Friday, April 04, 2008


There is a classic and obvious way of defending the loss of innocent life in acts of war as morally justifiable that draws on the utilitarian or consequentialist tradition. This is, broadly, that "the ends justify the means." In practice, this means that the innocent people are "expendable," in order to achieve a weightier goal, for instance, to take a simple example, the saving of even more lives. The phrase "collateral damage" is used to refer to such innocent casualties, and it lends itself perfectly to this idea: Collateral is what we put up for risk in order to achieve some higher end.

Let's take, as a paradigmatical example, for instance, the idea collateral damage in war is justified so long as the loss of innocent life is outweighed by the lives that would be saved as a result of the military action. So, for example, if fify people will die in a bombing raid on village where a chemical weapon laboratory is based, but the chemical weapons there would be used to kill thousands if the raid were not to go ahead, then the attack, on this consequentialist line of argument, would be justified.

However, what may be problematic in accepting such an argument is that defenders of such casualties in war may well not also be able to reject terrorism as a legitimate means. After all, a terrorist might equally say that a terrorist attack in which fifty people are killed is justified if it fosters public pressure and influence on government to get it to reject a policy that would kill thousands. So, just as with the village example, the terrorist could say, "yes, fifty people were killed, but thousands were saved, so it is justified." The argument is precisely the same: So long as the benefits (in numbers of human lives saved) outweigh the costs (the number of human lives lost), the action is justified. Indeed, terrorists could likewise refer to the lost lives as "collateral damage" in a war. I have no idea if they really do, but terrorist characters did in an Arnold Schwarzenegger film. In this film the terrorist leader tells Arnie that his family, killed in a bombing, were collateral damage no different from when the US goes to war.

Another common argument is used to justify "collateral damage," and I think it may be a merit of this argument that it avoids what may be, for consequentialists, the problem of avoiding justifying the use of terrorism. This is the doctrine of double effect, an ethical theory developed by the scholastics and, most importantly, Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas. I am not intending, here, to either justify the doctrine of double effect, or to justify the loss of innocent life as collateral damage. All I intend to do here is show how the doctrine of double effect helps highlight normatively significant differences between loss of life as collateral damage and as terrorism.

Terrorism, for the purpose here, is defined as ideologically motivated violence, or threats of violence, against otherwise innocent or unrelated people (hence different from assasination) for the purpose of generating terror, which, in turn, is for the purpose of generating pressure to effect public policy (either to change from a given status quo, or to reverse a course of change. Terrorism is, then, a means to a means to an end - the initial act, say a bombing, is a means to generating widespread fear or terror, which in turn is a means to changing policy or social habits.

The doctrine of double effects says that a harmful affect of an action is justified, under four conditions:

1) The nature of the act is itself morally good, or at least neutral.

2) The bad effect is not intended, though it may be foreseen.

3) The good effect of the action outweighs the bad effect.

4) The good effect does not go through the bad effect.

So, lets take two cases:

A: The airforce makes a bombing raid on a chemical weapons lab that is certainly known to be located in the centre of the village. The airforce knows that innocent people will be killed in the raid, but also knows that the chemical weapons will be used by the government of that village's country to gas a thousand innocent people. Fifty innocent civilians die in the otherwise successful raid.

B: A terrorist cell bombs the village hall of a village where there is a chemical weapons laboratory. It does this to generate fear amongst the populace of a country that they could become victims in similar events unless the terrorist demands are met. These demands are that the government closes down a chemical weapons laboratory producing a weapon that would a kill thousand people. Fifty people die in the terrorist bombing and the government shuts down the factory.

In both these cases the consequentialist seems to say that the action was justified, whether it is the airforce bombing raid, or the terrorist attack. However, the doctrine of double effect allows us to point out significant and morally relevant differences between A and B.

The most obvious difference that leaps out is regarding conditions 2) and 4): The bad effects, though, foreseen are not intended in A, but are in B, and the good consequences in both cases (getting rid of the chemical weapons factory and so saving a thousand lives) does not go through the bad effect (killing the fifty innocents) in A, but does in B. The air force foresaw the innocent deaths, but did not intend those deaths. Their intention was not to kill the innocents, but to get rid of the factory. They would have gone through with their bombing even had their been no innocents there. On the other hand, the terrorists intended to kill the innocent people. Had there been no innocents there, they would not have bombed where they did.

Likewise, the the good consequences of the air force's raid was not achieved by achieving the bad consequences. The air force did not get rid of the factory by killing the innocents, whilst that was precisely how terrorists accomplished it.

So, to reiterate, I am not intending to either defend collateral damage or to defend the doctrine of double effect as a tool. What I intended, and what I think I have done, is to show that the killing of innocents as collateral damage is not the same as killing innocent people in terrorist acts. Terrorism and collateral damage are different in normatively significant ways.


Post a Comment

<< Home