Current Events, Academic Philosophy

The Syrian Bombings and Just War Theory, Part II

Our previous posts disclosed the central disagreement that Bas and I have regarding humanitarian intervention.  Bas thinks that the commander’s ex ante decision to intervene can almost never be justified because the prospects of success are too low. I believe, in contrast, that such decisions can sometimes be justified. Here’s my position:

I distinguish between three ideas: the objective wrongness of an event, the permissibility of the decision to bring about the event, and the blameworthiness of the agent in bringing about the event.  An act is wrong, not only when the agent negligently disregards evidence, but also when he is duly diligent about the evidence, believes that evidence, but those beliefs are mistaken. In the latter case, however, he will be absolved from blame. Impermissibility is determined by the following test: an action is impermissible either (1) if the agent was negligent about the evidence, or, (2) if he was diligent about the evidence but the decision was objectively wrong, or (3) if both.  This standard yields the following combinations:


1. Diligence+ success Objectively right Permissible Not blameworthy
2. Diligence+ failure Objectively wrong Impermissible Not blameworthy
3. Negligence + success Objectively right Impermissible Blameworthy
4. Negligence + failure Objectively wrong Impermissible Blameworthy


A humanitarian intervention will be permissible only in the first case.  Thus, the Syria bombings will be justified if (1) they had a just cause; (2) the commander, Trump, weighed consequences responsibly, and (3) the bombings satisfied proportionality, that is, they turned out well. In my estimation, (1) is satisfied; there are serious doubts about (2), and there are some doubts about (3). If (2) is not satisfied, then I will agree with Bas that the bombings were impermissible even if they turn out all right. But, for the moment, as I wrote in the initial post, I reluctantly believe that the action satisfied the test (I am somewhat comforted by the fact that Trump is surrounded by competent commanders.) Notice that it is possible to say, on my account, that the intervention was objectively right (it turned out well; say it deterred future crimes), even if it was impermissible.

In the book I respond in detail to Bas’ quite compelling ex ante objection. Here is my third and final reason to reject his approach:


My third and final reply appeals to reflective equilibrium. If Van der Vossen is right, he should be a pacifist. The uncertainties that worry him are present in all wars and revolutions; it is not possible to invoke them only to question humanitarian wars. The Allied decision to fight Germany in 1939 was impermissible, as was the United States declaration of war against Japan in 1941. Abraham Lincoln should not have fought the Civil War, and rebel groups facing tyrants are similarly misguided. On this view, just cause is virtually irrelevant, as it is precisely in those cases when the objection here discussed operates. Because I do not believe that all wars are unjust (I am not a pacifist), I cannot accept that position. In other words: one of my prior fixed points is that some wars are just. The position we are discussing, if valid, indicts all wars, past, present, and future, and is implausible for that reason.

In concluding, I should point out that, although I’m unable to accept Bas’ argument, it is the best I have encountered against humanitarian intervention.


Published on:
Author: Fernando Teson
  • You are entitled to define words in whichever way you want; but if you want to avoid bamboozling people (as I am sure you do), you should avoid defining words in ways that lead you to say things that sound perverse when words are used in their ordinary meanings. In the third row of your table we have an action that is objectively right yet impermissible. If words are used in an ordinary way, that is a paradoxical thing. An act that is objectively right must be permissibile (in the ordinary sense) and might even be obligatory.

    The problem arises because you want to distinguish three features of an act: it’s objective moral standing; how it appears in light of the best information available to the agent; the agent’s blameworthiness. The term ‘permissible’ normally belongs to the first dimension of assessment, but you have purloined it for talk belonging to the second dimension.

    If that is all there was to it, the problem would be easily rectified by choosing a different term instead of ‘permissible.’ Perhaps ‘appears right in light of the best information available to the agent.’ But that won’t do for you because you really want to say that an act that is objectively right is nevertheless impermissible if it does not appear right in light of the best information available to the agent. But that, again, appears paradoxical. Why not just say the following? The act is right, and thus permissible, but the agent cannot know it to be right in light of the best information available to him; therefore, if he does it, he is blameworthy. That is not paradoxical; and it seems to say what you want to say. If it is not quite what you want to say, there will still be a way of saying what you want to say, along these lines, without falling into such perplexities as right acts which are impermissible.

    • Fernando Teson

      Good point, Danny, thanks. I have to think about it.

    • King Goat

      Danny, let’s say a soldier or agent sees a terrorist who has killed before and is likely to kill again duck into a crowded day care center. The soldier takes a grenade and tosses it in the day care, it explodes and miraculously the terrorist is killed and everyone else is barely harmed. An objectively right result, but I can’t imagine anyone saying celebrating…Now let’s say that in reaction the soldier’s unit quite reasonably forbids anyone from doing something like that again. If he repeats the action, and even more miraculously gets a similar result, hasn’t he in the normal sense of these words committed an act that was objectively right in result yet impermissible?

      • The word ‘miraculously’ makes me nervous. Let’s change it to ‘surprisingly.’ Does the soldier perform a right act? It depends. If we are deontologists it may be that such an act contravenes one of the moral rules, in which case it is a wrong act. If we are deontologists of a rule-consequentialst persuasion, the rules will be such that, over the long term, adherence to them will deliver better results than any other workable set of rules; but there will be occasions when better consequences would be obtained by violating one of the rules. But for the sake of simplifying the discussion, let us assume, counterfactually, that we are act-consequentialists.

        Then the soldier performs a right act. Therefore his act was permissible. But could he have known what the consequences of his act would be? I don’t see how. In fact given the best available information, his act seemed to be wrong in act-consequentialist terms. Let’s assume that he had access to that information. Then what he did was blameworthy because he did what, on the best available information (with which he was familiar), was a wrong act.

        The soldier’s unit would be very reasonable in forbidding people to perform acts which, on the best available information, appear to be wrong acts. If the soldier repeats that type of action in similar circumstances and surprisingly gets the same result, the same reasoning applies: he performed a right act but he did what on the best available information appeared to him to be wrong. In addition, he violated a command.

        • King Goat

          Danny, as usual thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’m glad that you brought up deontologists and rule consequentialist, because my thought was that for these two schools of thought an act could be ‘objectively right’ in the sense of a good result (dead terrorist) but still a ‘wrong act’ (violating a rule). Do I read you correctly as agreeing there? And if so, then isn’t Fernando’s cross tab of ‘objectively right’ (result: dead terrorist) yet ‘impermissible’ (violation of rule) ok for those two schools?

          Also, I’m not clear on why acts that are blameworthy wouldn’t also be impermissible. Why would a moral theory permit blameworthy acts (perhaps I’m smuggling rule consequentialism in here under some kind of idea that what often makes a blameworthy act blameworthy is a mens rea of negligence or worse which more often than not leads to bad results?)?

          • I regard rule-consequentialists as a species of deontologist. They differ from other deontologists in the explanation they offer for why the rules they exhort us to follow are the right ones. (The word ‘deontologist’ seems to be used by some people in a way that would exclude a rule-consequentialist being a deontologist.)

            I disagree with what you say about deontologists. For them, whether an act is right = whether it complies with the relevant rule. An act which violates the applicable moral rule is wrong even if in act-consequentialist terms it would be the right act. So a wrong act may produce a splendid result; but when it does, it is still wrong. Right and wrong is not SIMPLY about results; it is about compliance with the set of rules that would, if everyone complied with them, generally bring about better results than any other workable set of rules. This is not rule-worship; it is acknowledgement of our limited epistemic capacities (we need rules because we cannot know all the details).

            Impermissibility and blameworthiness are assessing different things. Impermissibility concerns acts and their wrongness. Blameworthiness concerns agents, their information and motivation. An inescapable part of the human condition is the separation of facts and theories, the world and our representations of it. We are thoroughly fallible. Our theories can always be wrong, the way we view or understand things may always be mistaken. We must therefore distinguish right/wrong acts from acts that seem to us to be right/wrong. It is commonplace for a person to commit a wrong act with ‘the best will in the world,’ simply because he was mistaken about the facts. We have to take account of that in assessing his action. Yes, the act was wrong; but he was not to blame for it.

            Fernando (I think Bas too) said nothing about motivation. Someone may commit a wrong act even if he has the facts straight: he performs the wrong act precisely because it is wrong. He is blameworthy even though he was not mistaken about the facts.

          • King Goat

            Danny, re: your second paragraph, I’m not sure we disagree.

            To use your words, for deonotologists and rule-consequentalists “whether an act is right = whether it complies with the relevant rule. An act which violates the applicable moral rule is wrong even if in act-consequentialist terms it would be the right act. So a wrong act may produce a splendid result; but when it does, it is still wrong. Right and wrong is not SIMPLY about results…”

            So, as I said, to the extent that deontologist or rule-consequentalist had a rule about acts which produce “splendid results” but which still violated a rule, let’s say about the approach taken, then one can say that for these two schools [my words quoted now] “an act could be ‘objectively right’ in the sense of a good result (dead terrorist) but still a ‘wrong act’ (violating a rule).” Therefore, the distinction for which you fault Fernando’s cross tab 3 of ‘objectively right’ (result: dead terrorist) yet ‘impermissible’ (violation of rule)” might not exist for these two schools of thought. No?

          • There’s a difference between the right and the good. An act which produces good results is not thereby a right act.

          • King Goat

            So there’s whether an act produced a good result, whether it is morally right, and whether it is blameworthy? Three separate things?

          • Got it!

          • King Goat

            Ok. Here’s the thing though, I’m not sure that when Fernando uses the term ‘objectively right’ he’s not talking about ‘good result’ (notice how he pairs ‘success’ with it).

          • I have not thought it through, but I don’t think it would affect my point, which was that permissible/impermissible belongs on the objective side of things along with objectively right (and objectively good).

          • It is standard in moral theory to distinguish the right and the good (that is a title of a famous book). Think of supererogation, for instance.

          • King Goat

            So you are using ‘good’ (or ‘splendid’) in a moral sense, but distinguishing it, at least in some instances (such as supererogation) from the right? I’m not sure how that works here. If the enemy throws a grenade into my barracks, the right act may be for me to protect my fellows by throwing myself on it. But the ‘lesser’ ‘good’ act of me resisting the urge to pull my squad mate in front of me to sheild myself would be one that, had I done otherwise, would have been objectively impermissible, right?

  • Hi Fernando.

    “In other words: one of my prior fixed points is that some wars are just.”

    I can understand how someone could conclude some wars are just, but why do you consider it a starting assumption? Surely, there must be more basic intuitions that you can appeal to beyond that.

    I ask because you usually want the premises in the argument to be more obvious than the conclusion. After all, the whole point of arguing is to get someone to agree with your premises, then show them how those premises lead to a conclusion they didn’t foresee.

  • jdkolassa

    “The Allied decision to fight Germany in 1939 was impermissible, as was the United States declaration of war against Japan in 1941. ”

    So when another country attacks you and kills many of your people, going to war to stop them from doing that is impermissible?

    I honestly don’t get this logic. I’m not a philosopher (beyond armchair) so that’s not really a surprising statement, but still, I don’t get this.

    • Sean II

      “I’m not a philosopher (beyond armchair)”

      That doesn’t stop them! Why let it stop you?


      Pardon me if you already know, but Fernando is not saying this. He is attempting to refute Bas’s argument by showing that it leads to this implausible conclusion.

      • jdkolassa

        Ah, I see. I thought that sentence was meant as a response to Bas’ position, not an elucidation of it.

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