Acceptable Casualties

Follow Up to Bias Against Torture and Kind Right-Handers

Imagine that one month after the 9/11 attacks the U.S. conducted a massive bombing campaign against terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.  Further assume that (1) the U.S. knew Bin Laden was well hidden and so the attacks would have no significant chance of killing him, (2) the U.S. military had estimated that about 5,000 innocents would die because of the bombings and indeed around 5,000 innocents did die, and (3) the bombings were conducted mainly to deter future terrorist attacks against the U.S.  Such a bombing campaign would have been widely supported in the U.S.  Most Americans would assign the moral blame for the civilian deaths to Bin Laden.

But now imagine that instead of conducting a bombing campaign President Bush ordered the assassination of Bin Laden’s closest relatives.  Assume that 500 people were killed including all of Bin Laden’s parents, grandparents, children, uncles, aunts, and first cousins who were alive on 9/11.  President Bush, lets assume, announced that although those killed were innocents their deaths were necessary to deter future terrorist attacks against the U.S.  My guess is that for ordering such assassinations Bush would have been impeached, removed from office and sentenced to either death or life in prison. 

The relative expected responses to the bombing campaign and assassinations seem inconsistent because fewer innocents would die with the assassinations and the assassinations might well have a greater deterrence effect on future terrorists.  We would be less bothered by the bombings, I suspect, because we could claim that we didn’t want the innocents to die.  But if we estimate that X number of innocents will die because of a military strike, why should it morally matter whether we actually wanted these X people to perish?

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  • Ian C.

    The responses seem inconsistent unless you take in to account the fact of choice. You have no control over what family you’re born in to, but you at least have some control over how your country turns out. That is, it’s not inevitably this or inevitably that.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Unholysmoke/ Ben Jones

    Ian, bear in mind that the Taliban suppressed dissent. Do you suppose that every single German alive in 1938 was a Nazi? The majority of Afghanis were overjoyed when the Taliban were overthrown, the notable exceptions being those whose loved ones were killed by carpet bombing. Saying ‘they lived in a country where terrorists are trained, that renders them less than innocent’ seems a little harsh, and certainly doesn’t negate James’ point.

  • eddie

    The bombing campaign would (or should) have a purpose of eliminating the enemy’s capability to conduct aggressive action, i.e. the camps are bombed not because killing 5000 innocents will deter further action, but because the destruction of the camps will impede further action.

    The assassination campaign has as its purpose nothing more than the death of innocents; it neither causes nor is intended to cause any reduction in the ability of the enemy to conduct aggressive action.

    This is why we might approve of the first and yet certainly condemn the second.

    This is also the difference between military action and terrorism.

    This is not hard to understand.

  • http://barrkel.blogspot.com/ Barry Kelly

    Both responses aren’t good responses to terrorism. They both foment more hatred and future terrorism. The best response to terrorism is (1) ignoring it militarily, and (2) treating terrorism defense as a law-enforcement and emergency response problem, as it’s a much smaller problem in general than traffic accidents, say.

    Terrorists are like small children. The more attention they get for their bad behaviour, the more it encourages them. Attention is all they’re after.

    (Speaking as an Irishman, living in a country with a reasonably long terrorist history, albeit not at the scale of the US attacks; but consider the US’s size, then scale the attack appropriately.)

  • truck

    Mark Houser’s book “Moral Minds” has a really well developed discussion of just this paradox in human moral reasoning. I highly recommend it.

  • eddie

    I’ve now read the linked previous posts, so I better understand the point you are trying to make. You’ve chosen a poor example to make that point. Assumption 3 (“the bombings were conducted mainly to deter future terrorist attacks”) is an unrealistic assumption in an otherwise reasonable scenario; we do not conduct military campaigns primarily to deter future aggressive actions but rather to remove the capability to conduct future aggressive actions. Deterrence does play a part, but the deterring threat is made against the capabilities (“if you move your missiles over here again we’ll destroy them again”) rather than against innocents (“if you move your missiles over here again we’ll kill more of your civilians”).

    The analogy to the discussion over torture-as-punishment vs. imprisonment-as-punishment centers around deterrence versus the other (presumed) benefits of imprisonment, primarily incapacity. If deterrence were the only factor, then torture and imprisonment might be comparable; likewise collateral damage from bombing and deliberate assassination of innocents might be comparable. But imprisonment also serves to incapacitate criminals and thus prevent them (during their incarceration) from committing further crimes, and bombing serves to destroy the capability for aggressive acts and thus prevents the aggressors from committing further aggressive acts.

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    One thought is that the people who decide and act out the assassinations or bombings will suffer more for carrying out the assassinations compared to the bombings. The bombings kill a large anonymous group of innocents whereas assassinations are more intimate. It seems to me we humans are built to suffer at the thought of hurting particular known people rather than people not known to us. Bombings prevents us knowing as intimately the people killed.

    The question that interests me is, if both actions do good overall, should the agents deciding and acting on the two options consider their own psychological feelings when deciding? The desire to be rational in a utilitarian sense seems real to me in humans, but also the desire to act in a self interested way and not sacrifice for others without some personal pay-off seems real too.

    Also, the harder it is to do good, the less we’ll do of it I’d think, so our ease in doing good seems a reasonable consideration.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Eddie’s point is good – there is a difference if the purpose was de-clawing and not deterrence. There is also an issue of corruption and favoritism – assassins might be bribed or lobbied to kill some and not others.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    You have no control over what family you’re born in to, but you at least have some control over how your country turns out.

    You realize this is exactly the argument that would justify the occupants of the World Trade Center, or any other American civilians, as legitimate military targets.

  • http://jamesdmiller.blogspot.com/ James D. Miller

    Eddie, I admit that assumption 3 is unrealistic. But I don’t see what changes if we assume that the assassinations option was chosen because the deterrence value of it was greater than the combined deterrence and incapacitation value of the bombings, meaning that the expected future U.S. losses from terrorism would be lower if we conducted the assassinations than if we conducted the bombings.

    Mike, I remember a MASH episode in which a bomber pilot had no moral qualms with his job until HAWKEYE arranged for him to see some of his innocent victims.

  • michael vassar

    I think it’s really quite simple. First, I doubt that Bush would have been impeached for doing the assassinations so long as he *also* did the bombings. Many of America’s people felt that they collectively had been attacked, and they wanted collective revenge to come from an agent which they could easily identify with. They find it much more easy to identify with the US army, and hence a bombing mission, than with the CIA or Homeland Security Agency assassination mission. They also, probably rightly fear the latter more than the former, as the civilian management of an army, while a difficult and long lasting problem for civilization, appears to be a solved problem, and the civilian management of an intelligence organization much less so.
    There is also a sensible tacit agreement among world leaders not to assassinate one another. This makes sense as a global schilling point with frequent assassinations would be much worse for all leaders.

  • Richard Pointer

    We could have only hoped that Bush was as stupid as to turn the ‘War on Terror’ into a blood feud. Bush actually putting things valuable to him in harm’s way; truly antithetical to his behavior.

    Why put your own family members in danger when you can send someone else’s? I mean Jenna and Barbara have to finish college, right? Get jobs they don’t earn. Live lives they are gifted. Right?

  • steven

    You realize this is exactly the argument that would justify the occupants of the World Trade Center, or any other American civilians, as legitimate military targets.

    I happen to agree with your conclusion, but if you take this sort of reasoning too seriously you end up telling Allied soldiers “stop shooting Nazi soldiers, because would you want them to do that to YOU?”

  • Douglas Knight

    tacit agreement among world leaders not to assassinate one another

    I think it’s important to point out that it’s explicit in treaties. Maybe Schelling explains why those treaties are observed, but it’s not tacit.

  • Steve

    I understand your question to be: what is the factor that makes a moral difference between not wanting 500 ‘innocents’ to die and killing them anyway versus killing 500 grandparents, sisters, brothers, mothers for the same reason?
    Perhaps that could be accounted for because the labels you used for the two groups. In the second group, the labels for relatives carries with it a connotation of ‘us’ in the us v them evolutionary orientation. In the first group, the ‘innocent’ do not automatically connote ‘us’, and the ‘innocent’ have been ones sacrificed as a matter of ritual and honor to satisfy the morality code of the particular time. Often, killing innocents was/is a moral way of saving oneself. Much less often, killing of family members was/is a moral way.

    The moral code in place at any time can be seen by actions taken versus responses to actions taken. In fact, 500 ‘relatives’ of someone are routinely killed for various moral causes. That changing the label of the those killed can be a factor as to the ‘morality’ of the action certainly speaks to the lack of morality of the process itself.

  • Doug S.

    You realize this is exactly the argument that would justify the occupants of the World Trade Center, or any other American civilians, as legitimate military targets.

    I’m skeptical about the military/civilian distinction in general, especially when fighting a guerrilla war. Is the farmer growing food for the enemy soldiers any less of an enemy than the enemy soldiers are? The way I see it, if you’re willing to fight a war at all, there’s no point in holding anything back. If slaughtering civilians will help you win, then you’d better go and slaughter some civilians! If you’re not willing to commit atrocities in order to win, you probably shouldn’t be fighting a war in the first place.

    There is a known, effective way for a conventional army to easily win a guerrilla war. It’s known as collective punishment. The ancient Romans were masters of it; as one of their vanquished foes lamented, “they make a wasteland and call it peace.” Saddam Hussein, Joseph Stalin, the Mongols, the Ottoman Empire, and even the British Empire all used this technique to maintain orderly rule. Basically, you have to make the civilian population more afraid of you than the guerrillas, which generally means that you have to kill people until you happen to get the right ones.

    See also: http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/02/0081384

  • http://profile.typekey.com/ThanatosSavehn/ Thanatos Savehn

    Isn’t this just another example of the identification problem? If a new economic policy will result in 10 new jobs distributed across the entire economy to unidentifiable people, but John Smith, who is interviewed on TV with his pitiful looking family, will be laid off from his job tomorrow as a result, how will the media play it and how will the public respond? A single payer health care system, with a guarantee of a certain level of coverage for all, looks good until John Smith, whose illness is too rare and too expensive (e.g. a $2 million surgery that might extend his life by 5 years) to be covered, is interviewed on TV and says he was told to go home and die. In response the Canadian Supreme Court says he has a right to seek health care elsewhere and suddenly a private, and arguably better, system springs up producing the inequities sought to be avoided in the first place.

    When we identify the person to be robbed of his job, his life, or his freedom then people make a very different sort of calculation, or weight the variables in a very different sort of way, when assessing the justness of what is to be done to him. This is why good personal injury lawyers work so hard to make a jury identify with their client. Once they do the evidence usually goes right out the window.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    One other minor problem here is that Osama bin Laden was alienated from his family, presumably not caring very much about them, or at least most of them (except for his own children). So, such an assassination plan would really be essentially completely arbitrary. One might as well just bomb some random town in Saudi Arabia. At least in Afghanistan one would presumably be getting at some of the al Qaeda apparatus, if not bin Laden himself.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    More to the point than the arbitrariness of killing his family (aside from bin Laden’s children or wives, or maybe his mother), is that it would not deter him at all, given his alienation from them. It would do nothing to slow him down, whereas he might have been slowed down by a bombing of camps in Afghanistan.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    Targeted assassinations seem preferable to me, but the government also wishes to exert influence over the future Afghan state and massive bombing helps to do that.

    Doug S., that reminds me of the Turko-Mongolian strategy discussed in Archer Jones’ “The Art of War in the Western World”.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Unholysmoke/ Ben Jones

    I’m skeptical about the military/civilian distinction in general, especially when fighting a guerrilla war. Is the farmer growing food for the enemy soldiers any less of an enemy than the enemy soldiers are? The way I see it, if you’re willing to fight a war at all, there’s no point in holding anything back.

    Read some history books Doug – wars don’t work like that. ‘Sides’ are rarely clear-cut on the ground. As a general rule, even civilians with strong allegiances have ‘staying alive’ as their prime concern, and there is a genuine difference between military and civilian. Yes, the farmer is less of an enemy than the soldiers he’s feeding. And no, striking at the enemy in any way no matter the cost in lives or public perception is not always the best policy. When they’re happening all around you, wars are messy affairs. They only look clean on the television.

  • Psy-Kosh

    I dunno about most, but I’d oppose such a bombing campaign in the first place.

  • Ian C.

    “Ian, bear in mind that the Taliban suppressed dissent. Do you suppose that every single German alive in 1938 was a Nazi?”

    Ben, I think the majority of Germans were probably not active believers, just passive followers keeping their heads down and trying to survive.

    But if one’s survival strategy is to try and not be noticed, to make yourself irrelevant, you have to understand it might not be a perfect strategy. By making yourself irrelevant to the activities of the dictatorship, you also by definition make yourself irrelevant to anyone trying to stop the dictatorship.

    So whereas they might give warning and consideration to the resistance, or actively target the true believers, they will not factor you in to their calculations either way. In a world where other countries are likely to come and stomp your misbehaving government, passivity is no longer the safest option, resistance is.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    A point that I’ve never seen anyone raise is that this discussion presumes that soldiers are not innocent. It presumes that any young men who are serving in an enemy’s army are doing so of their own free will, and because they are bad people.

    In many countries during wars, the rates of military service of men in the age group 18-25 approaches 100%. To suppose that this entire demographic is less innocent, and more deserving of death, than, let’s say, women ages 30-40, is absurd.

  • Z. M. Davis

    “You have no control over what family you’re born in to, but you at least have some control over how your country turns out.”

    This doesn’t make sense to me. Mightn’t it be less costly to disown one’s family than to disown one’s nationality? And isn’t one likely to have very much more control over the state of one’s family than the conditions of one’s entire country?

  • savagehenry

    “And no, striking at the enemy in any way no matter the cost in lives or public perception is not always the best policy.”

    Why? I mean, going to war means killing people, once you get into it you might as well go for the gold.

  • eddie

    I don’t see what changes if we assume that the assassinations option was chosen because the deterrence value of it was greater than the combined deterrence and incapacitation value of the bombings

    Deliberate targeting of innocents is widely condemned, even if it is the most effective means to accomplishing an objective. The U.S. could end foreign terrorism much more quickly and cheaply by simply killing all foreigners; the reason we don’t do this is not the lack of technical means, but because we find it morally repugnant.

    If you have to kill innocents in order to defend yourself, you are in the clear. If you kill innocents because it is the easier way to defend yourself, you are in the wrong.

    One can now, of course, begin constructing scenarios where the choice is between spending the entire world’s GDP to defend yourself without losing an innocent life versus defending yourself for free at the cost of a single innocent life. I don’t believe that such artificial scenarios, hard as they are to solve, refute the fundamental difference between your hypothetical bombing campaign and your hypothetical assassination program.

  • eddie

    Phil Goetz:

    this discussion presumes that soldiers are not innocent.

    It does no such thing. It presumes that soldiers, whatever their intentions or desires or state of mind, are shooting at you. Whether they are doing so of their own free will, have been forced to do so at gunpoint, or are the victims of orbital mind-control lasers is irrelevant. If they are shooting at you, you can shoot back, even if they are innocent.

    This is also why we try, when possible, to let enemy soldiers surrender. If they are willing and able to stop shooting, then we don’t want to kill them – regardless of whether they are innocent or seething with hatred for us.

  • http://philosophyetc.net Richard

    I’m with Thanatos — the relevant difference (for explaining any intuitive difference) is the fact that the assassination targets specifically identified individuals, whereas the bombing is just indiscriminate killings. This isn’t necessarily just a “bias” to be dismissed: there are many cases where the targeted imposition of harms and benefits is clearly worse than a more random distribution (e.g. wrongful discrimination). So we have general grounds to be especially averse to the targeted killings. Still, depending on the precise stakes and consequences, I think it most likely that the indiscriminate bombings would also be impermissible. (It is plainly terrorism, after all.)

  • billswift

    Wonderful. On a blog called Overcoming Bias, almost all of the commenters defended their intuitions rather than trying to reason logically.

  • Sam B

    My cynicism is such that I’m not sure that Bush would have been impeached. He’d have caused an almighty economic hoo-ha by murdering 500 members of one of the richest families of the country’s leading oil producer, but I think he’d be able to present it as all the fault of the bad guys.

    Killing 500 people with the surname Bin Laden would have made more sense than invading a country with no links to Al Qaeda – in fact, one of the region’s few secular governments and one that Bin Laden had outright condemned. Bush kept his job for that even though the result was to reignite the country’s warring factions and incite even more terrorism.

  • Larry D’anna

    This is the same exact mistake that Sam Harris makes in his book when he compares bombing casualties to torture. Perhaps they are morally comparable, but we are not judging the actions of individuals. We are judging the actions of governments. A government that can order torture and assassinations is a good deal more dangerous than a government that can order bombings. There are certain lines we must never let our governments cross.

  • Patrick (orthonormal)

    The best explanation is that we fundamentally tend to view directly intended acts differently from their forseen consequences (remember the Trolley Problem); so “conducting a bombing campaign with the knowledge that 5000 innocents will die” seems to fall under a different moral heading than does “assassinating 500 people”.

    To distinguish this from the hypothesis that it’s about the specificity of the 500 family members, note that we would be just as appalled by an operation that rounded up 500 random Afghanis and killed them as a deterrent to Al Qaeda. The only thing that removes the moral outrage in the first case is our notion that intended acts are morally incommensurable with not-directly-intended consequences- a dangerous bias indeed, since those on the receiving end tend not to see the distinction so clearly.

  • Jeff

    I always thought the taboo against assassination was because the thought process of military leaders (President/King/Emporer/Tsar/whatever) went something like this:

    If we kill ten thousand of their soldiers, they will kill ten thousand of ours. That is an acceptable loss for our noble cause.

    If we try to assassinate their leaders, they might try to asassinate me! That is not acceptable under any circumstances.

    In other words, the taboo against assassination exists entirely for the benefit of potential victims, who tend to be high-ranking and influential and famous and so able to perpetuate such a taboo.

  • Colin Reid

    Another version would be if the government could design a virus that would be carried asymptomatically by most people, but was designed to kill the host if they were genetically very similar to Osama bin Laden. Assuming such a virus could be made and was guaranteed not to kill anyone who wasn’t at least a second cousin of Osama, what would be acceptable casualties?

    In any case, I would hope that the modern US public disapproves of ‘terror bombing’, that is bombing designed primarily to cause human misery rather than to destroy the enemy’s means of war. As far as I know the US hasn’t used an explicit terror bombing strategy since WWII, though US bombing strategies in Vietnam are debatable on this score.

  • Michael Sullivan

    One can now, of course, begin constructing scenarios where the choice is between spending the entire world’s GDP to defend yourself without losing an innocent life versus defending yourself for free at the cost of a single innocent life. I

    That scenario will be difficult to construct. As soon as costs begin to get large they become equivalent to some number of innocent lives. Money represents resources, and as long as there are absolutely poor people, it’s possible to spend small amounts of money in ways that prevent innocent deaths. Food and various public health measures cost money, and people die every day from their lack. Spending outrageous amounts of money on a war carries an opportunity cost in these lives, because even if we did none of these alternate things with the money explicitly, if it were simply not taxed, some small percentage of it would be donated to potentially lifesaving causes. The percentage spent and efficiency do not have to be very good to make a lot of lives saved out of what we’ve spent on the Iraq war, say. The percentages say that merely letting the taxpayers keep that money would have saved a whole bunch of lives. Actively using it with life-saving in mind would save a ridiculous number of lives.

    In other words, the taboo against assassination exists entirely for the benefit of potential victims, who tend to be high-ranking and influential and famous and so able to perpetuate such a taboo.

    I think we have a winner. Nice reasoning, Jeff.

  • Psychohistoran

    This really isn’t a complicated problem. Civilian casualties as the result of an attack on a military target is considered acceptable. Civilian casualties caused for the sake of causing civilian casualties are not acceptable.

    If the original hypothetical had some military purpose (say, we know 10 of these 510 family members are in fact top ranking al-Qaeda operatives, but we don’t know which ones), then there would be a meaningful comparison between the two hypotheticals. As it stands, there does not appear to be much of a contradiction.

  • Max

    I agree with Psychohistoran. Moreover, the second case could as well be “Let’s kill five hundred Koreans” – there is no purpose in killing those who are not the enemy.