War, intervention, and risk

Okay, here’s something that I’ve been mulling over for a while now. I’m not sure if this is right, but I thought I’d throw it out there. The question is: when are we justified in imposing the risk of death on others without their consent?

One occassionally runs into arguments about whether “the Iraqis” are “better off” now than before the war. Usually this is in the context of an attempt to justify the war retrospectively. This strikes me as an essentially unanswerable question, though. It seems clear that some Iraqis are better off and others are worse off. Obviously the dead who would otherwise have lived are worse off, but so also, arguably are those who’ve been injured, lost family members, now live in fear of sectarian enemies, etc. It’s not clear that it would be possible, even in principle, to tally up all Iraqis’ sense of whether by their own lights they’re better or worse off now than under Saddam Hussein’s regime in order to arrive at a sense of whether the Iraqis as a whole are better or worse off. How would you even go about weighing the goods and evils that all the Iraqi people have individually experienced. (How many dead relatives is a sense of political freedom worth? Does the question even make sense? The problem of interpersonal comparisons of utility also seems relevant here.)

But this seems to me to have prospective as well as retrospective importance. Suppose that you’re living under a brutal dictatorial regime. Would you regard the deaths of your family as an acceptable trade-off for the removal of that regime? Opinions would perhaps differ, but that’s the point: how would you weign one person’s choice against another’s in order to arrive at the correct answer? It’s at the very least not surprising that someone who’s lost his entire family might be less than grateful about his “liberation.”

This seems to imply that there’s something questionable about an outsider making these kinds of choices for you. By what right would a prospective intervener decide for you whether the loss of your family was an acceptable risk to run for, say, the prospect of political freedom? How can they make the kinds of evaluations that would be necessary to determine what risks, all things considered, were allowable? The imposition of unchosen risks seems, other things being equal, to be wrong. It just doesn’t seem to be my place to put your family at mortal risk without their (or your) consent even if it’s “for their own good.”

The question then becomes how one nation justifies intervening militarily in another, allegedly on behalf of the subject population, without their explicit consent to the risks involved. Given the realities of modern war it’s a virtual certainty that innocents will be killed in the course of the intervention, and yet no one asked them if they were willing to undertake those risks for the sake of improving their situation relative to the status quo.

Note that the issue here isn’t whether we actually have reason to believe that most people will in fact be better off after a proposed war. (Though given the limitations of our knowledge and recent history such considerations certainly ought to weigh heavily.) The issue is whether we have the right to impose mortal risks on those who haven’t given their informed consent. It seems at least prima facie that we don’t have that right. What might give us the right is if someone was already in mortal danger and the only way to save them was to undertake a mortally risky course of action and securing their consent was, for all practical purposes, impossible. But in the case of war, at least some of those upon whom we impose the risk of death wouldn’t have died otherwise, so it’s far from clear that the burden is met.

Obviously this only applies in cases of so-called humanitarian intervention. In a legitimate case of self-defense it might well be justifiable to impose the risk of death on innocents if that is the only way to forestall one’s own death. One would be in a sort of lifeboat or state of nature situation (at least in terms of what we might call “natural” justice; I’m leaving aside whether a “higher” morality might call for self-sacrifice here). Of course, in modern war, “self-defense” often takes on an inflated meaning that includes maintaining our “perimeter of defense” or “our way of life,” cases where imposing the risk of death on innocents seems much harder to justify.

Really all this is a long-winded way of making the point that in war one is proposing to kill (and injure and maim) other human beings. Any morality worth its salt would have a strong presumption against that. To impose the risk of death on someone, whether for their own good or for one’s own, requires that the good in question be sufficiently weighty that it would seem to rule out most wars. The exceptions would seem to be wars in which either oneself or the proposed beneficiaries were as likely (or more likely) to meet death if there was no intervention.

7 thoughts on “War, intervention, and risk

  1. Wilson

    The issue is whether we have the right to impose mortal risks on those who haven’t given their informed consent.

    I think you’re right on — not only from an individualistic/liberal perspective (the denial of individual choice) but also from a communitarian/conservative perspective (a forcible disruption of society). Either way, humanitarian regime change deserves a lot of moral suspicion.

    I think, though, that this would not rule out one kind of humanitarian intervention: when one state comes to the aid of another state (or people group) against an aggressor. In such cases, I can picture many situations in which “the proposed beneficiaries were as likely (or more likely) to meet death if there was no intervention.” Also, it is often — though not always — easier to distinguish friend from foe and combatant from noncombatant in these situations.

    So, for example, killing Iraqi armed forces in order to keep them from killing Kurds, and killing Iraqi soldiers in order to liberate them from their ruler, would be two different things.

  2. Thanks for the comments. Wilson, I think that’s a useful distinction. One of the things that makes most humanitarian interventions so risky is that the intended beneficiaries are so often intermingled with the aggressors.

    Gaius, to your point two things: first there’s the issue of consent. When I drive on the road I implicitly consent to certain risks (but not all: drunk driving for instance). Secondly, there needs to be some way to take the likelihood of the risk into account, and things admittedly get fuzzy there.

  3. I was thinking of the risk I pose to others when I drive to work. It’s not zero. But nobody thinks we need permission.

    And who says you implicitly consent when you drive? It’s one thing to accept (in the sense of “run”) a risk you can do nothing about and quite another, I would hope, to consent to it.

    Think of the risk of being mugged as you walk alone at night in a dangerous neighborhood. Or the risk a girl runs of being raped.

    And what does this “consent” to risk mean, anyway? If that girl walking home alone in the dark has consented to the risk of being raped, does that mean the rapist has her permission? So it’s OK?

    Talk of implicit consent looks very suspiciously like the old baloney we used to get from people who claimed political power is legitimate only if based on consent just as soon as it was pointed out that no one ever asked us.

    You know. The people on whose account our own government was certain to come out legitimate no matter how transparently silly the story told to make it so.

    Phooey.

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