By Bryan Caplan
It’s time to reply to my critics. Here goes:
Suppose some jerk burns a Koran, and devout Muslims respond with by
killing every American they come across. Should I, and other Americans
not organize for our collective defense?
Whether we agree with Koran burning or not would be irrelevant once
people that violently oppose Koran burning (but support all sorts of
other violence against me) decide to target me.
If you’ve got a plan for “collective defense” that doesn’t involve reckless endangerment of large numbers of innocent bystanders, I’d like to hear it. But modern warfare sadly doesn’t qualify.
You’re normally an excellent philosopher, but here you seem too
close to straw-man arguments, unjustified equivocation, and the fallacy
of the excluded middle. The right to defense in the face of initiated
violence does not mean unleashing WWIII. But the answer doesn’t have to
mean pacifism to the extent of losing ones own right to life.
There’s an enormous middle ground between those two…
Defensive response may be messy, and I agree with the urge to
minimize the collateral damage. But we don’t become pacifist martyrs
simply because the outcome isn’t perfect.
I deny that pacifism makes us into martyrs. The long-run consequences of war are sufficiently unpredictable that pacifism could easily be in our narrow self-interest. Consider: If any of the main players in World War I – billed as “the war to end all wars” – had simply surrendered, even the “martyr” nation would likely have been better off than it was by the war’s end – and World War II would have been avoided.
The reason for the “not quite” is the doctrine of Double Effect. I see
a difference between and evil effect which is intentionally brought
about and a evil effect that is brought about as a foreseen but
unavoidable side effect of pursuing a legitimate goal.
Is there a difference? Sure. But we greatly exaggerate the moral difference when foreigners are the ones who suffer the “unavoidable side effects.” If the police firebombed a domestic apartment complex to pursue the legitimate goal of killing Charles Manson, few people would consider the doctrine of Double Effect a strong defense. Would you?
Would you say that the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were morally in the
wrong? That wasn’t literally a *war* of self defense – it would be more
accurately classified as a *battle* of self defense, but does that
create a substantial moral distinction?
The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was about as close to a true battle of self-defense as you’re likely to find in modern warfare. But I’d still say that it recklessly endangered large numbers of civilians. And it’s a perfect example of my point that the consequences of war are hard to predict. The uprising (a) led to another 150,000 to 200,000 civilian deaths (most at German hands, of course), (b) didn’t free Poland from the Germans, and (c) allowed Stalin to indirectly eliminate most of the Polish resistance while the Red Army sat on the sidelines. Not worth dying for, not worth endangering bystanders for.
Recognizing that you have the right to something is very different from
saying such conduct is obligatory or desirable. It might be morally
permissible to kill thieves but still better to avoid doing so when
Again, I’m not objecting to killing thieves. I’m objecting to killing innocent bystanders while thief-hunting.
what would a pacifist do when there is an army storming through one’s
homeland? Is it wrong to unite and join an army to oust the invaders?
Is he just going to hope for the best and believe that the invaders
have no ill will against him?
“Unite and join an army” always sounds good. But what exactly is this army going to do? Judging from virtually every army around, it’s going to recklessly endanger large numbers of innocent bystanders. And what are the odds its actions actually improve matters, rather than provoking reprisals and worse? My complaint is that proponents of war “hope for the best” rather than facing these hard questions.
It is very easy to consider pacifism in an age where there is no
threat of invasion, but one ought not forget that wars have had to be
fought to reach this peace.
And I say that most of these wars were themselves caused by earlier rejection of pacifism. To repeat, consider World War I. Any major power that swallowed its pride could have averted not just the horrors of World War I, but the subsequent rise of Communism, Nazism, World War II, and more.
The sad moral compromise
we’re forced into when we choose option 2 is both the lesser of two
evils, and an evil the responsibility for which lies with the
Question: What’s the furthest you’ll take this argument when the innocent bystanders aren’t foreigners? And if detailed historical study revealed that our government was the aggressor, do you think the other side would be justified in doing horrible things to us? Consider: Suppose two countries are run by adherents of your position. But one of them mistakenly believes the other country “started it.” The bizarre result: Both sides can keep escalating their level of brutality in good conscience. Note: This isn’t just a weird trolley problem; in the real world, both sides usually sincerely think “the other side started it.”
This is akin to bait and switch. Although all the examples you have in
mind concern states fighting states, you are a libertarian anarchist
and as such reject statism in all its forms. What then is the relevance
of these examples for your own political philosophy?
Plenty of relevance. I also oppose guerrilla warfare and violent revolution on the same grounds.
It seems to me that we’re debating something that most of us learned in
the schoolyard, i.e., it is possible for large numbers of semi-rational
human beings to coexist in a limited space, but bullies do exist. And
because a bully recognizes no limits, he or she must be taken out, by
any means necessary.
But we patently don’t take out bullies on the schoolyard “by any means necessary.” We don’t throw a grenade into a room of kids to make sure the bully dies. And the reason isn’t just that an easier way to remove bullies exists. If the only solution to the bully problem were throwing a grenade in a crowded schoolroom, we’d just learn to live with the bully’s abuse. Why? Because the innocent bystanders aren’t foreigners.
To send a signal that one wont fight back against agression does more
than allow thugs to walk all over others. Cowards who would normally
remain at bay will take advantage of those who play the Amish strategy
of pacifism. Individual rights have no practical meaning in such a
As I’ve explained before, this microeconomic analysis is woefully inadequate. Yes, fighting does raise the cost of attacking you; but it also increases the demand for attacking you by making others angry. The net effect is theoretically ambiguous and empirically unclear.
I think that if I were about to be attacked in an alley and I pulled
out a handgun, in self-defense, and started shooting, there is a small
chance that a stray bullet will kill an innocent bystander. I want to
minimize that chance, but it won’t prevent me from pulling the trigger.
I agree with you. I’m not objecting to responsible risk-taking. I drive. My claim, rather, is that modern warfare is almost always irresponsible. What militaries do isn’t like taking a shot with a 1% chance of accidentally hitting a bystander. It’s more like throwing a grenade at a crowd because the gunman’s somewhere in the middle.
A challenge to my critics: I’ve carefully stated my argument here. The argument has three premises. Please succinctly tell me what premise(s) you reject and why.