self-defense

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.

*   *   *

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
______

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

The Folly of Pacificism, Again

I had meant to be done with pacifism after writing “The Folly of Pacifism.” But I cannot ignore the subject because it rears its ugly head again, in Fernando Teson’s “Libertarian Wars” at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

It is not that Teson is a pacifist, but he neatly summarizes an argument against war that Bryan Caplan — an avowed pacifist (and the main target of my earlier post) — is fond of using; for example:

[D]oesn’t pacifism contradict the libertarian principle that people have a right to use retaliatory force?  No.  I’m all for revenge against individual criminals.  My claim is that in practice, it is nearly impossible to wage war justly, i.e., without trampling on the rights of the innocent.

Why is it “nearly impossible to wage war justly”? In a later post, Caplan puts it this way:

1. The immediate costs of war are clearly awful.  Most wars lead to massive loss of life and wealth on at least one side.  If you use a standard value of life of $5M, every 200,000 deaths is equivalent to a trillion dollars of damage.

2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.  Some wars – most obviously the Napoleonic Wars and World War II – at least arguably deserve credit for decades of subsequent peace.  But many other wars – like the French Revolution and World War I – just sowed the seeds for new and greater horrors.  You could say, “Fine, let’s only fight wars with big long-run benefits.”  In practice, however, it’s very difficult to predict a war’s long-run consequences.  One of the great lessons of Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment is that foreign policy experts are much more certain of their predictions than they have any right to be.

3. For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs.  I call this “the principle of mild deontology.”  Almost everyone thinks it’s wrong to murder a random person and use his organs to save the lives of five other people.  For a war to be morally justified, then, its (innocent lives saved/innocent lives lost) ratio would have to exceed 5:1.  (I personally think that a much higher ratio is morally required, but I don’t need that assumption to make my case).

It would seem that Caplan is not entirely opposed to war — as long as the ratio of lives saved to lives lost is acceptably high. And Caplan gets to choose the number of persons who may die for the sake of those who may thus live. He wears his God-like omniscience with such modesty.

Teson offers a more rigorous interpretation of the pacifist point of view:

[I]n any war innocents die. They did not initiate violence against us, yet in response to the foreign attack we will be bringing about their deaths. Maybe the morally right thing to do is to surrender to the aggressor, if doing so would prevent us from causing the deaths of innocents. The libertarian who thinks that we cannot permissibly fight even defensive wars is a contingent pacifist. To him, if we could repeal the attack avoiding simultaneously the deaths of bystanders, then we could permissibly do it. But because we cannot avoid those deaths, we may not react against the attack: we must wave the white flag. This reasoning applies to the defense of others as well, because that action, too, will bring about the deaths of innocents. On this view, NATO’s intervention in Libya is wrong, not because it protects persons attacked by Khadaffy, but because it impermissibly kills innocents.

Teson’s formulation strikes me as the one that most pacifists would prefer. But it is as mistaken as Caplan’s more blatantly presumptuous brand of soul-accountancy. Perhaps Caplan is angling to be the Death-Panel Czar.

Seriously — and war is a serious matter — the case for pacifism, as it is made by Caplan and Teson, is fundamentally flawed.

First, it assumes a social-welfare function, wherein A’s unhappiness can cancels B’s happiness. In this instance, the lives of some “innocents” are weighed against the lives of other “innocents” and found unworthy of defense by war. This is a weighing that no human being is qualified to conduct on behalf of others.

Second, this weighing of lives can be done only if one studiously refuses to be counted among those whose lives are saved (or potentially saved) by waging war. In other words, the true pacifist is saying that his life is not worth that of any other person, even an armed enemy. So much for self-defense, which may be rejected readily enough on paper and behind the shield afforded by the defense and police forces of the United States.

Third, it rejects the actuality of human nature for an idealized version that is impossible of realization. It is, in other words, an example of the Nirvana fallacy in operation. In this instance it is based on two assumptions — hopes, really — that run contrary to the actuality of human existence. There is the hope for a world without states, and therefore without the kind of state-sponsored violence known as war. But states are inevitable because statelessness invites warlordism, and if a supposedly stateless people join in self-defense against a warlord they will have created what amounts to a state for the purpose of committing violence — in self-defense. Then there is the hope that people — state or no state — will not band together against the “outside world,” but they will.

I address this second hope in “Inside-Outside,” which is aimed at another of Caplan’s many pacifistic screeds. The whole of my post bears repeating:

Bryan Caplan seems to think that the tendency of geographically proximate groups to band together in self-defense is a kind of psychological defect. He refers to it as “group-serving bias.”

It is nothing of the kind, however. It is a simple case of self-defense. And who better to help you defend yourself than the people with whom you share space, be it a neighborhood, a city-state, a principality, or even a vast nation? As a member of one or the other, you may be targeted for harm by outsiders who wish to seize your land and control your wealth, or who simply dislike your way of life, even if it does them no harm.

The cause of Caplan’s confusion is his adherence to a kind of libertarian idealism. In the anti-war argot of the 1960s, it was expressed as “Why can’t we all just get along?” But hope is not reality, Caplan notwithstanding.

Not getting along, to Caplan, is a moral defect. He therefore considers the differential treatment of insiders and outsiders to be an unmitigated wrong. But group cohesion is a prudential social instinct that no amount of rationalism can obliterate. Differential treatment of insiders and outsiders is an inevitable aspect of that prudential social instinct. It is not, at bottom, a moral issue.

If Caplan were logically consistent, he would focus his moral lens on the animal kingdom. There is plenty of inter-group conflict to condemn there: shark vs. tuna, cheetah vs. antelope, spider vs. fly, and so on. In the case of man vs. cattle (hog, fish, fowl, or other living thing), I wonder if Caplan opts for veganism? It would be the proper choice — for him.

Pacifism is a sophomoric fantasy on a par with anarchism. It is sad to see Caplan’s intelligence wasted on the promulgation and defense of an ideological fantasy.

Related posts:
Libertarians and the Common Defense
Libertarianism and Pre-emptive War: Part I
An Aside about Libertarianism and the War
Right On! For Libertarian Hawks Only
Conservative Criticism of the War on Terror
Why Sovereignty?
Understanding Libertarian Hawks
More about Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style
War Can Be the Answer
Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism
Why We Fight
Getting It Almost Right about Iraq
Philosophical Obtuseness
But Wouldn’t Warlords Take Over?
Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Now, Let’s Talk About Something Else
Shall We All Hang Separately?
Foxhole Rats
Foxhole Rats, Redux
Know Thine Enemy
September 11: A Remembrance
September 11: A Postscript for “Peace Lovers”
The Faces of Appeasement
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part II
Torture and Morality
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Non-Aggression?
We Have Met the Enemy . . .
My View of Warlordism, Seconded
Whose Liberties Are We Fighting For?
The Constitution and Warrantless “Eavesdropping”
NSA “Eavesdropping”: The Last Word (from Me)
Privacy, Security, and Electronic Surveillance
Privacy: Variations on the Theme of Liberty
Words for the Unwise
More Foxhole Rats
The Fatal Naïveté of Anarcho-Libertarianism
Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
Anarcho-Libertarian “Stretching”
Recommended Reading about NSA’s Surveillance Program
Riots, Culture, and the Final Showdown
A Rant about Torture
More Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
QandO Saved Me the Trouble
What If We Lose?
A Footnote about “Eavesdropping”
Thomas Woods and War
More than Enough Amateur Critics
Moussaoui and “White Guilt”
Jihad in Canada
In Defense of Ann Coulter
In Which I Reply to the Executive Editor of The New York Times
Post-Americans and Their Progeny
“Peace for Our Time”
Anti-Bush or Pro-Treason?
“Proportionate Response” in Perspective
Parsing Peace
Taking on Torture
Conspiracy Theorists’ Cousins
Not Enough Boots
Defense as the Ultimate Social Service
I Have an Idea
September 11: Five Years On
How to View Defense Spending
Reaching the Limit?
The Best Defense . . .
A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism
Terrorists’ “Rights” and the Military Commissions Act of 2006
More Stupidity from Cato
The Military Commissions Act of 2006
A Critique of Extreme Libertarianism
And Your Point Is?
Anarchistic Balderdash
Not Enough Boots: The Why of It
Blood for Oil

Katie Couric: Post-American
It *Is* the Oil
Here We Go Again
Christmas in Iran: Foreign Affairs According to Planet Rockwell
Torture, Revisited
Waterboarding, Torture, and Defense
9/11 Plotters and the Death Penalty
Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace
The Media, the Left, and War
Torture
September 11: A Remembrance
Getting It Wrong and Right about Iran
The “Predator War” and Self-Defense
Accountants of the Soul
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars
Delusions of Preparedness
Inside-Outside
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
Rating America’s Wars
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Next 9/11?

A Moralist’s Moral Blindness

Bryan Caplan restates his version of the Golden Rule, which is that “we” ought to be treated just as “we” would treat others. (My take on Caplan’s earlier post is here.) Much as I like the Golden Rule, for its civilizing influence on humans, I am not a simple-minded moralist like Caplan and other libertarian purists.

Caplan objects to the “double standard” by which Americans, for example, would praise the killing of enemy civilians, were it a necessary act of war, but condemn the killing of 3,000 Americans by an enemy who proclaims his act necessary in the service of some objective. I wonder if Caplan would object to the “double standard” when faced with the prospect of his children being among the 3,000 Americans killed.

The Golden Rule also is known as the ethic of reciprocity, and for a good reason. For the Golden Rule to operate effectively, it must be accompanied by a reasonable expectation that your mundane acts of self-restraint and helpfulness will be returned in kind by persons whose lives touch yours, or with whom you share a bond of kinship or culture.

The Golden Rule simply doesn’t operate very well across personal, familial, or cultural boundaries, Caplan’s wishful thinking to the contrary. (Consider, for example, the rudeness that often prevails in anonymous encounters over the internet and on the highway.) And there is no inherent reason that the Golden Rule should operate well across those boundaries, just because Caplan (or any other intellectual) asserts that it should. Who died and left him (and his ilk) in charge?

There are other moral considerations at work, aside from reciprocity. One of them, which I discussed in my previous post, is the ethic of mutual defense:

[W]ho better to help you defend yourself than the people with whom you share space, be it a neighborhood, a city-state, a principality, or even a vast nation? As a member of one or the other, you may be targeted for harm by outsiders who wish to seize your land and control your wealth, or who simply dislike your way of life, even if it does them no harm.

If, like Caplan, you are willing to allow an enemy to obliterate some of your fellow citizens because you have obliterated some enemy citizens, you are not to be trusted. You might as well be an enemy.

More generally, Caplan’s moral blindness betrays his Rationalism. As Michael Oakeshott explains,

the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration….

… And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. (“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays)

Thomas Sowell puts it this way:

One of the things intellectuals [his Rationalists] have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society [or a nation] together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia….

Under the influence of the intelligentsia, we have become a society that rewards people with admiration for violating its own norms and for fragmenting that society into jarring segments. In addition to explicit denigrations of their own society for its history or current shortcomings, intellectuals often set up standards for their society which no society has ever met or is likely to meet.

Calling those standards “social justice” enables intellectuals to engage in endless complaints about the particular ways in which society fails to meet their arbitrary criteria, along with a parade of groups entitled to a sense of grievance, exemplified in the “race, class and gender” formula…. (Intellectuals and Society, pp. 303, 305)

Sowell’s attack is aimed at left-wing intellectuals, but it could just as well be aimed at libertarian purists like Caplan and his ilk.

Inside-Outside

Bryan Caplan seems to think that the tendency of geographically proximate groups to band together in self-defense is a kind of psychological defect. He refers to it as “group-serving bias.”

It is nothing of the kind, however. It is a simple case of self-defense. And who better to help you defend yourself than the people with whom you share space, be it a neighborhood, a city-state, a principality, or even a vast nation? As a member of one or the other, you may be targeted for harm by outsiders who wish to seize your land and control your wealth, or who simply dislike your way of life, even if it does them no harm.

The cause of Caplan’s confusion is his adherence to a kind of libertarian idealism. In the anti-war argot of the 1960s, it was expressed as “Why can’t we all just get along?” But hope is not reality, Caplan notwithstanding.

Not getting along, to Caplan, is a moral defect. He therefore considers the differential treatment of insiders and outsiders to be an unmitigated wrong. But group cohesion is a prudential social instinct that no amount of rationalism can obliterate. Differential treatment of insiders and outsiders is an inevitable aspect of that prudential social instinct. It is not, at bottom, a moral issue.

If Caplan were logically consistent, he would focus his moral lens on the animal kingdom. There is plenty of inter-group conflict to condemn there: shark vs. tuna, cheetah vs. antelope, spider vs. fly, and so on. In the case of man vs. cattle (hog, fish, fowl, or other living thing), I wonder if Caplan opts for veganism? It would be the proper choice — for him.

Related posts:
Parsing Political Philosophy
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Line-Drawing and Liberty

The “Predator War” and Self-Defense

There is a body of opinion which holds that the use of new war-fighting technology is illegal and tantamount to murder. Those who hold that opinion have particular reference to the Predator drone, which the U.S. has used to some effect in the Middle East. The position of the nay-sayers permeates a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer, entitled “The Predator War.” By the standards of Mayer and the anti-predator critics upon whom she leans heavily, David (of “David and Goliath”) and the English longbowmen at Agincourt were war criminals, just because they used superior technology to defeat their enemies. This pseudo-legal nonsense is merely a pretext for anti-American Americans, and others, to find fault with the United States.

The correct view of this matter is taken by Kenneth Anderson here, here, here, and here. In the fourth-linked item, Anderson outlines the legal position that the U.S. government should take (but has not):

  • Targeted killings of terrorists, including by Predators and even when  the targets are American citizens, are a lawful practice;
  • Use of force is justified against terrorists anywhere they set up safe havens, including in states that cannot or will not prevent them;
  • These operations may be covert—and they are as justifiable when the CIA is tasked to carry them out secretly as when the military does so in open armed conflict.
  • All of the above fall within the traditional American legal view of “self-defense” in international law, and “vital national security interests” in U.S. domestic law.

Moreover,

The U.S. government should . . . defend what its officers in fact believe to be the case—that targeted killing from drone platforms is not merely a question of hard-edged military necessity, but is also a humanitarian step forward in technology. The president believes that and so does the vice president, and they are correct. These technologies are lessening, not increasing, civilian damage, are being applied in ways (because it is killing that is, indeed, targeted) that lessen collateral damage from what it would otherwise be in traditional war. The U.S. government should react with outrage to the charge, implied or express, of American cowardice or some abstract increased propensity to violence on account of drone strikes, and assert its humanitarian moral ground.

For that matter, hostile journalists ought to be pressed to explain why drone attacks are significantly different from missiles fired from aircraft or offshore naval vessels​—save for the vastly greater ability to monitor the circumstances of firing through sensor technologies. Senior officials believe that drone warfare allows the United States to take far greater measure and care with collateral damage than it can using either conventional war or attack teams on the ground. The U.S. government should say so, rather than simply falling back on narrow arguments of military necessity, operational convenience, and force protection, while ceding the moral high ground to the international soft-law community.