How much risk should soldiers bear in order to minimize civilian casualties?
According to the New York Times, even before General McChrystal’s firing, American troops abroad were uneasy with his strategy of counterinsurgency. Many soldiers think that the General’s insistence on tightening the rules of engagement in order to minimize civilian casualties has put American troops at risk. When fighting a terrorist enemy unafraid to hide within civilian populations, Americans must withhold their military superiority in order to protect civilians. This means eschewing artillery strikes or air support in favor of risky urban warfare.
While McChrystal’s reasons are surely more strategic than ethical, it is important to ask whether American soldiers have a responsibility to put themselves at risk for the sake of foreign civilians. After all, it is not uncommon for Americans to think “our” troops are more important than “their” civilians.
The combatant/civilian distinction exists in order to restrain the scope of war. War should be a relation between nations (or perhaps sub-national groups), and combatants are the armed emissaries of their nations. Civilians, without the ability to harm, are not directly part of the war effort, and therefore are not liable to be killed. Combatants, on the other hand, not only acquire the ability to harm, but have also implicitly taken on the risks of war. War, brought by combatants, is thrust upon civilians. Thus, combatants should take the brunt of the risk associated with war.
Arguably, the reason terrorism is so objectionable is because it seeks to erode the combatant/civilian distinction. Our moral repugnance toward terrorist attacks in New York is no different than our repugnance toward terrorist attacks in London, and so we should remain consistent when considering terrorist attacks in the Middle East. In all three cases the moral opposition is to the killing of civilians not liable to be killed, the nationality of the victims is morally irrelevant. Thus, when conducting our own wars, the combatant/civilian distinction should remain paramount – when fighting terrorism we should be careful not to imitate it.
What kind of philosophy is good for the state?
NYT’s The Stone published what is, to me, the first piece that effectively delivers on their mission. The question at hand is why philosophy appears to be so remote an inaccessible to those outside of academic philosophy. I’ll address the first response, by Alexander George.
The dilemma is that philosophical questions are of broad interest. Unfortunately, unlike the hard sciences, philosophy can rarely present concrete courses of action.
Philosophical questions can present themselves to us with an immediacy, even an urgency, that can seem to demand a correspondingly accessible answer. High philosophy usually fails to deliver such accessibility — and so the dismay that borders on a sense of betrayal.
Instead, philosophy tends to spin into every-greater abstraction. George argues that this abstraction leads necessarily to the incredibly intricate theoretical work done by academics.
The approach that involves the search for “new discoveries” of a theoretical nature is now ascendant. Since the fruits of this kind of work, even when conveyed in the clearest of terms, can well be remote and difficult, we have here another ingredient of the sense that philosophy spends too much time scrutinizing the sun.
I might add an additional reason: academics must publish, and having something worthwhile to say often requires some sort of theoretical innovation.
This question is of strong interest to the mission of The Public Philosopher. If there are to be philosophical/ethical answers to political questions, philosophy will have to supply them in widely comprehensible language. Ultimately, there will always be a layer of abstraction that goes beyond the needs of a population in resolving its everyday challenges. Unfortunately, it’s that abstraction that can often the locus of debate in academic circles.
Photo by Flickr user kevindooley used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
The breaking news yesterday about the FBI infiltration and arrest of a Russian spy ring left me wanting. The spies were not sent to obtain U.S. government jobs and access to classified information. They were sent to mingle with elites and think tankers and get juicy gossip and rumors about U.S. politics and foreign policy. Um, hello FBI? Have you met any 30-something policy wonks over happy hour? This rumor mongering is what they live for. Take a gander at Laura Rozen’s Politico blog or “The Cable” on Foreign Policy. There’s a whole media industry of political gossip. Is it really illegal to pass this stuff to foreign governments. Hell, Russia could have saved itself a ton of money and the trouble of, you know, a diplomatic crisis by just reading Wonkette. Could have had a laugh while gaining much more valuable intelligence from them than a “New York-based financier described as a fundraiser for a major political party” is going to get you.
Photo by Flickr user Anonymous9000 used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
The value and content of confirmation hearings
What’s the value of transparency in a democracy? Does it serve a function, or is it simply a right of the people to hear from elected and appointed officials, holding them to account through public opinion and in the ballot box?
These and other questions loom in the distant background when Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearing to join the Supreme Court kicks off this afternoon. While widely regarded as an empty formality that can do more to derail a confirmation (see: Robert Bork) than propel one, Supreme Court confirmation hearings are one of the few opportunities most Americans have to see and hear from the only unelected, lifetime-appointed branch of our federal government.
Many legal scholars and practitioners dislike confirmation hearings, treating them merely as superfluous opportunities for political bluster or the unending debate on abortion. But a fascinating new study – the first comprehensive analysis of what has been said at confirmation hearings – suggests otherwise: Read more
On Monday, in the wake of Father’s Day, Sam dissected the political issues underlying President Obama’s Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative and argued that most Americans have views on government and parenting that are similar to Obama’s
On Tuesday, Marc highlighted our tendency to prioritize American lives over those of Afghans or Iraqis, a Foreign Policy in Focus article on the subject, and added some relevant thoughts of his own; Jake defended Obama’s pragmatism and presidential image in the face of national catastrophes against the criticism from The Washington Post; and Sam disagreed with David Brooks on why Americans are frustrated with progressive economic initiatives
On Thursday, TPP intern Jonathan suggested in light of the firing of General McChrystal that not all dissent is necessarily good dissent
On Friday, Luke disagreed with the New York Times’ Stanley Fish and argued that student opinion ought to be taken seriously when evaluating professors, Marc wondered whether or not the media ought to embarrass criminal suspects, and TPP intern Han points to the notion of moral intent in order to disagree with the conclusion of Foreign Policy in Focus’ Adil Shamoo
In Others’ Words
Some folks at Philosophy Forums discussed the potential drawbacks of letting your moral code become your way of life
The Philosophers’ Magazine issued the second of five pieces on the best ideas of the 21st century
The Clyde Fitch Report wondered about the influence of Ayn Rand, and considered a new play called Ideal
Nicholas Byron Hall at Helium listed what he thinks are the best ethical philosophy texts
Paul Newell at The Galilean Library defined ethics and its various subfields, and described fundamental ethical positions and tenets in the West
Newsvine described the contemporary collision between ethical humanism and religion
Anarchist Writers argued that the development of revolutionary syndicalism can be explained without appeal to Marxism
The Political Bookworm at The Washington Post recommended some must-read books for conservatives
According to The Wall Street Journal, Japan is crazy about ethical philosophy
If you’re a fan of philosophy, American culture or history, or Westerners, check out this Chicago Sun-Times article on Professor Robert Pippin and his book, Hollywood Westerns and American Myth
How many (and which kinds) of deaths are acceptable in war?
On Tuesday, Marc posted an interesting article which argued that even if our current wars truly are essential to American defense, the number of innocent lives lost cannot justify the gain. The author, Adil Shamoo, assumes that the only reason we might find the deaths overseas acceptable is if we value American lives more than foreign lives. Dr. Shamoo thinks that this line of thinking is irrational and therefore cannot justify the bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As U.S. citizens, we value the lives of our fellow countrymen many fold over the lives of other citizens. How else could we allow our government to continue this policy of killing and wounding our opponents in such disproportion to the number of casualties of U.S. troops and contractors for nearly nine years after 9/11.
In his analysis, Dr. Shamoo considers only the number of deaths, but in doing so, he seems to have left out at least two morally relevant considerations – the manner in which the deaths occurred, and the purpose of the killers. For example, imagine that some Person A walks up to another Person C and kills him for some reason. Now imagine Person B walks up to the same Person C and for the same reason yells at him. Unbeknownst to Person B, Person C is easily startled and is standing at the edge of a cliff. The frightened Person C took a step back and fell off the cliff to his ultimate demise. In this example, both Persons A and B were responsible for the death of Person C and for the same reason, yet hardly anybody would think that their actions were morally equivalent. The difference here seems to be intent – while Person A intended to kill C, Person B only intended to scare him, the killing was an accident.
Now imagine Person A is a racist and shoots Person C because of his race. Person B, on the other hand, Read more
On Tuesday Jamaican drug lord and gang leader Christopher Coke was arrested in Kingston. The next day, his mugshot photos were all over the Jamaican (and international) news. The kicker: Coke was dressed as a woman — wig and all (photo here). It’s increasingly common for criminals on the run to masquerade as women…and for their captors to let the world know they were dressed as such. Given that such pictures causes a huge amount of public embarrassment to the suspect and that they are, remember, just suspects, should governments be allowed to release cross-dressing mug shots? embarrass
Should the preferences of students be used to evaluate professors?
In Monday’s New York Times Stanley Fish wrote on Texas A&M’s plan to make the university like a “businesses” in which the professors are held more accountable to student evaluations. The problem, according to Fish, is that students are not in the proper position to make a fair “judgment of value” about their educational needs and the quality of a professor.
Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.
In contrast, Fish comments that the best teaching often involves withholding the gratification of simple answers, even if students only come to appreciate the wisdom of this approach many years down the road. Read more
When is dissent appropriate?
General Stanley McChrystal has become President Obama’s MacArthur, as MacArthur was to President Truman: McChrystal failed (dramatically) to keep his frustrations and criticisms private, opening up a rift with the administration. The result? He was sacked.
There are a number of reasons to agree with the president’s decision. Obama needed to avoid creating the sort of situation that Truman found himself in when dealing with the insubordinate MacArthur in 1951. And although he is popular with public populations throughout the world, the president’s international reputation with the leaders of allies and enemies (and therefore his foreign policy initiatives in general) could be damaged. Read more
I was initially sympathetic to Yglesias’ post on lobbying for BP that’s been getting some play. His argument in brief goes as follows:
- Even heartless global corporations like BP should have the legal right to hire people to lobby for them in Washington
- Those lobbyists should be condemned to be shamed by others and should feel a deep sense of shame at what you’ve done. In other words, the social costs to lobbying for a bad cause should be higher
This makes a good deal of sense; there should of course be some kind of moral compass guiding individual actions, even when there’s a big payday involved.
There’s an alternative model to think about, however. It’s generally thought to be for the good that even those accused of the worst crimes deserve energetic defense in the legal system; conceivably, if BP executives were actually charged with wrongdoing, we’d be in favor of them getting effective defense. What is the moral distinction between these two situations?
The most obvious is that in a legal matter the defendant is in jeopardy of losing more, namely personal freedom, than is the corporation. But I’m not sure there’s a meaningful distinction there. The reason we want BP to have worse/fewer lobbyists would, I suppose, be that we want them to lose more in terms of prestige and, of course, money.Similarly, we want to safeguard against wrongful conviction, but there’s also a public interest in making sure that terrible crimes are aggressively punished.
If the two situations are analogous, I’d think we’d want to err on the side of a rigorous defense in both situations, and, following from that judgment, relative cultural immunity for those making the defenses.