moral weights

do you kill one person to save ten?now this is a standard question in moral philosophy, one whose meaning has been explored by kant (no), the utilitarian (yes/maybe), and just about every uppity philosophy 101 student. it has many forms and variants (recently cropping up in organ harvesting – no pun intended), and is one of those things whose answers aren’t really all that interesting, but whose justifications are the real substance.

so why the phil spew? because i think some people’s weighting systems have gone a bit unbalanced and it is a good way to re-center them. from my dear conservative friend, on lebanon-israel:

conservative: part of me is scared shitless this is gonna escalate more than it has. but part of me, though, is sorta glad we’re seeing the extremists emerge here

me: yeah, that one requires some explaining

conservative: at least now we know what we’re really dealing with, ya know. before, it was the easy way of fixing the problem, hope a strong man who you can coerce or cajole fixes it for you. its like the argument you dems always make about s. america — [stop] funding the contras, fix the underlying causes and the contras won’t be needed. well, US foreign policy has for years favored the contras in the ME (ie arafat, assad, mubarak, prince __ of saud, etc) as opposed to fixing underlying causes.

now that we see what those underlying causes can result in we’re a step closer to fixing the problem. is that completely cracked out? its like the argument against rent controls in cities if the signal of how valuable the property is doesn’t get sent, then you will end up with less housing than you actually need.

hm. lemme check whats on cnn – troops at the border, families fleeing, civilians dead and wounded… ok, the washington post has a roundup: more civilian casualties… and the guardian has a piece on children killed and how ineffective the bombing has been… so if that is reality, then what in the world is he seeing? because ‘knowing the mideast has big problems’ doesn’t really count as an upside here. most of us knew that already.this isn’t just my friend – this is what the president thinks:

“The president believes that unless you address the root causes of the violence that has afflicted the Middle East, you cannot forge a lasting peace,” said White House counselor Dan Bartlett. “He mourns the loss of every life. Yet out of this tragic development, he believes a moment of clarity has arrived.”

this (confirmed with this) is a dangerous shift from our “camp david” policies. ‘root causes’ here clearly doesn’t mean dependence on oil (that finances this conflict). or a history of mistrust (fueled by recent conflicts). it means the existence of hezbollah in lebanon. to them, the conflict is an opportunity to kill terrorists – a long term plus. between now and ‘the long term’, of course, we lose our role as an honest broker. predictably, the conflict can/will has escalated without us.but i started with the moral point. to even consider killing one to save ten, ‘we’ (philosophers, ordinary people) require a clear idea of what is lost and what is gained. the more vague, the more abstract the argument becomes (kill an undefined number now to potentially save more lifes in the future), the more we – rightly, i think – become unsettled. but in the fight between between israel and hezbollah (and by extension, lebanon), nobody has made even a vague case. to infer from actions, killing 306 to save 2 seems a bit unbalanced. accepting ‘collateral damage‘, to kill others (hezbollah) isn’t what i’d call a justification, either. as i understand it, this isn’t a game of counterstrike, where there are only so many terrorists we need to kill. these groups are always recruiting, and – unlike us – i imagine this conflict only fills their ranks (see the guardian reports, above). just killing and destroying isn’t an endgame. it is probably counterproductive. and it definitely won’t build peace. i could ramble on, but i think this makes the point.

i’m not saying don’t respond. i’m saying respond intelligently. think it through. philosophers may not agree on the answer (or even the question), but at a minimum a clear articulation is required. otherwise, it is running straight into misery. (there are, of course, additional benefits to clear statements in the field of public policy.)

[update: no, nevermind, my friend thinks this is all terrible and we need to address inequality in the region. see, now if everyone i know is being reasonable, why can’t the international community just do the same?]


2 Responses to “moral weights”

  1. -Canuck- Says:

    what makes you think that israelis haven’t thought it through. they could wipe lebanon off the map in two days if they wanted.

  2. fallingupstairs Says:

    they’ve certainly prepared for this for a while and thought the military side through. (as kalman has pointed out). and i’m happy that the israelis are showing some restraint.

    but i just don’t see the good that comes at the end of thisx conflict. my guess is that, no matter what damage has been inflicted upon hezbollah, they will be able to rebuild. others, fueled by hate, will join them. and there are more than a few with the means and will to supply them. when a small group of individuals can have so much power, i really don’t think the military can get the job done. (note the return of the taliban in afghanistan)

    my guess is that the israeli military hasn’t thought this through. their job is to deal with the immediate danger. but their preferred solution – killing the bad guys – may make it harder to achieve peace in the end.

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