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Animals and the Ethics of War: A call for an inclusive ‘Just War Theory’

Because Just War Theory, the dominant approach to the ethics of war, is resolutely anthropocentric, we lack a meaningful discussion of the ethical questions that animals in war raise.

JOSH MILBURN: Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, heartrending images of Ukrainian refugees and their companion animals fleeing Russian forces circulated among Western media, and the press covered stories of organisations and individuals traveling into Ukraine to feed or rescue the animals left behind. The impact of war on animals became an issue difficult to ignore.

Companion animals are not the only ones impacted by war. Disturbing stories about harm to Ukraine’s farmed animals appeared, while Ukraine’s zookeepers faced difficult choices about whether to evacuate animals. The war’s impact on wild animals is, currently, unknown.

War has always affected animals. Soldiers have always used animals as transport, guards, and mascots. Armies have always staged battles in places where animals live. And domesticated animals have always felt the brunt when hostilities kill or displace their caregivers. Collectively, though, we’ve overlooked these issues. In the fog of war, we lose sight of animals.

Given the impact that war has on animals, it is surprising that we lack the language to meaningfully discuss the ethical questions that animals in war raise. This is because just war theory – the dominant approach to the ethics of war in the western philosophical tradition – is resolutely anthropocentric. At least, it has been until now.

Just war theory is a set of tools for assessing when it is right to go to war (typically known by the Latin phrase jus ad bellum), how it is appropriate to behave in war (jus in bello), and related questions. Just war theorists tend to concede that states will wage war and that violence can be legitimate, but aim to reduce the occurrence of unjust wars and unjust behaviour in war…

International humanitarian lawyers have started to explore how existing laws protect animals. Just last month, Cambridge University Press published Anne Peters, Jérôme de Hemptinne, and Robert Kolb’s pathbreaking Animals in the International Law of Armed Conflict. And, for a variety of reasons, militaries themselves grapple with questions about the treatment of animals. Many navies, for example, have policies to limit the impact of sonar on whales and dolphins. But just war theory lags behind…

What would a more inclusive, more humane, just war theory look like? For one, it’d tell us if (and when) harm to animals could constitute a just cause for war, and more broadly how to include animals in considerations of jus ad bellum. It’d also tell us how to factor animals into questions of fighting justly. It would tell us, for instance, when it was legitimate for militaries to use animals as tools of war, and when soldiers on the battlefield might legitimately target animals…

Some of the answers this reflection will reveal won’t be surprising. For example, we know that chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons are bad for animals, but we know they’re bad for humans, too. Ethicists and lawyers already, rightly, condemn these methods of waging war.

Other times, though, the answers that an inclusive account of just war offers may be quite different to those offered by an anthropocentric account. While we should be worried when combat takes place in areas with high civilian populations, we should also be worried when combat takes place in areas with high animal populations.

And sometimes taking animals seriously will require making difficult trade-offs. Just war theory already obliges soldiers to put themselves at slightly greater risk to significantly reduce risk to civilians. Perhaps they should also be ready to shoulder increased risk when doing so will significantly reduce risk to animals…

War is bad for animals, yet the predominant approach to the ethics of war, just war theory, remains anthropocentric. We believe that this is a serious oversight, and that now is the time to develop an inclusive just war theory. War will always be regrettable – but, with good will and a little thought, it can be less awful. SOURCE…


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