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Wrongdoing and the Harm it Causes

One of the arguments against military humanitarian intervention (or wars or invasions justified on similar grounds, viz., averting harm) is that given how much such actions cost, those resources could be better used to alleviate more harm elsewhere. Against such arguments it could be suggested that humanitarian intervention stops wrongdoing and so, while we might be able to alleviate more harm elsewhere, the fact that the harm is the result of wrongdoing makes it more important. Such arguments are something I’ve been discussing with people over the past week so thought I may set them out here.

Case 1.* Suppose 200 people are suffering from some disease x, and I have 100 vaccines; the 100 people who do not receive the vaccine will suffer some moderately high level of suffering over the next 24 hours and then will die. Let us suppose that the 200 people are all roughly the same age and will all likely lead lives with similar levels of well-being (and/or value) if they receive the vaccine. 100 of the people, unfortunates, have the disease merely by chance; the other 100, victims, have the disease as a result of an evil-genius poisoning them (thus, their condition is the result of a wrongdoing). Finally, let us suppose that we can only give the vaccine to one of these groups as a whole.

Does the fact that victims are suffering from the disease as a result of a wrongdoing mean that they deserve the vaccines over the unfortunates? It might be objected that the wrongdoing has already occurred, and so all we can do now is alleviate some harm. However, as Jeff McMahan suggest, it is in our power to affect the nature of the wrongdoing (that is, we can make it less serious!). If we save victims then we avert the attempted murder of 100 people, but 100 people nonetheless suffer; if we save unfortunates we stop 100 people from suffering and yet allow the wrongdoing of the murder of 100 people to come to fruition and let the same amount of suffering occur.

One might suggest that it is because of evil-geniuss actions that we cannot just give the vaccine to unfortunates; if it weren’t for her actions, then we wouldn’t have to be choosing between the two sets of 100 people to save. And so, either way, the wrongdoing occurs. For present purposes let us set this suggestion aside. First, because this only lends heat to the suggestion that resources shouldn’t be used for humanitarian intervention where it is the case that we could alleviate less suffering elsewhere. Second, such arguments would mean that any resources we spend on Policing, but could better be spent elsewhere, are on wrongdoer’s hands; this might seem strange. And third, does the addition of the fact that evil-genius didn’t know or plan that the 100 unfortunates would become infected change anything?

Some run with the intuition that we should save victims. Part of me has that intuition. However, suppose we amend the example slightly.

Case 2. 100 people, victims, have disease x which, like above, was caused by evil-genius poisoning them; 101 people, unfortunates, have disease y. We have enough resources to produce 100 vaccines for disease x or 101 vaccines for disease y; which should we choose?

Here I am lead to believe that we should choose the 101 vaccines for disease y. Why? Because we can save one extra person. And yet, that will mean allowing the wrongdoing of 100 murders to occur; and can that much wrongdoing really be outweighed by 1 life?

So how does this relate to what I said at the beginning about humanitarian intervention? Let us consider a final example:

Case 3. We have resources phi to put toward ending suffering (maybe this is the amount we think we can give without significant costs to ourselves). There is a genocide about to take place in country X which will result in harm to and death of 10,000 people. Two stipulations are necessary, both of which I shall come back to: (1. risk of further harm), once this genocide has taken place the evil-dictator will be content and so will not risk harming any other people; (2. deterrence) there are no other evil-dictators around, and so we have no value in deterrence to be achieved.

In country Y there is famine which, if left unaided, will result in the harm to, and death of, 11,000 people.

Resources phi are enough to wage a military humanitarian intervention in country X, and stop the undeniable wrong of genocide; phi is also enough to alleviate the famine in country Y. And, suppose we can only spend phi as a lump (maybe less than phi would not be enough to wage the war). What should we do?

On grounds of consistency, I should say put phi toward alleviating the famine in country Y; after all, it’s 1,000 extra lives. One could object that genocide is such an evil wrongdoing that it weights heavier than mere poisoning; however, suppose that in Case 2 the very same motive was behind the evil-geniuss actions. Then I am still inclined to say we should save unfortunates on the grounds that we save an extra person, in spite of the wrongdoing.

One may object on other grounds: examples such as Case 3 are so far removed from real life that they are useless.** They could do so pointing to stipulations 1 and 2; however, to that I ask, aren’t risks of further harm and deterrence going to eventually be outweighed by being able to alleviate greater numbers of suffering elsewhere? Suppose there was a 50% chance of evil-dictator-X killing another 5,000 people and there was another evil-dictator in country Z who, upon seeing the first evil-dictator get away with her genocide, might want to commit their own genocide of 10,000 people. However, imagine that phi could go a lot further in alleviating the suffering caused by the famine than we first though, and we could alleviate 100,000 people’s suffering and avoid their deaths. If there’s no significant value of wrongdoing over and above averting the harm it causes, then how could one justify staging a military humanitarian intervention?

I’m still not sure what I think!

* I am borrowing these sorts of cases from Jeff McMahan, White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy here at the University of Oxford. See his ‘Humanitarian Intervention, Consent, and Proportionality’, Ethics and Humanity: Themes from the Philosophy of Jonathan Glover, N. Ann Davis, Richard Keshen, and Jeff McMahan (eds.) (Oxford University Press, 2010).

** This is a methodological dispute often had out between philosophers; some love farfetched examples that attempt to isolate intuitions and some deplore them (offhand, where the intuition is sufficiently strong, then I can see their value).

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Anthony Drinkwater

    Thanks for this, Joseph.
    I think your interesting account could be objected to on at least one ground other than those you list.
    This is that this type of far-fetched example does not help, because whilst you can define probabilities accurately in the examples, real life interventions have nothing beyond gut-feel guesses as to the future consequences, or a whole host of machiavelian calculations of vested interests . Even *after* the event, there is little unanimity on the success of such humanitarian-motivated military actions : I am one of those who believes that the consequences of the invasions of Iraq and Libya have caused far more misery than non-intervention would have caused; But I know that there are others who disagree and I doubt that either side is likely to change their point of view whatever evidence is produced (indeed, what even counts as evidence is almost certainly going to be a subject of contention).
    This type of trolleyology is advocated by some, as you say, to tease out principles or intuitions by simplifying the parameters to get to the essence of the matter. However it could be maintained that by discussing in this way we are so over-simplifying the process that we encourage people to make simplistic decisions.
    One could go further and argue that one of the roles of a philosopher is to challenge exactly that : i.e. wisdom is about how to get by in sometimes impossible situations, not seeking (or pretending to have found) a rule that solves them.

  2. Joseph,

    I don’t think that one can make a wrongdoing less serious by affecting the consequences it would have, after the wrongdoing happened already.
    Moreover, it seems to me if agent A1 in world W1 and A2 in W2 are have the same memories, desires, values, goals, perceptions, and generally mental properties (describable in non-moral terms, just in case), and A1 chooses to poison people for fun, and so does A2 – with exactly the same state of mind -, then the behavior of A1 and A2 is equally immoral (and both deserve equal punishment), regardless of the consequences of their choices in W1 and W2 respectively (consequences that may well be very different).
    If, e.g., A1 kills all of his victims, but A2 fails to kill any of them because a more powerful good genius intervenes and blocks him, the situation in W2 is better than the situation in W1 because of the different results (all other things equal), but on the other hand, A1 and A2 behaved just as immorally.

    That aside, I think a number of cases of intervention are vulnerable on other grounds, such as:

    1. Even if the intervention is intended to prevent further wrongdoings, there is no good reason to believe that the situation post-intervention will not be such that there are as many and as serious wrongdoings as there were before. Even if such interventions clearly prevent many serious wrongdoings by some agents, they also tend to generate situations in which other agents engage in many serious wrongdoings (wrongdoings they would not have done otherwise, even if out of fear).

    2. Governments have greater responsibilities towards the citizens of their country than towards people of other countries, or towards preventing wrongdoing in general. So, it may well be that the people in the government of country A should choose to save lives in country A (even if those lives were not at risk due to wrongdoing), or even increase quality of life in country A, even if the same resources could be used to reduce wrongdoing in country B.
    Of course, there is a limit to that (e.g., preventing horrific wrongdoings in B may be obligatory if it’s at the expense of not minimally increasing overall quality of life in A), but e
    So, even if the intervention is likely to reduce the number and intensity of wrongdoings in B, that has to be weighed among the costs for the population of A, and the responsibilities of the government.
    Sometimes, it may be a difficult call.

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