Saturday, November 24, 2007

Nagel’s False Dichotomy between Absolutism and Utilitarianism

I suppose this is the last of my posts on “War and Massacre.” Afterwards, Walzer and Brandt. Down the road, Machiavelli and Melville’s Billy Budd will come into this little series on war. If you haven’t read Billy Budd, give it a whirl, and afterwards see Terence Stamp portray the title role in the 1962 movie rendition.

The last point about Nagel is typical of a problem to be found in many ethics articles. Nagel offers a false dilemma between absolutism and utilitarianism. How many undergraduates are asked to take either of these two sides in term papers, by the way? A lot. If they are less unlucky, they will have a virtue ethics alternative, as if it were a competing alternative, and as if it were the only one. W. D. Ross is forgotten. Alan Goldman’s books fall stillborn from the presses.

In any event, Nagel says that either we accept the utilitarian view of moral deliberation over war or we accept that morality requires a less “administrative” and more personal mode of justification. The latter course requires that we be prepared to justify our decision to each affected party, rather than to justify them by some higher level calculus, as utilitarians try to do. It therefore entails that absolute constraints on utility maximization be maintained. As a result, weapons of mass destruction, the strategic bombing of innocents, and other modes of massacre are to be considered absolutely wrong (i.e., wrong in any case.)

I’ve argued in the previous post that this is a non sequitur. We can justify to each individual the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This points to a defect in Nagel’s dilemma, wherein he implies that either one is with the absolutists or with the utilitarians. The third alternative, unchecked by Nagel, is that there are no absolute constraints upon the use of weapons of mass destruction or the strategic bombing of innocents, even though utilitarianism is not the correct view to take of the matter.

Instead, one might opt for a common-sense approach to war and massacre. Common sense bids us to weigh individual rights to go unmolested along with the reasons to promote utility of one’s own society under undeserved attack. Neither has an absolute trump value over the other. Other common-sense factors enter into the matter, such as the membership of the victims of the bombing in the society that has launched the undeserved attacks. (Bad luck, to be an innocent member of a bellicose society and as a result to be a victim of its victims’ retaliation.)

Of course, when some one mentions “common-sense” as a reason for his position, you should reach for your wallet, as it were; expect an unsatisfying argument. But in this case, I am not arguing for an alternative to absolutism or utilitarianism. I’m merely showing that there is a common-sense alternative to them. However, I would be prepared to argue for the common-sense view. But enough has been said on this blog over the last few weeks, let alone five years, to obviate that necessity now. The point is that much common moral argumentation is neither absolutist nor utilitarian. To overlook it is fatal to any formal treatments of morality, such as Nagel's.

Walzer next. And we will return to our series on Kekes's The Art of Life

Friday, November 16, 2007

Strategic Bombing of Innocents
Obviously, we countenance the killing of innocents as a last resort in fending off a bellicose aggressor. So, we are considering the case of bombing a city as a last resort, in order to weaken the will of the aggressor to fight on. Is it justified? Leave aside the question of the degree of efficacy of the strategic bombing of innocents. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. It has been known to steel the will of a beleaguered country, and it has been known to crush its will. Suppose that in the case at hand we may be justified in believing that the enemy will fold or will fold with probability 50% or more.

I imagine that I am entering waters already plumbed deeply by others, but the following consideration seems an important obstacle to the view that it is always wrong to conduct strategic bombing of innocents.

We assume that it is permissible to bomb enemy military targets with collateral deaths of innocents. In such cases the diminution of the enemy military and the innocent deaths have a common cause: the bombing. But the innocent deaths are not the cause of the diminution of the enemy military. In the case of strategic bombing of innocents, the bombing is also the common cause of the same two effects. The difference is that the innocent deaths cause the diminution of the enemy military. (In this case it is a psychological diminution, whereas in the latter case it is a physical one, but that is not relevant.) So, the only difference is in the organization of the causal chain of events. In the one case, the innocent deaths are a means. In the other, they are not.

Therefore, there can be no other plausible argument in favor of the position that the strategic bombing of innocents is wrong besides the following: It is wrong to treat people merely as a means and not as ends in themselves. This is the Kantian view of the matter.

It's a plausible enough case. Note, however, that it seems that we sometimes permissibly use people who serve us as means alone. Take luggage handlers at an airport for example. In my experience, Kantians rule the use of service personnel permissible by explicating “treating as a means alone” as "treating in a way that one would not accept as a universal principle." No one could accept that strategic bombing of innocents be universal law, but we can all accept that there be a service industry such as baggage handling. You're not really treating service personnel as means alone if you wouldn't object to ending up as service personnel yourself. This is supposed to show the crucial moral distinction between using baggage handlers as means and bombing enemy cities as a strategy in war.

In fact, it does no such thing. As I suggested in the last post, consider your country attacking an innocent and peace-loving neighbor for no reason other than desire for power and wealth. Suppose your country kills some of the neighboring country’s citizens and oppresses the others. Suppose the other country cannot stop your country’s military without unacceptable losses to itself except by a strategy of bombing your city, the place where you and your family live.

I would have no objection to being bombed. I accept that as a universal principle, one may conduct strategic bombing of innocents in such cases. I don’t see how I could reasonably object to my family’s being wiped out. Moreover, it seems arbitrary to object to being bombed as a means while nevertheless allowing that one would have no objection to ending up as a collateral casualty when one's country's military is bombed. In short, there is no morally relevant difference.

The case for a moral distinction between collateral innocent deaths and strategic bombing of innocents is therefore unsound.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Flaws in Nagel’s “War and Massacre”

Nagel offers little in the way of argument for absolutist constraints upon violence in war. But, there is a criticism of absolutist condemnations of certain kinds of violence which says that the absolutist is simply reluctant to get his hands dirty (in other words to sacrifice his integrity.) The criticism is an attempt to psychologize and therefore explain absolutism as based upon non-rational desires rather than sound reasons.

Nagel, however, says that this criticism from dirty hands is confused.
First, it is a confusion to suggest that the need to preserve one’s moral purity might be the source of an obligation. [SNIP] Secondly, the notion that one might sacrifice one’s moral integrity justifiably…is an incoherent notion.
In fact, the criticism from dirty hands rests on no such confusions. It contends that the absolutist is afraid of taking a moral stand that requires boldly indecent acts, preferring to hope that meekness and pusillanimity will pass as morally sufficient stances in situations in which a compelling argument for violence is obvious. It is an insufficiency of spleen to the extent that one is unable to grow morally into the person who recognizes when sacrificing one’s decency is morally justifiable. It is a hope that in the final reckoning, as it were, the judge of us all will not have the heart to give the performance of the meek and earnest amongst us a lower score lower than the brazen and brutal, even when the latter got things right. There is sufficient hope to allow the absolutist to forego mustering the spleen necessary to pull the trigger or drop the bomb or to appear immoral to his friends.

In sum, the criticism from dirty hands does not suggest that the need to preserve one’s moral purity is the source of an obligation; it suggests that absolutists believe that clean hands are a sufficient stand-in for righteousness. And the criticism from dirty hands does not assume that one might sacrifice one’s moral integrity justifiably. It assumes that one might engage in indecent acts justifiably. Nagel fails even to begin to turn the criticism away.

The point is that it there is no sound argument for absolutist constraints upon violence in war. Absolutism remains just a theory with no sufficient basis. Therefore, we may turn to psychologism, in order to explain the fact that people hold to this theory. Otherwise, with no psychological explanation handy, one might suspect that the cause is indeed a sufficiently rational basis in the many thousands of pages of absolutist writings since Kant. But psychologism is not philosophy. The philosophical point is that the absolutist intuition that it is absolutely (i.e., indefeasibly) wrong to conduct strategic bombing of innocents or use weapons of mass destruction has no basis.

In the next post, we’ll take a look at what little argument Nagel offers for his absolutism: that one should do something to another only with the intention of treating him as a subject who will receive it. Meanwhile, consider this:

Your country is a totalitarian regime which seeks to extend brutal totalitarian hegemony across its hemisphere. It unprovokedly attacks another country and massacres its people, with no moral justification at all. The other country correctly determines that there is little hope of rescuing itself from your government’s brutal oppression unless it bombs your city, in effort to weaken the resolve of your country to continue its aggression. Do you object?