There is a thought experiment in ethics that runs something like this:
A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Would it be morally permissible for the doctor to murder the traveler and use his organs to save the other five patients?
With the exception of a handful of hardcore utilitarians, nearly everyone who responds to this question believes it would not be morally permissible for the doctor to murder the traveler. What if, however, we increased the number of people who would be saved to ten? My guess is that most people would still say it is not morally permissible to kill in this instance. What if we increased the number to, say, a thousand or a million?
As the number increases the moral dilemma becomes more apparent. It is extremely difficult to say how many people would need to be saved in order to justify killing an innocent person. In fact, I’m not sure I would be comfortable deeming killing morally permissible under any circumstances. Whatever the number is, however, I’m sure most people would say it has to be very high to justify killing. We could turn this into a maxim by stating that there is a strong presumption against killing people. To override this presumption one would need to conclusively demonstrate overwhelming benefits.
What does this have to do with humanitarian war? As we all know the President is currently pushing for war with Syria on humanitarian grounds. As it stands, all modern wars inevitably kill innocent people. It is next to impossible to lob tomahawk cruise missiles into a country without recklessly killing people, including non-combatants and innocents. Those who advocate intervention in Syria are similar to the utilitarians who advocate killing the traveler to harvest his organs. That is, they are willing to kill some innocent people in an attempt to save others. As we mentioned, there is a strong presumption against this type of intervention in Syria. The burden of proof is on advocates to demonstrate the overwhelming benefits that intervention would bring. Here we come to the problem with humanitarian war — such benefits can never be conclusively demonstrated.
War is chaotic and unpredictable. Not only is it difficult to estimate the number of lives that would be saved (if any), but it is nearly impossible to make any claims with certainty. Can we justify killing 100 people if there is only some percentage chance that we will save 10,000? It is not morally permissible to kill people first then roll the dice and see if the outcomes are worth it.
The risks are not only confined to loss of life either. It is almost never the case that war amounts to “good guys” vs “bad guys”. In most of these instances it seems as if all sides are somehow bad. Syria is perfect example. Any bombing of the Syrian government would be aiding rebels who see fit to cut out their enemy’s heart and eat it and engage in summary executions of captured soldiers.
Again, in order to justify intervention we need to conclusively show that the Syrian people would be better off with Assad out of power. Not only is that impossible to do, but there’s a significant possibility those barbaric rebels may actually be worse than Assad.
Neither can we ignore the risks placed on the Americans as a result of intervention. Bombing a foreign country is an act of war after all. Countries that are attacked almost inevitably desire for retaliation (even if they have limited means). Four months after the United States was attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, it retaliated by bombing Tokyo in the Doolittle raids (despite limited means). Fifty people were killed and 400 were injured. In any attack on a foreign country, the civilian population of the attacking country is put at risk, including many who personally oppose the war. Here we can reach another maxim: Just as the government will typically enact an economic policy that privatizes profits and socializes losses, humanitarian war socializes the risks of intervention. Those who agitate for war or give the orders are rarely the casualties of retaliation. Instead, the risks are socialized and everyone else is forced to bear them.
I will close with a quote from the great Isabel Paterson:
The humanitarian wishes to be a prime mover in the lives of others. He cannot admit either the divine or the natural order, by which men have the power to help themselves. The humanitarian puts himself in the place of God.
But he is confronted by two awkward facts; first, that the competent do not need his assistance; and second, that the majority of people, if unperverted, positively do not want to be “done good” by the humanitarian.
Of course what the humanitarian actually proposes is that he shall do what he thinks is good for everybody. It is at this point that the humanitarian sets up the guillotine.
She concludes with,
The humanitarian in theory is a terrorist in action.