Commenting on the Russian military campaign in Syria, Vsevolod Chaplin, the provocative head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for church-society relations, remarked this week that, ‘The struggle against terrorism … is a very moral, if you like holy, struggle’. But one of Chaplin’s former teachers, Andrei Zubov, has spoken very differently: ‘We have the social concept of the Russian church, which the synod approved 15 years ago, in 2000, and of which I was one of the authors, and it clearly says that war is a very great tragedy.’
Russian philosophers have generally not paid much attention to what in the West is called ‘just war theory’. The Soviet position was rather crude: in essence, any war fought by reactionary forces (i.e. capitalist states) was automatically unjust, while any war fought by progressive (i.e. communist) states was automatically just. For more sophisticated analysis, one has to go back in time to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Leo Tolstoy’s 1894 book The Kingdom of God is Within You laid out the pacifist position, and earned a riposte in the form of Vladimir Solovyov’s 1900 work Three Conversations. The latter is possibly the most entertaining book of just war theory anybody has ever written, but its format – essentially a play in three acts – means that it doesn’t provide a very complex examination of the subject, and in any case it goes seriously off the rails at the end with a bizarre story about the Anti-Christ. And that is pretty much it for pre-revolutionary literature.
The First World War prompted a few philosophers such as Nikolai Berdyaev, as well as Metropolitan Anthony of Kiev and Galicia, to pen short articles on the ethics of war, but as far as I am aware, the only book-length examination of the ethics of violence by a Russian philosopher prior to the collapse of communism is Ivan Ilyin’s 1925 work On Resistance to Evil by Force. Given the interest that my previous posts about Ilyin have generated, it is worth looking at this in some depth.
Ilyin’s basic argument is that the moral demands of war are contradictory. In some circumstances, one may be morally obliged to wage war, but doing so involves carrying out actions which are usually considered unjust (killing, deceiving, etc). Consequently, the necessary use of force is an ‘unsinful perpetration of injustice’, which requires ‘spiritual compromise’. This is a deliberately contradictory position: Ilyin’s argument is that it is only by recognizing the inherently contradictory moral demands of force that one can avoid the moral pitfalls associated with it.
Ilyin reached this conclusion by arguing that the imperfection of the world creates situations in which one has no choice but to use force in order to prevent the triumph of evil. In such situations, the use of force is a moral obligation. But while it is necessary, it isn’t ‘just’. ‘The way of the sword’, Ilyin wrote, ‘is an unjust path … what the swordbearer does in the fight with evildoers is not perfect, not holy, not just’. The actions of your enemy which justify your actions are always at least partly your fault, as there is always something you could have done to prevent them. Even a war of self-defence isn’t ‘just’ because everybody is in some way responsible for the external environment which has created the situation in which self-defence becomes necessary. Since everybody is thus at least partially responsible for any war they fight, ‘every war without exception is a morally guilty act.’
Furthermore, the use of force only combats the external manifestations of evil. This is insufficient. One must also fight what nowadays we would call the ‘root causes’ of the evil. Otherwise, the evil will merely return once you defeat it.
Finally, Ilyin notes that force tends to excite the passions and undermine the moral senses of those who use it. To avoid this problem, people must, in line with the argument above, recognize that what they are doing, though necessary, is not just, and they must undergo continual ‘penitential self-purification’. In other words, the only way to avoid the worst consequences of war is to rid yourself of the idea that because your enemies are the ‘bad guys’ that means that you are the ‘good guy’ and thus free to do as you choose.
So, what would Ilyin’s logic tell us about Russia’s war in Syria? I think roughly the following:
- The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is an evil which must be fought. Armed struggle against it is not only justifiable, but mandatory.
- Nevertheless, ISIS is just a symptom of a deeper problem. That deeper problem is ultimately a spiritual one. Fighting ISIS without fighting the root causes which produced ISIS is pointless. One cannot simply defeat ISIS and return to the status quo ante.
- Among the root causes of ISIS are the actions of those now fighting it – the repressive regimes in Iraq and Syria, and the failed interventions by Western states in the Middle East. Russia also has contributed to the situation by its previous support of those repressive regimes. It must acknowledge its share of responsibility for the problem and change its behaviour.
- While necessary, attacking ISIS is not a morally good action. It is at best a lesser evil. It will involve injustices – for instance, when innocent civilians are killed as ‘collateral damage’ in Russian air strikes. Those fighting can’t just brush off the injustices as mistakes, unavoidable consequences of military action, and so on. They must acknowledge their guilt.
I don’t accept all of Ilyin’s reasoning. I am far more pacifistic. But his logic is undoubtedly original and poses significant challenges to the way people normally think of the ethics of violence. On the one hand it requires the use of force in some situations. On the other hand, it is extremely demanding of those who do use force. In line with Zubov, I have previously written on this blog that ‘holy war’ is not part of Orthodox tradition. From what I have read, it is not part of the wider Russian philosophical tradition either.