Death and Morality in the War on Ukraine
Death and Morality in the War on Ukraine
Remembering that everything—including ourselves—comes to an end can help us focus our decision making.
Published on: Mar 6, 2022  

In one of ancient philosophy's most famous incidents, Socrates' followers gather around him in the hours before his execution. The frescoes depicting the scene have the feeling of a dinner party being held in the same room in which a lethal injection is about to take place.

Socrates' followers mourn, but he chastises them: none of this should have been surprising. The point of philosophy—and, in fact, human life more generally—has all along been to face death and ready oneself to die well. You only get caught off guard if you sidestep this grueling but essential task.

As videos of Russian shelling of civilian targets—schools, apartment buildings, shopping centers—have dominated media coverage the past week, a similar act of remembrance has been forced on all of us. Mainstays of the international order that once seemed immutable (German defense policy!) changed dramatically in mere hours, where many analysts thought it might take decades. Likewise, if just weeks ago Putin's empire looked limited but formidable in its own sphere, it now looks fragile and contested (with the highly consequential exception of nuclear capacities).

Such lessons of finitude and contingency have not yet ricocheted to the West, at least not in full form. For younger generations, it's the first time the possibility of nuclear conflict has ever felt real. In most other ways, however, the West seems as invulnerable as ever.

If Western democracies had begun to look aimless and unsure, they seem newly formidable. NATO states have found uncommon unity remarkably quickly. Sanctions and other forms of economic warfare have been able to push numerous Russian industries—and the currency itself—to the point of collapse in just a few days. Even China seems to be treading more carefully. Narratives of Western decline feel significantly less resonant than they did a month or a year ago.

But it is time for the lesson to hit home. Whatever America is—whatever life is—illusions of invulnerability don't serve us well. This is true at the more intimate level of Socrates' colloquy. It is also true at the level of grand statecraft.

When we want to praise a country, it's interesting how frequently we affix the adjective "stable" to "democracy." Many nations, we reason, have flickers of what we like—respect for human rights, popular sovereignty—but only some have risen to that level of being fixed points, resilient and unshakable. To view the world this way is to adopt a particular theory of contingency: history is replete with wild political convulsions, but we have been able to discover certain tools—a "rules-based-international-order"—that are able to arrest these oscillations. Accordingly, it is possible to stabilize history, at least to an extent. If the attractions of this fiction are evident—good for business and mental health alike!—it is a very poor basis for political decision making, especially abroad. Trying to sidestep finitude can bite you in both directions. On the one hand, it can make you complacent (as many European powers seem to have become). On the other, it can yield delusions of grandeur—the sense that though American power might get thwarted in peripheral battles like Iraq or Afghanistan, when it comes to the essential tests, it's omnipotent.

The more that one takes the rebuffing of contingency and finitude to be achievable goals, the more one comes to interpret the world through that lens, becoming gradually unable to remember that there could be any other. This is the dynamic Shadi was talking about in his recent essay on irrationality: events or people that accord with our idea of fixedness are "rational," things that threaten it are not. Needless to say, if you work on the assumption that anything that doesn't play by your rules is intrinsically irrational, you are fairly likely to make major errors in your analysis.

It is strange to be living in a time in which these delusions of omnipotence seem to be collapsing. It is also strange just how difficult it is to imagine any other way. As the abstract language of "international order," "human rights," and "democratic values" loses its power, it can be tempting to go the opposite route and simply resign ourselves to a world that is intrinsically arbitrary and antagonistic. Reality is nothing but a contest of violence and domination, full stop. Morality and ideals become a luxury that increasingly few can afford.

I'm not sure that any of this follows.

For one thing, remembering finitude intensifies rather than diminishes the moral register. If war in Ukraine reveals anything, it is that the existential stakes are high for all parties concerned. Not only individuals, but towns, histories, and even entire countries can be erased. Remembering these stakes emphasizes both how evil some acts can be, and how important it is to be absolutely precise in one's decision making.

I never quite understand what the realists mean when they play strategy and morality off against one another. In an interview with the New Yorker's Isaac Chotiner, the famed political scientist John Mearsheimer underscored the tension between the rights of the Ukrainian people (morality) and the need to avoid a full-scale shooting war with Russia (strategy). But what always seems confusing about this approach is that surely morality suffuses both sides of the ledger. The very reason for thinking carefully and precisely about armed confrontation with a nuclear power is because the moral stakes are so high not just in one direction, but in many. Diverting into a caricature of the world that is about "mere strategy" dodges the problem just as vague abstractions about ideals do.

The hostilities in Ukraine—more than any other in recent memory—are threatening to become a direct conflict between nuclear states. The reason that this is such a test is that Americans have grown used to thinking of our power through the lens of endless proxies, wars that never really impinge on us directly.

Another way to put all of this is that we are trapped in a cycle of multiple unrealities, all of which make us sluggish now that our own security is much more at risk. On the one hand, we have grown accustomed to using abstract ideals of rights and international order to distance ourselves from the fragility of life. On the other—and in part as a response to the excesses of the first—realists (despite their name) tend to sidestep just how much the dynamics of life and politics do, in fact, depend on values: what we care about, why we care about it, and how much we are willing to sacrifice in response.

There are so many first principles on the table, and none of them merely about abstract strategy. For example, is the protection of Ukrainian life of paramount importance or should the absolute avoidance of hot war between nuclear states take precedence over all else? To what degree is the preservation of democratic sovereignty worth widespread casualties in Ukraine or elsewhere? Should Western powers put their own security or economic growth at risk much more readily than they have in the past because the cause is just, or is it restraint that will actually help diminish the risk of an escalatory spiral?

Our habits of mind from the unipolar era—grandiosity, invulnerability, pure strategy—simply cannot serve us well when, suddenly, our own fragility is on the line. What is essential instead are the disciplines Socrates commends: clarity about our own limits, courage to see what should be valued and the capacity to act when no option is ideal.