TCS Daily

The War Over the War in Iraq

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - May 10, 2004 12:00 AM

Why are there different views of the morality of war in Iraq? Some people support it; some don't. Those who support it don't do so (as a rule) because they think war is good in itself. They support it because it averts a greater evil or produces a greater good (or both). Most of those who oppose the war don't do so because they're extreme pacifists, opposed to violence at all costs. They oppose it because they think the cost is too high. Other means (they say) could have realized the same end(s). War should be a last resort.

Diagnosing Disagreement

In general, there are three types of disagreement: conceptual, factual, and evaluative. If I say that cloning is wrong and you say it's not, we may be using the word "cloning" in different ways. That is, we may have different conceptions of cloning. If we notice this, we can clarify the concept (define the term) and proceed with our discussion. Philosophers are adept at noticing conceptual disagreements, which is why they take pains to define their terms before arguing. When a philosopher is asked an evaluative question, such as "Is cloning wrong?" he or she is likely to reply with a question: "What do you mean by 'cloning'?" The philosopher is not being obtuse, coy, or disrespectful. He or she is ensuring that the exchange is productive rather than wasteful.

I doubt that much of the disagreement about the morality of war in Iraq is conceptual. We appear to be talking about the same act. This is not to say that the concept of war needs no clarification, for clearly it does. How does war differ from violence, for example, or terrorism, or revolution, or riot; and what sorts of war are there? Philosophers have devoted much energy to answering these questions -- as they should, since war is one of the more important concepts in our conceptual scheme.

In principle, factual disagreements are the easiest of the three types to resolve. The parties should agree on a reputable source and then check it. The source can be a person with expertise (an expert) or a text prepared by an expert. Years ago, I disagreed with a friend about which position Frank Gifford played in the National Football League. I thought Gifford had been a quarterback. My friend insisted that Gifford was a running back. We recognized that we had a factual disagreement, so we agreed on a reputable source -- a football encyclopedia in the university library -- and checked it. My friend was right, much as it pains me to admit it. It would have been unseemly of me, having adjudged the encyclopedia authoritative, to reject what it said.

Whether evaluative disagreements are intractable depends on one's view of the nature of values. I'm an evaluative subjectivist, like David Hume (1711-1776) and J. L. Mackie (1917-1981). I deny that there are objective values. If I value individual liberty and you don't, or if I assign a higher value to individual liberty than you do, nothing further can be said or done. We simply have different values. We might inquire into why we have these different values, but it makes no sense to say that one of us is right and the other wrong. The value of individual liberty is not written into the world. This doesn't mean we can't persuade one another to change values. My high evaluation of individual liberty may contradict other values I hold, in which case I can be persuaded to alter my evaluation. Reason helps one sift through, order, clarify, and rank one's values. Two people can help each other do this. One does not have to be an evaluative objectivist to think that reason plays a role in the moral life.

At some point, however, reason becomes impotent. Once I see that you have a coherent (i.e., a logically consistent, mutually reinforcing) set of values, I have nothing further to say to you. I may regret that you have the values you have, and I may think that if you had had different experiences from those you in fact had, you would have different values (mine!), but I can't very well say that you're irrational or intellectually irresponsible. You're just different. There is, in short, such a thing as evaluative (including moral) deadlock. As J. J. C. Smart put it, "It may well be that there is no ethical system which appeals to all people, or even to the same person in different moods." (J. J. C. Smart, "An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics," in Utilitarianism: For and Against, by J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973], 1-74, at 7)

Disagreement in Action

You might think that at least within a particular theory, there is unanimity about the morality of war in Iraq. This would be a mistake. Let me illustrate this point by discussing utilitarianism. Here is how Smart defines act-utilitarianism (as distinguished from other varieties, such as rule-utilitarianism):

"the view that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends only on the total goodness or badness of its consequences, i.e. on the effect of the action on the welfare of all human beings (or perhaps all sentient beings)" (ibid., 4).

A utilitarian agent is charged with making the world the best it can be. Anything less than the best is inadequate, although whether it is blameworthy is a separate question. It may be that some wrong acts do not deserve blame (they could even deserve praise) and that some right acts do not deserve praise (they could even deserve blame). Utilitarianism is a theory of rightness, not a theory of (personal) goodness. It allows for the possibility that good people can act wrongly and bad people rightly.

Here is how an act-utilitarian is to think. At any given moment, there are several actions (or courses of action) open to a person. The first step in the deliberative process is to individuate and enumerate the various actions one can perform. For example, I am sitting at my computer keyboard on a damp Saturday afternoon as I write this. I could be doing any of a number of other things. I could be working in a soup kitchen in downtown Fort Worth, lecturing to a civic organization, riding my bicycle, torturing my neighbor, having unprotected sexual intercourse with the hope of procreating, or agitating for political change.

Let's narrow it down. Suppose there are three actions -- A, B, and C -- available to me. The next step is to ask who would be affected by these actions. Act A may affect twenty individuals, act B ten individuals, and act C two individuals. The next step is to ask how the individuals would be affected. Is their welfare promoted or undermined? Act A may promote the welfare of fifteen of the twenty individuals it affects but undermine the welfare of the other five. The utilitarian must try to quantify these effects. An individual whose welfare is promoted only slightly might be assigned the value +2. An individual whose welfare is undermined significantly might be assigned the value -20.

The next step is to aggregate. Once the individuals affected by each action are identified and values assigned to them, a score emerges. Suppose act A produces a net welfare (utility) of +15, act B +20, and act C -5. The right thing to do is act B. This is true even though (by hypothesis) fewer people are made better off by B than by A. Utilitarianism is studiously indifferent to (1) how many better-off individuals there are, (2) how the increased welfare is distributed, and (3) whether there are any "losers" (i.e., individuals made worse off). Utilitarianism is a bottom-line moral theory. It cares only about the outcome of the reasoning, not the process. Its aim is to maximize the good, period.

I should add that, to a utilitarian, everyone affected by an act counts, and equally so. The agent -- the person performing the act -- counts, but no more (or less!) than anyone else. It could turn out that the right act benefits me significantly while harming many others. If this is how the utility calculation came out, then performing the act would be the right thing to do, and performing any other act would be wrong. As between oneself and others, or as between one's loved ones and strangers, one must be strictly impartial, however tempting it may be to show favoritism. Some people are attracted by this feature of the theory. Others are repulsed.

The Appeal of Utilitarianism

One of the appeals of act-utilitarianism since its development by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is its aura of objectivity. Bentham called the theory "the felicific calculus." (In his view, welfare -- Smart's term -- was equivalent to happiness, hence "felicific." Happiness, in turn, was understood (bizarrely) as pleasure and the absence of pain.) Utilitarianism seems almost scientific. Indeed, when I lecture on the subject in my Ethics courses, I describe a newfangled device called a "utility calculator." It would be programmed to walk one through the steps I laid out above. "How many actions are available to you?" it would ask. "How many individuals would be affected by act A?" "How would individual 1 be affected?" And so on. At the end of the data entry, the screen would say, "Perform act B."

What sort of theory is utilitarianism? Is it theoretical, practical, or both? That is to say, is it an account of rightness or a decision procedure? Is it supposed to generate knowledge of which acts are right or guidance about what to do? If we say that utilitarianism is theoretical only, then it is no criticism of the theory to point out that it's impractical. But if the theory is supposed to provide real-world guidance in dilemmatic situations, then it must be practical. It must help us decide what to do. Should I break my promise? Should I have a second child? Should I support the war in Iraq? Should I send my savings to Oxfam? Should I abandon a career in philosophy to return to law practice? Should I kill one to save five?

Let's assume, for the sake of discussion, that act-utilitarianism is theoretical only. This insulates it from the charge that it's impractical. Suppose we want to know whether the war in Iraq was right. It might be thought that this is a factual matter, resolvable in the manner described above. Certainly there are many factual matters that can be resolved in this way. But some of them are so entangled with evaluations, interpretations, and judgments that it becomes virtually impossible to secure agreement even among act-utilitarians. And if act-utilitarians can't agree among themselves about the morality of war in Iraq, what chance is there that adherents of other moral theories will agree?

Why Utilitarians Disagree

The first point of divergence among act-utilitarians is the list of available actions. It is large. The United States could have done any number of things with regard to Iraq, including nothing. It could have invaded, as it did; it could have invaded earlier or later than it did; it could have used one set of weapons rather than another set; it could have worked through the United Nations; it could have sent in assassins or emissaries; it could have tried to foment revolution from within; &c. Strictly speaking, all available actions must be considered. To omit even one action is to misapply the theory.

Once a list of available actions is compiled, the utilitarian must list the individuals affected by each. This may seem an easy task, but it's not. It's a daunting task. The utilitarian must show no preference for those now living. Things we do today affect individuals not yet born. And depending on the theory of value one chooses, nonhuman animals may have to be taken into account. If one is a hedonistic utilitarian, like Bentham, one must factor in the happiness or unhappiness (i.e., the pleasure or pain) of animals. If one is a preference utilitarian, like Peter Singer, one must factor in the preferences of animals. Put these two points together and one must take account of future animals (or future generations of animals) as well as present animals.

This problem is compounded by the fact of negative responsibility. To a utilitarian, one is responsible not just for what one does but for what one allows. (Most deontologists deny this.) It's tempting to say that if the United States had not invaded Iraq, it would not be responsible for the murders, rapes, and tortures perpetrated by Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. Not so. It would be responsible. Every action has consequences both in terms of what it brings about and in terms of what it allows to occur. Remember: The utilitarian's objective is to make the world the best it can be. One is morally responsible for anything one can affect. Singer himself is clear about this. He says in his famous famine essay that if it is within one's power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, one ought to do so.

Once we get a list of the individuals affected by each action, we must ask how they're affected. The hedonistic utilitarian cares only about happiness (understood by Bentham as pleasure). The preference utilitarian cares only about the satisfaction of preferences. Welfare (objective) utilitarians care only about well-being, even if it's unconnected to happiness or the satisfaction of preferences. How are things like liberty to be evaluated? To the hedonist, liberty (understood as the absence of constraint) has only extrinsic value. It is valuable because, and only to the extent that, it makes individuals happy. But isn't liberty objectively valuable? Aren't Iraqis better off, objectively speaking, if they're free rather than tyrannized? Remember: We're talking about future generations of Iraqis, not just those now living. Creating a free, democratic Iraq can enhance the welfare of literally hundreds of millions of people.

The point is, different utilitarians, with different theories of value, say different things about which effects matter. Utilitarians such as Peter Singer seem to care more about alleviating hunger and satisfying basic needs (for shelter, fuel, clothing, and medical care) than promoting liberty, self-respect, dignity, and responsibility. But these latter are no less important than happiness to overall well-being. Please understand: I'm not taking sides in this intramural squabble. I'm trying to explain why even act-utilitarians reach different conclusions about the morality of war in Iraq.

Another source of disagreement within the ranks of utilitarians concerns the deterrent effect of war. It seems like common sense to many of us that, by toppling Saddam Hussein, the United States deters other tyrants and would-be tyrants. It had become an article of faith in the Muslim world that the United States was a paper tiger, unable or unwilling to enforce its bold statements or protect its interests. This has changed as a result of the war in Iraq. Everyone is now on notice that the United States has both the ability and the will to back up its threats. The United Nations may not be feared, but the United States is. Surely this threat will deter others, and that means less tyranny, which means less unhappiness and misery throughout the region and the world. An honest utilitarian must count this as a good consequence of the war. If deterrence is part of the utilitarian justification for punishment, as it clearly is, then it is part of the utilitarian justification for the removal and punishment of tyrants.

Of course, there's a flip side. The war may induce otherwise peaceful individuals to engage in acts of terror against innocents. It may turn frustration into rage and resentment. It may incite violence rather than suppress it. These bad consequences must be taken into account. To a utilitarian, all consequences -- direct and indirect, proximate and remote, good and bad -- must be taken into account.

The Upshot

What I have tried to do in this essay is explain why there are different views of the morality of war in Iraq. Some of the disagreement is undoubtedly factual in nature. Factual disagreements are easily resolvable, at least in principle, but not when those who disagree are roiling with emotion. Passions prevent otherwise clear thinkers from thinking clearly. Pride, greed, envy, and anger get in the way. Also, it's not always clear what the actual consequences of our actions will be. This is all the more so with respect to large-scale actions such as war. Who can honestly say what the effects of this war will be? Those who oppose the war tend to see only bad effects; those who support the war tend to see only good effects. One's overall judgment about the morality of the war influences one's assessment of the facts.

The reason I focused on act-utilitarianism is this: If adherents of one narrow moral theory cannot reach a consensus on the morality of the war in Iraq, it should be no surprise that there is no intertheoretical consensus. Deontologists see the world very differently from consequentialists, of whom utilitarians are but one type, of whom act-utilitarians are but one type, of whom hedonistic act-utilitarians are but one type. Ultimately, all any of us can do, whatever our theoretical commitments, is get as clear as we can about the facts (including the consequences of various actions) and bring our values to bear on them. Other people, bringing different values to bear on different assessments of the facts, may reach a different conclusion. This doesn't mean that one of us is right and the other wrong. It means that we're different people.

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., a.k.a. The Logic Cop, is a frequent contributor to Tech Central Station. He is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches courses in Logic, Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, and Philosophy of Law. He has two stinkers, Sophie and Shelbie, and two hyperactive blogs: AnalPhilosopher and Animal Ethics. He recently wrote for TCS Explaining Liberal Anger.


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