Intentions don’t matter II: war & terrorism edition

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.

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11 Responses to “Intentions don’t matter II: war & terrorism edition”

  1. David Says:

    “We don’t care about what a person wants, we care about what they’re willing to trade.”
    Who’s we? I care about maximizing welfare. Intent matters because it tells you what that type of action is likely to do. Murder is worse than a killing through negligence because the former always has as its aim (unjustified) killing while the latter only does so incidentally — not always. So, attempted murder leads to more deaths, I’m guessing, than negligence. Self-defense is justified for making offense less attractive. And certain values are noxious because of their effects on intended action.

    “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.”
    Is that sort of calculation really going through someone’s head when they defend themselves? All sorts of non-human animals certainly defend themselves including single-celled ones. And it does seem wrong to me to value your own life over even that of an attacker.

    Also, I think there is something deeply wrong with talking about a country valuing something. Individuals value things, not masses of people.

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    Who’s we?

    ‘We’ refers to the people reading this blog. When I say “We believe…” I’m stating what I believe to be common ground among most readers, and then building my argument upon that ground. It’s possible for someone to deny all claims of common ground, believing murder is neither right nor wrong. I won’t be able to reach this person. I taylor my arguments to people who share some basic assumptions with me.

    “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.”

    Is that sort of calculation really going through someone’s head when they defend themselves?

    No. But neither are they thinking about making offense less attractive (to other people?), which you gave as the reason in the preceding paragraph.

    I am not giving an account of why people do this or that. I am giving an account of why we think this or that seems wrong. I think the justification for self-defense is more strongly grounded in the fact that you can’t expect someone to give up their life for someone else’s, especially someone trying to kill them. That’s asking too much.

    You argue that the justification is grounded in the act’s power to affect future aggressive encounters. While I agree this is important, this seems to far afield from the reason people actually give for why self-defense is just. I’m not positive this common ground extends very far, so I chose ground that was more expansive, and built on that.

    And it does seem wrong to me to value your own life over even that of an attacker.

    I agree this is what utilitarianism dictates, I just don’t think it’s a reasonable expectation. You can say, as I’ve said before, that equal valuation does not imply equal treatment. We can value a person’s life just as much as our own and still kill them, without violating the principles of utilitarianism. My problem with this is that it’s too detached from the way most people think, so it’s hard to make inroads arguing on this front. The idea that the defender and the attacker have the same value strikes too many people as absurd.

    Rather than overturn their ingrained moral sense, I’m trying to give people both an explanation of their intuitions and a roadmap to apply those intuitions to unfamiliar or unusual cases, such as war and terrorism. This seems much more fruitful to me.

    Also, I think there is something deeply wrong with talking about a country valuing something. Individuals value things, not masses of people.

    You can think of this as a conversational ellipsis for the sake of brevity and nothing more. Countries are abstract concepts. They don’t make decisions, and they don’t make value judgments. But we all talk as if they do. We say “the US opposes the Kyoto Protocol,” when what we really mean is the Bush Administration opposes it, or maybe just a few people within that administration. I think this is all right as long as we don’t read anything more into it. It seems much too tedious to say “General Johannes Blaskowitz’s 8th Army drove eastward to Łódź” when “Germany invaded Poland” does just fine.

    For example, some people think the guilty should suffer for their crimes. If “the Japanese” bombed Pearl Harbor, then “the Japanese” should suffer. Of course, this obscures the fact that the Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor were not the ones who suffered from the atomic bombs. As long as we don’t make these kinds of mistakes, I think it’s fine to talk about the US valuing this or that, with the understanding that we’re talking about members of the government.

  3. David Says:

    If you’re appealing to what you take your readers’ intuitions to be, does that mean you don’t believe everything you’ve written here?

    “I am not giving an account of why people do this or that.”
    Sorry, I thought you were trying to do that with the self-defense example.

    I think intentions are still important in the examples you cite. It is important that the reckless driver and the fancy underwear person did not set out to kill, were not pretty sure that they would be killing. Otherwise, our evaluation of them would be much more strongly negative. At least I assume that’s how your readers’ intuitions go.

    I guess I’m using “intent” differently than you though. If you foresee something as resulting from your action, then I see that as being part of your intent. If I drop a huge bomb on a wedding party in order to kill one individual and I’m pretty sure lots of others will die too, then killing them is part of the world state I am aiming for. Well, maybe it is confusing to use “intent” this way.

    But I also think it is certainly relevant who the perpetrator truly desired to kill because it tells you something about how they would act under different circumstances. I think that’s a general rule: If something tells you about how they would act in different circumstances, it matters, period.

    Finally, does switching from talking about intent to values get what you want to buy? The two groups do not have the same values, do they? (In fact, maybe they’re closer in intent than values.) Why not just argue that consequences are not so good and that the world would be better if we acted otherwise? I think you could get many of your readers to agree on that.

  4. Andy Hallman Says:

    I guess I’m using “intent” differently than you though.

    Yes, it is now clear that we are using it differently.

    If you foresee something as resulting from your action, then I see that as being part of your intent. If I drop a huge bomb on a wedding party in order to kill one individual and I’m pretty sure lots of others will die too, then killing them is part of the world state I am aiming for. Well, maybe it is confusing to use “intent” this way.

    I think of intent as synonymous with goal. So, in this case, killing 50 people is not their goal, so it is not their intent. You seem to be subsuming “knowingly” into the concept of “intentionally” which to me are two different things that should be kept separate.

    Perhaps you can find counterexamples, but I think my understanding of the term is closer to how most other people understand it. Take a look at the mission statement of the website Good intentions are not enough.

    Good intentions are not enough for aid to be successful. If assistance is done poorly it can hurt the very people it is supposed to help. Accurate information and sound practices are also crucial to smart aid. This website provides readers with the knowledge, tools, and resources they need to ensure that their donations match their good intentions.

    If “intentions” already include an assessment of likely outcomes, why would this group tell people that knowledge is useful in addition to good intentions? Isn’t that redundant under your definition of the term? Under my definition, information and intent are separate, so their statement makes sense and is not redundant.

    Finally, does switching from talking about intent to values get what you want to buy?

    Yes. It is a way of evaluating a wide range of actions from negligence to recklessness to knowingly committing harm to intending harm, and everything in between. I think people have a hard time comparing an act that has a 90% chance of causing one death versus an act that has a 50% chance of causing 100 deaths. On top of the likelihoods of the deaths, we have on the other side of the balance sheet the good that will come about from each act, along with their respective probabilities.

    Getting hung up on whether the result of an act is technically intentional or accidental misses what we really care about, which is relative value judgments. Yes, I agree that killing one person intentionally is almost always much worse than killing one person accidentally. But it’s not at all clear to me that killing one person intentionally (with a 90 percent likelihood of success) is worse than a 50 percent chance of killing 100 recklessly. Running over two people with your car because you’re late for work seems worse than killing one person intentionally who has broken into your home.

    But I also think it is certainly relevant who the perpetrator truly desired to kill because it tells you something about how they would act under different circumstances. I think that’s a general rule: If something tells you about how they would act in different circumstances, it matters, period.

    You’ll have to elaborate on this, because I’m inclinced to disagree with you here. Timothy McVeigh would not have been a murderer if not for Waco. Perhaps a world with Waco is the only world in which McVeigh becomes a murderer. In a world with no Waco, McVeigh does not become a murderer. I don’t see why we should care about that. It doesn’t change the fact that he valued scaring the government, which had little chance of producing any good, more than the lives of the people who would die in the Murrah Federal Building. We should regard his act as reprehensible, regardless of how he would have acted under more favorable circumstances. Do you disagree? Am I misunderstanding your position?

  5. David Says:

    Well, to take that extreme example, if he had in mind causing terror in general rather than destroying that specific building, maybe he is more dangerous. (Although maybe it doesn’t matter because he is so far out to the extreme.)

    Something else comes to mind — if you don’t take account of intent, there is no connection between the values and the action. If McVeigh’s goal wasn’t scaring the government, the value he attached to that would have no connection with his action or its consequences. Similarly for all the other cases mentioned.

    Also, it does seem you need people to be acting on values if you are going to condemn them based on those values. Are those calculations really going through people’s heads? I think we agreed that wasn’t the case for self-defense. And in general, looking at an action, it might seem that only one set of values fits, but another possibility is that the individual simply didn’t think about it in those terms — there were no values involved.

    “But it’s not at all clear to me that killing one person intentionally (with a 90 percent likelihood of success) is worse than a 50 percent chance of killing 100 recklessly.”
    Saying that goals matter isn’t the same as saying nothing else matters.

  6. Andy Hallman Says:

    David, maybe you can better understand my position if I give you some background on how I came to it.

    We commonly recognize a distinction between means and ends, or means and goals if you prefer. For instance, I awoke this morning with the goal of going to work. Upon further reflection, I realize that going to work is not really a goal in itself, but rather a means to get money. If I could get money without working, I’d do that. Working is just a means to an end. Upon even further reflection, I realize that earning money isn’t really my goal either. My real goal is to get food, gas, shelter, etc. If I could get those things without needing to hand over money, I’d do that. Making money is just a means to an end.

    We continue to do this until we get to some sort of ultimate goal that all of my actions are a means to, which I suppose is my own happiness. Then I realize that everyone seems to share this ultimate goal. We have different ways of achieving it, but it’s still the same goal nonetheless. If this is the case, then it doesn’t make sense to distinguish actions based on the goal of the actor, because all actors have the same goal.

    If I understand you correctly, you want to say that goals matter but they’re not the only thing that matters. But if all goals are the same, why do we need to bring them in at all? They just dirty the water, so let’s leave them out. We can do just fine without making any appeals to goal-talk.

    Timothy McVeigh could rightly claim that he had noble goals. He can claim that he just wanted to make the world a better place. I see no reason to argue that point. What he cannot claim is that he was right about moral facts. His act demonstrated that he valued revenge over the lives of 168 people. I think we can tolerate some variation in value judgments from person to person, but we cannot tolerate one as extreme as that. Valuing revenge over 168 people is not something reasonable people can disagree over. McVeigh was deeply wrong about moral facts, and that is why we should condemn him, his goals notwithstanding.

    Something else comes to mind — if you don’t take account of intent, there is no connection between the values and the action. If McVeigh’s goal wasn’t scaring the government, the value he attached to that would have no connection with his action or its consequences. Similarly for all the other cases mentioned.

    I can’t grasp what you’re trying to say here. Could you explain this more fully?

  7. David Says:

    Why won’t a similar analysis lead you to a single ultimate value? That is about what Aristotle is doing when he searches for the ultimate good, I think, and is a pretty common philosophical pursuit.

    Even if there is one ultimate goal, clearly people have very different immediate (and intermediate) goals, and those tell you something about what that person was thinking at the time of acting and something about how they would act in future situations.

    If McVeigh’s goal was not revenge, you would not be talking about his valuing revenge over lives. If the reckless driver didn’t have having fun as a goal, you would not be talking about valuing that over lives. If they do not have a goal aimed at attaining the valued thing, it seems to make no sense to talk about their valuation in the context of the action because the value has nothing to do with it.

    For example, say that the reckless driver is also a white supremacist and one of the accident victims is black. Would it make any sense to condemn the driver for their action because of their racist views if their goal — having fun — had no racist content?

    Another possible problem: your condemnations are of the form “actor A valued X over Y but its monstrous not to value Y over X.” How do you pick out Y? My guess is that there are an infinity of possible Ys (and probably Xs too). How do you get to pick out one pair from those Xs and Ys?

    I think saying the actor is responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their action gets you what you want without these difficulties.

  8. Andy Hallman Says:

    Why won’t a similar analysis lead you to a single ultimate value? That is about what Aristotle is doing when he searches for the ultimate good, I think, and is a pretty common philosophical pursuit.

    I don’t remember my Aristotle lesson very well from Philosophy, so I’ll take your word for it. As to the notion of a single ultimate value: I’m sorry if I come off as obtuse, but I can’t make sense of that. If what you’re saying is that people do not differ in their value judgments, that is wrong. People clearly differ in their values, or to put it my way, they differ in what they’re willing to trade to gain happiness.

    I want a new car, but I’m not willing to kill someone over it. That is a trade I will not make. Someone who does make such a trade differs from me in a morally relevant respect. Or, more precisely, our actions differ in that respect.

    Even if there is one ultimate goal, clearly people have very different immediate (and intermediate) goals, and those tell you something about what that person was thinking at the time of acting and something about how they would act in future situations.

    Perhaps you could provide an example here. If we look at suicide terrorists (who intentionally kill civilians), one thing we notice is that, in every instance I’m aware of, they cease their terrorist operations once their enemy leaves their homeland. Even though their immediate goals are barbaric, their demands are relatively minor and easily met. Contrast that with the history of Western Imperialism. When native people surrendered to or withdrew from a Western attack, in most cases the Western powers did not cease their operations but continued attacking until they controlled the area they sought. The immediate goal of the Spanish was not to kill Mayan civilians but to convert the population to Catholicism.

    Which of those do you think is worse? Are the immediate goals of each side useful in making that determination? I don’t think so. The way I would do it is to ask myself, “How important is it that Mayans become Catholic?” then ask “What is the chance my conquest will make them Catholic?,” then ask, “How bad is it that Mayans die in the conquest?” then, “What is the likelihood that X number of Mayans will die in the conquest?” Those are the kind of questions you should ask yourself as a conquistador, and also the very same way we should judge the conquistadores. My read is that the Spanish grossly over-valued becoming Catholic relative to killing to such an extent that we should condemn them for it (not that it does much good today. I’m just using this as an example).

    If McVeigh’s goal was not revenge, you would not be talking about his valuing revenge over lives. If the reckless driver didn’t have having fun as a goal, you would not be talking about valuing that over lives. If they do not have a goal aimed at attaining the valued thing, it seems to make no sense to talk about their valuation in the context of the action because the value has nothing to do with it.

    We must be talking past each other. As a student, I want to get straight As. That is my immediate goal. But when it comes time to study, I realize that reading the textbook is awfully boring and that I’d rather play videogames. That says a lot more about me and how I’ll act in the future than my professed goal of a perfect report card, wouldn’t you agree? That is crux of my whole philosophy: that we should focus on what sacrifices people make, what they’re willing to trade, rather than their desires.

    Am I making my position any clearer at all? I’m running out of ways to state it.

    For example, say that the reckless driver is also a white supremacist and one of the accident victims is black. Would it make any sense to condemn the driver for their action because of their racist views if their goal — having fun — had no racist content?

    So, does the driver act recklessly in part because the person is black? If so, he is wrong to discount the life of a person because of their race. It is the discounting that is wrong, not the racism. If racists treated all races equally, there would be nothing objectionable about them, their racist goals notwithstanding.

    Another possible problem: your condemnations are of the form “actor A valued X over Y but its monstrous not to value Y over X.” How do you pick out Y? My guess is that there are an infinity of possible Ys (and probably Xs too). How do you get to pick out one pair from those Xs and Ys?

    Are you using “X” to mean an action? Yes, I suppose you could say there are an infinite number of distinct actions a person could take. I don’t see how this is a problem.

    If you are using “X” to mean a tradeable value, as in the value I attach to getting an A, or the value I attach to videogames, I still don’t see how this is a problem. When I choose to play videogames for an hour, I’m trading that value for the other things I could be doing with my time. I might be trading it for an hour of studying, but I’m certainly not trading it for an hour of deep-sea snorkeling (Editor’s note: Oops! Apparently this phrase has another connotation I wasn’t aware of). In reality, our range of options is not unmanageably large that we can’t condemn people for choosing one action over another.

    I think saying the actor is responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their action gets you what you want without these difficulties.

    This is what I believe. But this statement is too thin to serve as a moral compass. What I’ve been trying to do in the past few days is to flesh it out.

    Anyway, if we can agree on this then I’m content to stop arguing, as much as I enjoy it. 🙂

  9. David Says:

    I’m pretty frustrated with this discussion and will probably give up after this.

    Many others have gone through analyses of value parallel to what you gave for goals, leading up to what they thought was the ultimate value. Aristotle ended up with “happiness”, I believe.

    Yes, goals absolutely are relevant in the discussion of the conquistadors. If converting people to Christianity was not their goal, it would be totally senseless to talk about that value in the context of their action. If I could argue that converting people to Christianity was not their goal, then your condemnation on those grounds would be meaningless.

    And I don’t see that bringing in values clears up anything because it immediately leaves us with the problem of judging sets of values. So far, you’ve just inserted your opinions on those with no argument. And if you want to argue your readers agree on those opinions (“intuitions”), well, guess what, your readers probably think goals are relevant too.

  10. David Says:

    Er, sorry to be rude. I should think more about your points here.

  11. Andy Hallman Says:

    Ok David, let’s argue about something else.

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