The ethics of virtue vs the ethics of justice

Ethical Notes
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The Independent Culture
THE WAR in Yugoslavia has taken two important casualties: first, language and concepts, and second, morality itself.

Take language, and first, consider the concept of accidental killing. Can this be extended to dropping cluster bombs from a plane through clouds at an unseen target? In what sense is it an accident if people below are killed? They are the wrong people? That's a mistake, certainly, but is it an accident?

Then the concept of a legitimate target: only military installations will be attacked, it is promised, but soldiers eat, drink, travel on roads, cross bridges, and so on. Thus the notion of a target is extended from military installations to bridges, roads, utilities, including water itself, at which point, the ancient and despised crime of poisoning the well is resurrected in modern technological garb, as chemicals seep into the river Danube and the air itself is polluted by the release of bombs encased in uranium shells.

Third, the concept of a war crime. Increasingly this is interpreted to mean anything "they" do, and nothing "we" do. Women weeping over the bodies of dead young men is taken as evidence of a "war crime" even in a context in which young men of this group are presented as heroes by our own media for liaising by mobile phone to pinpoint "soft" (i.e. human) targets for hostile action.

This leads to the second area, that of morality, which is enjoying an unexpectedly high profile in this war, from "compassionate bombing" to a "moral imperative" to wage war. The point is generally made that what "we" do is very different, morally, from what "they" do. We are benevolent; they are monsters. We are right to say that there is a moral difference between our deeds and their deeds. But the difference does not consist in this. What matters morally is that we are morally responsible for what we do; they are morally responsible for what they do. Their atrocities are their atrocities, but that does not exonerate us if we commit atrocities.

Of course, it may be right for us to help if we can, to prevent evil if we can, but the principles of just war were set out many centuries ago and we should limit our intervention to what we can do within that ancient framework of which, up to now, we were proud to regard ourselves as defenders. So we should not cause more harm than the harm we seek to prevent, we should go to war only when the war is ordered by a legitimate authority: we should not use indiscriminate means which cannot distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.

As for the new "moral" justification from Washington, this is so wide that if taken seriously it would legitimate intervention anywhere where we judge that there is an oppressed minority. But, we are told, we are defending the values of the free world: liberty, the rule of law, human rights, an open society. These are fine values to defend, but we have to ask ourselves how it could be possible to defend liberty and the open society by using explosives to put off the air material that we find politically unacceptable. We have to ask ourselves, too, how international law is to be defended by openly flouting it, and indeed treating it with contempt. But, we may say, at least we are defending human rights. Well, yes, but only in a way that requires for its validation the most jaded moral philosophy of the western world, utilitarianism: by killing the innocent in the hope of deterring the guilty, and by taking away the rights of some to preserve the rights of others.

Finally, if we prefer the ethics of virtue to the ethics of justice, we might also reconsider the notion of courage and decide whether it applies equally to pilots whose mission involves little more personal risk than flying a commercial airliner and to citizens who crowd nightly onto a bridge in Belgrade in the hope that this will deter that pilot from dropping his bomb.

Professor Brenda Almond is the author of `Exploring Ethics: a traveller's tale' (Blackwell, pounds 14.99)