The invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces in the early hours of 24 February 2022 came as a violent shock to most onlookers.

Even after the visible buildup of Russian forces and weeks of sabre rattling by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the images of rockets striking apartment blocks and tanks rolling through city streets triggered an outpouring of support for Ukraine from people within Australia and around the world.  

But those who dwell on social media might have seen some voices express a different perspective: that the focus on Ukraine is suggestive of a darker underlying bias on behalf of the onlookers; that the conflict has only gained so much attention because the victims of the war are white Europeans.  

The argument suggests that if the victims were non-white, such as those involved in the ongoing wars in Yemen, Syria or Ethiopia, then the media and Western onlookers would be far less engaged. 

So is it wrong to focus our attention acutely on the war in Ukraine while investing less energy on conflicts in other parts of the world, especially if those conflicts affect non-white people? Is it OK to care more about a war in Europe than it is a war in Africa or the Middle East? 

We can unpack the argument in a few different ways. The least charitable interpretation is that it’s an accusation of racism, suggesting that people who care about the war in Ukraine only care because the victims are white. That might be true for some onlookers, but it’s highly doubtful that this applies to the majority of people.  

Rather, there are many reasons why someone in Australia might place great significance on the events unfolding in Ukraine. First of all is the shock factor, particularly given the relative stability and lack of open wars between nations in Europe since the end of the Second World War. This means the war in Ukraine is not just a concern for that region but is of tremendous global significance, with the potential to reshape the geopolitical landscape in a way that could affect people around the world. In this way, the war in Ukraine very much qualifies as being worthy of our attention due to its historical significance. 

There’s also the matter of familiarity, in the sense that Ukraine is a modern, industrialised and democratic nation that shares many political and moral values with countries like Australia. Beyond the human toll, the invasion represents an attack against values that most Australians cherish. 

Many Australians also have friends, family or coworkers with connections to Ukraine or other European countries who are impacted by the war. To them, the war is not just news of distant events but is felt in their immediate circles in a way that other conflicts might not be. Of course, there are many Austrlians who are also affected by conflicts in other parts of the world, such as in Syria and Yemen. 

Finally, on a more mundane level, the war in Ukraine is likely to have a material impact on our lives through its destabilisation of the international economy, as well as on commodity prices such as wheat and oil, in a way that most other ongoing conflicts don’t. 

All this said, while the above can help explain why someone might take a more acute interest in the war in Ukraine, it doesn’t answer the ethical question of whether they should take greater interest in conflicts elsewhere at the same time. It’s possible that these explanations don’t justify an undue focus on one population experiencing conflict rather than another.  

A more charitable interpretation of the argument is that all suffering deserves our attention, all violence deserves our rebuke and all people involved in wars deserve our empathy. This stems from a universalist ethic, such as that promoted by philosophers like Peter Singer. It argues that all people deserve equal concern, no matter their background, ethnicity or nationality. Singer famously argued that if you’d dive into a pond to save a drowning child, even at the cost of muddying your clothes and being late to work, then you ought to be willing to incur a similar cost to save the life of a dying child on the other side of the world. 

From this perspective, the same reasons that justify our empathy towards the suffering of the Ukrainian people should similarly apply to the people of Yemen, Ethiopia, Syria and elsewhere. 

However, a truly universalist ethic is difficult, if not impossible, to fully achieve in practice. Few people would be willing to take the ethic to the extreme, and treat strangers in distant countries with as much care and concern that they reserve for our family. If this is so, then it is difficult to know where to draw the line around who deserves more or less of our concern. 

Furthermore, everybody has a finite budget of time, emotional energy and power to act. It is not possible to be engaged with every conflict, every injustice and every instance of ethical wrongdoing taking place in the world, let alone to be able to act on them. It might be reasonable for people to choose where to invest their limited energy, or to preserve their energy for causes they can positively impact. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about other issues, only that they’ve chosen to do good where they can.

Which brings us to the most charitable interpretation of the argument, which is that any conflict should remind us of the horrors of war, and should motivate us to extend our empathy to people who are suffering anywhere in the world. The saturation media footage of violence and destruction in Ukraine can help us better understand the plight of people living through other conflicts. The plight of embattled civilians in Kyiv can help us better understand and empathise with people living in Aleppo in Syria or Sanaa in Yemen.  

It is unlikely that those promoting this argument on social media would want people to retreat from engaging with all news of conflict or suffering, whether it is in Europe or elsewhere. Rather, we might forgive people for having some bias in where they choose to direct their attention, while reminding them that all people are deserving of ethical consideration. Moral consideration need not be a zero-sum game; elevating our concern for one population doesn’t have to come at the expense of concern for others.