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Innocents dying, ethics

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Let's say that you and your girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse got a disease that is going to kill you. You made no moral mistakes in order to get this disease, you were just very unlucky.

Now, let's say that there's a young girl you know who has superstrong kidneys, and with just one of those kidneys, you could "flush out" the disease. I don't know if this is realistic biologically, but just focus on the principles here.

 

Let's say that you have the chance to kill this girl and take one kidney for each of you, and that there is no way you are gonna get caught. (Because you're really smart, and noone knows about your disease, she doesn't even have a social security number, etc) 
You also have to remove the kidneys while she's alive or else it won't work, so not only will you have to kill her, but agonizingly.

Is this rationally selfish to do? I guess we would all answer no, since this would make you feel like a monster. Right?

Okay, so why is it moral to kill innocents in a war, in order to defeat the enemy? "It's the enemy's responsibility" doesn't seem like a fullfilling answer to me. The innocents are still innocent, and have given them no sanction.  Why doesn't this make you feel like a monster? Because if you don't defend yourself, a lot more people are going to die later?

But isn't that utilitarianism, which is supposed to be irrelevant in objectivist ethics? Or is it in your self-interest because the sum of the value you put on people in your country is very big? But in that case, aren't you actually sacrificing others to yourselves, which you're supposed not to do? Would it be moral to kill 1 innocent person to cure a disease that affected the whole population? If their blood had the antidote and you would need a lot of it. I see no moral difference between that and killing innocents in a war, in order for you and your loved ones and neighbours and business-partners etc to survive. 

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The scenario presented is so absurd it made me chuckle, but I get where you are coming from.

I think you are basically asking if it is OK for someone to murder a person who doesn't matter to them, because the victim has something which will save their life and the life of someone they love. True Objectivists would judge someone who would do this as evil, as we are against human sacrifice.

Now there are some self-purported Objectivists who reveal they are not actually Objectivists. They claim sacrificing others is OK some of the time. In fact, they even claim intentional targeting of innocents is justified in the name of self defence.

Rand was very clear. Retaliatory force should only be used in response to the initiation of force, and directed only at those who initiated it. An innocent is basically an individual who is not involved in the initiation of force and so should not be targeted. In a conflict situation, to restrain one's use of force accordingly is the ideal, however in a life or death situation, unintended consequences do happen such as killing an innocent by mistake; they are the responsibility of the force initiator.

Edited by Jon Southall

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Rand was very clear. Retaliatory force should only be used in response to the initiation of force, and directed only at those who initiated it.

I agree that Rand was very clear on this point. I consider this quote demonstrative of that clarity:

 

Men have the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.

The italics emphasizing "only" are in the original, per the Ayn Rand Lexicon.

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Let's say that you and your girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse got a disease that is going to kill you. You made no moral mistakes in order to get this disease, you were just very unlucky.

Now, let's say that there's a young girl you know who has superstrong kidneys, and with just one of those kidneys, you could "flush out" the disease. I don't know if this is realistic biologically, but just focus on the principles here.

 

Let's say that you have the chance to kill this girl and take one kidney for each of you, and that there is no way you are gonna get caught. (Because you're really smart, and noone knows about your disease, she doesn't even have a social security number, etc) 

You also have to remove the kidneys while she's alive or else it won't work, so not only will you have to kill her, but agonizingly.

Is this rationally selfish to do? I guess we would all answer no, since this would make you feel like a monster. Right?

Okay, so why is it moral to kill innocents in a war, in order to defeat the enemy? "It's the enemy's responsibility" doesn't seem like a fullfilling answer to me. The innocents are still innocent, and have given them no sanction.  Why doesn't this make you feel like a monster? Because if you don't defend yourself, a lot more people are going to die later?

But isn't that utilitarianism, which is supposed to be irrelevant in objectivist ethics? Or is it in your self-interest because the sum of the value you put on people in your country is very big? But in that case, aren't you actually sacrificing others to yourselves, which you're supposed not to do? Would it be moral to kill 1 innocent person to cure a disease that affected the whole population? If their blood had the antidote and you would need a lot of it. I see no moral difference between that and killing innocents in a war, in order for you and your loved ones and neighbours and business-partners etc to survive. 

 

Your first example boils down to "should I sacrifice another life for my own?" No you should never do that, as a rational egoist you would be trying to simultaneously hold the principle of the right to life and its opposite. This assumes a civil society though.

 

Ayn Rand talked about emergency situations and how one cannot talk about ethics in those situations. From my understanding war like self defense can be thought of in terms of an emergency situation. Once a nation tasks itself with its own defense it has to end the threat as soon as possible, obviously with as little deaths on its side as reasonably** possible. This requires very brutal tactics, think of World War II, instilling fear in Germany's and Japan's populaces. That is where I think you are getting Peikoff's and Brook's deliberate targeting of civilians in their analysis of WWII. Today I don't think you would have to do that, we're not fighting mighty industrialized nations but pretty weak backwards states and terrorist cells. War might not be considered a total emergency situation though because there can be a lot of planning especially for an advanced country liked the U.S.. Ultimately one is responsible for the government one finds themselves under. The non-combatants of these countries have to reap what they sow. If their government attacks our citizens the blame for their citizens deaths as a result of retaliation rests on the aggressors.

 

One other point about the comparison between this disease and war. Yes, a disease like cancer is most likely through no fault of their own (obviously except for things like smoking and lung cancer) but war is not a natural phenomenon, it is started by conscious beings aware of what they are doing. The war is through someone's fault and certainly not the fault of the defenders. 

 

**I do have lingering questions about how does a military strategist make the decision of what types of weapons and strategy to use. There could conceivably be a way to kill everyone in an aggressive country and risk zero lives as well as totally fuck up the war and risk everyone's lives (for the sake of protecting the enemies). How does one decide how much risk should be placed on our soldiers lives?

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I hope I don't have to say where this was copied from....

 

"But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

 

When people live under tyrants - and do not actively try and overthrow them - then they lose the right to protection in times of war.  This is harsh, but true.  A just nation might try and spare their lives, but those nations are not obligated to do.

 

Every abusive regime in the world could be toppled in the next 24 hours if the citizens rose up against them.  That citizens do not do so, does not absolve them of their responsibility to do so.

 

Even in the US, as much as some might like to piss and moan and believe that they hold no responsibility for the actions of their own government, this is evasion of the first-order.

Edited by New Buddha

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New Buddha, you usually post well considered comments. Since when do Objectivists have duties? Sounds Kantian to me.

The only people who are responsible for the initiation of physical force by a regime are those who initiated it on behalf of the regime. Americans of all people ought to know how costly regime change is and that it takes years not hours. You cannot realistically expect a disarmed and repressed citizenry to do the same.

Give it some reflection.

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Abbott - clearly your knowledge of history is very poor. Many despotic regimes were supported and empowered by the US and other powerful nations initially. Look at Iraq for just one example. Who is responsible then?

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"One other point about the comparison between this disease and war. Yes, a disease like cancer is most likely through no fault of their own (obviously except for things like smoking and lung cancer) but war is not a natural phenomenon, it is started by conscious beings aware of what they are doing. The war is through someone's fault and certainly not the fault of the defenders. "

But it's not the fault of the innocent people in that country either, which is why I made a parallell to a disease. If you look away from the initiators of force and just focus on the defenders and the innocents in the other country. Those innocents are being sacrificed in order for the others to live. 

"
When people live under tyrants - and do not actively try and overthrow them - then they lose the right to protection in times of war.  This is harsh, but true.  A just nation might try and spare their lives, but those nations are not obligated to do."

But it's very very hard to topple a regime, almost impossible in many situations, so I don't see how you can logically defend this. 

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"One other point about the comparison between this disease and war. Yes, a disease like cancer is most likely through no fault of their own (obviously except for things like smoking and lung cancer) but war is not a natural phenomenon, it is started by conscious beings aware of what they are doing. The war is through someone's fault and certainly not the fault of the defenders. "

But it's not the fault of the innocent people in that country either, which is why I made a parallell to a disease. If you look away from the initiators of force and just focus on the defenders and the innocents in the other country. Those innocents are being sacrificed in order for the others to live. 

"When people live under tyrants - and do not actively try and overthrow them - then they lose the right to protection in times of war.  This is harsh, but true.  A just nation might try and spare their lives, but those nations are not obligated to do."

But it's very very hard to topple a regime, almost impossible in many situations, so I don't see how you can logically defend this. 

 

I have to separate war as such and war in the middle east right now.

 

War in general: Let's look at the truly "innocent" people in an aggressive nation. The children perhaps, the people who abhor their regime, who want to see it fall. First off they would want to see it fall, if the defenders we're not involved this would require tremendous amount of casualties on their side anyways. Second, do you fully understand the nature of war, what it takes? You have to demoralize the enemy. You have to take the war to them and their whole existence. You have to basically make them see that their motive is futile and that when they attack us we will utterly destroy them. If you don't do this and try to practice a "humanitarian" war, say something similar or even more consistent to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you both do not accomplish the defeat of the enemy and you don't spare the lives of the civilians. You don't defeat the enemy, as well as sacrifice the lives of American soldiers, precisely because you try to spare the "innocent" in mosques, homes, etc. Just like you can't practice altruism fully (you would commit suicide) you can't practice such a war fully. People not directly involved in fighting you are going to get hurt. To practice such a war fully, you would sit back and let the aggressors destroy your country. 

 

Next time try to address the realities of war. You don't seem to understand what it takes.

 

I will try to address the middle east including its history later.

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Yes, I know what it takes to win a war, but you're evading the issue. The issue is this - You kill innocents in order to survive. If that's moral, but killing someone to cure a disease is not moral, then what is the fundamental difference? And why isn't this sacrificing others to yourself? 

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Yes, I know what it takes to win a war, but you're evading the issue. The issue is this - You kill innocents in order to survive. If that's moral, but killing someone to cure a disease is not moral, then what is the fundamental difference? And why isn't this sacrificing others to yourself? 

 

When a country defends itself against an aggressor, innocent people will surely die. Let's make this more fundamental. When you assert that one kills innocent people,you are implying that we are depriving them of their right to life, etc. When a country goes to war against you they lose all rights until the threat is ended. In the context (key word here, look into Ayn Rand's placement of importance in context) of international aggression similarly when it comes to some thug trying to kill you, the actions necessary in order to survive require you to forget distinguishing between innocent and guilty. Any other way is sacrifice in the other direction. 

 

The key difference between the disease and war is force. That is why it would be sacrifice in the disease case, and not in the other. 

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When a country goes to war against you they lose all rights until the threat is ended.

I don't agree that rights work like this. I view them as being held individually, and without respect to one's national affiliation.

 

When a country defends itself against an aggressor, innocent people will surely die.

Agreed. A tragic consequence of war. To the extent that the defender targets only the guilty, and innocent casualties are unavoidable byproducts, and the defender seeks to minimize such casualties within reason (given the context, which is fraught with mistake, and confusion, and highly time-sensitive action), those innocent casualties are on the head of the aggressor.

However, when a defender targets the innocent or acts in some indiscriminate or careless fashion which has the same effect, that is his own, and immoral.

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"When a country goes to war against you they lose all rights until the threat is ended."

That is plain wrong.

The use of retaliatory force is only retaliatory when it is in response to the initiation of physical force. Physical force used to kill people who have not initiated physical force can never be called retaliatory, without destroying the meaning of the word. Such use of force is always initiation. Combatants who kill innocents are always morally culpable for those deaths, the extent depends on whether they resulted from accident or from intent, regardless of what side they are on.

Edited by Jon Southall

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"When a country goes to war against you they lose all rights until the threat is ended."

That is plain wrong.

The use of retaliatory force is only retaliatory when it is in response to the initiation of physical force. Physical force used to kill people who have not initiated physical force can never be called retaliatory, without destroying the meaning of the word. Such use of force is always initiation. Combatants who kill innocents are always morally culpable for those deaths, the extent depends on whether they resulted from accident or from intent, regardless of what side they are on.

Just to clarify our respective positions and see whether we agree...

I wouldn't hold a combatant morally culpable for killing an innocent accidentally or unavoidably (as for instance in certain kinds of "human shield" scenarios). I'd hold the initial aggressor morally culpable for those tragic results, so long as the combatant acted within reason to target the guilty and preserve/protect the innocent. What say you?

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And why is it relevant that a disease has not consciously initiated force against you? What's the magic bullet? I'm not arguing that one should never retaliate in a war if it can hurt innocent people, but why doesn't that fall into the category of sacrificing others to yourself? And why wouldn't it be moral to kill innocents to cure a disease (which is often more of an emergency than a war is) by the same token? 

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Would it be moral to kill 1 innocent person to cure a disease that affected the whole population? If their blood had the antidote and you would need a lot of it.  I see no moral difference between that and killing innocents in a war, in order for you and your loved ones and neighbours and business-partners etc to survive. 

 

Such a situation is impossible. How would you know who is that one person ? Secondly even if you get to that miracle person, we can draw blood without killing him. Anyway If you look at history the probability of war happening at any given point is significantly more when compared to the miracle person situation (probably zero ?). The comparison is unrealistic. 

 

I'm not arguing that one should never retaliate in a war if it can hurt innocent people, but why doesn't that fall into the category of sacrificing others to yourself? 

 

It may or may not fall under the category of sacrifice. But what would you rather prefer ? Sacrificing yourself, your family and your country to the enemy or them who initiated the war on you ? Which guilt would you be capable of holding better- that of sacrificing your (innocent) family or that of a family of innocent strangers but from the aggressor's land ?

 

Innocent deaths is always the most significant cost of war. When a country initiates war they are fully aware of that fact. They are fully aware of the fact that they are risking the lives of their own citizens. They know very well that there could be a retaliation. Not retaliating to such a country would only showcase impotency and make our country even more vulnerable. Retaliating strongly would be a wiser option to ensure the enemy would not attack again. 

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Yes, Ayn Rand was very clear on this point. The following quote is perfectly clear and concrete -- not an out of context, floating abstraction.

 

Q: Miss Rand, as an advocate of individualism there's one point that I find difficulty in figuring out in my own mind, and perhaps you can clarify and that is the statement that it is the prerogative of a free country to invade and attack what you call a slave state or a slave pen or a non-free country. I find this hard to figure out because in the final analysis it is not a nation attacking a nation it's people attacking people, attacking individuals, and they may not want your attack. Could please explain that?

AR: The source of this kind of statement is the idea that nations do not exist, only individuals and if some poor, noncommunist blob in Soviet Russia doesn't want an invasion, we mustn't hurt him. But who permits governments to go to war? Only a government can put a country into war, and the citizens of that country keep their government in power. This is true in the worst dictatorships. Even the citizens of Soviet Russia -- who did not elect the Communists -- keep them in power through passivity. Nazi Germany did elect its dictatorship, and therefore, even those Germans who were against Hitler were responsible for that kind of government and had to suffer the consequences. Individual citizens in a country that goes to war are responsible for that war. This is why they should be interested in politics and careful about not having the wrong kind of government. [...]

-- From lecture "Global Balkanization" at Ford Hall Forum 1977

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Yes, Ayn Rand was very clear on this point. The following quote is perfectly clear and concrete -- not an out of context, floating abstraction.

 

I agree that this is clear in a way, with respect to the ongoing conversation -- however I believe that it is unclear in others; I don't know that Rand is here speaking directly to the case of "targeting innocents" during war, which is the specific question I've tried to answer. (For instance, I agree that it is moral for a free country to attack a country like the USSR or Nazi Germany, and I also agree that there are citizens who will have to "suffer the consequences" for that.)

But even so, I disagree with some of her statements, insofar as I understand them. I don't agree that, because the Nazis were elected (in some respect), that therefore all Germans "were responsible for that kind of government." Though I wish Rand were here so that I could ask her to clarify. Does she mean that she believes that all Germans were responsible for the actions of the Nazis? Is that what it means to bear responsibility for a "kind of government"? Or does she mean something else?

Since Rand is not here, and I presume that you're presenting this quote because you agree with it, Marc, perhaps you would like to expand on what you think it means?

Anyways, I disagree generally with the idea that every individual citizen in a country is somehow responsible for the actions of the government of that country, whether Rand means that or not. I believe that individual responsibility and morality must be assessed individually, and with respect to that individual's specific context.

Do you disagree?

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I would echo Don's comments. Rand also did not specify how, in her view, a dissenting citizenry ought to oppose a government it is not in favour of.

This is no small matter. When you take the entire citizenry of say the US or UK, governments have been formed on occasion with the support of a minority (albeit the largest minority). It would be true to then state that government did not have the support of the majority of the citizens. Is that a legitimate government?

If a government isn't legitimate due to minority support or it becomes illegitimate, for example, by supporting force initiating regimes elsewhere in the world, was Rand saying we have a duty to oppose it?

Don, in response to your question about moral culpability, it would depend on who was responsible for the deaths.

I'll give two scenarios.

1. A hostage taker is killed by government forces who throw a grenade at him. This also kills the hostages.

2. A hostage taker is killed by a marksman. One hostage is killed by the marksman due to a ricochet.

In scenario 1, I would hold the gov morally culpable for the loss of innocent life. In scenario 2, I would hold the hostage taker solely responsible.

It would be ludicrous to hold the hostages to blame for allowing themselves to be taken hostage and furthermore remaining passive. It would be even more absurd to argue they can be sacrificed so we can defend ourselves from the hostage taking threat. This seems to be the thinking of some Objectivists though - Peikoff for example would nuke Iran, killing millions of Iranian's who pose no threat to the West. Evil and insane to call for such a thing, and try to package it as self-defense.

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Don, in response to your question about moral culpability, it would depend on who was responsible for the deaths.

I'll give two scenarios.

1. A hostage taker is killed by government forces who throw a grenade at him. This also kills the hostages.

2. A hostage taker is killed by a marksman. One hostage is killed by the marksman due to a ricochet.

In scenario 1, I would hold the gov morally culpable for the loss of innocent life. In scenario 2, I would hold the hostage taker solely responsible.

It would be ludicrous to hold the hostages to blame for allowing themselves to be taken hostage and furthermore remaining passive. It would be even more absurd to argue they can be sacrificed so we can defend ourselves from the hostage taking threat.

You and I are completely agreed, allowing for this clarification of my point of view (which well might disagree with your own):

Between your #s 1 and 2, I would only hold #1 as immoral as opposed to #2 if the marksman is available.

However, I believe that there are conceivable situations where the "grenade" option is the only one available (metaphorically speaking; I'd find that really strange in an actual hostage situation). In those cases, I would hold #1 as moral, accounting the subsequent hostage deaths to the hostage-taker, just as with the ricochet.

What I mean is that I think that people have the right to defend themselves and to retaliate against force, with force. I think that in availing themselves of these rights, people need to target the guilty and not the innocent. Between options which achieve self-defense or retaliatory force against the guilty and only the guilty, and those which hurt people indiscriminately, only the former are moral. However, there may be cases where it is impossible (within a context, which sometimes includes restrictions on time and resource) to defend oneself so without unavoidably also harming the innocent.

As a scenario to add to yours, suppose that some mad dictator built his nuclear launch site underneath an orphanage (perhaps relying on us to refuse to destroy it, per his understanding of our moral code). We receive word that he's set to launch against us, and we have the opportunity to destroy it beforehand, but we will necessarily destroy the orphanage in the process. (Perhaps there would be another way to take out the launch site and preserve the orphanage, or the orphans, but we don't know how to do it yet, and there isn't time to work it out before he launches his missiles.)

In such a case, I'd say that we absolutely have to destroy the launch site, according to what means we have to do so, and that morally the dictator would be responsible for the consequences to the orphans.

What say you?

Edited by DonAthos

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We are in agreement Don. If I had intelligence which was clear beyond reasonable doubt that a launch was imminent then I would approve of the use of force to stop it. The deaths of the orphans would be due to the dictator, if there were no other form of self defense available which would spare them.

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New Buddha, you usually post well considered comments. Since when do Objectivists have duties? Sounds Kantian to me.

The only people who are responsible for the initiation of physical force by a regime are those who initiated it on behalf of the regime. Americans of all people ought to know how costly regime change is and that it takes years not hours. You cannot realistically expect a disarmed and repressed citizenry to do the same.

Give it some reflection.

Duty has many meanings.  I have a "duty" to myself to honor the contracts that I enter into. By honoring contracts that lead to (short term) losses, I know that it benefits me in the long run to have a reputation of someone that honors contracts.  The Kantian sense of moral imperative "duty" is along the lines of, "that which does not benefit the actor, is of the highest morality."  This is the exact opposite of how Jefferson used the term.  I doubt he even knew who-in-the-funk Kant was.

 

You state:  "The only people who are responsible for the initiation of physical force by a regime are those who initiated it on behalf of the regime." 

 

Does this exempt the factory munition worker (who never fires a gun) ?  Engineers who design new, more powerful tanks (that they never drive and fire) ?  Scientist who deliver into the hands of a despot a nuclear bomb?  Gun smugglers?  Never gas manufactures?

 

A "disarmed and repressed citizenry" does not happen over night.  No German went to sleep one night in Germany and woke up in Nazi Germany in the morning.  The citizenry knew what was coming, but there was massive, evasive thinking among the populace regarding their individual, moral responsibility to take action to prevent what was happening.  Taking action early would have spared their own lives.  But their thinking was, "Well, we might just get away with it...." 

Edited by New Buddha

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I use the term responsibility instead of duty. Rights carry responsibilities. Under a contract the other parties must observe my rights, but I have a responsibility to observe their rights under the contract.

I don't know about you but I have never entered into any formal contract with the government granting me said rights and placing on me certain responsibilities. I am aware of the law but again there is no contract, just expectation, backed by force should anyone break the law.

So it comes down to whether I pledge my support to a particular kind of government doesnt it? If I find no party represents me, and decide not to vote, I have no kind of contract with the people in power. So what is the source of my citizens responsibility to keep a government in check, and how far do they go?

Have you heard of the Military Industrial Complex? I would see industries, which continue to supply arms to a force initiating military, to be an extension of it and therefore a legitimate target for retaliatory force.

All governments holding a monopoly on force have disarmed the citizenry. Whether and to what extent they are also repressed depends on how such a government uses that force against its own people. That can happen extremely quickly - especially with outside support from other regimes.

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