Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why Utilitarianism Fails, Even in Af-Pak

Reading news stories about America’s war in Afghanistan-Pakistan often reminds me of my college ethics class. Specifically, I’m reminded of the whole utilitarianism-deontology debate and the thought experiments different utilitarian thinkers give to support their case—for example:

A magistrate or judge is faced with a very real threat from a large and uncontrollable mob of rioters demanding a culprit for a crime. Unless the criminal is produced, promptly tried, and executed, they will take their own bloody revenge on a much smaller and quite vulnerable section of the community (a kind of frenzied pogrom). The judge knows that the real culprit is unknown and that the authorities do not even have a good clue as to who he may be. But he also knows that there is within easy reach a disreputable, thoroughly disliked, and useless man, who, though innocent, could easily be framed so that the mob would be quite convinced that he was guilty and would be pacified if he were promptly executed (150).

After laying out such hypothetical situations, the utilitarian, in this case Kai Nielsen, hopes that we’ve reached the same conclusion that he has. In the above case, Nielsen hopes we’ve concluded that the judge should execute the innocent man. And, of course, if we agree with him on this point, then it follows that we too are utilitarians, believing that the right course of action is that which results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Those leading the current American effort in Af-Pak contend that they face a situation that’s not all that different than the judge’s. They point out that there are no clear-cut battle lines in Af-Pak, as insurgents dwell among civilians and refuse to wear military uniforms. Consequently, when US forces, using the means of conventional warfare, try to kill insurgents, they often end up killing innocent civilians. (According to a recent report by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation, since 2004 nearly one-third of those killed by US drone strikes have been civilians.) So, like the hypothetical judge, the US military claims that, in order to do the right thing it must take innocent life.

Now there are many problems with utilitarianism. For one thing, it presumes that people know more than they actually do. For instance, while US officials claim [.pdf] that we must stay the course in Af-Pak in order to keep Americans safe, it’s clear that our current actions can (and often do) backfire. Even General McChrystal recognizes [.pdf]:

From a conventional standpoint, the killing of two insurgents in a group of ten leaves eight remaining: 10-2=8. From the insurgent standpoint, those two killed were likely related to many others who will want vengeance. If civilian casualties occurred, that number will be much higher. Therefore, the death of two creates more willing recruits: 10 minus 2 equals 20 (or more) rather than 8. This is part of the reason why eight years of individually successful kinetic actions have resulted in more violence.

Thus it’s not only possible but in fact likely that US bombings in Af-Pak are immoral, not just on deontological, but also on utilitarian grounds.

But more than just this, utilitarianism violates many of our most deeply held moral beliefs. For instance, we believe that some actions are wrong even if they produce good results. In other words, sometimes the ends clearly do not justify the means. To give just one example, Sterling Harwood imagines “a case of secretly killing a healthy man just in for a routine checkup in order to maximize satisfaction by using his various organs in a number of life-saving operations” (183). The ends here are obviously good, but I don’t think any of us would argue that they justify the means.

Similarly, I would argue that, regardless of the consequences, it’s always wrong to kill innocent people. Deep down, I imagine that most Americans agree. Although most of us tell pollsters that we support the military’s effort to kill insurgents, even when “collateral damage” results, I imagine that few of us would feel the same way if we were merely shown the faces of the people who comprise this “collateral damage” or if provided with even minimal biographical data of these people. I imagine that an even smaller number would support these killings if asked to personally carry them out.

Utilitarianism also violates the principle of universality. In other words, few, if any, of us would feel these American attacks were justified if we were the ones living in the targeted Afghan and Pakistani towns and villages. Even if we believed the attacks were accomplishing a greater good, we wouldn’t feel they were justified if our own neighborhoods were the ones being struck. And since we wouldn’t want this done to ourselves, we have no right supporting, with our votes or other means, the US government as it does it to others.

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