Wednesday, October 24, 2007

An Absolutist Argument against Strategic Bombing of Non-Combatants

Thomas Nagel's 1971 article "War and Massacre" presents the absolutist view that there are certain acts in war which one must never do, no matter how bad the consequences of foregoing them may be. Take, for instance, refraining from bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as an example, if the consequence of this would have been an American land invasion of Japan resulting in hundreds of thousands of American deaths and hundreds of thousands of Japanese deaths.

Here is how Nagel argues for the position (in my paraphrase):
  1. Hostility should be directed at its true object: the people who provoke it.
  2. This is because of Nagel's principle that one should give others the respect they deserve by doing to them only those things that they can understand to be addressed to them as people.
Strategic bombing of non-combatants would therefore be always wrong because it misdirects one's hostility.

I don't think that this argument has much evidential force. Here are two problems with Nagel's view.

1. It doesn't in fact rule out the strategic bombing of non-combatants. We can indeed address the bombing to them as members of the society that attacks us, a society that can be brought to its knees by loss of non-combatant life. We needn't address our hostility to enemy non-combatants in order to bomb them. We need only address our bombing to them, and in doing so, assume that they can understand it as addressed to them.

Even if this is not so, and we cannot divorce bombing people from directing our hostility at them, then Nagel's principle can easily be used to prohibit the bombing of enemy military forces, as well as non-combatants. In any war one will that the find rank-and-file enemy soldiers include men who have little idea of the facts relevant to the moral standing of the war, men who do as they are told without the wherewithal to understand what the war is all about. Surely these men are not appropriate targets of our hostility, even as they raise their guns at us, if Nagel is to be interpreted in a strict sense.

If Nagel wants us to follow his principle, then very well. In bombing we say, "You do understand, don't you, that we drop bombs on you because you are a member of a society that is attacking ours and because bombing you will stop these attacks." This holds just as well for the enemy non-combatant as for the enemy soldier with whom we do not have a beef.

In short, Nagel's principle is too ambiguous to have much force. In fact, it smuggles in its own conclusion because it has force only if by "doing things they can understand to be addressed to them" we mean "...rightly addressed to them...." So, the principle is question-begging and the position is vacuous. As with any derivative of Kantianism, one can easily derive any morals one likes from it.

2. Suppose Nagel's argument doesn't suffer from those difficulties. Still, even if the non-combatants are not the appropriate object of hostility, it may be permissible to kill them. For the fact that stopping their country's military from pursuing its unprovoked attacks on other societies may suffice to override this consideration. Nagel never gives any argument to the contrary, other than to say that something is "wrong with the frame of mind" that disagrees with him on this point. He never gives any argument for his principle that one ought to do only those things to people that they can understand as directed at them. It could just as breezily be replied that something is wrong with the mind of the person that says that a million Japanese and Americans should be killed rather than bombs be dropped on, but that wouldn't make for a worthwhile philosophical argument, either.

On the other hand, the diagnosis of fear of dirty hands in the absolutist is worth looking at. Nagel raises and dismisses it without seeming to understand its force. We'll take a look at it soon.