Miles and the Indians

A Sophistic Moral Case For War

Ali Gharib responds to a New York Times letter making a moral case for war with Iran.

Is it really better to collectively punish 50 million women and children than to attack Iran, killing hundreds of military and civilian personnel directly involved in Iran’s nuclear program?

That's Miles B. Rubin, of Haifa, Israel, in a in a New York Times letter to the editor yesterday, making a moral case for war with Iran over sanctions. It's a travesty.

Let me give you another moral question, via the great ethicist Bernard Williams: Jim is in Central America with 20 likely-innocent Indians tied to stakes before him. A military captain is about to execute them all. But he offers Jim the gun and the opportunity to kill one Indian. If Jim does, the captain will mark the visitor's deed by letting the other 19 Indians go.

Williams offers this example as a critique of utilitarianism, a school of ethical philosophy that likes to crunch numbers and, by these metrics, reduce human suffering as much as possible, or improve the human good as much as possible. With "Jim and the Indians," as the above scenario is known, the utilitarian calculus is clear: save 19 lives. But here's what utilitarianism, according to Williams, leaves out of the picture: individual agency. If Jim doesn't act, the ultimate responsibility for the murder still falls to the captain—the trigger man. But if Jim takes the offer and shoots one Indian, Jim will have saved 19 Indians but at the same time become a murderer.

Now, you will say, both the sanctions and a bombing run are choices that reflect U.S. agency. But that's beside the point. I, too, have my concerns about the sanctions, particularly those, pushed by Congress and ideological groups, which resemble a near total embargo. But the choice even to impose these sanctions is a step below the moral choice to make war. No doubt, the sanctions cause harm to people, and many backers of the program know this. But the bombing is an act of war; it's the ultimate act of agency for a state. You can ratchet down sanctions, but ratcheting down war is sometimes out of your hands.

Which brings me to the real point here: the entire premise of Mr. Rubin's moral question is built upon a fallacy. A bombing run on Iranian facilities would not be just "killing hundreds of military and civilian personnel directly involved in Iran’s nuclear program." Experts think it would spark an "all-out regional war"; that it would only delaynot stop—Iran's nuclear program; possibly "galvanize" the Iranians to actually build a nuclear weapon; and the toxic material, alone, released from the initial attack could kill between 5,000 to 70,000 people—that doesn't, in other words, include the "all-out regional war" part. Rubin doesn't even save the 19 Indians.