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Democracy and War

By Victor Tadros

IMG_9078IMG_9078 by Ale. Used under: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

The Iraq war that the UK fought in 2003, alongside the US and other countries, was met with a great deal of scepticism by many members of the public and by politicians. Many people were not convinced that an adequate basis for the war had been established by the government; there was concern that the case for war had been deceitfully cooked up, and that Tony Blair, the then UK Prime Minister, was playing poodle to a hawkish and ill-informed US president in George W Bush. Yet, when ordered to go, the troops went.

Their fighting the war was met with a familiar and yet puzzling attitude by war-sceptics: that although the war was unjustified, they felt sympathy for, and supported, the troops. But what does it mean to condemn the war and yet to support the troops who fight it? One idea might be that the troops are excused, or lack responsibility for their decision to fight. But I doubt that is the most common view. I think that many people think that although the war was wrong, the troops had a duty to fight because they were ordered to do so by their legitimate government.


“But what does it mean to condemn the war and yet to support the troops who fight it?”


I’m going to examine, and reject, one kind of argument that might be thought to support that conclusion. Here it is. In a liberal democracy such as that found in the UK, people, or their representatives, take decisions together about what to do in matters of justice, including the justice of the wars that we fight. Our institutions are designed in a way that facilitates these decisions. The respect that citizens should have for each other, and for their democratic institutions, requires them to abide by democratic decisions. Because the decision to go to war was made within our democratic institutions, combatants are required to go to war, even where the war is wrong (or, alternatively, even where they believe the war to be wrong).

One response to this argument is that the democratic institutions of the UK are flawed. No doubt, the UK is no perfect democracy. But it doesn’t follow from the fact that our democratic institutions could be improved that they are unworthy of respect. They are the best way that we currently have for people to decide together what to do. We should not wait for perfect democratic institutions to decide collectively, and to respect our collective decisions, if respect is what they merit.

For a better response, we should distinguish between two ways in which democratic institutions might be thought valuable. One is that democratic decisions tend to be substantively better decisions than undemocratic decisions. The fact that people, through their democratic institutions, decide to go to war, then, gives people good reason to believe that the decision to go to war is the right one. That is true even when the decision conflicts with their own personal judgement about the merits of the war.

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This value of democracy, whatever its merits, though, isn’t going to do much to bolster the idea that troops were required to go to war in Iraq. Here’s why. There are many other countries in the world with democratic institutions that are at least as reliable as those of the UK that also took decisions about the merits of the Iraq war. And many concluded that going to war was wrong. France, Germany, and Finland, for example, concluded that it was wrong to go to war. As our democratic institutions are no better than theirs, our democratic decisions hardly provided a compelling case for the justice of the war. Why believe our institutions rather than theirs? And that was especially so given that there was compelling evidence that the case for war had been dishonestly bolstered by Blair and his associates through what became known as the ‘dodgy dossier’.

The idea that respect for democracy required combatants to go to war, then, is better understood as the idea that troops should respect democratic decisions even when they had no reason to believe, on balance, that the decision to go to war was right. And, indeed, that seems well captured by the idea that democratic decisions are worthy of respect – respecting a decision does not seem to require agreeing with it, even given the evidence that one has because the decision has been taken.

To explore this kind of argument, I think that it is best to consider things from the point of view of the decision makers. Do they have any reason to demand that their decisions are respected even where they have not made out their case that the war, overall, is just? If not, there seems to be no reason to respect their decisions. After all, surely, ultimately, it is not the decision or the institutions that demand respect, but rather the people who make decisions within these institutions. When we respect a decision, what we really do is respect those who make those decisions. We can see this powerfully in the case of Brexit, where people who voted for Britain to leave the EU feel that they will be disrespected if Britain does not in fact leave. Their decision to leave, they think, demands respect because they demand respect. Whether they can legitimately demand such respect, of course, is a whole other question. I mean only to point out that respect for people is ultimately what matters, and respect for their decisions is required only if respect for those who decide demands it.

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Some might think that a person’s decisions, in general, demand respect only if the decision is a good one. If you want respect for your decisions, we might think, make good decisions, that will then be worth respecting. I generally have quite a bit of sympathy for this idea. But at least sometimes, respect for people requires us to act according to their decisions even where we are confident that they have things wrong. A doctor might think it best for a patient to have a certain kind of treatment, for example, but ultimately it is for the patient to decide, and the doctor should abide by the patient’s decision even where she is confident that the patient has decided badly. I think that many people see democratic decisions in the same way.

But there is a general doubt about this way of understanding democratic decisions, and a more particular doubt about its application to the case of war. Here is the general doubt. People’s decisions seem especially important where they are making decisions about themselves. The only person disadvantaged by the doctor respecting the decision of the patient, for example, is the patient. In contrast, with bad democratic decisions, there are losers and winners, and in any democratic scheme, some of the losers will be opposed the decision that disadvantages them. And democratic decisions are mainly about matters of justice. In that case, abiding by bad decisions involves imposing the decision of some people to make other people victims of injustice against their will. It is harder to see why respect for people requires us to assist them in perpetrating injustices.

An obvious response to this doubt is that people disagree about matters of justice. Some might then think that we are just not entitled to object that some people are imposing injustice on others. But that’s no answer. Sure, it’s sometimes hard to know what the just thing to do is. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some truth in the matter about what justice requires. And we have already seen that we can’t conclude from a democratic decision that the decision is right, especially in the case of war where other democracies come to other conclusions. Surely democratic decision makers, if they are doing their job properly, are trying to discover what justice demands. So, what they have to claim is that if they are trying to find out what justice requires, and they get it wrong (so our evidence tells us), respect for them requires other people to implement their mistakes.


“It’s hard to see why respect for us requires abiding by our decisions to treat others, who are not party to our decisions, unjustly. And that’s even more so where our decisions concern matters of life and death.”


It’s hard to see, though, why any conscientious decision maker would want this. I’d want the opposite: if I had to decide difficult matters of justice, especially matters of life and death, I’d hope that people do what I decide if I get things right. But I’d hope that people ignore me if I get them wrong. In fact, I’d think it deeply disrespectful of people to implement my decisions where I’ve got them wrong, at least if they have good grounds for believing that I’ve got them wrong. After all, implementing my decisions ensures that I achieve the opposite of what I’m trying to achieve – just results. Respect for me requires respect for my deepest commitments, and my deepest commitments, if I’m deciding in the right way, are commitments to justice.

And things are even worse in the case of war. At least when it comes to domestic policy, the losers had some chance to influence democratic decisions. In that case, some might think there is something to the view that respect for us as a community requires abiding by our decisions about us. I’m pretty sceptical about this idea as I’ve just suggested, but it has at least initial appeal. In the case of war, though, the question is whether there is some reason to respect our decision about others – those who we will kill in war. It’s hard to see why respect for us requires abiding by our decisions to treat others, who are not party to our decisions, unjustly. And that’s even more so where our decisions concern matters of life and death. The idea that respect for our democratic decisions requires implementing our decision to wrongly kill others, who are not party to those decisions, is hard to believe.

Of course, I’ve only considered one kind of argument for the conclusion that combatants are required to fight democratically authorised unjust wars. But I think it’s the kind of argument that is in the back of the minds of those who exonerate the troops for fighting wars that they are deeply opposed to. Perhaps something better can be found; I have my doubts.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Ethical War Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.

Published 27th February 2020

Victor Tadros

Professor of Criminal Law and Legal Theory at the University of Warwick. Affiliated researcher at the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace.

Victor Tadros is Professor of Criminal Law and Legal Theory at the University of Warwick. He was educated at Oxford University (BA Hons) and at King’s College, London (PhD). Prior to joining Warwick in 2006, he held lectureships at the University of Aberdeen and the University of Edinburgh, and in the fall of 2015 he was Carter Visiting Professor of General Jurisprudence at Harvard Law School. From 2010-13 he held an AHRC Research Grant, with Antony Duff, Lindsay Farmer, Sandra Marshall and Massimo Renzo, to work on criminalization. He held a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship from 2014-2018, and was elected as Fellow of the British Academy in 2018.

Victor has written extensively on the philosophy of criminal law, just war theory, and on a range of issues in moral, legal and political philosophy. He is the author of Criminal Responsibility (Oxford University Press, 2005), The Ends of Harm: The Moral Foundations of Criminal Law (Oxford University Press, 2011), and Wrongs and Crimes (Oxford University Press, 2016), and his book on just war theory – To Do, To Die, To Reason Why – is forthcoming, also with Oxford University Press.