Monday, March 31, 2008

Brandt and Who's Responsible for War

Brandt's article (see the post just below this one) leaves out of discussion the point about which side in a war is responsible for the war: which side is the wrongful aggressor. The moral obligations of the innocent side depend on the fact that it is the victim and not the perpetrator. But Brandt ignores this. When you ignore this, it doesn't matter what follows.

In the middle section of the article, Brandt's tactic is to show that his utilitarian position entails various common-sense moral judgments. Of course, these are the utility-promoting ones, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that the many utility-promoting judgments embraced by common-sense ethics are entailed (or "explained," as if they needed explanation) by utilitarianism. So, the tactic has no success is supporting Brandt's utilitarianism.

The kinds of common-sense judgments entailed by utilitarianism are three. There are (1.) humanitarian restrictions on doing harm to the enemy when no military gain will result from it, (2.) humanitarian restrictions that might exact a military cost, and (3.) humanitarian restrictions that will entail military losses. Utilitarianism and common-sense agree perfectly that violence done to the enemy for no foreseeable gain is wrong; but utilitarianism is not needed to explain that. Brandt runs into trouble with the other two kinds of judgments.

When refraining from the use of military violence might require foregoing a military gain, it might still be obligatory to refrain, and reasons of utility will be at play here. One ought not destroy 500,000 million enemy souls just in order to increase the chance of keeping a insignificant stronghold occupied by one of one's platoons. There utilitarianism and common-sense agree. But Brandt never proves that non-utilitarian moral principles shouldn't come into deliberations such as this, as well. Perhaps Brandt looks down his nose at the hodge-podge of common-sense moral principles and wishes to substitute for them something simpler. But why anyone would want to do that, though it seems to be the primary goal of many normative moral theorists, is a mystery to me. A pet theory has no weight at all against a common-sense moral judgment. Common-sense moral judgments are the only data normative moral theory has, and there is never any reason for the theorist to wax theory-driven.

Let's take a closer look. Brandt says that when the outcome of the war is certain, the side that everyone knows will win has an obligation to refrain from taking tolls on the enemy "so heavy as to be out of proportion to the estimated cost of further struggle to both sides." If causing Japan to surrender by invading it would have cost the lives of only five American soldiers and a few hundred Japanese, then the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been wrong. That's common sense, and here again common sense and utilitarianism are in harmony. However, suppose that subduing Japan would have cost, say, 10,000 American soldiers' lives. Then, should the U.S. have refrained from the bombings? No. The point is that Japan was at fault for starting the war. When you unjustly start a war, you should accept that your victim has a right to protect 10,000 of its souls from your violence, even if this costs you 150,000 of your own souls. Brandt provides no evidence that utility alone should be the guide in these cases. He says only that it is in both sides' interest to refrain from this sort of disproportional harm. Well, it isn't in the interest of the side that stands to lose the 10,000. Behind the veil of ignorance we can reasonably maintain that any wrongly and unprovokedly attacked country has the right to finish the enemy off without needlessly losing 10,000 of its citizens. There is no reason that an impartial being standing behind the veil should agree not to reserve this right when he steps from behind the veil.

Behind the veil, the right not to suffer wrongful and unprovoked attack has weight. The right not to sacrifice one's citizens for the sake of maximizing net utility counts. Veil theorists, such as Brandt and Rawls, want to imagine what an impartial and rational being with no morals would choose behind the veil. They imagine different things and nobody should care what they imagine, because nobody should care which morals a person without morals would choose.