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Nagel_WarandMassacre

Nagel_WarandMassacre - 'MORTAL QUESTIONS Thomas N agel n...

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Unformatted text preview: 'MORTAL QUESTIONS Thomas N agel n.- ri‘M 4/ [he University of Cambridge Ia print and "II dim! ojboak: wt "and by Henry VIII In I534. The Unix]:in he: primed and pub/Med ruminant/y since UN. Cambridge University Press CAMBRIDGE NEW YORK PORT CHESTER MELBOURNE SYDNEY 5 War and Massacre _ From the apathetic reaction to atrocities committed in Vietnam by the United States and its allies, one may conclude that moral restrictions on the conduct of war command almost as little sympathy among the general public as they do among those charged with the formation of U.S; military policy.1 Even when restrictions on the conduct of warfare are defended, it is usually on legal grounds alone: their moral basis is often poorly understood. I wish to argue that certain restrictions arehne—ither arbitrary nor' merelytconventional: and that their-validity 852’s na‘c’d epehd'é'ifiip‘ly'fén the}Pasefal'a35s‘.-~Thér€iE: it; 6:56? "waid‘é‘; a'"riio“ral'basis for‘ the algebra: even though the conventions -now officially in force are far from giving it perfect expression. " I No elaborate moral theory is required to account for what is wrong in casgglike the-Mylai massacre, since it did not serve, 33nd was not intended to serve, any strategic purpose. Moreover, {the participation ofthe United States in the Indo-Chinese war is entirely wrong to begin - with, then that engagement is incapable of providing a justification for any measures taken in its pursuit -— not only for the measures which are atrocities in every war, however just its aims. B‘Ut this war has revealed attitudes of a moreigeneral kind, {which influenced the conduct 'of earlier wars as well. After it has ended, we shall still be faced with the problem of how warfare ' This essay was completed in 1971. Direct U.S. military‘involvement in the Vietnam War lasted from 1961 to 1973. Hence the present tense. my... .., v Manama, ,3, Aug—ya... a, . 2 3 i, i 54 Mortal questions may be conducted, and the attitudes that have resulted in the specific conduct of this war will not have disappeared. Moreover, similar problems can arise in wars or rebellions fought for very different reasons, and against very different opponents. It is not easy to keep a firm grip on the idea of what is not permissible in warfare, because while some military actions are obvious atrocities, other cases are more difficult to assess, and the general principles underlying these judgments remain obscure. Such obscurity can lead to the abandonment of sound intuitions in favor of criteria whose rationale may be more obvious. If such a tendency is to be resisted, it will require a better understanding of the restrictions than we now have. I propose to discuss the most general moral problem raised by the conduct of warfare: the problem of means and ends. In one View, there are limits on what may be done even in the service of an end worth pursuing — and even when adherence to the restriction may be very costly. A person who acknowledges the force of such restrictions can find himself in acute moral dilemmas. He may believe, for example, that by torturing a prisoner he can obtain information necessary to prevent a disaster, or that by obliterating one village with bombs he can halt a campaign ofterrorism. If he believes that the gains from a certain measure will clearly outweigh its costs, yet still supects that he ought not to adopt it, then he is in a dilemma produced by the conflict between two disparate categories of moral reason: categories that may be called utilitarian and absoluli‘st. Utilitarianism gives primacy to a concern with what will happen. Absolutism gives primacy to a concern with what one is doing. The conflict between them arises because the alternatives we face are rarely just choices between total outcomes: they are also choices between alternative pathways or measures to be taken. When one ofthe choices is to do terrible things to another person, the problem is altered fundamentally; it is no longer merely a question of which outcome would be worse. Few of us are completely immune to either of these types of moral intuition, though in some people, either naturally or for doctrinal reasons, one type will be dominant and the other suppressed or weak. But it is perfectly possible to feel the force of both types of reason very strongly; in that case the moral dilemma in certain situations of crisis will be acute, and it may War and massacre 55 appear that every possible course of action or inaction is unacceptable for one reason or another. II Although it is this dilemma that I propose to explore, most of the discussion will be devoted to its absolutist component. The utilitarian component is straightforward by comparison, and has a natural appeal to anyone who is not a complete skeptic about ethics. Utilitarianism says that one should try, either individu- ally or through institutions, to maximize good and minimize evil (the definition of these categories need not enter into the schematic formulation of the view), and that if faced with the possibility of preventing a great evil by producing a lesser, one should choose the lesser evil. There are certainly problems about the formulation of utilitarianism, and much has been written about it, but its intent is morally transparent. Nevertheless, despite the additions and refinements, it continues to leave large portions of ethics unaccounted for. I do not suggest that some form of absolutism can account for them all, only that an examination of absolutism will lead us to see the complexity, and perhaps the incoherence, of our moral ideas. Utilitarianism certainly justifies some restrictions on the con— duct of warfare. There are strong utilitarian reasons for adhering to any limitation which seems natural to most people - particu— larly if the limitation is widely accepted already. An exceptional measure whi'ch seems to bejustified by its results in a particular conflict may create a precedent with disastrous long—term effects.2 It may even be argued that war involves violence on such a scale that it is neverjustified on utilitarian grounds — the consequences of refusing to go to war will never be as bad as the war itselfwould be, even ifatrocities were not committed. Or in a more sophisticated vein it might be claimed that a uniform policy ofnever resorting to military force would do less harm in the long run, if followed consistently, than a policy of deciding each case on utilitarian grounds (even though on occasion particular applications of the paciflst policy might have worse results than a specific utilitarian decision). But I shall not 2 Straightforward considerations ofnational interest often tend in the same direction: the inadvisability of using nuclear weapons seems to be overdetermined in this way. 2133194 .1,“ as“. u. a. < ‘qer" 56 Mortal questions consider these arguments, for my concern is with reasons of a different kind, which may remain when reasons of utility and interest fail.3 In the final analysis, I believe that the dilemma cannot always be resolved. While not every conflict between absolutism and utilitarianism creates an insoluble dilemma, and while it seems to me certainly right to adhere to absolutist restrictions unless the utilitarian considerations favoring violation are overpoweringly weighty and extremely certain — nevertheless, when that special condition is met, it may become impossible to adhere to an absolutist position. What I shall offer, therefore, is a somewhat qualified defense of absolutism. I believe it underlies a valid and fundamental type of moraljudgment — which cannot be reduced , to or overridden by other principles. And while there may be other principles just as fundamental, it is particularly important not to lose confidence in our absolutist intuitions, for they are often the only barrier before the abyss of utilitarian apologetics for large-scale murder. III One absolutist position that creates no problems of interpreta- tion is pacifism: the View that one may not kill another person under any circumstances, no matter what good would be achieved or evil averted thereby. The type of absolutist position that I am going to discuss is different. Pacifism draws the conflict with utilitarian considerations very starkly. But there are other views according to which violence may be undertaken, even on a large scale, in a clearly just cause, so long as certain absolute restrictions on the character and direction of that violence are observed. The line is drawn somewhat closer to the bone, but it exists. The philosopher who has done most to advance contempor— ary philosophical discussion of such a View, and to explain it to those unfamiliar with its extensive treatment in Roman Catholic 3 These reasons, moreover, have special importance in that they are available even to one who denies the appropriateness of utilitarian _ considerations in international matters. He may acknowledge limitations on what may be done to the soldiers and civilians of other countries in pursuit of his nation's military objectives, while denying that one country should in general consider the interests of nationals of other countries in determining its policies. War and massacre 57 moral theology, is G.E.M. Anscombe. In 1958 Miss Anscombe published a pamphlet entitled Mr. Truman’s Degree,4 ~on the occasion of the award by Oxford University of an honorary doctorate to Harry Truman. The pamphlet explained why she had opposed the decision to award that degree, recounted the story of her unsuccessful opposition, and offered some reflec- tions on the history of Truman’s decision to drop atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and on the difference between murder and allowable killing in warfare. She pointed out that the policy of deliberately killing large numbers of civilians either as a means or as an end in itself did not originate with Truman, and was common practice among all parties during World War II for some time before Hiroshima. The Allied area bombings of German cities by conventional explosives included raids which killed more civilians than did the atomic attacks; the same is true of certain fire-bomb raids on japan. The policy of attacking the civilian population in order to induce an enemy to surrender, or to damage his morale, seems to have been widely accepted in the civilized world, and seems to be accepted still, at least if the stakes are high enough. It gives evidence of a moral conviction that the deliberate killing of noncombatants—women, children, ‘old people—is permissible if enough can be gained by it. This follows from the more general position that any means can in principle be justified if itleads to a sufficiently worthy end. Such an attitude is evident not only in the more spectacular current weapons systems but also in the day-to-day'conduct of the nonglobal war in Indo—China: the indiscriminate destructiveness of antipersonnel weapons, napalm, and aerial bombardment; cruelty to prisoners; massive relocation of civilians; destruction of crops; and so forth. An absolutist position opposes to this the view that certain acts 4 (Privately printed.) See also her essay ‘War and Murder', in Nut/ear Weapons and Christian Corisrienre, ed. Walter Stein (London: The Merlin Press, 1961). The present paper is much indebted to these two essays throughout. These and related subjects are extensively treated by Paul Ramsey in Thejust War (New York: Scribners, 1968). Among recent writings that bear on the moral problem arejonathan Bennett, ‘Whatever the Consequences', Analysis. XXVi, no. 3 (1966); 83—102; and Philippa Foot, ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect‘, Oxford Review, v (1967), 5-15. Miss Anscombe's replies are ‘A Note on Mr. Bennett’, Analysis, xxvt, no. 3 (1966), 208 and ‘Who is Wronged?', Oxford Review, v (1967), 16—17. .- N_W,, 58 Mortal questions cannot be justified no matter what the consequences. Among those acts is murder — the deliberate killing of the harmless: civilians, prisoners of war, and medical personnel. In the present war such measures are sometimes said to be regrettable, but they are generally defended by reference to military necessity and the importance of the long-term consequ- ences of success or failure in the war. I shall pass over the inadequacy of this consequentialist defense in its own terms. (That is the dominant form ofmoral criticism ofthe war, for it is 'part of what people mean when they ask, ‘Is it worth it?') I am concerned rather to account for the inappropriateness of offering any defense of that kind for such actions. Many people feel, without being able to say much more about it, that something has gone seriously wrong when certain measures are admitted into consideration in the first place. The fundamental mistake is made there, rather than at the point where the overall benefit of some monstrous measure is judged to outweigh its disadvantages, and it is adopted. An account of absolutism might help us to understand this. Ifit is not allowable to do certain things, such as killing unarmed prisoners or civilians, then no argument about what will happen if one does not do them can show that doing them would be all right. Absolutism does not, of course, require one to ignore the consequences of one’s acts. It operates as a limitation on utilitarian reasoning, not as a substitute for it. An absolutist can be expected to try to maximize good and minimize evil, so long as this does not require him to transgress an absolute prohibition like that against murder. But when such a conflict occurs, the prohibition takes complete precedence over any consideration of consequences. Some of the results of this view are clear enough. It requires us to forgo certain potentially useful military meas- ures, such as the slaughter of hostages and prisoners or indis- criminate attempts to reduce the enemy civilian population by starvation, epidemic infectious diseases like anthrax and bubonic plague, or mass incineration. It means that we cannot deliberate on whether such measures are justified by the fact that they will avert still greater evils, for as intentional measures they cannot be justified in terms of any consequences whatever. Someone unfamiliar with the events of this century might imagine that utilitarian arguments, or arguments of national War and massacre 59 interest, would suffice to deter, measures of this sort. But it has become evident that such considerations are insufficient to prevent the adoption and employment of enormous antipopula- tion weapons once their use is considered a serious moral possibility. The same is true of the piecemeal wiping out of rural civilian populations in airborne antiguerrilla warfare. Once the door is opened to calculations of utility and national interest, the usual speculations about the future of freedom, peace, and economic prosperity can be brought to bear to ease the consci- ences of those responsible for a certain number of charred babies. For this reason alone it is important to decide what is wrong with the frame of mind which allows such arguments to begin. But it is also important to understand absolutism in the cases where it genuinely conflicts with utility. Despite its appeal, it is a paradoxical position, for it can require that one refrain from choosing the lesser of two evils when that is the only choice one has. And it is additionally paradoxical because, unlike pacifism, it permits one to do horrible things to people in some circums— tances but not in others. ’ lV Before going on to say what, if anything, lies behind the position, there remain a few relatively technical matters which are best discussed at this point. First, it is important to specify as clearly as possible the kind of thing to which absolutist prohibitions can apply. We must take seriously the proviso that they concern what we deliberately do to people. There could not, for example, without incoherence, be an absolute prohibition against bringing about the death of an innocent person; For one may find oneself in a situation in which, no matter what one does, some innocent people will die as a result. I do not mean just that there are cases in which someone will die no matter what one does, because one is not in a position to affect the outcome one way or the other. That, it is to be hoped, is one’s relation to the deaths of most innocent people. I have in mind, rather, a case in which someone is bound to die, but who it is will depend on what one does. Sometimes these situations have natural causes, as when too few resources (medicine, lifeboats) are available to rescue everyone threatened with a certain catastrophe. Sometimes the situations are man- made, as when the only way to control a campaign of terrorism is to l: l S2 t 5; l: l? g 11, f, L l g , E l l l l = E 60 Mortal questions to employ terrorist tactics against the community from which it has arisen. Whatever one does in cases such as these, some innocent people will die as a result. If the absolutist prohibition forbade doing what would result in the deaths of innocent people, it would have the consequence that in such cases nothing one could do would be morally permissible. This problem is avoided, however, because what absolutism forbids is doing certain things to people, rather than bringing about certain results. Not everything that happens to others as a result of what one does is something that one has done to them. Catholic moral theology seeks to make this distinction precise in a doctrine known as the law of double effect, which asserts that there is a morally relevant distinction between bringing about or permitting the death ofan innocent person deliberately, either as an end in itselfor as a means, and bringing it about or permitting it as a side effect of something else one does deliberately. In the latter case, even if the outcome is foreseen, it is not murder, and does not fall under the absolute prohibition, though of course it may still be wrong for-other reasons (reasons of utility, for example). Briefly, the principle states that one is sometimes permitted knowingly to bring about or permit as a side—effect of one’s actions something which it would be absolutely imper- missible to bring about or permit deliberately as an end or as a means. In application to war or revolution, the law of double effect permits a certain amount of civilian carnage as a side—effect of bombing munitions plants or attacking enemy soldiers. And even this is permissible only if the cost is not too great to be justified by one’s objectives. However, despite its importance and its usefulness in account- ing for certain plausible moral judgments, I do not believe that the law of double effect is a generally applicable test for the consequences of an absolutist position. Its own application is not always clear, so that it introduces uncertainty where there need not be uncertainty. In Indo—China, for example, there is a great deal of aerial bombardment, strafing, spraying of napalm, and employment of pellet- or needle—spraying antipersonnel weapons against rural villages in which guerrillas are suspected to be hiding, or from which small-arms fire has been received. The majority of those killed and wounded in these aerial attacks are reported to be War and massacre 61 women and children, even when some combatants are caught as well. However, the government regards these civilian casualties as a regrettable side-effect of what is a legitimate attack against an armed enemy. It might be thought easy to dismiss this as sophistry: if one bombs, burns, or strafes a village containing a hundred people, twenty of whom one believes to be guerrillas, so that by killing most of them one will be statistically likely to kill most of the guerrillas, then is not one’s attack on the group of one hundred a means of destroying the guerrillas, pure and simple? If one makes no attempt t...
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