Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Intentions, Suicide, and Utility

by Adam Johnson

In his essay "The ‘Just War’ and The Right of Self-Defense," Frederick Struckmeyer addresses the morality of defensive wars. In this discussion, he brings up and rejects the pacifist stance of Donald Wells who holds the premise that all wars are equally immoral. Struckmeyer’s grounds for dismissing this stance center on the complaint that Wells is offering no real support for the premise that all wars are equally immoral, but instead begging the question and simply pointing out that wars involve killing and destruction – generally on a large scale. Amusingly, my primary complaint with Struckmeyer is rather similar – I find that he simply assumes all wars in self-defense are equally moral, as seen on page five “We have a general right, if not our duty, to defend ourselves as a nation.” My purpose thusly is to reject on utilitarian grounds the claim that all wars of self-defense are moral.

The element of intended consequences must first be examined before addressing the bulk of Struckmeyer’s stance. On page three he states “It is true, especially in the case of nuclear projectiles, that we can only decide whether to use certain kinds of weapons, and not what the human cost – even approximately – will be.” I find this claim to be utter rubbish logically and a moral cop out as well. Essentially what the premise boils down to is ‘we can only decide causes, not effects.” While it is true that one does not in strictest technical sense decide the effects of something, to claim that one has NO control on the effects is absurd. Even with an elementary understanding of the cause-effect relationship is it rather obvious that if you get to pick the causes you also acquire direct influence over the effects. Even if you do not want or like some of the effects of your cause, the fact that your action directly resulted in the effects logically makes you responsible for them. Your primary goal in dropping a nuclear bomb on a city may be to destroy military industrial complexes rather than killing a bunch of civilians and increasing cancer rates for decades, but the results are linked together and there is no way to separate them – choosing to drop the bomb means choosing to destroy the complexes AND killing the civilians. To deny responsibility for effects outside the primary purpose of a cause willingly and intentionally acted upon is a demonstration of ignorance and a wanton refusal of morality at all.

The effects of this premise begin to play out when Struckmeyer gives us a hypothetical scenario on the individual level in order to better elucidate his stance on defensive wars: the situation of a one on one confrontation in which all other options have been exhausted resulting in a binary conflict - kill or be killed. The assumption is of course that we do in fact have the right to kill the other person in this situation, as the other person has seemingly given up his right to not be killed when he attempted to violate the other person’s right to not be killed. However, as we noted in class while discussing pacifism, this is merely a necessary condition for killing and NOT a sufficient condition. Under Struckmeyer’s above-mentioned stance on intentions and effects, this condition does indeed shift from necessary to sufficient as it is a closed system – if the goal is to kill your attacker, and only your goals are under moral scrutiny then nothing else needs to be considered for when you slay your attacker the conflict ends. However, there are other effects that result from the action of killing your attacker. Suppose you know your attacker is the matron of 25 small children and does an excellent job with them (her only error is trying to kill you) and with her dead they too will surely die. Though it is not your primary intention to kill 25 small children when you kill your attacker, you are still responsible for their deaths as it results directly from your actions. Under utilitarian terms, it seems to be the case that the moral obligation in this situation is to let yourself be killed, as acting in self-defense will result in less utility by a large margin.


Obviously, the next step is to extrapolate this conclusion from the individual level to that of wars between states. However, the complexity of the situation increases with the scale. The root of the problem in scaling up is found on page five when Struckmeyer states “While I clearly have the prerogative of taking my own life, or of allowing someone else to take it, I do not have the prerogative where the lives of others are concerned. I cannot compel another man to sacrifice himself…” This makes it rather tricky for a state to have a moral obligation to suicide over self-defense in any situation. If we hold to the premise that an individual’s right to not be killed is only forfeit when they violate or attempt to violate some one else’s right to not be killed (necessary condition – not sufficient), then it is impossible for the state to hold a policy of suicide as it is doubtful that the entire populace has acted in such a way as to forfeit the right to not be killed. Yet, in the case of intelligence gathering (non violent) covert ops, if the agent is exposed there is a certain expectation for him to kill himself even though he has not violated or attempted to violate another’s right to not be killed. Thus the claim can be made that this premise isn’t truly a necessary condition, it is just a really nice to have around condition.

Ignoring the muckiness of that premise for a moment, I’ll argue that there are several situations in context of utilitarianism that individual sacrifice is a moral obligation even if the situation is not a result of the individual’s action. Should an armed grenade land in camp, the individual has a moral imperative to jump on the grenade and kill himself to save his comrades. If a plane is hijacked, it is expected that the passengers intentionally crash the plane rather than allow it to be flown into landmark buildings. Finally, there is of course the classic example of the toddler drowning in a muddy pond and a stranger ruining his new clothes in order to rescue the toddler from certain death. Although this last example obviously does not entail full suicide, it works perfectly well enough to establish the fundamental principles and patterns at work. Something of lesser moral weight is sacrificed so something of greater moral weight can avoid destruction. In all of these situations the loss of the sacrificed is regrettable indeed, however, it is the best choice those contexts.

So then, can we not now apply the above principles to wars between states? It seems to follow it as least possible to have an immoral defensive war. The prime objective may be to defend and survive, but if it results in horrific numbers of civilian loses on both sides you are still morally implicated those deaths. Though it is a somewhat troubling thought, I have argued for and shown situations where it is a moral obligation to commit suicide. Likewise, I have worked around the issue of compelling another to suicide by illustrating certain cases were it is acceptable. Thusly, if fighting a defensive war results in greater loss, destruction, and erosion of quality of life, both long term and short term, than nonresistance resulting in suicide leads to, the apparent moral obligation under utilitarianism is to indeed not wage the war and wait for death should it come. For clarity’s sake, I am not suggesting that all defensive wars are immoral. Indeed, I imagine the overwhelming majority of defensive wars are in fact moral. However, I am arguing that being on the side of defense in war alone is NOT a sufficient condition for being moral right in waging the war, but rather simply a necessary condition instead.

11 Comments:

Blogger Wesley Gibbs said...

I enjoyed your paper immensely and I loved your choice of topic. I also had issues with Struckmeyer wanting to assume that all defensive wars are just. I actually thought it quite ironic that what he attacks Wells for is also a large flaw in his paper.

2:42 PM  
Anonymous jamie mccall said...

“While I clearly have the prerogative of taking my own life, or of allowing someone else to take it, I do not have the prerogative where the lives of others are concerned. I cannot compel another man to sacrifice himself…”

It seems to me that this could cause problems. If no one can take the lives of others and I cannot compel others to sacrafice themselves for whatever reason, then we are simply screwed when it comes to wars. Army? What army?

3:26 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I would have to say that it is the WAY the defensive war is conducted that can be judged as just or not. It seems to me that if a nation is attacked unjustly it cannot be unjust to defend against it. To claim that it is unjust to defend one's life (or country as the case may be) is to claim that the attack is justified. But wait, wasn't that the topic last week, that aggressive wars were not justified? I could see the possibility of three situations: a just attack and a just defense, a just attack and an unjust defense, and an unjust attack and a just defense. I don't see an unjust attack and an unjust defense as a possible option here.
As far as a moral obligation to suicide...there is no objective morality to provide obligation. Being a semi-moral-relativist (in theory at least), I (emphasis on I) may feel obligated to sacrifice myself for a greater cause, but in no way can you convince me that I am obligated to commit sucide. No one can morally obligate someone else to commit suicide, that's called religious extremism.
As far as the examples you gave, the military actually teaches you _not_ to jump on a grenade. And as for crashing the plane into the ground, I'm pretty sure they didn't have a democratic vote on whether to do so or not, therefore the few passengers that decided amongst themselves to crash the plane are actually guilty of murdering the other passengers on board (your argument applies about cause and effect). The greater cause may be a _sufficient_ reason to commit suicide, but NOT a _necessary_ one.

well written tho! :)

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Wesley Frazier said...

This paper was obviously trying to make a different argument than it actually was making. Instead of being on the justification of warfare, it was essentially a right to self defense versus pure pacifism.

That being said there is a good deal of logical consistency to both arguments at the individual level. However how self defense cashes out at the nation-to-nation level seems particularly interesting, and highly speculative.

8:26 AM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I, too, noticed the sharp parallel with regards to the pacifist arguments that were made a few weeks ago. Hell, I made one of them!

You do point out, however, that there is a problem of applying the pacifist doctrine to the masses. The contrast between what Jamie and Rick had to say is an excellent example of the problem: Jamie says that we already have people who sign over their lives... the military. Rick says that anyone who signs over their life is a religious zealot.

Anyway, I think that with a little more work, you just might convince some folks that pacifism can work on the large-scale without coercion.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

I'm not going to go into a rant about why I joined the military, but I can guarantee you, it wasn't to commit suicide. Was there a possibility that I might have to give my life in defense of freedom? Yes. Was I morally obligated to join the military? Only to myself. There is a difference.

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Kim Morrison said...

Well written paper. Struckmeyer's assumption that all defensive wars are just does create quite a problem especially if you take into account what Rick said. It should really be the WAY a defensive war is fought that decides whether the war is just or unjust. I had a problem with how suicide could ever become the moral obligation of an individual, much less an entire nation. The examples you chose didn't help to illustrate that point. And no one seems to take into account the psychology that goes on behind a person's decision to risk their life in order to save others. The circumstances that surround those situations are also part of the decision process. The intended effect also plays a role. It seems to me that the intentions of the people in your examples are rather different from the intentions of say a Japanese kamikaze pilot crashing his plane into a U.S. battleship during WWII.

12:56 PM  
Anonymous Steven Grueshaber said...

I may be willing to concede that under very specific conditions in an isolated system that you may be morally wrong in defending yourself under consequentialist terms. However, I'm not sure these conditions have or ever will exist.

Let's take the example of the matron trying to kill you. If you make it a moral rule that if killing someone in self-defense is immoral if the death of the attacker causes more suffering than the death of the defender, then people will just put themselves in a position (even if they do so immorally)so that, if they die, many other people will also suffer. That person then has free reign to kill whomever they please, as long as the person they're killing does not have as many people reliant upon his life as the attacker. That's why I say that it would take a very strict set of conditions for the rule to work.

4:09 PM  
Anonymous jeremy page said...

I'm assuming that you find the idea of double effect (I guess I'll keep bringing it up) to be total crap like it seems that rest of us do.
In killing the matron of 25 small kids, I believe that SHE is responsible for their deaths (if you really want to go that far...) because she was the one who initiated the attack knowing what she could lose. I'm not sure how most utilitarians will judge it, but it seems that this scenario gives the utilitrain a seemingly "moral advantage."
I fail to see how all defensive wars are not just; it is arguable that the methods with which they are waged are not....but does utility really help make out some defensive wars to be unjust? It seems that the losing nation must consider their losses as well as the attackers? And are all situations in war really similiar to a matron with 25 charges-I would think that this would represent a country ill-prepared to fight...
I believe that someone does lose their right to not be killed when they attempt to violate another's right to the same thing. I do not see how that is not "sufficient reason," even if utilitarian thought is used in each situation.

4:28 PM  
Anonymous Jimmy said...

I have to agree with steven because there seems to be ways to utilize this doctrine against you. An example would be that I am interested in taking over a smaller country than mine. I attach bombs to everyone in my country and set the bombs for explosion upon my death. I attack the country and they can't kill because they will be responsible for the death of my entire country. LOL
Ok sorry that was a little funny, but it could happen. LOL

4:34 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

the moral obligation for things such as suiicde can not be justified through those means. this was a great topic but i was iffy or the moral argument that you made. You do an excllent job of making the self defense argument i agree with you to that extense. Nations have a right to defend themselves.

6:26 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home