Bryan Caplan  

Terrible Turnaround

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We often have ethical arguments about when it's morally permissible for us to do seemingly terrible things to them.  Examples:

1. When is it morally permissible for us to deliberately drop a nuclear bomb on their civilians?

2. When is it morally permissible for us to launch an attack that we expect will lead to ten civilian deaths for every target killed?

3. When is it morally permissible for us to torture one of them?

The general conclusion of these discussions - unsurprisingly given group-serving bias - is that it's morally permissible for us to do almost anything to them.  Sure, there are a few random exceptions - it's OK to nuke their civilian population, but wrong to waterboard suspects.  (Huh?)  But by and large, we give ourselves a big green light.

At the same time, we almost never have ethical arguments about when it's morally permissible for them to do terrible things to us.  I don't think I've ever heard a debate about:

1. When is it morally permissible for them to deliberately drop a nuclear bomb on our civilians?

2. When is it morally permissible for them to launch an attack that they expect will lead to ten civilian deaths for every target killed?

3. When is it morally permissible for them to torture one of us?

The most obvious rationales for these non-debates are:

a. We're so morally upright that these hypotheticals aren't worth arguing about; they're as relevant as trolley problems.

b. Regardless of our behavior, doing terrible things things to us is wrong.

If you answer (a), the argument quickly bogs down in a thousand historical arguments.  But if you answer (b), our double standard is terribly obvious.


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COMMENTS (33 to date)
rapscallion writes:

I'm surprised that the ethics of spying aren't debated more. It's an open secret that all the major nations spy on one another, but very rarely does one hear calls to put an end to it. Nonetheless, people get really upset when spies against their own nation are uncovered.

If you forced people to think hard about it, my bet is that most people would say that since spying is inevitable (it's probably a dominant strategy for all concerned in game theoretic terms), spies serving other nations against one's own country really aren't so bad; they're just serving their own people while our spies serve us abroad. However, that seems to argue against very harsh punishment of spies, as far as the interests of justice are concerned.

What gets me is just that I see the ethics as highly problematic, but intelligence leaders are never questioned about these matters in public. No tv interviewer is ever going to ask a former CIA head in public, "Hey, since we spy on other nations, should we really be that upset when they spy on us?" No one's ever going to ask Presidential candidates about it, either. I just don't like that so man get a free pass.

Hyena writes:
Ben writes:

I remember hearing some brief story on the news about the family of an Iraqi policeman, including his brother, who was a soldier, all being murdered by the US military, who mistook them for terrorists. It's so easy to imagine how terrible our rage would be if a group of Iraqis did something similar to an American family. Yet when Americans murder Iraqis it's hardly a blip on the radar.

When a group of terrorists kill 3000 Americans, it's a national tragedy and reason enough for war. When anywhere from one hundred thousand to a million Iraqis are killed by Americans, it's...what was it? Finding WMDs? Kicking out Saddam Hussein? Freeing Iraq? Spreading democracy? And now it seems we're planning to impose the same assistance on Afghans. I don't mean to downplay the tragedy of 9/11, but the double standard is plain as day.

On the subject of immigration, if the United States somehow became a terrible place to live, I do not think that Americans would have much patience for the anti-immigration arguments of Canadians and Mexicans, no matter how closely they resemble those that are used to justify the current status quo. Just look at the history of Texas. Some Americans wanted to live in Texas, the Mexicans demanded that they follow certain rules if they were to do so, the Americans refused to follow the rules, and war broke out. The Americans won, and we Texans are taught at a young age that it was a glorious and noble thing. Somehow I doubt we would be taught to look so favorably upon Mexicans were they to imitate our predecessors.

Bob Murphy writes:

I really do like the spirit of this post, Bryan, because I think you're right that this underscores the narcissism of typical American debates.

But strictly speaking, wouldn't the answer be, "It's moral for them to do it whenever the circumstances are the same, as those which we've decided make it moral for us to do it?"

So for example, if you think it's OK for the CIA to waterboard someone who knows about a bomb placed in Times Square, then it must be OK for the Iranian government to waterboard someone who knows about a bomb placed in Tehran.

Prakhar Goel writes:

Bryan,

This is not only insulting, it is naive and ludicrously uninformed. The fact is that the entire debate on ethics in international law is a fabrication of liberals and libertarians that has now infected unwashed masses as such drivel has a tendency to. Classical international law had an easy answer for these questions: Might makes Right. Simple and effective --- it kept the war casualties in Europe far below those in the twentieth century.

FC writes:

1. Ethics aren't morals.
2. It is immoral to impose your morals on me.
2a. Because I said so.
3. The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto.

Evan writes:

@Prakhar Goel,

Might makes Right is considered very simple and effective by those who have Might. To those who don't it seems inefficient at best. And please note that the only reason that war casualties in Europe were lower before the twentieth century was that there was a lower absolute amount of people back then. If you go by percentages rather than absolute numbers, the Thirty Years war was more than three times more lethal than World War 2.

And incidentally, the fact that you offer low war casualties as evidence that "Might makes Right" is a good policy, in fact shows that you have a separate moral standard above that, namely keeping war casualties low. After all, if you believe that "Might makes Right" is good because it keeps war casualties low, you must believe that it would be bad if it instead kept war casualties high. Ergo, the real moral principal you believe in is "countries have a right to do the horrible things Bryan describes if doing so results in large decrease in the number of war casualties."

But of course, the real reason we care more about these issue than our ancestors is because we've been infected by drivel. The reason we care more is because we've made moral progress and are now better than our ancestors were.

Hugh Watkins writes:

Hypocrisy may play a role here, but surely the real reason for putting these one-sided questions is that we have no influence whatsoever over our adversaries - they will do what they will do.

agnostic writes:

It only took until comment #8 to point out the obvious: outside the artificial bubble of high school debate clubs, tiresome debates are pointless unless they can lead to better decision-making -- a more stringent requirement than merely "clarifying complex moral questions."

So we only debate things that we, not others, will make decisions about.

That's also why we debate a lot over when we may eat pigs, but not over when pigs may eat us. That debate is simply pointless to real-life people making decisions in the real world.

Two Things writes:

Prof. Caplan,

Some of us believe that any proper code of morality must be equally applicable to "us" and "them." For example, by our lights, neither "we" nor "they" may torture captive enemies for information and neither "they" nor "we" may behead visiting journalists who happen to be Jewish.

We also believe that people in other countries have the same right to control immigration as people in our country do.

As a strict matter of fact, many people in this country don't adhere to a reciprocal moral code or any we would consider proper. My friends and I try to persuade those folks to act more morally, but they often disregard us.

We also believe moral rules must be practical. For example, history and sociobiology agree that communism is not conducive to human happiness or progress. (It is not even achievable; attempted communism leads to stagnation and tyranny.) Moral rules which demand communism are therefore erroneous. Our moral code requires a calculus of harms. My friends and I believe it morally necessary to distinguish between harms done by action and inaction. If we were to reckon A's refusal to make B a gift as a "harm" equal to A robbing B of the hypothetical gift's value, our morality of reciprocal obligations could be claimed to require absolute communism, which would be error.

We believe that attacking strangers in their homes is immoral, but excluding strangers from our homes is moral (though discretionary).

We believe that a settled person who repels an unwanted visitor is acting defensively, not offensively (after due warning, of course, and subject to special rules for special cases, e.g., shipwrecked mariners).

We believe that acting in concert to prevent aliens migrating into group territory is morally akin to acting to prevent strangers trespassing on private property.

We believe private landowners have no right to inflict harm (e.g., "externalities") on their neighbors, so their right to entertain visitors of their choice does not extend to bringing unwanted aliens into group territory. The aliens have the right not to be enslaved so no landowner can morally confine them, which means that neighbors can only avert the harms aliens may cause by excluding them from the whole neighborhood.

RPLong writes:

My theory about this has been developing for a couple of years (informally), but what I've concluded is this:

People - especially people engaged in unethical behavior - are willing to do almost ANYTHING to excuse themselves from immoral behavior.

Brainy people will invent complex theories that justify their actions. Less brainy people will simply engage in "plausible deniability" for as long as they are capable.

William Newman writes:

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ajb writes:

The factual premise of this blog is just wrong. Many Americans routinely justified the actions of our enemies: e.g. Vietnam, Cuba, even the apologists for 911. That those voices were not always so forthright doesn't mean that those discussions weren't held. Certainly Lucas said Return of the Jedi was inspired by the Vietnamese struggle. And I remember many a college debate with leftists defending the worst behavior of enemies abroad. I even spoke to someone on the Left Coast after 911 who justified the bombing on the basis of US foreign policy.

So Bryan needs to get out more.

Of course, if one understands that they justified these behaviors by first shifting their allegiances, he would be right. But isn't that the implicit basis of these debates? Once you accept that you are in combat and one side is in the right, your attitude towards behavior should be asymmetric.

Furthermore, debates about things like the Geneva Convention suggest there are behaviors that are justified for both sides.

Steve writes:

This logic should be applied in your cut up Chuck scenario.

Andrew T. writes:

There are "laws of war" / "laws of armed conflict" that give broad guidance on what is permissible in war. They are based largely on international laws / treaties (e.g. Geneva Convention of 1949). The following link provides some basic information.

http://usmilitary.about.com/cs/wars/a/loac.htm

In a discussion where the question involves "ethical arguments about when it's morally permissible for them to do terrible things to us" the laws of armed conflict seem relevant in that at some level and at some time, people representing the United States agreed that certain actions were permissible and others were not.

Ryan writes:

I just want to point out that examples of other people engaging in the kind of moral reflection that Bryan Caplan is talking about don't actually address his point.

"What do you mean no one ever asked if it was okay if Jack stole from Bob? Tina asked it!"

See what I mean?

Charles R. Williams writes:

When is it just to go to war and what actions in waging a just war are themselves just? These are two separate questions. When we talk about the second question in the abstract we are in fact talking about what others could do to us if they were engaged in a just war. When we ask ourselves if actions we are taking are just, this is entirely appropriate since we are making war. If others are making war against us, the first question for us is do they have a just cause. If they answer is yes, we need to try to make peace. If the answer is no, then everything they do in waging war against us is wrong.

Prakhar Goel writes:

@Evan

Haha. It's funny you bring up the Thirty-Years War because that is what led to the Peace of Westphalia which formed the basis for classical international law. Thanks for adding further support for my point.

Might makes Right is simply reality. No participant in a war thinks they are doing anything wrong. They all have their reasons. Besides, ad hominem is not an acceptable logical argument.

Also, my focus on casualties was to convince the readers here. I consider might to be the simple fact of life between sovereigns.

John Thacker writes:

My grandfather was captured in the Philippines and made to mine coal as a POW near Fukuoka. He was always very clear to say that he wasn't angry at the Japanese about it, that it was part of war.

John Thacker writes:

I think it's ridiculous to argue that simply because spying is inevitable that that argues in favor of punishing it less severely. Merely because you accept something as within the rules of the game, not inherently immoral, and inevitable in no way argues against punishing it harshly. The objective is still to discourage it and make it more expensive and difficult for the other country.

Similarly, arguments that all violent criminals (as opposed to a special subset) commit violent crimes because they have no choice (genes, environmental, whatever) does not argue against punishing them harshly. Indeed, such arguments are more likely to lead to punishing people before the fact than to easier treatment. If the decision to commit the crime is not a moral choice, but something decided long before, then there's nothing less or more moral about punishing someone before they commit the crime that's inevitable.

John Thacker writes:

I think it's ridiculous to argue that simply because spying is inevitable that that argues in favor of punishing it less severely. Merely because you accept something as within the rules of the game, not inherently immoral, and inevitable in no way argues against punishing it harshly. The objective is still to discourage it and make it more expensive and difficult for the other country.

Similarly, arguments that all violent criminals (as opposed to a special subset) commit violent crimes because they have no choice (genes, environmental, whatever) does not argue against punishing them harshly. Indeed, such arguments are more likely to lead to punishing people before the fact than to easier treatment. If the decision to commit the crime is not a moral choice, but something decided long before, then there's nothing less or more moral about punishing someone before they commit the crime that's inevitable.

Dave MacLeod writes:

For those of you who are coming late to the issues of "Just War" and "Just Means", I'd like to direct your attention to "The Responsibility to Protect"(R2P) a report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), and the efforts of the UN to make R2P work. While the UN effort is not perfiect it is a move in the right (morally not politically) direction.

Evan writes:

Prakhar Goel, I take it that if someone assaulted and mugged you you would not press charges, since Might had made Right? Unlikely, since you are apparently doing all your thinking about national politics in Far Mode.

Arguing that something is right because it is a "fact of life" is foolish. There are all sorts of horrible things that are facts of life, our goal as human beings is to better ourselves by working to change that. You might as well say we shouldn’t try to cure disease since it is a fact of life, stop crime since it is a fact of life, or see through our own self-deceptions in order to improve our relationships with others, since self-deception is a fact of life. If life isn’t fair, we should try to make it fair.

Sovereigns should have to answer to the same moral standards that individual human beings do. They don’t always now, but all that means is that people should damn them morally and make their best efforts to stop them. Might doesn’t make Right, it just makes the people who exercise it Evil brutes.

rapscallion writes:

John Thacker,

Thanks for responding.

Do you also think that other countries should punish our spies harshly?

Should the U.S. not spy on anyone? If you don't think we should, should the CIA be abolished and all former heads prosecuted?

Are foreign spies working against the U.S. who get caught bad or just unlucky?

Jayson Virissimo writes:
Prakhar Goel, I take it that if someone assaulted and mugged you you would not press charges, since Might had made Right? Unlikely, since you are apparently doing all your thinking about national politics in Far Mode.

This does not follow from what Prakhar Goel said. If the police have more might than the criminal than they would be "right" in punishing his attempt to challenge their monopoly on the use of force. Also, Prakhar Goel seems like the kind of guy who is likely armed and very well might not need to call the police.

P.S. I completely reject the doctrine of "might makes right".

Prakhar Goel writes:

@Evan and Jayson

Thanks Jayson. Also, note that classical international law only applies to sovereigns. Unless one of us is the king of some obscure country, none of this applies to us.

Also Evan, you need to look at the idea Humean Oughts and consider what could form a useful basis for international law: unenforceable laws and (likewise unenforceable) moral codes are worse than useless, they are a source of friction and discontent. Your claim that the same standards should apply to sovereigns as citizens/subjects is well beyond ludicrous. Citizens have sovereigns. Sovereigns have no higher authority.

John Thacker writes:

rapscallion:

I don't particularly have a viewpoint on whether a country necessarily should or shouldn't treat spies harshly. I think that they're free to do so and it doesn't bother me, but it may not always be pragmatic.

Punishment is not always about morality.

R. Richard Schweitzer writes:

To paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre:

Whose Morality?
What Ethics?

The "Morals" of Sparta were not the "Morals" of Athens.

Morals of any grouping of peoples generally reflects a sufficient commonality of "oughtness" (including "Ought not to")that creates obligations to do or not do. Ethics deals with how those obligations are carried out and how the conflicts among them are resolved.

Commonalities are shared among diverse groupings, but most often are not sufficient enough in their commonalities to form a shared "Morality." This is probably true of Christians and Muslims; and as one moves within each of those groupings, examining the degree of commonality among persons in the grouping, there are variances, often quite wide.

So, the us and them of groupings will not yield the answer to the underlying issues for any particular grouping.

Were we all not lectured when young that many "primitive" people were not immoral, simply ammoral? Basically, not having our morals; but, more likely our not understanding theirs.

R. Richard Schweitzer

Evan writes:

Prakhar Goel, maybe I haven't quite understood what you mean by "Might Makes Right," so let me spell out what comes to mind when I read that phrase:

"Might Makes Right" means that the sovereign who has the strength to be victorious in national conflicts is always, categorically morally right by definition in whatever he does. So from this view you would arrive at conclusions such as, "if the mightiest sovereign on Earth becomes suicidally depressed and decides to detonate a doomsday device that would exterminate all life on Earth, he would be doing the right thing and it would be morally wrong to try to stop him."

However, you asked me to consider what a useful basis for international law. That likely means that you don't really mean "Might makes Right" in its most literal sense. Rather you believe "Usefulness makes Right" and that "'Might makes Right' is principal that is Useful extremely frequently."

Also, the idea that sovereigns have no higher authority is silly. Most governments have a system of checks and balances that prevent one sovereign from holding all power. There is also the second higher authority, the threat of being killed or ousted by the people if the sovereign does something flagrantly immoral. Many people in the world disobey their sovereign because of higher morals, look at the Underground Railroad or the Free French for example. Heck, the majority of people disobey their sovereign if it's useful. I submit as evidence the fact that nearly everyone who can drive has exceeded the speed limit at least once in their lives.

roystgnr writes:

"Might makes right" is exactly backwards. No one nation is mighty enough to impose their will against the wills of all the rest; moreover, the "will" of a nation is itself meaningless because nations are heterogeneous masses of people with different opinions on what the nation should do in concert. When people have sufficient control over their lives and collective control over their nations' actions, then the debate over what actions are "right" is actually determinative of what will be supported by our combined might, not the other way around.

Arguing that "the mighty get their way, so we can just as well stop debating it" is in fact an abdication of your own share of the might of the world, as you forgo opportunities to convince others to join in defending your own rights.

Prakhar Goel writes:

@Evan,

No, you clearly haven't understood "Might makes Right." Your first example with the ultra-strong sovereign: if the opposing nations want to bring their armies out in opposition, they have they have the might to do that and may morally do so. They will lose by the definition of your scenario but that only makes their actions stupid, not immoral. MMR is not a moral system as much as a lack of one. It says effectively that all actions are moral because if some entity carries out some actions, they obviously had the ability to do so and therefore were morally justified in doing so: anything goes. And, yes, I really do mean Might makes Right in its most literal sense. The reason this is useful as opposed to any other system is because it is never violated. Every other stronger (more discriminating) system is.

Also, a sovereign does not have to be an individual. It is often a group of people (in the case of the US, it is technically the entire population). A little Hobbes here would be helpful for you. If you want to participate in a discussion on international law, a basic understanding of Leviathan is pretty much a necessary pre-requisite --- go read it as you clearly haven't.

@roystgnr

No one nation is mighty enough to impose their will against the wills of all the rest.

1) How does this have anything to do with the validity of MMR?

2) The US can easily demolish all of Africa and the middle east if it chose to take its proverbial gloves off. Worst case: simply nuke everything. Similarly, China and Russia could rule Asia with ease.

Arguing that "the mighty get their way, so we can just as well stop debating it" is in fact an abdication of your own share of the might of the world, as you forgo opportunities to convince others to join in defending your own rights.

Not at all. Lying always works --- just look at politicians. Reality is never a major barrier for the budding demagogue. I personally just prefer guns though. On a more serious note, this ludicrous clawing at one's own infinitesimal morsel of power is the biggest problem with democracy. This little morsel doesn't do anything for the holder, only groups matter: groups who bear no responsibility for their actions and have perverse incentives.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

This seems to be the best post to ask: What do you think about the article "War is Bargaining by Other Means" @
http://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/5551

Mike Rulle writes:

Bryan

Your question suggests there is a rational/logical answer derivable from a rationally knowable first set of premises. If you come up with the latter, please let your readers know. But I am pretty sure it does not exist. Faith, in the end, is the best we can do. To think otherwise leads to moral relativism, which is one step short of nihilism in which "all is permitted".

Somehow we do arrive at moral principles, despite our rational limitations. But not without either moral or utilitarian contradictions when put in practice. One does one's best.

Also, your question implies a bias that civilians are "innocent". Was Leni Riefenstahl innocent? Were all who cheered for Hitler's victories innocent? Or those who let him stay in power---were they all innocent? We are all morally responsible---there are few innocents.

You will never find the internally consistent "rational" answer to your questions, because behind them I am pretty sure you see only the void. And that is a bad place to be. Reason will only get you so far.

Existentially, it will not set you free from our limitations, which require us to make "absolute" moral choices without the rational "clarity" you seek.

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