The sometime first duty of intelligent men

John Rogers:

The anecdote … it was stirred by the latest from famous lawyer Alan Dershowitz, in which he argues that there is a scale of innocence, and anyone but the infirm and elderly who has not fled forthwith from Israel’s assualt on Lebanon is some sort of Hisbollah collaborator. Not may be. IS.

To wit, we must never, ever question the appropriateness of scale or choice in Israel’s various responses as odds are, on the Dershowitz scale, a whole lotta Lebanese has a little Hisbollah in him.

“Those who voluntarily remain behind have become complicit. Some [emphasis mine]— those who cannot leave on their own — should be counted among the innocent victims.”

I may note that evacuating to God knows where to live on God knows what while apparently any moving convoy is a legit airstrike target may seem to anyone not as ferocioulsy fearless as Dershowitz to be a bit daunting. Noting that people should be fleeing north is a little Kafka-esque while the north is being bombed.

I wish I had some example of how even in one of the most technically advanced western democracies in the world that tens of thousand of people picking up and fleeing, even with advanced notice, can become a massive clusterfuck, with thousands of innocents left in the wake. But hey, he’s the perfessor. I’m plainly not qualified to match my own intellectual prowess or moral sense against an internationally famous lawyer who teaches at Harvard.

That someone could make the argument that the last, the very last standard in war that we hold in these broken times — that any and all civilian casualties are to be universally condemned — that someone could lawyer away that last vestige of human sacredness without puking on himself with disgust frankly stuns me.

Fred Clark:

What I really mean — and again it’s not just me, or my opinion, or my preference, it’s the law — is that You’re not allowed to kill civilians.

“But what if …?” And here come the hypotheticals (which aren’t really necessary since the world is full of actuals) positing all the many scenarios in which it is not only acceptable, but obligatory, to take some action that will, in fact, result in civilians getting killed.

The common thread in all of these scenarios — hypothetical or actual — is the idea of double effect. A doctor, for example, is bound by oath to “do no harm.” Slicing someone with a razor-sharp knife would certainly seem to constitute doing harm. But if the doctor is slicing someone with a scalpel because this cutting is an inescapable part of surgery needed and intended to heal, then the doctor may — perhaps even must — perform such slicing without violating her oath. The harm done by the slicing is an unavoidable second effect and is not the doctor’s main intent. The slicing could be called — to borrow the military phrase — “collateral damage.”

Military officers really can, do and must think in such terms. That’s what separates an army from a barbarian horde. That’s what separates a soldier from a thug with a gun.

The key elements here are the intent, the justice/goodness and necessity of the primary effect, and the inescapable/unavoidable nature of the secondary, unintended effect. All of which sets the bar considerably higher than the oversimplified cartoon version of “the ends justifies the means.”

If there is any possible way to achieve the intended effect without producing the unintended effect, then double-effect does not apply — the doctor may not slice, the general may not attack. If there is any possible way to achieve the necessary intended effect without producing the unintended effect and you act, instead, in a way that produces this secondary effect, then you have not produced “collateral damage,” you have simply slaughtered civilians.

And, by the way, You’re not allowed to kill civilians.

But the terrorists kill civilians. They hide among noncombatants. They wouldn’t extend you the same courtesy. They’re savages. They only understand force. And on and on.

Essentially, every argument I hear in favor of the necessity of becoming a monster in order to fight monsters may be distilled to “But acting morally is haaaaaaarrrd.” So it is. But life is pain, princess. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

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3 thoughts on “The sometime first duty of intelligent men

  1. Ananth

    I don’t think Dershowitz’s justification is neccessary or correct. However the two points you bring up about civilians, You’re not allowed to kill civilians and all civilian casualties are to be universally condemned are not entirely what the norms are all. You need to add the qualifier of intentionally, or perhaps something to express the level of effort to prevent the killing of civilians…. if you were to bomb a missile depot and happen to kill the janitors who were working there, should that be universally condemnded, are you not allowed to kill those civilians there? If a large amount of civilians decided to ‘protect’ an artillary position by planting themselves in and around the position, are the still civilians, and therefore you cannot destroy it, or they no longer civilians so it doesn’t count in your statement.

  2. Steve

    As a matter of fact, the exact qualifier you mention is addressed by Fred Clark, in the excerpted quotation, by all the words that aren’t bolded.

  3. Ananth

    yes I read that paragraph
    “If there is any possible way to achieve the intended effect without producing the unintended effect, then double-effect does not apply — the doctor may not slice, the general may not attack. If there is any possible way to achieve the necessary intended effect without producing the unintended effect and you act, instead, in a way that produces this secondary effect, then you have not produced “collateral damage,” you have simply slaughtered civilian”

    The problem with that is the word possible. You are dealing in equations and variations and simulations where things are possible but remain unlikely. In matters like this, and I am not giving you the point that such a possible solution exists but lets take it for the arguement, it not partical nor feasible to engage in every outcome that has the possibility to render the desired outcome, expecially when you take the probablilty of a successful out come in to account.

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