Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Dead Enemy Innocents

I've blogged on this before: the question of the difference between killing enemy innocents because they are too near to the enemy army for us to avoid killing them when we defend ourselves against it and (2.) killing enemy innocents as a tactic, a means of weakening the enemy's resolve. I argued that there is no morally relevant difference. Bombing Dresden and Hiroshima were as permissible as causing collateral deaths.

Thomas Nagel says that the tactical killing of innocents is always wrong, even though collateral killing is not. His reason is that "we may not aim to kill a harmless person." There is a morally relevant difference between the two kinds of killing of enemy innocents in "the attitudes they express toward human life." This would make the bombing of Hiroshima wrong. It would mean that we should have invaded Japan the hard way, taking thousands of American casualties.

But I don't know why we are supposed to sacrifice our own innocent people for the sake of expressing a nice attitude. As Nagel points out, the innocent victim is just as dead in either case. How can the mere desire, attitude, or aim of the person killing him make it okay to kill him? I don't understand, and Nagel gives no argument. And although he says that tactical killing does not express enough reverence for human life, why should we believe that? If President Truman agonized before deciding to drop the bomb on Hiroshima, then that was a tactical killing of innocents that did not represent a lack of reverence for human life. And if a soldier fighting an evil and aggressive military causes collateral killings innocents but does so with a bloodthirsty gusto, he would be said to act wrongly if we follow Nagel's principle. But he doesn't. He just has the wrong attitude.

There is no morally relevant difference between tactical and collateral killings of innocents when both are equally necessary to our self defense. Think of an enemy city with no military targets in it. Suppose that bombing the city would bring the enemy to its knees; it would simply be too afraid to fight on. On Nagel's view, we can't bomb it. So, we wait. Finally, we see that a crucial enemy battallion is passing through the city. On Nagel's view, now we may bomb it. Does that analysis of the situation seem plausible? Not to me. And without argument for the principle that one may never aim to kill an innocent, we don't have to accept it. (Suppose some poor guy had a large nuke in his body, enough to end the human race. It would be detonated by his heart beating 100 more times. Killing him would be the only way to save the human race. On Nagel's view, we mustn't kill him. Or is there an exception because he'll die either way? We'll why not more exceptions? Obviously, it's not all a matter of the attitude of the killer.)

It doesn't matter what the agent's attitude is when we are trying to figure out whether an action is right or wrong. If he has problematic or unsavory attitudes, we should advise him even when he's acted rightly. For his attitudes will eventually lead him to do wrong. Or if he does wrong but has the right attitudes, we should advise him, so that he can learn to act in accordance with those laudable attitudes. But the rightness or wrongness of his action does not depend on his attitudes.

The confusion underlying the distinction between tactical and collateral killing is that one thinks that in collateral killing one can say, "I didn't mean to kill the innocents; I was just trying to kill the soldiers." But this is untrue. You do mean to kill the innocents. You know you're going to kill them when you drop the bomb. You drop it. You mean to kill them. There is no hiding. Either it is right to kill enemy innocents in self defense or it isn't. One simply can't play games with tactical/collateral, nice attitude/callous attitude. There is no difference in the actions. Both are cases of killing enemy innocents in self defense. Nothing else is relevant.

Immanuel Kant really caused a lot of collateral confusion when he wrote his books. He said that the kind of intention was what determined the rightness of an act. That just isn't true.

This is why we don't torture al Qaeda for information. It's considered to show too cruel an attitude. And yet, you can kill them in the field. More on this later