If there is a sufficiently strong moral case for directing lethal military force towards Syria in the light of the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population by the authorities, we should direct it. We should do so whether or not the action is illegal in terms of international law and whatever the resolutions of the Security Council of the United Nations might be. However, there does not seem to be such a moral case.
Although in general it is wrong to kill people, it is sometimes morally justifiable to do so. Indeed, on some occasions it might be morally obligatory. Sometimes, to fail to kill someone is to let some other innocent people die. To stand by and let people die can be as morally wrong as killing them in some circumstances.
We each have a moral right to life in the sense that all others have a moral duty not to kill us wilfully. However, this right can be over-ridden. For instance, we can waive it. We can also forfeit it. By our own wrongful actions, we can release other people from a duty to uphold it.
Imagine that, when a honeymoon couple were on a shooting holiday on a remote Scottish island, they had a car crash and that the husband, although only slightly injured and fully conscious was immovably trapped in their open-top car. Suppose that the car caught fire in a clump of large bushes. Suppose that there were no fire engines or emergency services of any sort on the island and that the trapped person faced the torment of being burnt alive with little prospect of being over-come by the fumes.
What should his spouse do? If the husband, in his agony, begged to be shot, it might be morally permissible for the wife to accede to his request, rather than to listen to his screams for what in reality might only have been 15 or 20 minutes, but would have seemed to both of them to have been much longer. It might even be argued that the wife would be morally obliged to end her husband’s agony in such circumstances, if she could do so.
In this situation, the husband might be thought to have waived his right to life, his right not to be killed. To waive his right not to be killed was to remove from his wife a particular moral duty not to kill him.
The action of intentionally killing someone is illegal in most legal jurisdictions, including our own. It does not follow that, on that account, the wife should not perform it. On the contrary, if it is morally the right thing to do, then she ought to do it whether or not it is illegal.
If, during the night, an armed intruder invades one’s bedroom and appears to pose a deadly threat to one’s life or the life of one’s spouse, it might be morally justifiable or even morally obligatory to kill the person, whatever the prevailing legal position regarding reasonable force might be. By their intrusions, such intruders might be thought to have forfeited their moral right not to be killed.
Similarly, whether or not the particular action of killing Osama bin Laden by agents of the United States was morally justifiable, actions of that sort could be morally justifiable and, in some instance, morally obligatory.
Suppose that someone broadcasts his intention to kill numerous innocent people. Suppose that the threat is believable. Suppose that it is supported by the plausible boast that he already has killed and injured numerous innocent people. Such a person would, I suggest, have forfeited his right to life, his right not to be killed.
Those who have a moral duty to protect those he has threatened might be morally justified in killing him in order to prevent him carrying out his threat. They might even be morally obliged to do so if they safely can. That the killing is, or might be, considered to be illegal is not a crucial consideration.
The state has a moral duty to protect its citizens. The question of whether, in terms of international law, actions undertaken in the fulfilment of this duty are legal is sometimes comparatively unimportant. Moral duties can trump legal ones, particularly in the dubious field of international criminal law.
Not everyone accepts that so-called crimes against humanity are breaches of proper laws or that organisations such as the International Criminal Court are properly constituted courts. The reputation of legitimate domestic courts and of legal justice in general can be sullied by the operation of such institutions.
In the international sphere, unlike with domestic criminal law, there is typically no specific agency that has the accepted legitimate authority to promulgate or enforce the laws that are held to have been breached.
Furthermore, with domestic criminal law, its legitimate authority derives to a greater or lesser extent from the interests, beliefs, actions and consent of those citizens who are subject to it and who benefit from the rule of its law. It is not so in the international arena. Here, so-called international law arises from relationships and agreements between particular states, rather than between individual citizens and a particular state.
Military action involves the deliberate killing of people. This can be justifiable. However, the conditions that can justify such killing do not apply in the current case of Syria.
Unlike, for instance, the killing of bin Laden, a military foray in Syria of the sort that is being mooted would not be directed towards a particular person or an identifiable group of people who have killed or are threating to kill citizens of a foreign state. There are no clear grounds of self-protection.
Furthermore, the particular people who would be killed by such an exercise cannot be said to have forfeited by their own actions their right not to be killed.
The action could not be justified as a “punishment” for those who have used the chemical weapons since it would not be directly particularly, far less solely, towards the particular people who are responsible and culpable for having used them.
It is unjust to kill or maim someone in order to deter someone else from using violence in the future or for having used it in the past.
There is no reason to suppose that, overall, it would deter the use of chemical weapons. Indeed, it might encourage their use – particularly by terrorists when they realise the outrage that they cause.
The focus on chemical as opposed to other sorts of weapons is, in any case, curious from the standpoint of morality. After all, innocent civilians can be unjustly killed by bullets and bayonets as surely as they can by chemicals.
The consequences of military action and, consequently, military involvement in Syria in the short and the long term are not predictable. However, it is clear that they could be dire. Such consequences often are.
Should we stand by and do nothing in response to the apparent atrocity in Syria? Yes, perhaps we should. If there is no reasonable action that can be taken, we should do nothing. We should not aim to do, instead, the least unreasonable thing.
• Hugh McLachlan is professor of applied philosophy in the Glasgow School for Business and Society at Glasgow Caledonian University