Monday, May 30, 2016

Immunity of noncombatants

This is a follow-up to my previous post:

Although this post has special reference to nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the issue is more general. 

1. The basic objection to nuking Japan is that it violated the immunity of noncombatants. A mass attack on civilian population centers. 

2. As a rule of thumb, the immunity of noncombatants is a humanitarian principle. All other things being equal, I think we should avoid targeting civilians. 

My problem is that this principle is terribly crude. It fails to draw many morally salient distinctions.

3. The debate is typically framed in terms of not intentionally killing civilians. But, presumably, ethicists who advocate the immunity of noncombatants think it's wrong to intentionally harm civilians. Killing would just be a limiting case of inflicting harm. 

Moreover, it's disputable whether killing is the worst thing you can do to a human being. Suppose a human is horribly maimed. Or suppose they lose all their loved ones. Arguably, this can be just as harmful in a different way.

4. One thing which critics like Elizabeth Anscombe typically overlook is how the death of combatants can be harmful to noncombatants. A standard argument for nuking Japan is that invasion was the alternative, and that would have resulted in massive casualties for American soldiers. But if you think about it, that's not just harm to the soldier. His death harms his parents, siblings, wife, or fiancée. Not only does that inflict tremendous emotional harm on the surviving loved ones, but it may leave parents without a grown child to care for them if they become incapacitated in old age. Oftentimes, the death of a combatant indirectly and severely harms one or more noncombatants. 

Critics like Anscombe artificially compartmentalize the issue. But humans are related to other humans. Injury to one may injury several. 

5. Combatants are not all of a kind. The way critics like Anscombe lump combatants into one group lacks moral finesse. Some combatants fight for a just cause while others fight for an unjust cause. Some combatants are volunteers while others are conscripts. 

i) Volunteers fighting for a just cause

ii) Conscripts fighting for a just cause

iii) Conscripts fighting for an unjust cause

iv) Volunteers fighting for an unjust cause

It's unclear why the lives of civilians should always count for more than the lives of soldiers. Shouldn't that depend in part on whose side the soldier is on and whose side the civilian is on?

To take a comparison, a policeman is a combatant. He's armed. And he's authorized to use lethal force under certain circumstances.

Compare that to a child pornographer. Suppose he's unarmed. If it was a choice between saving the policeman's life and saving the pornographer's life, which takes precedence? 

There are situations where a soldier is risking his life in a noble cause. What he's doing is brave and honorable. What if the civilian is a degenerate? What makes the civilian's life sacrosanct compared to the soldier's life? If the soldier is virtuous while the civilian is vicious, whose life should we value more? 

6. Critics like Anscombe fixate on the right of civilians not to be killed by soldiers. But what about the right of soldiers not to be killed? Don't soldiers have a prima facie right to life? Morally speaking, what makes the life of a Nazi scientist sacrosanct but the life of a Marine expendable?

7. Critics like Anscombe belabor the distinction between causing harm and permitting harm. But morally speaking, that's often a false dichotomy. There are situations in which doing harm is sometimes obligatory. Conversely, there are situations in which allowing harm is sometimes culpable. 

Suppose we refused to defeat Japan because we couldn't do so without violating the immunity of noncombatants. That would permit Japan to remain an aggressive and oppressive military dictatorship. How is allowing Japan to periodically inflict massive harm on innocent victims (e.g. women, children, sick, elderly) morally preferable to our temporarily harming Japanese civilians for the benefit of posterity? What makes allowing malevolent harm ipso facto better than doing harm for benevolent reasons? 

8. I'd add that there's a tension between the traditional immunity of noncombatants and appeal to the "dignity of every human being" among contemporary Catholic ethicists like Germain Grisez and Christopher Tollefsen. 

9. My immediate point is not to say whether we should have nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I'm simply framing the issue from an ethical standpoint. Assessing the moral merits of the nuclear strike also depends on factual and counterfactual considerations. My objective is to question the moral superficiality of how objections to dropping the bomb are typically cast. 

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