What is the moral difference between killing someone intentionally and killing him accidentally? This question comes up when we talk about war and terrorism, and the difference between the two. In the public consciousness, there seems to be something morally distinct about accidentally bombing a school that’s near a military target and planting a bomb in that school with the aim of blowing it up.
We have a couple questions to answer. First of all: Are these two acts morally distinct? And second of all: How are they different?
I think that intentionally murdering someone is usually worse than accidentally killing someone. My reason for thinking this may be different from the reason other people would give, which in turn explains why I also have a different view of collateral damage than most people.
One possible reason we might have for judging the acts differently is that in one case the perpetrator wants the victim to die whereas in the other case he does not. In the case of the US, I think it’s fair to say that in many of its wars since WWII, its collateral damage has been unwanted, meaning that it would have preferred that the victims not die (it is harder to make this statement about its bombing campaigns in Japan and Germany). Al Qaeda, on the other hand, bombs buildings with the expressed purpose of killing the people inside.
Many people seem to think this is a key reason the US and al Qaeda are not on a moral plane, even if the US actually kills more people in its counter-terrorism operations.
I think it’s a mistake to focus on what a person wants to happen. Why? Because wanting something doesn’t mean very much. Actually, I think it’s meaningless. If we encounter a drowning child in a shallow pond, we might hope and pray the child swims to safety. But wanting it won’t make it happen. The fact is that the child will drown if we don’t save him, but that would entail getting wet. Someone who turns away a drowning child just to stay dry is guilty of a deeply immoral act, regardless of that person’s desires. I don’t think that is a controversial statement.
Another reason “wants” don’t count for much is that even most murderers think of their killings as regrettable necessities. If they got to design their own perfect world, they probably wouldn’t be a murderer. White settlers in North America just wanted to make a living. They didn’t want to dispossess and make war against the American Indians. I’m sure that if the whites had their druthers, the natives would live like royalty (just as long as they lived somewhere else). Al Qaeda wants the US to leave the Middle East. If the group could accomplish that without terrorism, if they had a magic wand that could whisk American troops back home, they’d use it. But they don’t, so they look for other options.
“All right, smarty pants,” you say, “if desires don’t count for anything, then what does?” If you think about the examples I’ve used, you may be able to see it already. In the drowning child example, we think that a child is clearly more valuable than an article of clothing. The right thing to do is to sacrifice the clothing for the child. In the second example, you can’t kill someone just to make a better life for yourself. Their right to life is more important than a few more acres of farmground.
Have you figured it out? We don’t care about what a person wants, we care about what they’re willing to trade. We recognize certain moral facts that pertain to value judgments, such as the value of a life, of a piece of land, and of a piece of clothing. We may not have exact values like you’d see in a grocery store, but we’re able to put them in some kind of order. We all recognize that a life is worth more than a pair of pants. We don’t condemn someone for wanting to protect their clean underwear. We condemn them for wanting to preserve it more than someone else’s life.
I think this explains pretty well why we condemn murder most of the time but make exceptions in instances such as self-defense. Killing someone to take their money is wrong because the victim’s life is clearly more valuable than the money is to you. But killing someone in self-defense means that you value your own life more than the life of the attacker, and that doesn’t seem wrong at all.
It also explains why we condemn even an accidental killing if the death were foreseeable and caused by your recklessness, but not as much if the death were unforeseeable. If I’m on the highway, re-enacting a scene from Speed Racer, and I run a stop sign and kill someone, people will rightly say that I’ve done something immoral, even though I didn’t intend to kill anyone. I valued the pleasure of my joy-ride more than the high probability of killing someone, and that is wrong. I have my values in the wrong order. But if I’m driving sensibly and kill someone else who’s run a stop sign, we think of that as a genuine accident. In that instance, the mere fact I caused an unfortunate death does not indicate I have distorted values, so we may not condemn me at all.
How do we apply this insight to war and terrorism? Let’s think about 9/11. The purpose of the attack was to force the US to withdraw from the Middle East. How important is that? I think many Arabs feel their religion, culture and way of life are under siege, that they’re being pushed around by a big bully. If the US left, they wouldn’t feel this way, which would be good. But how good? So good that it’s worth killing 3,000 people? Should you trade 3,000 lives for a small chance that the US will withdraw? Even if the chance of success were 100 percent, the idea is preposterous. (Not raising any eyebrows here)
What about US collateral damage in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, etc.? Again, remember that the fact the US doesn’t want the deaths doesn’t mean anything. We know air strikes produce collateral damage, whether the US wants it to or not. War produces large-scale death and destruction, whether the US wants it to or not. The question is, what is the US doing that is so important that it could justify one hundred thousand civilian deaths? I already acknowledged that murder in self-defense, when your life is in imminent danger, is just. Is the US on the brink of annihilation? No, in fact if you read Robert Pape’s excellent book “Dying to Win,” you’ll learn that the insurgents who fight the US want to control their own countries, not the US. They are not about to wage a genocidal war against Americans. The fact of the matter is that the US is willing to trade 100,000 deaths for a little political leverage in a foreign country. It is that valuation, that trade-off, that should serve as the basis for our moral judgment of its actions. And on that basis it is clear that the US is deeply wrong.