Bryan Caplan  

When Are We the Bad Guys?

PRINT
Ed Crane on David Brooks... EconZen...
In response to "Terrible Turnaround," Scott Sumner writes:
Suppose that in 1943 we knew for a fact that dropping a bomb on Germany and Japan, and killing 3,000 civilians, would have caused them to surrender.  Would the act have been morally justified?  I'd say yes, but only because we were fighting the "bad guys."  On the other hand even if Al Qaeda knew for a fact that killing 3,000 Americans would cause us to surrender, it still wouldn't be morally justified.  They were fighting the "good guys"  (or for you Chomsky fans, the "less bad guys.")
Scott titles his reply, "In Praise of Double Standards," but he seems to be pushing a single standard.  Namely: "It's morally permissible for the good guys to do terrible stuff, and morally impermissible for the bad guys to do terrible stuff."  But that just pushes my question back a step to, "OK, what would we have to do to be the bad guys?"  And my claim is that group-serving bias makes us quick to clear us and condemn them.

Since Scott's an avowed utilitarian, I assume he'd use the utilitarian principle to distinguish good guys from bad.  His answer to the question, "When is it morally permissible for us to kill 3,000 enemy civilians?" would have to be "If it increases total utility."  Many, perhaps most, Americans would buy this answer.

But when asked, "When is it morally permissible for the enemy to kill 3,000 of our civilians?" the consistent utilitarian again has to answer, "If it increases total utility."  And while a handful of hard-core utilitarians will bite that bullet, few Americans would join them.   When they're attacking us, a mere excess of social benefits over social costs isn't good enough. 

This is the kind of double standard my original posts criticizes - and I doubt it's one that Scott really wants to praise.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (12 to date)
Scott Sumner writes:

Bryan, I see your point now, and I agree. But I think you needed to explain it more clearly, because it was easy to confuse with a slightly different "double standard" argument. In the press you often see what seems to be a similar point, but is actually quite different. You see people argue "If it's bad for Saddam Hussein to torture, then why isn't it bad for us to torture." Now I see that you weren't making that point, but I think others might have read it that way.

It's true I haven't seen any occasions when I thought foreigners would have been justified in killing lots of Americans. But I'm not sure that means I have a double standard. I don't recall many occasions (in the past few decades) where I thought a country would be justified in killing lots of Estonians, or Thai people, or New Zealanders, or Canadians, Portuguese, or people from lots of other countries.

I agree that lots of Americans are reflexively nationalistic, which is true of many countries. Only in rather extreme cases does an entire population admit they were at fault, and deserved to lose. (Germany after WWII might be the closest approximation.)

BTW, not to nit-pick, but all double standards are single standards from a certain perspective. If an African dictator has the single standard "I favor my own tribesmen in all government jobs," I think most people would regard that as a double standard. If the US government says it's OK for us to torture, but not Saddam, I think most people will view that as a double standard, even if utilitarian considerations explain the government's motivation. But yes, technically you are correct.

Pandaemoni writes:

I am not a hardcore utilitarian, but even if most Americans would have difficulty conceding that it is okay for the enemy to kill 3,000 U.S. civilians if the act would increase total utility, I think the reason that is hard to concede is not that it is not true, but rather because of two (related) points:

(i) it is very hard to conceive of a circumstance where the deaths of American civilians would increase overall utility; and

(ii) we don't trust our enemies (like al Qaeda) to calculate the net expected gains to utility properly.

On the latter point, if al Qaeda operatives were to make the calculation, their logic may well involve everyone...including Americans...being "much happier" without freedom and under the strictures of Wahabist Sharia law. I seriously doubt widespread adoption of such a system would increase utility.

That's my issue with utilitarianism--I would only trust me to make the calculation properly. Worse, since I know I have my own biases and gaps in my information, most of the time I don't really even trust me to do it.

Philo writes:

"[W]hile a handful of hard-core utilitarians will bite that bullet, few Americans would join them. When they're attacking us, a mere excess of social benefits over social costs isn't good enough." Why think that bullet is so hard to bite? There is no plausibility *at all* to the claim that Al Qaeda's conquering the U.S. would maximize utility (as Pandaemoni remarks, above); a utilitarian American can be quite confident that he will never be forced by his principle to approve an attack by bad guys such as Islamicist radicals on the U.S.

But a successful attack by *good guys*--*libertarians*--that cost only 3,000 lives looks pretty plausible!

Dog of Justice writes:

Er, this is the domain of game theory, not moral philosophy. Anyone who wants to kill 3,000 of your civilians, or vice versa, can't be assumed to have a utility function compatible with yours. The primary question here is "how do you best defend your interests against resistance?", not "how do you maximize global utility?"

Someday, the US might be taken over by a totalitarian regime. We might want to set a precedent that allows a benevolent third party to rescue us. (Malevolent third parties won't wait for permission.)

Doc Merlin writes:

The very idea of total utility makes no sense. Utility is subjectivist so you cannot add subtract or compare utility functions. This makes utilitarianism meaningless unless some postulates are made about relative value in utility functions. From there all sorts of utility comparisons can be made but they become somewhat arbitrary.

Evan writes:

I don't see any problems at all with biting this bullet, at least if you're a utilitarian or something similar. If, as Joseph Hertzlinger points out, America is taken over in the future by a totalitarian dictatorship, and Canada and Mexico have to invade in order to liberate us, I could certainly see it being morally acceptable for them to end up killing innocent people in the collateral damage, provided the dictatorship was likely to kill even more people in the future through purges and other democides. I wouldn't want to be killed by collateral damage, but I wouldn't want to be killed by secret police either.

Similarly, there are a few instances in the past where I would consider America to have been the true bad guy, rather than merely being misguided. If I had a time machine one possible use I'd put it to, (once I'd finished with Lenin and Hitler) would be to run AK47s to the Native Americans and Nat Turner in the 1800s.

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

But when asked, "When is it morally permissible for the enemy to kill 3,000 of our civilians?" the consistent utilitarian again has to answer, "If it increases total utility." And while a handful of hard-core utilitarians will bite that bullet, few Americans would join them. When they're attacking us, a mere excess of social benefits over social costs isn't good enough.

Then again, only few americans are ivory tower philosophers. In the real world, utilitarians are about as common as invisible pink unicorns.

This is the kind of double standard my original posts criticizes - and I doubt it's one that Scott really wants to praise.

He doesnt need to; him drinking his $5 latte* while the same money could have saved an unborn baby from contracting HIV speaks volumes for him. If youd ask me, id say that looks a lot more like singing implicit praise to in-group bias (the in-group being himself in this example) than breaking a lance for the optimization of global utility to me.

*or insert an example of your choosing

ajb writes:

Bryan makes the mistake in thinking that utilitarianism demands that I weight all preferences equally. False. I don't treat a psychopath's preferences as equivalent to mine. And I don't think fundamentalist Muslims' preferences should count as much as Americans. Indeed, if one religion believes that all others should die, should we weight their utility equal to those who believe that religions can co-exist?

Or less dramatically, should we weight preferences of nations seeking to expand militarily equally with those of nations seeking to stabilize the world order? Indeed, that makes it easy to see why killing 1000 Nazis just before WWII is easier to justify even before the war than killing 1000 Englishmen.

Beyonder writes:

@ajb. Once you introduce those types of distinctions into your philosophy, it is no longer a recognizable form of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism does demand that you weigh units of utility equally. You may not want to treat a Fundamentalist Muslim's utility as equal to yours, but you cannot weigh preferences in the manner you are suggesting without resort to some kind of non-utilitarian standard.

Matt writes:

I'm just throwing this out there but couldn't you argue that it's not a double standard because we are defending "freedom" and they are defending tyranny? In other words, how do you minimize violent coercion? America could justify torture or dropping a bomb by saying that it results in a net decrease in violent coercion.

B.B. writes:

Utility? WHOSE utility?

Utilitarianism makes no sense without specifying whose utility. The US takes violent action because it increases US utility. Period. How else would a democratic government function except to raise utility of its own populatin?

Killing 3,000 Americans? Guess what. About 400,000 Americans were killed in WW2. The US government sent its soldiers into conflict knowing that huge numbers would die. Those deaths could have been avoided by surrendering in 1941. FDR and the American people made a cold calculation that taking military action resulting in massive US deaths would raise US utility. Was it a good calculation, or should we have accepted Nazi rule?

al Qaeda may have been utilitarian by its own standards but I wonder. Islam is not utilitarian. And I don't think that 9/11 was ever considered a utilitarian act. It was an Arab response to issues of "honor." Except in a vacuous sense, honor issues do not overlap with utilitarian issues.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top