Can violence ever be justified? What if it’s in the name of revolution? These are among the questions Chloe Cairncross asks when looking at the bloody results of large-scale battles like the 1973 Chilean coup d’état and the 1979 Salvadoran Civil War.
Cairncross, a senior double-majoring in anthropology and philosophy, is studying “Just War Theory” and the ethics of revolution.
Philosophy was always her thing. In high school, she loved debating ethical quandaries and falling into rabbit-hole existential discussions with her classmates. However, it was only after she participated in the Source Project during her freshman year at Binghamton University that she truly realized her passion in political and cultural studies.
“I just found it fascinating to sort of talk with people and to learn about other cultures,” Cairncross says. “That’s what brought me to anthropology and it just clicked. The combination of anthropology and philosophy is all about studying people — why we do what we do and how we interact with people.”
The same semester the war in Ukraine began, Cairncross was accepted into the philosophy department’s Pell Honors Program, meaning she would write a thesis and present her work to a panel of judges. At that point, she was enrolled in an ethics course that zoomed in on moral dilemmas. Its political relevance to Ukraine made her want to delve more deeply into the subject and its relation to war and conflict as a potential research focus. In conjunction with the terrorism and extremism course she took while studying abroad in the United Kingdom, she had a lot of material to work with.
“There’s something really special to be found because you’re stripping away all these layers and finding out what’s really at the core of what makes us human,” Cairncross says. “The classes pushed me toward interesting questions like: How do we justify using violence? How do we justify doing things that are ‘immoral’ or seen as bad?”
Combining her wide range of anthropological interest was proving to be complex but under the guidance of her mentor, Associate Professor Mattias Iser, she found a connecting piece: the justifications for violent revolution in relation to human rights violations. More specifically, she wants to provide evidence that governmental rulings considered to be lesser rights violations are equally as detrimental to a community and its succeeding generations as major rights violations are.
“There are major harms, which would be things like if your government is actively killing people, maiming them or torturing them,” Cairncross says. “Lesser harms are more so restrictions of freedom, speech or movement. Really just all these layers upon layers of saying, ‘Hey, the government’s watching you and if you step out we may hurt you, but as long as you stay in line, you’re OK.’”
Iser referred Cairncross to literature and theorists related to her study, and he found that her high level of engagement with her research sets her apart from other students. While she looks for works that align with her stance, she also makes sure to find differing opinions.
“She really takes her research seriously, it’s not just a thought experiment,” Iser says. “She looks at the real-world implications and wants to contribute something so that we can understand the moral problems, the political problems, in a more insightful way. I think that’s where she really stands out.”
For the seminar, Cairncross navigated archives to do with “Just War Theory,” or the belief that war is not always the worst option to gain peace. Cairncross noticed that two theorists in particular, David Rodin and Jeff McMahan, concluded that lesser rights violations do not justify violent revolutions. In her opinion, they hadn’t fully examined the harmful implications any rights violation may have on society.
“A lot of theorists don’t believe lesser harms are as bad as they were since there was no violence actually happening,” Cairncross says. “I actually emailed one of the philosophers that I wrote about. I said ‘Hey, I have some issues with your theory and some questions. I don’t think you take into account lesser harms and it makes me angry.’ He emailed me back a really long conversation and he even agreed with me about the shortcomings of his own theory. It was so gratifying.”
Being aware of methods to rights violations and their effects is important because it allows people to recognize an infraction and plan a response in advance.
“It’s important to think about what you want to do when you think that your rights have been violated,” Cairncross says. “The government’s supposed to be this steward of our rights and protect them for us, but we also have to stand up when they’re being violated. And a lot of the time they are — it’s a really big issue for a lot of social groups in the United States right now.”
The best part of the Pell program for Cairncross was the culminating presentation she did at the December colloquium. A week before the judging, she reworked her speech as she realized she wanted it to be as accessible as possible — the crowd was going to include philosophers as well as families and friends. Cairncross felt her message was just as important for them to understand.
“The presentation was the pinnacle of things I’ve done so far,” Cairncross says. “That’s one thing I really appreciate, no matter who I talk to about my thesis or research, they’re always really interested. The positive responses of other people encourage me to go on and [tells me] that my ideas are interesting.”
Cairncross is revising her thesis and hopes to publish it. She’ll be returning for a master’s degree following graduation this spring.
“I have committed to doing a master’s degree here at Binghamton, in Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, so my interest in conflict and war is only getting deeper and deeper in a way,” Cairncross says. “I think trying to figure out what drives us toward evil and what drives us for good is a really important thing to know, and I just find it absolutely fascinating.”