From Anger to Action: Moral Emotions and the Invasion of Ukraine

| March 15, 2022
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Protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine outside the White House. Photo credit: Joe Flood via Flickr

For many people, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered strong emotions. Anguish at the suffering of innocent civilians killed or injured in deliberately indiscriminate attacks and at the heartbreak of families suddenly uprooted from their everyday lives. Sadness at the realization that the lives of thousands of soldiers on both sides have already been irrevocably altered by physical, psychological, and moral injuries. Grief at the thought of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian families waiting anxiously for news of their loved ones on the front lines, news that may break their hearts.

Disgust at images of bodies and cities torn apart by war.

Fury at Putin and his coterie for choosing war. Rage at Russian diplomats who stand before the world and claim that there is no war. Anger at those who produce disinformation about the war and its causes, and at those who believe it. Respect for those brave Russians and Belarusians who risk arrest and torture at the hands of their own governments to protest this war. Disappointment that there are not more of them. Awe at the unity and resiliency of the Ukrainian people in the face of horrific destruction. Hope at signs of unprecedented unity in the international community’s response to this injustice. Worry that this unity is too little, too late. Shame that the suffering of victims of other wars has not prompted such a humane response.


Moral Emotions


These sorts of powerful emotions are akin to an inner voice. Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth century Catholic scholar, described a variety of passions that motivate human action in the world. Some of these are positive emotions: love, pleasure, hope. But powerful negative emotions like sorrow, anger, fear, and even hatred are also part of the story. These emotions are essentially “the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power to fully articulate it… because we intuit and feel… the violation of things we rightfully hold dear.”1 In a similar vein, the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume wrote that morality “is more properly felt than judged of,” while his contemporary, Adam Smith, identified “social passions” as the moral emotions that not only encourage individually good behavior but also lay the foundations for our communal life.2

These emotions—moral emotions—can be helpful guides to moral action. From a Thomistic perspective, the experience of negative emotions is a sign that something is not right, that some good has been violated or threatened. It is worth recalling Augustine’s words, that one who “has learnt to prefer right to wrong and the rightly ordered to the perverted sees that the peace of the unjust, compared with the peace of the just, is not worthy even of the name of peace.”3 We have a visceral reaction to wrongs in the world, and recognizing these emotions can be the first step in formulating a just response.

Justified anger and deep sorrow can be directed toward service. Given Russia’s morally and legally unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine, we should think about how we can act to support Ukrainians in humanitarian terms, and also in defense of Ukrainian sovereignty and statehood. For classical just war thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, wars of self-defense were justifiable because of the fundamental good polities provide in maintaining at least a minimally just domestic order. Michael Walzer lays out the value of self-defense far more starkly: aggression is the ultimate crime in the international system, and hence states must act to defend their sovereign rights, lest “international society [collapse] into a state of war or [be] transformed into a universal tyranny.”4

It is worth remembering that sovereignty can be defended not only by military means but also through a variety of non-violent strategies. Non-violent movements have been effective in generating significant political changes, even in the face of foreign occupation.5 In other words, willingness to stand in solidarity with those fighting injustice does not have to mean abandoning a commitment to pacifism. Support for Ukraine is thus an endeavor in which individuals centered in two very different traditions—just war or pacifism—can stand shoulder to shoulder, although their strategies will differ.


Protecting and Channeling Our Emotions


However, a consideration of the moral emotions points in the direction of certain constraints.  First, we must guard against allowing our emotions to harden our hearts. Augustine of Hippo, a fourth century Christian theologian, wrote that the real evil of war is not death—after all, we all die someday—but rather “love of violence, vengeful cruelty, force and implacable enmity… the lust for power, and such like.”6 An overabundance of anger—blind rage—can lead us to respond to injustice in ways that go too far. As Aquinas put it, anger “fails only in this, that it does not obey the guidance of reason in taking revenge.”7 We must not confuse justified anger directed against Putin and the Russian state to slip into anger at all Russians, and all things Russian. We must not let anger and sorrow at the unjust suffering imposed on Ukrainians prevent us from having empathy for Russian prisoners of war, or for the families of Russian soldiers who are killed.

Second, we must not allow sorrow to turn into despair. As Aquinas cautions, an excess of sorrow can lead to a diminishment of the “vital movement of the body,” paralyzing us and preventing us from taking necessary action.8 One way to avoid this is to consider the small pinpricks of hope that this war has revealed: the tentative steps taken by brave Russians and Belarusians to challenge authoritarianism, the revelation of a robust, inclusive, civic nationalism in Ukraine, and the unprecedented degree of global unity.

Third, we must also be careful not to let confidence that Ukraine is in the right silence necessary and constructive criticism. There are things Ukraine can and should do after the war to fight corruption and foster a more robust democracy. Even now, during the conflict, Ukraine must be held to a high standard in terms of respecting the Geneva Conventions, including their protections for the human rights of prisoners of war. This is true even though the Russian military does not. The obligation to do what is right does not hinge on the just behavior of others.

Finally, we must think critically about what has triggered our moral emotions in this case. There is no doubt that this war is the largest geopolitical crisis of our generation. And the scale of suffering—just weeks into the war—is already horrific. But it is also important to think about why we feel so much empathy in this case, and how we might channel this empathy not only to support Ukraine but also to think more creatively about how to support those suffering in other long-running conflicts that have not caught our collective moral imagination to the same degree, including Tigray, Yemen, and Syria. The outpouring of care and generosity for Ukrainian refugees is something we should strive to emulate in response to the suffering of others as well.

—Valerie Morkevičius

Valerie Morkevičius is an associate professor of political science at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York and the author of Realist Ethics: Just War Traditions as Power Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

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  1. Leon Kass, “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” New Republic 216, no. 22 (1997), pp. 17-26, at p. 20.
  2. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature vol. 2 (London: Allman, 1817), p. 106 and Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie, eds., Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1976.), p. 83.
  3. Augustine, City of God, Henry Bettenson, trans. (London: Penguin books, 1984), p. 869. (Book XIX: chapter 12).
  4. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. 59.
  5. Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” International Security 33, no. 1 (2008), pp. 7-44, at p. 25.
  6. Augustine. City of God.
  7. Aquinas. Summa Theologiae (46.4.CO), in Robert Miner, Thomas Aquinas on the Passions (Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 276.
  8. Diana Fritz Cates, Aquinas on the Emotions: A Religious-Ethical Inquiry (Georgetown University Press, 2009), p. 148.


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