What is wrong with utilitarianism? Jeremy Bentham designed his doctrine for political leaders, and the design seems to have been successful. Hasn’t cost-benefit analysis become the standard form of moral reasoning in the arenas of public life? Isn’t this the educational core of most university courses on decision theory and policy choice and, I would guess, on military strategy? We value and respect moral taboos but consign them largely to the private sphere. We expect our leaders to be goal-oriented, and we judge them more by the goals they attain than by the rules they uphold. “When the act accuses, the result excuses.” How can we avoid, why should we want to avoid, the kind of reckoning this maxim requires?
The problem is that it’s too easy to juggle the figures. Utilitarianism, which was supposed to be the most precise and hard-headed of moral arguments, turns out to be the most speculative and arbitrary. For we have to assign values where there is no agreed valuation, no recognised hierarchy of value, no market mechanism for determining the positive or negative worth of different acts and outcomes. Suppose we agree that justice is not in fact beyond measure, invaluable. Then we have to find some way of measuring it, of fixing, for example, the moral cost of murder. How do we do that? Is the cost eight or twenty-three or seventy-seven? Eight or twenty-three or seventy-seven of what? We have no unit of measurement and we have no common or uniform scale. It’s not the case, I suppose, that every valuation is idiosyncratic. We are able, for specific purposes (insurance is the common example), to set a dollar price on a human life — though not on the act of taking a human life; the hire of a hit man isn’t a morally acceptable figure. In any case, market values for lives at risk rise and fall for morally irrelevant reasons. And in politics and war, cost-benefit analysis has always been highly particularistic and endlessly permissive for each particular. Commonly, what we are calculating is our benefit (which we exaggerate) and their cost (which we minimise or disregard entirely). Is it plausible to expect them to agree to our calculations?
Those first- and third-person plural pronouns ostensibly have no impact on utilitarian calculation; each and every person is valued in the same way; all utilities are measured as if there were a common scale. But this holds in practice only for men and women whose solidarity counterbalances all conflicts of interest among them. When solidarity collapses, in pure or almost pure adversarial situations — in war, for example — utilitarian calculation is zero-sum, and ‘we’ commonly attach only negative value to ‘their’ utilities. Negative valuation is clearest with regard to enemy soldiers when they are actually engaged in combat, but it is likely to extend (unless it is checked by absolutist prohibitions) across the entire population, first to soldiers who are not actually engaged, then to civilians at work in war-related industries, then to civilians who support the war effort indirectly, then to everyone who supports the supporters and the workers and the soldiers. Finally, no ‘enemy’ life has any positive value; we can attack anyone; even infant deaths bring pain and sorrow to adults and so undermine the enemy’s resolve. Of course, we can always juggle the figures and stop short of this horrific conclusion. But it is our sense of moral taboos that makes us want to stop short — and it is only by reflecting on the meaning of innocence and on the rights of the innocent that we can decide where in fact to stop.
So the weaknesses of utilitarianism lead us back to the theory of rights, and it is rights that fix the everyday constraints on war-making (and on all adversarial engagements). But these constraints seem to depend on some minimal fixed values, just as utilitarianism depends on some minimum solidarity of persons. When our deepest values are radically at risk, the constraints lose their grip, and a certain kind of utilitarianism re-imposes itself. I call this the utilitarianism of extremity, and I set it against a rights normality. The two together, it seems to me, capture the force of the opposed moral understandings and assign to each its proper place. I can’t reconcile the understandings; the opposition remains; it is a feature of our moral reality. There are limits on the conduct of war, and there are moments when we can and perhaps should break through the limits (the limits themselves never disappear). ‘Supreme emergency’ describes those rare moments when the negative value that we assign — that we can’t help assigning — to the disaster that looms before us devalues morality itself and leaves us free to do whatever is militarily necessary to avoid the disaster, so long as what we do doesn’t produce an even worse disaster. No great precision is required in calculations of this sort. Just as a jury in a capital case doesn’t look for a 51 percent probability of guilt but for overwhelming certainty, so we can only be overwhelmed by supreme emergency. And, of course, we must always be sceptical about political leaders who are, so to speak, too easily overwhelmed, just as jurors must always be sceptical about those of their fellows who are too quick to place themselves “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
Michael Walzer, political theorist, has written about a wide variety of topics in political theory and moral philosophy: political obligation, just and unjust war, nationalism and ethnicity, economic justice and the welfare state. This excerpt is from a compilation of his essays on different aspects of the Just War theory titled Arguing About War
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