Stop the damned train
Utilitarianism and pacifism in the modern landscape
In the waning summer of 1945, American president Harry S Truman faced a difficult decision. With the war in the Pacific dragging on, he was offered a choice: commit the United States to a costly amphibious invasion of the Japanese home islands (Operations Olympic and Coronet), or employ a new technology, the atom bomb, in the hopes that doing so would hasten Japan's willingness to surrender.

Which would you have chosen?

This was the question a friend of mine offered me a few days ago. For much of my life, I vacillated between the two. Attacking civilian targets with nuclear weaponry, it seemed to me, was beyond the pale. Then I began to study American military history and the course of World War II more closely, and I came to the conclusion that, as monstrous as that decision might be, in the end it probably saved countless hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides, which is an opinion that saw me through college and the years immediately following.

In point of fact this is a ridiculous false dichotomy. In point of fact, actually, it doesn't even make sense. Next time you're waiting in line at at McDonald's, tap the person in front of you on the shoulder and say: "Okay. Either you punch everyone in this line to death, or you take this gun and you shoot the two cashiers behind the counter."

If they are not a psychopath, they will not take the gun and start shooting. What they're liable to do is to turn to you and say: "What? Why would I do that?"

"You're fighting them," you say. "They started it."

Let's assume this is a true statement.

"So I am in grave danger now?" your would-be warrior asks.

"Well, no. But come on, time is of the essence. Pick one. You need to either start punching or start shooting. Right now."

"Why do I need to?"

Wrong question; you have an immediate answer: "Because if you don't, you won't win."

We know that this is not a compelling argument. We know that it is not a compelling argument because, for example, we don't think that George Zimmerman was in the right for killing a dude (even if we may disagree as to the consequences or degree of the wrongness). Like Truman, Zimmerman placed himself in a position where a perceived threat (Japanese expansion in the Pacific/an unknown teenager looking at houses on a dark, rainy night) escalated into outright aggression (Japan and Trayvon Martin both seem to have thrown the first official punch) that ended in disproportionate response.

I posit that this is not a compelling argument on the geopolitical level any more than it is on the personal one. If you are told that the price of unconditional victory is either killing hundreds of thousands of civilians or killing millions of civilians and hundreds of thousands of your own citizens, the appropriate thing to do is to question whether either price is too high. Put another way: if you have created for yourself an issue where either decision leads to the deaths of six figures of innocent people, you are an abject failure as a leader and your policies are reprehensible.

Or consider yourself as an advisor to the president of the United States, immediately following the September 11th terrorist attacks more than ten years ago. Implicitly, the attacks "demand" a response. Americans are, after all, dead — and in large number. Getting "justice," when a sovereign country doesn't feel like kowtowing to American demands, is going to mean an act of war. What can you say?

"We have a pretty good idea of who did this, and where they are. They're being sheltered by Afghanistan. Now the good news is that there's an existing insurrection there we can probably take advantage of, but the regional politics are extremely complicated and it's going to embroil us in a massive, interminable war with thousands of American KIAs and tens or hundreds of thousands dead on their side. It's Afghanistan, sir; they don't call it the 'Graveyard of Empires' because it's where empires have to work really late and deal with a bunch of homeless drunks."

Truman's choice in 1945, like George W. Bush's choice on September 12, 2001, like Kennedy's choice regarding Indochina in the early 1960s, is often posed as a real-world extrapolation of what I have heard referred to as the "switchman's dilemma." Consider:

A railroad switchman has just received word that heavy flooding has washed out a rail-bridge on a canyon just up the line, and a passenger train is barreling down on the switch. He glances to the disused track diversion — where he sees, to his horror, that a group of children are cavorting on the tracks. There's no time to warn them — but if he doesn't pull the switch to divert the train, it will surely plunge headfirst into the roiling water of the angry river...

Between two unthinkable options, which do you choose?

There is a sense of inevitability in this. The train is an immutable component to the scenario. In the real world, this presumes a startling lack of agency on the part of major players: no matter what they do, they must choose from a binary (or limited set) of terrible options, and "make the best choice." I suspect that this has two primary sources. Firstly, it suggests that we are the only rational actors — that whilst "we" are motivated by self-interest and reason, "they" are motivated by ideology and blind rage. Secondly, it suggests that we act in response, rather than along with, a complex interlocking sea of forces tugging the globe in chaotic directions.

You can see this at play today in the bizarre suggestion that Al Qaeda is "taking advantage" of the current situation in Syria — as though they were merely recreational enthusiasts of high explosives looking for an outlet. They're not, of course; they're rational actors who, it should be noted, share our near-term goals. In the enemy-of-my-enemy sense, if nothing else, this makes them our allies. This may or may not be desirable. It is a consequence, however, of point two, above: the romantic narrative of "Noble, Downtrodden Freedom Fighters Fighting Nobly for Freedom (just like Braveheart)" aside, the conflict in Syria is the result of sectarian tensions that do not neatly map to American interests or desires.

American interests and desires, in general, will always be oppositional to the interests of some, aligned to the interests of others, and orthogonal to the interests of most. I think that most people, even Americans, are aware of this. It puts us, however, in what I find to be an ethically precarious position every time we convince ourselves that we have to "act" — where "act" is almost always defined as killing people.

The United States commands an economic hegemony that, more than most western economic empires, is fundamentally predicated on cheap availability of supplies and labor that condemn millions of people around the world to effective slavery. The conditions at Foxconn's factories in China got some press, to be sure, but this is not an isolated nor even unexpected case — economic regimes like it underpin the driving engine of American prosperity. In pursuit of its economic and political interests the United States has formed alliances, backed governments (and undermined others), declared sanctions, sold weapons and supported actions that have killed millions and left tens of millions more to suffer.

It's not actually my point to condemn this. I am familiar with the principles of realpolitik. The United States is not a humanitarian organization and its core mission is not the salvation of the human race. First and foremost, the United States as a body is concerned with its own self, which in action means that the people (and therefore the government) of the United States put their interests first, even when it leads to suffering in the unseen corners of the world. See point one, above. This is understandable and defensible; to the extent that there is a cosmic justice in the spheres of political science, it is even just.

But this, philosophically at least, raises a question: What means are permissible to achieving one's ends? How many people are allowed to die?

If the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were acceptable, then so were the bombings of Tokyo and Dresden. And Coventry. And London. And Kobe, Warsaw, Hamburg, Rotterdam, and Guernica. But if these were acceptable targets then, not to put too fine a point on it, so was the World Trade Center.

It's not my aim to introduce moral nihilism to the discussion, nor to establish a sense of equivalency between, say, the Allied powers of World War II and Nazi Germany. Quite the contrary; I would argue that all these events were reprehensible, even when set apart from the greater (or lesser) evils of the nations that ordered them. It is my objective, however, to refute the defenses that are typically advanced for such horrors.

For example, one may argue that it is improper to divorce the action from the actor — and, by extension, the actor from the motivation. Is a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save the lives of his squadmates a hero? What if he's a member of the Wehrmacht fighting on the beaches of Normandy? But if the motivation makes him unheroic, what about a soldier fighting in Viet Nam against the North Vietnamese Army? Or as part of the now-reviled invasion of Iraq? Does intent count, or not?

In a naive formulation, we already accept that it does; we understand and accept that it is sometimes acceptable for a government to tie someone up and shoot them to death (for example, when prescribed as capital punishment) whereas it is never acceptable for private citizens to do this. Perhaps unpleasantly, however, in this sense any given block of ten thousand civilians killed by American bombs is more justified than an equivalent number killed by German (or North Vietnamese, or Iraqi) bombs, because the aims of the former are purer.

This reduces to a relatively trivial argument that limited evil is justified when it produces a greater good. You may recognize this consequentialism as typical of utilitarianism, which is absolutely correct. Of course, it therefore runs into the typical problem of utilitarianism, which is that utilitarianism is a morally reprehensible, ethically bankrupt ideology used by the powerful to justify the aggregation and exercise of their power.

I think that it is important to highlight this.

Utilitarianism is an interesting concept for philosophers, because it allows them to construct interesting thought experiments, and who doesn't like that? For example, what if testing an antisenescent medication on ten million senior citizens allowed the creation of wonderful new medications that added twenty years to the lifespan of everyone, everywhere in the world? Even if it cost ten years off the life of the test subjects, that's an easy bargain. And yet society would not (consciously) undertake such an initiative? "How curious," sez the philosopher of utilitarianism.

On the other hand even utilitarian philosophers do not actually apply this to their real lives. You do not actually see a real person stroking their white beard and musing that, between McDonald's and a local burger joint, they should spend their lunch money at the local joint, because it would produce the greatest direct happiness for the owner and their employees (because $10 is a greater fraction of their revenue than the McDonald's corporation who experience diminished marginal utility for each additional dollar as a result), but then on the other hand McDonald's has greater efficiency due to their supply chain, which means that $10 results in more productive work being done overall, but then again the local business owner is more likely to spend the money in local taxes, which will produce an incrementally superior road network that you use every day, but then on the other hand McDonald's will use some fraction of that $10 to lobby Congress, &c &c. Nobody actually does that.

Utilitarianism (really most consequentialist philosophies, I believe, but utilitarianism in particular) is, chiefly, a convenient way for justifying whatever you happen to be doing at the time. This is doubtless one reason that the phrase "utility monster" is used to describe at least three different philosophical concepts:

A trivial utility monster: suppose a serial killer derives such overwhelming, indescribably bountiful pleasure from killing that it far outweighs the pleasure you derive from not being deceased. In a utilitarian calculus, this is a worthwhile trade.
An unrealistic utility monster: consider a construct that does not suffer from decreased marginal utility — that is, rather than each additional unit being less valuable to the monster it has the same or additional value (structural elements in a geodesic, incidentally, fit this description). In a utilitarian calculus, all resources that are not themselves utility monsters should logically be sacrificed to this aim.
The pragmatic version of the above: Suppose you have ten units of a resource (electrical power, say) and a group of ten people, nine of which are reasonably productive and the last who is ten times more productive with each unit of that resource than either of the other nine. In a utilitarian calculus, you should cut all nine of the others off the grid, because it's still more efficient to allocate the resources to the monster.

The United States' "economic hegemony," as I described it above, is presumably the third type of monster (where, here, I do not really mean something that is monstrous, per se); the country consumes somewhere between 20% and 25% of the world's petroleum and 19% of its energy whilst making up less than 5% of its population. Theoretically, this is permissible from a utilitarian sense because the United States uses its energy to create new ideas and things at a greater rate than, say, the Chinese, the Brazilians or the Germans.

(Left unstated is the proportion of this energy that goes towards designing the next smartphone or nuclear reactor versus the proportion that goes towards designing the next reality television show)

But not everybody sees things this way. Al Qaeda, for example, sees the United States' dependence on foreign oil as leading it to meddle in the affairs of other countries, in a way that creates a net overall harm for the citizens thereof (and in a way that is entirely different from the fashion that Al Qaeda itself wishes to meddle in the affairs of other countries, naturally).

From our utilitarian throne, where it's easy to assume that accruing more resources to the United States is a net positive for the world as a whole, anyone expressing this sentiment can be told to go to hell. From the perspective of a citizen of one of those countries with an American-installed dictator, or an American-fomented civil war, or American-delivered craters, it's presumably not so clear. Curiously, not all these people choose to respond with Twitter hashtag protests. Sometimes, they lash out.

Nor is the United States the only culpable party, of course — nor the only one who is lashed out against. Somali piracy, for instance, is at heart a response to the exploitation of valuable sea resources made possible by the diminished capacity of the Somali non-government, to which the United Nations (and others) turned a blind eye. The illegal fisherman and those who dumped toxic waste in Somali waters would, no doubt, argue the utilitarian position: the Somalis weren't using those areas, and if they were, they weren't using them effectively — and even so, it's unfair to respond with violence. It's untidy when the oppressed fight back — that's why we've deployed naval task forces to the region, although I'm certain they spent just as much time cracking down on poaching and illegal dumping as they do piracy. It's only proper.

But anyway, geopolitical issues are not black and white. The notion that terrorists "hate us for our freedoms" is baldly facile; so too is the notion that they hate us for our evil machinations. Nothing is so directly oppositional, nor indeed so direct: political issues are like curling; actors subtly try to exert a pull on the inertia of the world. Sometimes the results are predictable, and sometimes they are not. But nothing is set in stone — not our initial actions, nor our responses.

Even today, after a disastrous decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq that has produced no noticeable gain for anyone who is not a defense contractor, American politicians and political actors continue to agitate for bloodshed. The United States is fighting a number of secretive wars abroad. Sometimes, as with our drone campaigns, people die (fortunately, according to the president, only non-civilians are killed in drone strikes, because the only people killed in drone strikes are non-civilians). Sometimes, as with our cyberwarfare, it's simple economic destruction.

China is clearly, if subtly, interested in force projection; so is Russia. So is Iran. So, to lesser degrees, are lots of countries. All states are concerned with their influence. But what happens when Iranian cybersoldiers gain the ability to sabotage our nuclear programs? What happens when robotic assassination becomes so cheap and commodified that even Venezuela can get hold of it? If it's acceptable to rocket people for providing "material support" to terrorists in the form of acerbic language, as the American government asserts, surely Syria would be justified in taking out Secretary Clinton in a targeted strike for her attempts to destabilize the government.

With each new step, we grow the arsenal in a state actor's toolbox, seeking the short term gains without the long term consequences. The last time we did this, in weaponizing nuclear energy, we set the stage for forty years of Cold War and a series of proxy wars that killed tens of millions.

Today, what we're doing is less obvious on a day to day basis. We rely on proxies — unmanned robotic killing machines, for instance. Or we take actions that are more political than practical. Economic sanctions, for instance, which have shown no promise in stopping North Korea's nuclear ambitions, stalling Iran, or deposing Fidel Castro. All they do is subject civilians to privation, and anyone proposing them as a serious solution (as to Iraq in the '90s) is delusional or, considering the human cost, a sociopath. But they, like our drone war, allow us to wash our hands of the suffering we cause, and so there's little reason to halt.

But this is unendurable. The position of the western world, and the responses it has drawn, is fundamental. Resource scarcity is inarguable and inescapable: oil, arable land, fish, rare earth metals, clean water. Until the laws of physics change and somebody does something about that pesky "entropy" business, we are still squabbling over pieces of a diminishing pie. We have established a world of over-cheap resources and used the legacy of our military and economic might to convince ourselves that this was the natural, logical state of affairs. But with our population, and our resource consumption, our way of life is unsustainable — the moreso when we waste what we have left on overpriced stealth fighters, or fledgling nuclear programs, or aircraft carriers.

If there is to be no genocide, the only answer is a peaceful one. But as the most powerful country on Earth, American aggression — ongoing, blatant, and unapologetic — is busy reminding the Irans, Russias, Syrias, and Venezuelas of the world that the only way to live is Darwinian, backstabbing, underhanded promotion of your own national interests. And this, to me, is dangerous. There are underlying problems — of resource distribution, sickness, inequality, corruption, or pollution, say. Of religious and sectarian differences. Of poverty. Of equal access to the world's economies and institutions.

We've convinced ourselves that we are rational, and our opponents are zealots. We've predicated our stance on danegeld, and the notion that we "cannot negotiate with" our foes that sounds so good as a rousing speech in a Hollywood movie — or we set unrealistic preconditions on it that accomplish the same goals. But we are all on this planet together, and it's all we have. In their own way, everyone knows that. Everyone is trying to solve those self-same issues, and at the end of the day, we're going to have to do it together.

Pacifism is frequently decried as an unrealistic philosophy — I know, I've done some of that deriding myself. Turn the other cheek, the thinking goes, and you're just asking for someone to hit that one, too. And take your lunch money, no doubt. I don't buy it. I don't buy that, or the implicit corollary — that being a bully yourself will work out, in the end. The notion that we can fight off all challengers, for ever, seems to me a far more unrealistic position.

Is this equivalent to surrender? No. I don't think it is. But we must be keenly aware of the consequences of our escalation. We should think twice about what it means to wield our might so freely — knowing that we will not always be the biggest kid on the block. We should reestablish the barriers to our own aggression — no more of this police action nonsense. If the United States is to engages in acts of war abroad, it should do so with the explicit consent of Congress on a per-act basis, transparently. Start enforcing the War Powers Resolution, for god's sake. The president should never be allowed to deploy the United States military on his own.

We are collectively responsible for the lives we destroy. Sooner or later that bill will come due — not in some philosophical, ethical, gates-of-Heaven sense. Our bloodletting has bought us temporary security at great cost, politically, morally, economically, and practically. But where does it stop? We have established our right to respond to "security threats" with retaliatory and preemptive strikes on the nominal ground that anyone who would attack us should know the consequences that they face, and know that their utter destruction would result should they strike.

That sounds good, doesn't it? But stripped of the jingoistic anthem, this is the exact same "appeal to terror" that we insisted could not work in Iraq, or Libya, or Egypt, or Syria, or Soviet Russia. We expect it to work now? But it can't. It won't. It never has. We've set ourselves up as a hapless switchman, denying ourselves any agency beyond the choice of who to kill, and how many. It's time to stop back and ask the more serious question, the only one with any long-term value or chance of survival: how did we get here? How can we avoid it in the future? Well, there's one place we can start:

Stop the damned train.
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