The Least Evil Option

Wilson D. Miscamble, writing at Public Discourse in “The Least Evil Option,” defends Harry Truman’s decision to drop the A-bomb on Japan:

[T]he United States eventually could have defeated Japan without the atomic bomb, but all the viable alternate scenarios to secure victory—continued obliteration bombing of Japanese cities and infrastructure, a choking blockade, the likely terrible invasions involving massive firepower—would have meant significantly greater Allied casualties and higher Japanese civilian and military casualties. These casualties would likely have included thousands of Allied prisoners of war whom the Japanese planned to execute. Notably, all of these options also would have indirectly involved some “intentional killing of innocents,” including the naval blockade, which sought to starve the Japanese into submission. Hard as it may be to accept when one sees the visual evidence of the terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese losses probably would have been substantially greater without the A-bombs….

Bluntly put, the atomic bombs shortened the war, averted the need for a land invasion, saved countless more lives on both sides of the ghastly conflict than they cost, and brought to an end the Japanese brutalization of the conquered peoples of Asia.

(I, too, have defended Truman’s decision. See this post, for example.)

Miscamble’s article is aimed at Christopher O. Tollefson’s critique of  Miscamble’s book, The Most Controversial Decision. Tollefson, according to Miscamble,

largely repeats the fundamental criticism mounted against President Harry Truman by Elizabeth Anscombe over a half-century ago: Violating the moral absolute against the intentional killing of the innocent is always wrong. The atomic bombs involved such killing and so should not have been used––end of story. It is all neat, and clear, and logically consistent.

Is the intentional killing of the innocent always wrong? Consider these situations:

1. A homicidal maniac rushes into a restaurant, grabs a diner and holds her in front of himself as a shield, then begins to shoot other diners. You are seated in the restaurant, in the maniac’s line of vision, and he will soon shoot you if you do nothing. You are carrying a high-powered handgun, and have time to take a shot at the maniac before he aims at you, but your only sure way of stopping the him is to shoot through the innocent diner whom he is using as a shield. It is your life or the innocent person’s. Would you shoot before being shot or wait to see what happens; the maniac might not shoot at you, he might not hit you, he might not hurt you seriously, or you might be able to duck. But you do not know which of these things will happen. Therefore, if you do nothing, you are inviting the worst of them to happen, namely, that the maniac will shoot you and kill you or seriously wound you.

2. Then, there is this classic: You are at a train track and see five people tied to the track ahead. A switch is in front of you which will divert the train, but as you look down you see a man is strapped to that track and will be killed. Is it permissible to flip the switch and save the five people at the expense of one?

3. And this variation: Now imagine in order to save the five people, you have to push a stranger in front of the train to stop it. You know for certain it would stop the train in time to save the five people tied to the tracks. Is it permissible to push the man and save the five people at the expense of one?

There are three ways to view each situation:

  • through the lens of utilitarianism, which considers one (innocent) life to be the equivalent of another
  • through the lens of in-group solidarity, which places a premium on one’s own life and the lives of those with whom one has a special relationship (kinsfolk, neighbors, countrymen) for reasons of affection and/or mutual dependence
  • through the lens of the Golden Rule, which (in my view) is a social convention that arises from self-interest tempered by empathy.

The utilitarian answers to three problems are as follows:

1. Shoot. Your life is equal to the life of the human shield, and if you are able to kill or seriously wound the thug, you may save the lives of other innocent persons in the restaurant.

2. Flip the switch and save five lives at the cost of one.

3. Overcome your squeamishness about being so directly involved in the death of the stranger; push him in front of the train and save five lives at the cost of one.

These are the “right” answers from the perspective of in-group solidarity:

1. Shoot. The life you save may be your own, and you are the center of your in-group. Moreover, you probably have more in common with the other diners (most of whom are probably productive citizens) than with the thug (who is in the process of killing productive citizens).

2. If the potential victims of the train are strangers to you, you have to flip a coin to decide whether to throw the switch or leave it alone. Otherwise, your action depends on your relationship(s) with any of the potential victims of the oncoming train.

3. If the potential victims are strangers, you have to flip a coin to decide whether to push the man in front of the train or do nothing. Otherwise, your action depends on your relationship(s) with any of the potential victims of the oncoming train.

These are the “right” answers for a person whose adherence to the Golden Rule arises from a combination of self-interest and empathy:

1. Shoot. Unless you are a psychopath like the homicidal maniac, you identify with the other diners and you cringe when he shoots one of them because their pain and death affects you emotionally. And if you do not shoot him, he probably will shoot you.

2 and 3.The answers can be the same as they were from the perspective of in-group solidarity. But, if all of the potential victims are strangers to you, it is not utilitarian to suggest that you can have more empathy for five strangers than for one stranger, especially if you take into account the (probable) larger number of persons who would be hurt by the death of five than the death of one. Moreover, if all of the potential victims are strangers, the saving of five of them is more likely to yield positive “returns” in the form of friendship and gratitude. The latter might, in turn, lead to a better job, a monetary reward, or something else along those lines.

What does all of this have to do with Truman’s decision to drop the A-bomb? If you are a utilitarian, you might be persuaded that Truman’s decision was the correct one because it resulted in fewer deaths than there would have been in the case of an invasion or blockade. (I dismiss the possibility that the Japanese military would have quit fighting if the U.S. had simply stopped fighting after driving Japanese forces back to their homeland.) If you place great stock in in-group solidarity, Truman’s move was the correct one because it saved American lives — possibly the lives of friends and family members.

If you are an adherent of the Golden Rule, you come to the same place for two reasons. The first reason is the empathic one just mentioned: the saving of lives of persons for whom you have a natural affinity.

The second reason arises from self-interest and has at least two branches:

  • You are glad that Truman put an end to a war that would have proved more costly to you (directly or through your ancestors) had he not decided to drop the bomb.
  • You are glad that Truman, in effect, warned off prospective enemies of the United States who are therefore enemies of your interests. That Truman’s warning was later undermined by his own actions in Korea, America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, and similar actions has not entirely vitiated the strong signal sent by the dropping of the A-bomb. Truman told the world that aggression against the United States invites the United States to smite the aggressor. (Do unto others what they do unto you.)

If you still object to Truman’s decision because you believe that it is always wrong to take an innocent life, you are putting yourself in the shoes of an armed diner who decides against shooting a homicidal maniac because that would require the shooting of an innocent person. But do not forget that  the diner’s refusal to shoot the maniac probably will allow the deaths of many innocent persons (the diner included). The refusal to kill an innocent person, under any circumstances, can be the moral equivalent of murder and/or suicide.

To put it baldly, the refusal to kill an innocent person, under any circumstances, is shallow posturing. It is not a considered moral stance.

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Related posts:
Why Sovereignty?
Liberalism and Sovereignty
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
The Folly of Pacifism
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
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Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Evolution and the Golden Rule
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote

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