Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of “Collateral Damage”


By Nick Li


This is a comment on the section Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of "Collateral Damage" in Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith. Sam Harris in The End of Faith writes:

Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of "Collateral Damage" What we euphemistically describe as "collateral damage" in times of war is the direct result of limitations in the power and precision of our technology. To see that this is so, we need only imagine how any of our recent conflicts would have looked if we had possessed perfect weapons – weapons that allowed us either to temporarily impair or to kill a particular person, or group, at any distance, without harming others or their property. What would we do with such technology? Pacifists would refuse to use it, despite the variety of monsters currently loose in the world: the killers and torturers of children, the genocidal sadists, the men who, for want of the right genes, the right upbringing, or the right ideas, cannot possibly be expected to live peacefully with the rest of us. I will say a few things about pacifism in a later chapter – for it seems to me to be a deeply immoral position that comes to us swaddled in the dogma of highest moralism – but most of us are not pacifists. Most of us would elect to use weapons of this sort. A moment’s thought reveals that a person’s use of such a weapon would offer a perfect window onto the soul of his ethics. Consider the all too facile comparisons that have recently been made between George Bush and Saddam Hussein (or Osama bin Laden, or Hitler, etc.) – in the pages of writers like [Arundhati] Roy and [Noam] Chomsky, in the Arab press, and in classrooms throughout the free world. How would George Bush have prosecuted the recent war in Iraq with perfect weapons? Would he have targeted the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were maimed or killed by our bombs? Would he have put out the eyes of little girls or torn the arms from their mothers? Whether or not you admire the man’s politics – or the man- there is no reason to think that he would have sanctioned the injury or death of even a single innocent person. What would Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden do with perfect weapons? What would Hitler have done? They would have used them rather differently. It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development… consider the horrors that Americans perpetrated as recently as 1968, at My Lai… what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us. The massacre at My Lai is remembered as a signature moment of shame for the American military… as a culture we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents. We would do well to realize that much of the world has not. Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims are standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century. There are undoubtedly historical and cultural reasons for this, and enough blame to go around, but we should not ignore the fact that we must now confront whole societies whose moral and political development – in their treatment of women and children, in their prosecution of war, in their approach to criminal justice, and in their very intuitions about what constitutes cruelty – lags behind our own. This may seem like an unscientific and potentially racist thing to say, but it is neither… any honest witness to current events will realize that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments. Chomsky seems to think that the disparity either does not exist or runs the other way. harris.bmpConsider the recent conflict in Iraq: If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Republican Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties? What are the chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human shields? (What are the chances we would have used human shields?) What are the chances that a routed American government would have called for its citizens to volunteer to be suicide bombers? What are the chances that Iraqi soldiers would have wept upon killing a carload of American civilians at a checkpoint unnecessarily? You should have, in the ledger of your imagination, a mounting column of zeros. Nothing in Chomsky’s account acknowledges the difference between intending to kill a child, because of the effect you hope to produce on its parents (we call this "terrorism"), and inadvertently killing a child in an attempt to capture or kill an avowed child murderer (we call this "collateral damage"). In both cases a child has died, and in both cases it is a tragedy. But the ethical status of the perpetrators, be they individuals or states, could hardly be more distinct. Chomsky might object that to knowingly place the life of a child in jeopardy is unacceptable in any case, but clearly this is not a principle we can follow. The makers of roller coasters know, for instance, that despite rigorous safety precautions, sometime, somewhere, a child will be killed by one of their contraptions. Makers of automobiles know this as well. So do makers of hockey sticks, baseball bats, plastic bags, swimming pools, chain-link fences, or nearly anything else that could conceivably contribute to the death of a child. There is a reason we do not refer to the inevitable deaths of children on our ski slopes as "skiing atrocities." But you would not know this from reading Chomsky. For him, intentions do not seem to matter. Body count is all. We are now living in a world that can no longer tolerate well-armed, malevolent regimes. Without perfect weapons, collateral damage – the maiming and killing of innocent people – is unavoidable. Similar suffering will be imposed on still more innocent people because of our lack of perfect automobiles, airplanes, antibiotics, surgical procedures, and window glass. If we want to draw conclusions about ethics – as well as make predictions about what a given person or society will do in the future – we cannot ignore human intentions. Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything. [Footnote – Are intentions really the bottom line? What are we to say, for instance, about those Christian missionaries in the New World who baptized Indian infants only to promptly kill them, thereby sending them to heaven? Their intentions were (apparently) good. Were their actions ethical? Yes, within the confines of a deplorably limited worldview. The medieval apothecary who gave his patients quicksilver really was trying to help. He was just mistaken about the role this element played in the human body. Intentions matter, but they are not all that matters.]

There is a lot to comment on here. First, he is a little hard on us pacifists – we would certainly not hesitate to use such a perfect weapon to impair the killers of children, genocidal maniacs, etc. Even in the enlightened and ultra-moral world of Star Trek, they could set their phasers to stun, and did, unless fighting the Borg (which, to Sam Harris, is perhaps the appropriate analogy to radical Islam). But more on pacifism in the next post. I have to agree with Harris that comparisons between Bush and Saddam, Osama, or Adolph are just stupid, though I think in many cases these comparisons are not made in total seriousness (and with the authority of someone writing a whole book about morality and attempts to weigh lives against each other on some kind of ledger) – they are meant to shock, to provoke, and are closer in spirit to claims by vegetarians that "meat is murder." I am sure that, given the perfect weapon, Hitler would have killed all inferior races, bin Laden would have wiped out the US military, and Saddam would have crushed all of his internal opponents – all three would most likely have destroyed the state of Israel, though perhaps Saddam and bin Laden would not go so far as to kill every Jew in existence. But wait a second. What about that little footnote that Harris stuck in there? Suddenly, a book that strongly defends philosophical and ethical realism and absolutism equivocates, right at the end of the chapter as Harris is driving home the main point? And what an equivocation. Because I posit that in the case of Hitler and bin Laden, we are looking at true believers like Bush (and that is perhaps the only really relevant comparison), who really believe that their actions are for the greater good. These are not cynical operators – all of these men really believed that their actions would create a better world. Yes, some people would die (collateral damage) but the paradise on earth that would result from these actions would be well worth it. Harris would surely reply that their beliefs about how the world works are really wrong, like the doctor prescribing quicksilver, so that even though their intention was to do good according to their worldview, the outcome was objectively evil. But in that case, we can say the same thing for all of the well-intentioned humanitarian disasters caused by the West over the last century. While Harris may be correct, in that our intentions – "create a peaceful and prosperous democracy where everyone’s human rights are respected" – are better than theirs – "create a paradise on earth or in the afterlife by having everyone adhere to a certain ideology," accepting this footnote indicates that his argument is not really one based on intention, but rather one based on the intrinsic goodness of certain goals compared to others (which, in fairness, he argues for in other parts of his book). Saddam, of course, is a different story, a much more cynical operator who seemed purely interested in self-preservation and personal glory and showed a penchant for petty cruelty which he liked to personally witness and inflict. But, in his defense, it is perhaps worth emphasizing that Saddam’s methods were highly effective at minimizing the number of people he had to kill to maintain power. The Chicago school economist Gary Becker had a theory that since deterrence is a function both of the frequency of punishment (or the probability of being caught) and the severity, by ramping up the severity of punishment to near infinity we would hardly ever have to enforce our laws. That is the basic logic behind the deterrence argument for the death penalty – by setting such a severe punishment, we will hardly ever have to carry it out and we will need less police. Saddam’s tactics – if you oppose me or try to overthrow me I will torture and kill your wife and children – were horribly cruel but effective, in the sense that Iraq under his rule was a paragon of order and discipline compared to the current situation. There were certainly less violent civilian deaths under his rule than now. Similar logic also underlies the use of the atomic bomb in World War II, and also the Israeli tactic of bulldozing homes and farms and thereby punishing the families of suicide bombers (though I’m not sure that Harris would consider them "innocent"). So my point with regards to Saddam is this – if he had possessed the perfect weapon, he may not have killed nearly as many children or family members of his opponents, since he did not need to use these terrible tactics to deter opposition. He would have simply and easily eliminated his opponents instantly the moment they formed oppositional thoughts. But enough defending dictators and tyrants. Harris is fundamentally right here – perhaps there just are dangerous psychopaths and murders out there, people like Saddam or Adolph, who are just far morally inferior to Western leaders, up to and including the likes of Henry Kissinger and George W Bush. But then in the subsequent paragraphs, Harris overreaches, turning the argument from one aimed at a very limited segment of people – those who have murdered innocent civilians in the name of god or ideology and who exhibit psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies – into one aimed at "many Muslims," the entire "Iraqi Republican Guard," and "whole societies." In his view, the average American or European soldier or civilian is just so much more moral than the average Muslim. Really? Take a second to think about what Harris is actually saying. To begin with, he is acting as though asymmetrical warfare springs largely from asymmetrical morality, rather than from asymmetrical technology. So every group that ever had to use non-conventional warfare, including propaganda, suicide attacks (and here, let’s be honest and acknowledge that the Japanese used suicide attacks in WWII when they were on the verge of defeat, the Vietnamese used suicide attacks regularly against the US – the Tet offensive was probably the largest in history) and attacks on "soft targets" (where there is a high probability that civilians will be killed) using explosives rather than bombs were driven to do so by their moral inferiority, not their conventional military inferiority. Secondly, his statement that American soldiers weep when they kill carloads of Iraqi civilians accidentally at a checkpoint but Iraqi soldiers would not do the same where the situation reversed is a gross generalization, and therefore racist. The statement that our "enemies" never have second thoughts, are never reluctant to inflict maximum violence, and do not respect the sanctity of life needs to be proved, not simply asserted time and time again by our leaders and by Sam Harris. Until I see a large-scale statistical, psychological profile of Iraqi versus American soldiers, I have no reason to believe that, given the same situation of power and the same scenario, they would act any differently. I defy Harris or anyone who can to produce evidence that " much of the world" has not "outgrown a tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents." Given the reaction of the United States to the murder of 3,000 of its civilians – actions that resulted in the deaths of probably 100,000 civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them the direct result of American bullets and bombs – I shudder to think what Americans would be prepared to do if Iraq visited the kind of destruction on their country that they have inflicted upon it. And there lies the crux of the matter. The systematic devaluation of our enemies. Morality is intricately linked with the devaluation of their lives. Why, ask Arabs, do the Israelis or Americans maintain their moral superiority when by any accounting of the number of casualties, civilian or otherwise, of military actions they are the greater murderers? When pushed, American and Israeli military leaders may give an honest reply – the life of one American or Israeli soldier is worth far more than that of one Iraqi or Palestinian civilian, so we will always use bombs that have high potential to inflict collateral damage rather than fight door to door. The lack of reporting of death statistics for Iraqi soldiers and civilians is just one symptom of this deeper feeling. No one, especially not Sam Harris, wants to admit this, but all of the aggrieved parties feel it deeply. The narrow group identification where we weep far more for our own than for "the other" is hardly unique to Muslim societies. To the extent that attempts to portray others as morally inferior provides a pretext to act morally inferior ourselves, I think it is an extremely dangerous tactic and certainly unworthy of our own lofty self-image. The second to last paragraph, attacking Chomsky, is not worthy of a reply, based as it is on a ridiculous analogy and caricature of the differences between an intentionalist and consequentialist approach to moral philosophy. Though I don’t agree with everything he says, Chomsky serves an important function by continually reminding us that (1)even our intentions are not always good, as he has tirelessly documented (we hardly have to go back to the 19th century or the crusades, as Harris does, to come up with examples of America or Christians carrying out indisputably evil acts), (2) any comparison of body counts suggests to an impartial observer that we are not nearly as restrained in the use of force as we think, and our enemies not nearly as dangerous as we portray them, and (3) we must hold our own country to the highest possible standard of morality instead of evading this responsibility by pointing to the evilness or immorality of our enemies, or by appealing to our worst fears of what could happen. I think this is Chomsky’s value – taken as a definitive moral calculus, he is not much more convincing than Harris. In the next post, I will explain why I have found pacifism such an attractive approach, despite it being "be a deeply immoral position that comes to us swaddled in the dogma of highest moralism" according to Harris. In this and the next post, I reproduce (at the risk of copyright violation) some thought-provoking arguments provided by Sam Harris ( in his book "the End of Faith."

3 thoughts on “Perfect Weapons and the Ethics of “Collateral Damage”

  1. Who among humans can decide what is right and wrong. It is a point of view. Death is a part of life, just like birth. Peace versus War? It is a worldly struggle and is as unimportant as right and wrong, justice and injustice, honor and dishonor. It means nothing. The only thing that gives these views meaning is a belief in something greater than this life. A creator, and a life beyond this one.

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