Responsibility for MH17 (2): Who is Accountable?

Please read the previous post. To summarise: I set out two criteria for deciding who is to be called to account for an occurrence such as the shooting down of MH17: those who made a causal contribution, and those who could have intervened to prevent a causal contribution being made. So, again assuming that the plane was shot down by a missile fired by Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine, the soldier or militiaman who pressed the launch button is causally responsible and hence accountable, the soldier who stood next to him who could have stopped him doing so is also accountable. In this post I want to give some directions for deciding which agents from this widespread net of causal contributors and causal preventers, should actually be blamed, who are responsible and who cannot justify themselves. I am not in a position to actually point the blame at anyone, only to suggest a method for doing so.

Malaysian Airlines was founded in 1946 (under another name). Had it not been founded, then or at any other time, then MH17 would not have flown over Ukraine on July 17 2014. So according to our first criterion, those who founded the airline are accountable. Setting aside the fact that it would be impractical to try to blame the founders, given that they are all dead, it appears to be pointless to hold these people to account. It is pointless because it is clear that by no stretch of the imagination could they have known what was going to happen. So here we have an exculpatory principle (how I like to use philosophers’ language!): If an agent makes a causal contribution to an occurrence but could not have known that it would occur – for instance because it is far in the future – then he cannot be blamed. While it is easy to state this principle, it is harder to apply it, as we will see. What then of the people who could have known that what they did was a causal contribution to an occurrence of this kind?


Within the latter group are those that not only could know what the implications of their actions will be but those who actually do know. For MH17 it is not clear whether there was anyone who knew this, even the missile crew. It seems unlikely that anyone who is not a terrorist would actually want to shoot down a commercial aircraft. It will  surely not help the Russian separatists in Ukraine. If the act was therefore a mistake, if the missile crew thought they were firing at a Ukrainian military aircraft, then they did not know that by their actions they were shooting down MH17. If they did not know, then if no one deliberately misled them, then no one at all knew what would happen. There is a view about responsibility, accountability and blame which maintains that people can only be held responsible for what they intend to do. People can’t intend to do what they don’t know that they do, so on this view maybe no one can be blamed for MH17.


Along with many others, I reject this view about intention and blame. I think people can be blamed for being reckless, negligent and careless, and generally for engaging in risky behaviour. It seems to me highly likely that lots of people did things that contributed to the shooting down of MH17 that were reckless, negligent and careless. In all such instances where we would attach blame, the people in question not only could have known that they were doing something risky and careless, they should have known this. So if the missile crew did not intentionally shoot down MH17, they should have taken more care and therefore are to blame. (I note that if they were ordered by a senior officer to shoot down the plane they are still to blame because soldiers cannot be legally ordered to commit terrorist acts.) By the same token, it seems that the Russians should not have supplied the separatists with such a weapon. But matters quickly become less clear: we can anticipate the response that the missiles were needed to protect the separatists from air attack by the Ukrainian air force and so on.  



Turning to some of the other players, it can be argued that Malaysian airlines were reckless in flying over a combat zone. By our second criterion, they can therefore be held to account because they could have prevented the tragedy, so it must be decided if they were indeed reckless. Ukrainian air traffic control could have denied clearance for MH17 to fly over the combat zone, re-routed the flight to the west, and that would have saved the plane. Were they negligent in not doing so, and hence to blame? These questions need answers, which I cannot give. All I can do is offer a framework in which they can be posed. However, to conclude, I repeat that I believe the people who designed the missile system, people I refer to as weapons researchers, are to blame. I believe weapons research is wrong and that there is no justification for such wrongdoing.

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