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When Are Leaders Culpable?

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When are leaders, especially politicians, morally culpable for the deaths their decisions and actions cause? This is a hard question of course because culpability comes in degrees. For example, Sally is culpable for murder if she knowingly kills someone without moral reason (e.g., self-defense); however, Sam is less culpable than Sally if he knowingly sells someone a defective automotive part which results in a fatal car accident. By the same token, the culpability of leadership comes in degrees too. This issue made especially salient recently when Kristen Urquiza, at the Democratic National Convention, shared how she lost her father due to coronavirus complications, arguing her father likely wouldn’t have died had he ignored President Trump’s downplaying of the threat. This isn’t an isolated problem. President Trump misled Americans about the impact of the pandemic, with disastrous results, in an attempt to revive his reelection prospects. We may wonder then about the blame leaders deserve for the death they cause.

There is an obvious way leaders, and politicians in particular, are directly culpable for the deaths of their citizens: starting an unjust conflict, like a war, without accurately assessing the long-run consequences. Leaders look blameworthy here because of the incentive structure at play: soldiers on a battlefield often face perverse incentives, like the prospect of prison, if they don’t carry out an order. This of course isn’t to deny that soldiers share some blame for following orders they know are wrong. However, leaders share in this responsibility given the position of power they hold, especially if they order something they know is unjust.

For example, we should be reticent to accept a proposed war is legitimate given the historical record: throughout history, especially recently, wars are often justified with moral language. Perhaps a group living in the targeted nation or region is claimed to have wronged us somehow; perhaps our invasion would help set things right; perhaps we would be justified using force to get back what was wrongly taken from us. If these kinds of justifications for war sound familiar, it is because they are. It is too easy to use flimsy moral appeals to justify things we would otherwise think morally wrong. We are susceptible to this sort of thing as individuals; so it wouldn’t be surprising if politicians and governments routinely abuse their trust to leverage baseless moral justifications to convince their citizens and constituents that the proposed war would be morally permissible.

Things are less clear when morally weighing an order from a leader or politician not intended to cause harm, but with foreseeable negative consequences. Some ethicists appeal here to what is known as the doctrine of double effect: an order or action is morally acceptable, even if it has bad and foreseen consequences, if they are the by-product of a morally good, intended action. For the sake of argument: even if abortion is morally bad, on this doctrine a doctor may still abort a fetus if the intention is to save the pregnant mother’s life: the intended, morally good outcome (saving the mother’s life) can’t occur without the bad, unintended outcome (aborting the fetus). Whether the doctrine of double effect exonerates leaders and politicians for ordering a war, even a just war, with very bad foreseen consequences is controversial.

What about indirect culpability of leaders and politicians? Things are dicier here. However, we can still call to mind cases that may help us think through indirect culpability. An obvious and recent case is that of managing the coronavirus in the United States: the current United States President, Donald Trump, downplayed the threat of the coronavirus and gave poor advice to U.S. citizens. This is not of course to say that the current U.S. president intended for people to die of coronavirus; but it does illustrate he could well have indirectly contributed to citizens deaths by downplaying the virus, and playing up ‘cures’ that ultimately failed.

We should pause here to reflect on why the current U.S. President — or any leader similarly situated — looks indirectly culpable for such deaths, even if he isn’t nearly as culpable, say, when starting an unjust war. There is an obvious source of indirect culpability here: abusing the trust placed in them by his followers and constituents. If Harry knows his constituents trust him (whether this is poor judgment on their part or not), he bears indirect culpability for what happens to them if he knowingly gives them bad advice, and they act on it, especially if they wouldn’t have acted that way had they not trusted him. This would be wrong, just as it would be wrong for a physician to knowingly give dangerous medical advice to her patients, especially knowing they only took her advice because they trusted her good intentions and competence.

This is because, broadly speaking, when there is trust, there is vulnerability. When I trust that someone is competent and has my best interests at heart, I place myself in a vulnerable position that can be exploited by those with bad intent. The point generalizes to the ethics of leadership: a leader may be in a position to exploit their followers because of the trust placed in them by their followers, even though such trust is only placed in them on the condition that the leader has their best interests at heart. And if the leader used the trust to knowingly put their followers in harms’ way for their own end, they bear some responsibility for that bad outcome, even if it was unintended.

Jus ad Bellum: US, Iran, and Soleimani

photograph of General Qasem Soleimani in military uniform

On Thursday, January 2nd, the United States successfully executed high ranking political Iranian military targets that were in Iraq at the time. The United States was not engaged in military conflict with Iran (i.e., the states were not at war), and so the justification for the US’s deliberate killing of Iranian officials has been called into question and widely criticized.

Because the assassination took place on Iraqi soil, Iraq is requesting that US forces evacuate their territory. Iraq is interpreting US actions against Iran to be a violation of their territory, and now remaining in Iraq without their permission could constitute a further act of aggression.

Though Soleimani was undisputedly no “friend” of the United States, targeting him with military force is incredibly controversial, if not seen by a growing consensus as the wrong thing to do. This is because the stakes involved here are not the morality of Soleimani and his participation in a regime, but rather the appropriate reasons for bringing military force against another state. It can be widely accepted that Soleimani did not act in the United States best interests, or in the best interest of the United States’ allies, and can even be granted that Soleimani’s death may in fact BE in the best interest of the United States and its allies. However, in the realm of ethics and political theory, these considerations do not warrant killing someone.

We can see that there is a high bar of justification for these actions in two frameworks: a pragmatic framework, or a “just war,” or deontic, framework. From a practical standpoint, we weigh the harms and benefits of different plans of actions and assess the potential fallout. Consider, for instance, that Soleimani actions and attitudes had not changed over the course of decades and yet previous administrations in the US had not targeted him for assassination. This has been attributed to the rationale that such an assassination “is not worth it” – the anticipated destabilization of the relations in the region risked by targeting such a high-ranking official in Iran was too big a gamble.

Rather than an assessment of potential outcomes and consequences, the standards in “just war” theory center on the conventions governing the proper and responsible use of military-level harm (just cause, proportionality, etc.). One of the least controversial moral dictates is that harming one another is bad and that we ought not to do it without the strongest of justifications. Wars and military actions are systematic harms at a grand scale, so their justification should at least parallel the stakes involved in harming one another on the personal level.

Because Soleimani represents Iran in his role as leader of Iranian military forces, taking military action against him amounts to taking military action against Iran. [Unless the international community has decided that his regime is illegitimate or that Soleimani can be considered to be an independent agent, force against him amounts to aggression against a legitimate state – Iran.] On a Just War framework, initiating acts of aggression like these against legitimate states represent justifiable cause for war on the grounds of self-defense.

To commit an act of violence that constitutes a cause for war is judged by high standards indeed because of the stakes involved in war; wars include untold violence and suffering not only to those who willingly participate but to bystanders and those caught up in the conflict. As such, the justifiability of states’ use of military force is limited, according to Just War Theory, to a handful of reasons, the strongest of which is in response to aggression.

In casual terms outside discussions of war theory, aggression includes any hostile or violent behavior, but for political actors, it means something very specific. In international relations, “aggression” is the term used for the crime of war itself. It articulates that a state has violated the territorial integrity or political sovereignty of another legitimate state.

Just as each person has a right to the safety of their body from molestation, states have a right to territorial integrity: a right to control land within one’s border. The most straightforward way of violating this on the personal level is to assault someone and on the political level, to invade. “Political Sovereignty” notes the right a legitimate state has to self-determination, paralleling the right to autonomy that an individual has. States can set up their political organizations in terms of democracies, monarchies, etc., and have the right to run their governments without interference from other states. State A violates the political sovereignty of B when A tries to change B’s political structure. Such acts, along with territorial invasion, are the most straightforward instances of acts of aggression by one state on another and thus count as acts of war.

When someone has attacked you, common moral principles hold that you would be justified in defending yourself. Therefore, in the political sphere, if a state commits an act of aggression towards your state, you may be justified in responding with force.

Soleimani’s assassination, however, fits uncomfortably in this framework. The justification currently provided by the administration is that there was an anticipation of aggression by Iran. Soleimani and the Iranian government had not yet committed acts of aggression and therefore we were not in a war scenario. Therefore, by engaging militarily in acts of aggression, the US initiated aggression by interfering with the Iranian state.

Because there was anticipated aggression against the US, the self-defense justification can be attempted for the assassination. However, when claiming to defend yourself against an attack you only think will happen, that attack must be imminent and great. This is a difficult set of circumstances to establish and in the present case a great deal of doubt already exists.

One route to justifying the attack is to attempt to categorize it as a targeted terrorist killing rather than an assassination of a high-ranked head of state. This is an important distinction, because employees of the United States, as well as anyone acting on behalf of the United States, are forbidden from conspiring or engaging in assassinations, political or otherwise, according to Executive orders by Presidents Ford and Reagan. President George W. Bush allowed for the “targeted killings” of terrorist funders and leaders, but in a manner consistent with these executive orders, and, since 2001, that has been where executive dictation has remained.

The US has targeted many individuals under the guise of the “War on Terror” by categorizing individuals as terrorist leaders and thus not representing states. But attempts to characterize Soleimani’s execution in such terms will not protect the US’s behaviors from international scrutiny or an Iranian response. (Iran has promised retribution and declared that it will no longer abide by the terms of the nuclear prohibition deal that Trump’s administration had quit Spring 2018.) This situation is markedly different. The killing of political representatives of a foreign state outside of wartime will seem to many a straightforward act of aggression, complicating the US’s claim to self-defense.

Pope Francis, Edward Gallagher, and Just War Theory

photograph of armed soldiers in file

In his remarks during a trip to Japan, Pope Francis denounced not only the use, but also the mere possession, of nuclear weapons as morally unacceptable. While this has been Pope Francis’ position throughout his tenure as Pope, it marks a change in the Vatican’s official position toward nuclear weapons from the era of Pope John Paul II, at which time the church merely denounced the actual use of nuclear weapons. Neither of these comments are motivated by a general principle of pacifism on the part of the Catholic Church, which both currently and historically has supported the existence and use of military force. The contemporary Church recognizes war as legitimate only in the context of national self-defense.

Relatedly significant controversy has attended President Donald Trump’s meddling in the case of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, who was tried and acquitted of war crimes. The idea of a war crime can itself seem perplexing as to many it is intuitive that the point of war is simply to win quickly and by whatever means necessary. How do nations like the United States, which has actively pursued military means of executing its international agenda, square their activities with idea of a war crime? Are institutions like the United States and the Catholic Church contradicting themselves, or is there actual principle at work?

A good way to understand this is to look into the specific provisions of so-called Just War Theory, the roots of which are in the work of famed (and Catholic) philosopher Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologicae. Far from pacifism, Just War Theory advocates that there is a way to enter into, conduct, and conclude wars which is not merely morally excusable but wholly justified. Nor is this sort of thinking limited to the Catholic tradition. In the Muslim tradition, the concept of jihad is one which prescribes with whom it is morally acceptable to go to war and how it is permissible to prosecute such a war. Similar sentiments can also be found in the writings of the Confucian and Mohist schools of philosophy in Ancient China as well as in Ancient Roman concepts of the laws that govern conduct among nations.

For the sake of simplicity and brevity, let’s stick with Just War Theory. A ban on the use of nuclear weapons would come under the heading of jus in bello, the part of Just War Theory that deals with what counts as prosecuting war in a morally justified fashion. Accounts of the aftermath of the use of nuclear weapons by the United States against Japan in 1945 are harrowing. Those people who survived the initial explosion suffered from extensive and horrible burns as well as a lifetime of health problems due to exposure to intense levels of radiation. These aspects inefficiently achieve the licit goals of military action as allowed by Just War Theory, namely to incapacitate a wrongly aggressing force without excessive damage to civilians and non-military infrastructure. Further, nuclear weapons in general create the possibility of nuclear fallout, which is the transmission of radioactive material throughout the atmosphere by weather patterns. Importantly the spread of nuclear fallout is not in the direct control of those who deploy nuclear weapons in the first instance. Hence the area and number of people affected is indiscriminate, with no clear way of controlling collateral damage.

Both of these features of nuclear weaponry make them a means of conducting war that is arguably male in se, in the terms of Just War Theory. This means that it is a method that is inherently bad, regardless of who uses it and how. Examples of methods that are treated as mala in se without controversy are slavery, pillaging and raping, group punishment as well as chemical and biological weapons (e.g., mustard gas and weaponized infectious agents). Nuclear weapons are not banned, but the similarity of the effects that they have to chemical and biological agents has led many to advocate for disarmament and an international ban on the possession, use, and development of nuclear weapons.

Not only are certain methods of killing and incapacitating enemies and civilians forbidden in Just War Theory, so is certain treatment of prisoners of war. The war crimes accusations against Edward Gallagher concerned the murder of an Islamic State prisoner of war. In general, prisoners of war (and otherwise incapacitated combatants), are not allowed to be killed, tortured, or humiliated. Unlike criminal prisoners, prisoners of war are not being held as a means of punishment for their actions. Even where the captured military personnel are responsible for actions considered international crimes, the ground personnel of the opposing military are not considered legitimately empowered to execute punishment. Here another aspect of Just War Theory enters the picture, jus post bellum, which concerns appropriate behavior upon the conclusion of war. Any prosecution for war crimes must be done by with respect for due process, including full court proceedings, within a court with the appropriate jurisdiction.

Just War Theory attempts to carve out a middle path between two monolithic alternatives. On the one hand there is pacifism, which argues that all violent, military action is morally unacceptable. On the other hand there is so-called realism about war, which argues that war is not immoral but beyond morality. However every nation belonging to any international political or governing body (at least in theory) subjects itself to rules of warfare meant to limit what are seen as moral excesses in the conduct of an otherwise (possibly) justifiable enterprise. The concept of a war crime in general, and the Catholic Church’s evolving position on warfare in particular, both manifest attempts to stay between the twin implausibilities of pacifism and realism concerning war.

Game of Thrones: Dragons, Despots, and Just War

photograph of used Game of Thrones book

** SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones up to and including the show’s Season 8 ending.

Game of Thrones, the popular television show based on the book series by George RR Martin, aired its final episode last week. Set in a medieval fantasy world the strength of its appeal is in its exploration of real-world themes of politics, power and war.

For a story infamous for subverting narrative expectations with radical plot twists, in the last two episodes the actions and ultimate fate of Daenerys Targaryen shocked even the most intrepid fans. Hitherto one of the story’s heroines and presumptive savior of Westeros, fans watched in horror as Daenerys chose to burn hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians alive in her quest to ‘build a better world’. What happened? Was this a calculated tactic, and if so, what possible reason or justification can there have been for her to choose the route of extreme violence?

Daenerys Targaryen was one of many contenders for the Iron Throne, the seat of power on the continent of Westeros, and the only one with dragons. In Martin’s fictional world, dragons (which can grow to immense size, and breathe columns of fire so hot it can melt stone and steel) had traditionally been used by the ruling Targaryen family as weapons of war and conquest, but had been extinct for a century prior to events of the story.

As different characters and factions vie for the Iron Throne and the rulership of Westeros, Daenerys Targaryen, living in exile after her father the “Mad King” was deposed by the current ruler(s) during a rebellion, magically hatches three petrified dragon eggs. Already possessed of the belief that the throne belonged to her by right of succession, as her dragons grew to maturity she was also in possession of a formidable military weapon with immense firepower. In a medieval world where weapons of war are swords and arrows, the dragons represent the destructive might of nuclear weapons against the mere capacities of conventional ones.

Despite occasionally displaying the fiery Targaryen temper, Daenerys was to begin with relatively restrained in the use of this significant advantage in pursuing her military goals and achieved her ascendency to ruler of Slaver’s Bay (a region on the continent in which she was in exile) with only sparing use of dragon fire. For most of the story Daenerys seems to be (so to speak) on the right side of history as, in Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen she liberated the large population of slaves and presided over the abolition of the institution and practice of slavery. To this end she was a revolutionary, and styled herself as a liberator and a ruler for the downtrodden on a mission to create a better world.

When she finally turns her gaze to Westeros to retake the Iron Throne even as her advisors, including Tyrion Lannister, implore her to hold back her firepower and not to use her dragons to attack the city of King’s Landing (the seat of her rival, tyrannical and ruthless queen Cersei Lannister and also home to a large civilian population) but to pursue other military options less likely to result in large numbers of civilian casualties, many of her allies (Yara Greyjoy, Ellaria Sand and Olenna Tyrell) encourage her to hit King’s Landing with all of her might.

This is a real ethical dilemma in military tactics. Where one party has a weapon of immense superiority, such as a nuclear weapon, there is a case to be weighed up between using it to obtain swift victory, avoiding a potentially protracted conflict which may eventually lead to a great deal more death and suffering, as against holding back to avoid the possibility of an egregious, even gratuitous, victory born from a one-sided conflict. As such, the debate continues on whether the use of nuclear weapons by the United States on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end WWII was morally justified. One informal, voluntary poll shows that over 50% of respondents believe that it was indeed justified.

Viewers who had followed Daenerys’ ascent from frightened girl to Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, and Breaker of Chains generally trusted in her, as a flawed but fundamentally good character, to do what was right. But as in the real world, in the world of Game of Thrones, it is not always clear what the right thing is. Even so, one of the things that the Game of Thrones seems to point up is the need for benevolent rulers. When Daenerys responds that: “I am here to free the world from tyrants… not to be queen of the ashes” we seem to instinctively understand that benevolence and indiscriminate violence cannot easily coexist.  

Yet following the failure of other tactics, she finally unleashes the immense firepower of a dragon against the Lannister army, literally incinerating it, and afterwards, presenting the captured soldiers and nobles with a ‘choice’ – to “bend the knee” (accept her as their ruler) “or die.” She executes with dragon-fire those who do not acquiesce. If Daenerys is going to win, if she is going to take the throne and build her better world, she needs some victories – but is this use of firepower, and subsequent refusal of mercy the right thing to do? At this point her advisors, and possibly her supporters, are uneasy.

In our world, the rules of just war have been formulated, and latterly enshrined in international law, in order to regulate, and limit when and how war is waged. Just war theory includes the principles of jus ad bellum and jus in bello.

Jus ad bellum is a set of criteria to be consulted prior to resorting to warfare to determine whether war is permissible, that is, whether it is a just war. This principle has a long history in the western philosophical tradition. In his Summa Theologica, circa 1270 Thomas Aquinas writes: “[we deem as] peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” One principle of just war, particularly relevant here is the principle of proportionality which stipulates that the violence used in the war must be proportional to the military objectives.

Daenerys does, in accordance with Aquinas’ stipulation, have as her objective the ‘securing of peace’ and ‘uplifting of the good’. Her attack on the Lannister armies, following the exhausting of other tactics, probably passes the test of proportionality – though executing prisoners of war would contravene the Geneva Convention.

However, in the penultimate episode of the series, the worst fears of those who had counselled her against unleashing the full force of her destructive capacities upon a whole city – civilian and military alike, come to pass. Worse still, this action is not taken as a last resort. Using her armies and dragons she has already overcome the enemy’s military. The city has surrendered and the bells of surrender are ringing out as she begins methodically to raze the city to the ground. In this moment she cedes the moral high ground and loses all the moral authority she had earned as a warrior for justice and liberator of the people. But why does she do this?

Daenerys believes that the end will justify the means. She believes that the good of the new world she wants to build will outweigh the suffering caused by the destruction of the old one. She relies on a consequentialist justification here, but if an action can be justified morally by its consequences, then one must know what the consequences will be, and one must know that the resultant good will be certain to morally outweigh the suffering.

Theoretically, if the death of, say, hundreds of thousands prevented the deaths of millions then it could be justified in consequentialist terms. Many philosophers find in such reasoning grounds to reject consequentialist ethics. The reason no one accepts this rationale from Daenerys is that the magnitude of devastation renders it nearly impossible to see it as anything other than utterly, horrifically disproportionate, and the fact that the city had surrendered renders such a justification moot since the immense suffering can not be shown to have been necessary for the better world she claims to be trying to build. As such, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it was gratuitous.

If Daenerys actions cannot be justified as a sacrifice in pursuit of “mercy towards future generations who will never again be held hostage to a tyrant” the other explanation is more sinister – and also more realpolitik. In his book on ruling and the exercise of power, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote: “it is much more safe to be feared than to be loved when you have to choose between the two.

Coming to the bitter realization that she was not going to win the Iron Throne nor hold power in Westeros by virtue of the love of those whom she needed on her side, Daenerys knows that if she is to rule, fear is her only pathway to power. She says as much to Jon Snow before the attack on King’s Landing: “alright then, then let it be fear.” As such, she had made her choice before hand and knew that were the city to surrender she would not pull back, as Tyrion urged her to do, but unleash the full force of her fiery might.

Perhaps Daenerys thought that this was the right thing to do, perhaps, cornered, she thought it was the only thing left for her to do. As Cersei Lannister so prophetically said to Ned Stark in Season One “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die, there is no middle ground.” Is this Machiavellian move compatible with the goal of building a better world? Daenerys had wanted to free the world of tyrants, but what is a tyrant but someone who must rule by fear? Sadly the Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, and Breaker of Chains in the end became what she despised.