L. Gross is Professor of Political Science at the University of Haifa
Mervyn Frost is Professor of International Relations at the Department of War Studies, King's College, London
The Distinguished Visiting Professorial Fellowship is available through the International Ethics Research Group.
Expressions of interest are sought from world-leading local and international scholars who have made outstanding, internationally recognised contributions in the broad area of International Ethics.
The Politics of the Anthropocene – John S. Dryzek and Jonathan Pickering
Deliberate Global Governance – John S. Dryzek, Quinlan Bowman, Jonathan Kuyper, Jonathan Pickering, Jensen Sass, Hayley Stevenson
Challenges for Humanitarian Intervention: Ethical Demand and Political Reality – Edited by Ned Dobos, C.A.J. Coady and Sagar Sanyal
Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy – Edited by John S. Dryzek, André Bächtiger, Jane Mansbridge and Mark E. Warren
The Ethics of Multiple Citizenship – Ana Tanasoca
Global Insecurity: Futures of Chaos and Governance – Edited by Anthony Burke and Rita Parker
Ethical Security Studies: A New Research Agenda – Edited by Jonna Nyman and Anthony Burke
Citizen Killings: Liberalism, State Policy and Moral Risks – Deane-Peter Baker
Tragedy and International Relations – Edited by Tony Erskine and Richard Ned Lebow
International Relations Theory Today (2nd Edition) – Edited by Ken Booth and Toni Erskine
Conspiracy Theory and American Foreign Policy – Tim Aistrope
Ethics and Global Security: A Cosmopolitan Approach – Anthony Burke, Katrina Lee-Koo and Matt McDonald
Democractizing Global Justice: Deliberating Global Goals – John Dryzek and Ana Tanasoca
Ethics, Security, and the War Machine: the True Cost of the Military – Ned Dobos
Debating Multiculturalism: Should There Be Minority Rights? – Peter Balint and Patti Lenard
Should We Ban Killer Robots? – Deane-Peter Baker
Morality and Ethics at War: Bridging the Gaps Between the Soldier and the State – Deane-Peter Baker
Refuge Reimagined: Biblical Kinship in Global Politics – Mark R. Glanville and Luke Glanville