Scale-Dependent Morality

One of the questions that haunts an American patriot has to do with the mathematics of war.  At the time of Truman, Nagasaki and Hiroshima were justified in large part on the accounting of human lives saved vs. lives lost, both in raw terms and in terms of American soldiers and Marines vs. Japanese soldiers, Marines, and noncombatants.  Back of this whole enterprise is the question:  how many _____ lives is one American G. I.’s actually worth?  Clearly, the son of an Afghan mother is morally equivalent to the son of an American mother.  At the individual level, moral considerations mitigate for a 1:1 equivalence.

But Victor Davis Hanson asks us to consider the cultural dimension and the moral and arithmetic asymmetries that result from it:

Finally and most seriously, I think, there is what I call, for want of a better term, “asymmetry.” Western culture creates citizens who are affluent, leisured, free, and protected. Human nature being what it is, we citizens of the West often want to enjoy our bounty and retreat into private lives—to go home, eat pizza, and watch television. This is nothing new. I would refer you to Petronius’s Satyricon, a banquet scene written around 60 A.D. about affluent Romans who make fun of the soldiers who are up on the Rhine protecting them. This is what Rome had become. And it’s not easy to convince someone who has the good life to fight against someone who doesn’t.

To put this in contemporary terms, what we are asking today is for a young man with a $250,000 education from West Point to climb into an Apache helicopter—after emailing back and forth with his wife and kids about what went on at a PTA meeting back in Bethesda, Maryland—and fly over Anbar province or up to the Hindu Kush and risk being shot down by a young man from a family of 15, none of whom will ever live nearly as well as the poorest citizens of the United States, using a weapon whose design he doesn’t even understand. In a moral sense, the lives of these two young men are of equal value. But in reality, our society values the lives of our young men much more than Afghan societies value the lives of theirs.

Hanson, V. D., “The Future of Western War,” Imprimis 38(11):1-5.

Hanson concedes the moral question at the individual level.  But those who declare war are not declaring it at that scale.  They are declaring it at the societal and cultural scale of sovereign nations, nations whose attitudes toward the lives of their children are embodied and expressed in the political and cultural values that predominate; and where nations are not involved per se (think al Qaeda, for instance, or Hezbollah) the same calculus applies, perhaps even more self-evidently.  We Americans, as a whole, value the lives of our boys and girls more than the terrorists value the lives of their boys and girls.

Food for thought.


3 thoughts on “Scale-Dependent Morality

  1. First, by stating that an Afghani does not “live as well” as an American, does the author mean that a person who is affluent and leisured is happier than a person who is not? I don’t think we can make that assumption; in fact the evidence may point to an opposite conclusion.

    Second, I would disagree with the notion that a terrorist places a lesser value on his children than a western father does. In the case of both, the combatants are generally volunteers who understand the risks involved in their occupation. Parents of the combatants in both cases don’t seem to be begging their children to not go.

    That said, I would agree that a terrorist places a lesser value on the child of his enemy than a westerner does, as we generally do a lot of hand-wringing about civilian casualties and collateral damage in war, and the terrorist happily and intentionally does what we try to avoid. But that does not really make the author’s point here.

  2. My child versus your child. Which is why we ought to declare war only with the kind of committed “dithering” the Consitution requires instead of a short-cut congressional resolution or a unilateral presidential response. And why we ought to be asking ourselves the reasons why we have large numbers of troops stationed in “little Americas” in Germany, South Korea, and elsewhere around the world some five decades after hostilities have ceased.


  3. jds, qb’s not interested in the slippery calculus of happiness here. The main piont of Hanson’s article seems to be strictly material well-being, which admittedly does not accurately predict well-being at the level of the soul and spirit.

    Coop, qb’s inclined to the same piont of view. Looking back, qb wishes we had dithered about Afghanistan and Iraq long enough to forge a much more explicit declaration of war with a great deal more specificity about the goals and objectives and a great deal more trans-partisanship in the buy-in. We might have emerged with a more coherent policy and a more committed public in the face of a more elusive set of foes and a more realistic view of what constitutes “victory.” There was a time that mere containment was the (more modest) strategic objective, and though it took a while, it resulted in grassroots uprisings by the freedom lovers and a more genuine embrace of the privileges and responsibilities of democracy.


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