In response to “Terrible Turnaround,” Scott Sumner writes:

Suppose that in 1943 we knew for a fact that dropping a bomb on Germany
and Japan, and killing 3,000 civilians, would have caused them to
surrender.  Would the act have been morally justified?  I’d say yes,
but only because we were fighting the “bad guys.”  On the other hand
even if Al Qaeda knew for a fact that killing 3,000 Americans would
cause us to surrender, it still wouldn’t be morally justified.  They
were fighting the “good guys”  (or for you Chomsky fans, the “less bad

Scott titles his reply, “In Praise of Double Standards,” but he seems to be pushing a single standard.  Namely: “It’s morally permissible for the good guys to do terrible stuff, and morally impermissible for the bad guys to do terrible stuff.”  But that just pushes my question back a step to, “OK, what would we have to do to be the bad guys?”  And my claim is that group-serving bias makes us quick to clear us and condemn them.

Since Scott’s an avowed utilitarian, I assume he’d use the utilitarian principle to distinguish good guys from bad.  His answer to the question, “When is it morally permissible for us to kill 3,000 enemy civilians?” would have to be “If it increases total utility.”  Many, perhaps most, Americans would buy this answer.

But when asked, “When is it morally permissible for the enemy to kill 3,000 of our civilians?” the consistent utilitarian again has to answer, “If it increases total utility.”  And while a handful of hard-core utilitarians will bite that bullet, few Americans would join them.   When they’re attacking us, a mere excess of social benefits over social costs isn’t good enough. 

This is the kind of double standard my original posts criticizes – and I doubt it’s one that Scott really wants to praise.