Monday, June 15, 2009

On Thomas Nagel 's War and Massacre

To be honest I have never been a very big fan of philosophy, Immanuel Kant excluded, it reads dryly, is typically confusing and spends far too much time splitting hairs. However, recognizing this as a weakness in myself I have spent the last year forcing myself to read many different philosophers and their varying works. During this previous year no work stood out for me quite like Thomas Nagel's "War and Massacre". I have always considered myself to be an absolutist and because of this I have been criticized, and as far as I am concerned, greatly misunderstood. I believe that Thomas Nagel did a remarkable job in explaining the complexities of war and the role we each play in it.

In Nagel's "War and Massacre" he confronts one of the biggest moral conundrums a soldier will ever have to face: Do I give priority to my actions or do I give priority to the results these actions create? There are two basic ways to look at this. The first is from a Utilitarian way of thinking. This is when you try to maximize good while minimizing evil, you always choose the lesser evil. Secondly, there is the Absolutist point of view. The absolutist walks a very narrow moral line. In this way of thinking killing would always be wrong regardless of the circumstances. When you look at it this way, any gray areas are eliminated. If it's always wrong to kill a civilian then you do not have to worry about when it is or is not okay to kill them, because it never will be okay.

Nagel broaches the topic of 'double effect'. He gives the example of firebombing a village to kill a few terrorists who might be hanging out in the area. Double effect would state that as long as it is your intention to kill the terrorists and not the civilians, you are not responsible for the deaths of those civilians. Nagel believes this to be nothing but hypocritical bullshit and I agree with him. He writes that since you are unable to distinguish between the terrorists and the civilians, it is your intention to kill the civilians. Nagel described absolutists as living in a one to one world. One person has no right to take a right away from the other or harm them in any way. A utilitarian on the other hand lives in a more bureaucratic world. In this world it is okay to hurt another if you believe it is for the greater good.

Nagel brings up a few arguments that people have with absolutism. One of these arguments is a lifeboat situation: where you have a lifeboat that will only support so many passengers or it will sink, and there are too many people for the lifeboat, so you must either let some people die or everyone will die. Critics say that in this situation, an absolutists would have his or her hands tied. They are not allowed to cause the deaths of others so what are they to do? Nagel points out that absolutists are concerned with the actions they take, not the end result. So again they would focus on the people they were saving, not the ones that they were unable to save. Absolutists avoid evils such as murder at all costs, they do not prevent it at all costs. If utilitarians really thought about it and were honest with themselves, they should all be pacifists because never going to war would ultimately be choosing the lesser evil, it would save the most lives and avoid the most evils.

Nagel writes that our fight is with our enemy and our enemy alone. It is never under any circumstances okay to use, for example, your enemy's family to get him to surrender. He also states that you must always use the least amount of force necessary to subdue your enemy. It is wrong to kill your enemy when all you had to do was shoot them in the leg.

I really enjoyed Thomas Nagel's essay, he did an excellent job of presenting the arguments for moral absolutism and of answering many of the objections that utilitarians pose. Since I am not a philosopher I probably didn't do his article the justice that it deserves, so can read it yourself here.


Dawson said...

Holy shit!

Unlike Brother Grégoire I have read War and Massacre before... but I am going to have to read it again. On my previous reading I completely misunderstood the argument/counterargument approach that Nagel took and had been convinced that Nagel SUPPORTED the double effect conception and agreed with the utilitarians!

My god, G took the words right out of my mouth. Your ability to translate philosophical jargon into terms that even I can understand is nothing shy of astonishing!