American Photo Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Philosophy tells us Ukraine has a moral right to choose its own fate

If the west expects to have influence in peace talks it should be honest enough to say so
September 8, 2022

As the war in Ukraine drags on, it seems likely there will be increasing pressure from some of Volodymyr Zelensky’s allies to sue for peace. There is bound to be a lot of debate about whether this is the wisest course of action. But there is another moral question raised by any attempts at leverage: do the suppliers of weapons and aid to Ukraine have a right to lean on it to change policy?

To answer this, we have to consider more general moral issues around the conditionality of help. Intuitions widely differ on this, largely depending on the context. So, for example, most people would think it grotesque to pull a drowning person out of the sea only if they agreed to mow your lawn every week for free. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to support someone through rehab on the condition that they stay away from bad influences afterwards. Nor is it coercive to offer foreign aid on the condition that it is spent fairly and does not discriminate according to gender, sexuality or ethnicity.

There is a more or less consistent set of principles behind these different judgments. First and foremost, emergency aid should not involve any quid pro quo. Basic human decency requires that we do not bargain over time-sensitive life or death assistance. When someone is desperate, it is not reasonable to exact conditions because of the massively asymmetric power balance. If I’m drowning, a potential saviour could demand pretty much anything of me and I’d have to agree.

In a less immediate crisis, some degree of conditionality is fair to ensure the help will be used as intended. This is especially important when there is a potential mismatch between the values of the helper and the ultimate beneficiary or an intermediary, such as a charity. For instance, some people are justifiably concerned about giving money to humanitarian charities run by religious groups for fear that money will be spent on evangelising. Many such charities can offer ­reassurances about this, but some proudly spend donations on Bibles, pastors and so on. Even in a crisis appeal, it is acceptable for donors to want their money to go on sustenance, not scripture, and to expect charities to respect that choice.

People should be willing to accept these conditions in recognition of the cost in time or resources to the donor. When help is offered without expectation of it being returned, we still owe it to our benefactors to use their help properly. That’s why if I sponsor your trek, it is a fair condition that the money goes to the charity you are raising funds for and not on you enjoying the holiday of a lifetime. Basic respect demands at least this.

Sometimes it is perfectly reasonable to make an offer of help conditional on very specific ideals. Some scholarships, for example, are made available to people from disadvantaged backgrounds, for certain subjects, on the condition that they work for the sponsoring organisation for a minimum number of years after qualification. Benefactors to a museum or gallery can specify the kinds of works that can be bought, and even get their name put on a building. In these kinds of cases, however, the aid offered is entirely discretionary, and recipients can choose to take it or not. The power balance is such that no one is coerced into doing what they are not happy to do.

So whether benefactors are entitled to place conditions on their support is not a simple matter of right or wrong. Rather, it reflects what the true nature and motivation of that support is. When help is not pure benevolence and is offered at least in part because it furthers the objectives of the giver, it ought to be made clear that the individual is being helped as a means to an end and not just for their own welfare. Even if the aims are noble, they are the donor’s, not the donee’s.

Where does western help for Ukraine fit into this? If it is supposed to be motivated by the moral principle that Ukraine has a right to defend itself, the only reasonable conditions are that money isn’t siphoned off by corrupt officials, and that the country fights the war according to international law. It would not be for the aid givers to tell Ukraine what kind of settlement should be accepted. Friends may offer counsel, but they must not dictate.

But solidarity isn’t the only motive. Many nations think stability and peace in Europe require that Putin’s aggression is checked, but not that Ukraine’s territorial integrity is entirely preserved. Such realpolitik implies that Ukraine is being helped to further the interests of the wider region. If the aid stopped doing that, its rationale would disappear. The leaders of nations whose help is motivated by such enlightened self-interest should be honest enough to say so, and not pretend they are acting out of pure compassion.

The difference between purely principled and instrumental help is clear in the abstract but blurred in practice. Few nations are so high-minded as to support Ukraine entirely out of principle, and few so devoid of principle as to see the situation solely in terms of geopolitical power play. Over the coming months, if not years, the balance between these motivations is going to be tested. We will learn how much of the support Ukraine has been offered is in defence of freedom, and how much in defence of national self-interest. Whether donor nations pressure Ukraine to deviate from its chosen path will be a good indicator of where that balance lies.

Write to Julian

Each month JulianBaggini will offer a philosophical view on current events, based on readers’ suggestions. Email with your proposed topics, including “Philosopher-at-large” in the subject line