A Utilitarian Considers War

an essay

Copyright © 2003 by
Sean Michael Ragan

I wrote this 750-word essay for an online scholarship essay contest shortly before the U.S. first invaded Iraq. The prompt was, "When is war justified?" My entry did not place. I subsequently entered it in the Spring 2003 Adele Steiner Burleson writing contest sponsored by the UT Austin English Department, in which it took 3rd place in the "Essay" division.

The decision to make war, like any other decision, is justified when the harm it entails is outweighed by the harm it prevents. Those familiar with moral philosophy will recognize this as strict Utilitarianism, in the tradition of John Stuart Mill?s eponymous book*. Utilitarians advocate an almost mathematical approach to moral decision making: One chooses that path which brings the greatest good for the greatest number, or, failing that, the least harm for the fewest number. The classical problems with this approach are the difficulty of quantifying harm, which is psychologically and culturally relative, and the difficulty of predicting what harm will come in a universe ruled by turbulence and entropy. It is not possible?yet?to reduce a moral decision to an equation.

But if intentions count for anything?and most moral and legal systems agree they do?a justified decision does not require a perfect solution to the utilitarian equation where none is possible; it requires only that we do the best we can, with the lights we have, to maximize good and minimize harm for the greatest number of people. We may proceed probabilistically, weighing the known against the unknown, the concrete against the abstract, and the certain against the merely possible. We may err in our calculations, and so bring even more unnecessary suffering into a world already filled with it, but to justify our choices requires only that we have undertaken them diligently and in earnest.

Broadly, there are but two factors to consider: The harm entailed, and the harm prevented. In both cases we must speak of probabilities: What harm will war probably entail? What harm will it probably prevent? One does well, at this point, to remember the possibility of losing. Wars, after all, are harmful whether won or lost, and one who wages war and loses incurs all and prevents none of the harm he or she?if acting morally?sought to minimize in the first place. The harm war entails is certain; the harm it prevents is conditional upon victory, which is never certain.

Even given sure victory, we must reckon that the harm we prevent will be somewhat abnegated, on a moral scale, by the good we prevent. ?Harm? and ?good,? after all, are often culturally relative terms?indeed, the very reason cultures war is that what one takes for harm another takes for good. Since we are concerned with the justification of war, in a moral sense, and not with its advisability, in a strategic sense, surely we have an obligation to consider the toll upon the other fellow? War is a zero-sum game: both players come to the table with finite resources, and what one gains, the other must lose. When all is said and done, the gains are matched exactly by the losses, and no matter who wins, the net good remains the same.

That?s assuming it costs nothing to play. Which brings us to the harms war entails. These are quite concrete: People are killed, maimed, displaced, degraded, and generally made to suffer in very direct physical and psychological ways. There is little room for cultural or psychological relativism here: Whether a person is Chinese or African, sanguine or choleric, enlightened or despotic, he is liable to consider obliteration of himself and others by high explosives harmful. Contrariwise, the harm war prevents is often very abstract, as for instance the violation of ideals or policies. Given a Hitler or a Pol Pot, who brings not only conventional war but systematic slaughter of innocents, this harm is quite clear-cut. But this is the exception, not the rule; more often than not the soldier finds himself in the position of the condemned man, who finds ?Justice? rather an ephemeral notion when he learns he will be beheaded in order to preserve it.

In sum, the nation that chooses war is choosing certain harm, of a very concrete nature, in exchange for a good which is merely possible, likely to be abstract, and generally abnegated?on an absolute scale?by the culturally relative values which define it. The equation, irrespective of a particular situation, is heavily weighted against the choice of war to begin with. The introduction of innocent victims, on the scale of genocide, can do much to balance it out, and even to tip it the other way. But barring the prevention of systematic atrocity, war is too great an atrocity in and of itself to be justified as a moral means to any merely political end.

* Utilitarianism. Mill, John Stuart. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 1979 (1861). Originally published in three installment?s in Fraser?s magazine, 1861.