Should we send arms to Ukraine?

The answer depends on whether you are a deontologist or a utilitarian

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EDMONTON, AB, Feb 12, 2015/ Troy Media/ – U.S. President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, landed himself in hot water with the administration when he told the Senate confirmation committee that the U.S. should start sending offensive aid (ammunition, UAVs, anti-tank weapons) to the Ukrainian military, which have been hard pressed to meet the advanced weapons being fielded by the rebels.

While Obama and the U.S. Defense department are saying that Carter does not speak for the administration, knowledgeable commentators are predicting the U.S. will soon be sending arms to Ukraine.

Arming Ukraine a matter of right or wrong

Should we (that is NATO countries, including the U.S. and Canada) be arming the Ukrainians? I’m asking as a matter of right and wrong, not as a matter of whether it would be effective or a good strategic move.

Two different moral systems, deontology and utilitarianism, suggest two different answers.

As distasteful as it is, we ought to leave the economic sanctions to do their work and not risk baiting the Bear by arming Ukraine

Deontology is rule-based ethics, the idea that what makes an action right is its accordance with a rule or law. These laws, deontologists believe, are discovered by reason by asking whether the action could be willed universally as a law: that is, if I do X in this situation, can I also will that everyone else do X in the same situation? The classical example is lying; telling an untruth, according to deontologists, is always wrong because it cannot be willed as a universal law. Deontological ethics are not concerned with consequences, only the intrinsic features of an act. One way to think about it is as a philosophically refined version of the Golden Rule, to “do unto others only as you would wish them to do unto you.”

By deontological reasoning, sending arms to help the Ukrainians is not only just but may be morally required. If it is right that those with the power to stop unprovoked aggression (as surely Russian president Vladimir Putin’s actions in the Ukraine are) do so, then this is clearly the case. That kind of commitment may extend to supplying our own troops to fight but sending lethal aid in the form of ammunition and other equipment is surely just for now.

Utilitarianism, unlike deontology, does care about consequences. A utilitarian asks in any situation not whether an action X (like lying) is always wrong, but whether lying in this situation will produce the greatest benefit for the greatest number. That is, the action must produce the maximum amount of benefit and the least amount of harm. The classic example utilitarians cite against deontologists is the person who is hiding Jews in their house when the Gestapo come calling and ask “are there any Jews in your home?” The lie, in this situation, will save lives and not hurt those who are lied to. Deontologists, in turn, criticize utilitarians for advocating a moral system that requires perfect knowledge or omniscience of all the consequences of actions, something plainly impossible to mere mortals like us.

Utilitarian reasoning would ask what the consequences of supplying arms to the Ukrainians would be. While they would undoubtedly increase the costs of the war for the Russians they would also likely cause a counter-reaction. What if, the utilitarian strategist asks, the Russians decide to start stirring up unrest in Lithuania or Estonia among the Russian-speaking population of those countries, and those countries ask for help?

Arming Ukraine could lead to a nightmare scenario

Unlike Ukraine, the Baltic states are NATO members, and then we would have a situation where American soldiers could be fighting Russians, a nightmare scenario we’ve spent the last 70 years trying to avoid and one that starts us down a slope towards a nuclear conflict. Keep in mind Russia is the only country in the world that has publicly endorsed the idea of using nukes to “de-escalate” conflict, inflicting a small but very painful loss on an opponent to make them reconsider their intervention. The potential consequences of sending lethal aid are so great, and the potential gains so small, that a utilitarian would have to recommend against arming the Ukrainians.

How then are we to make the decision between these two courses of action? National leaders and private citizens have to use different moral calculi. While a private citizen should do what is right because it is right without regard for the consequences, a president or prime minister cannot do so – after all, they’re responsible for the safety of millions. As distasteful as it is, we ought to leave the economic sanctions to do their work and not risk baiting the Bear.

Michael Flood is a marketing writer and communications consultant. He holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Alberta.

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