Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ends and Means

I had an exchange with a friend about what types of action are moral in war which became awkward when he disagreed with me about the morality of Sherman's march to the sea and the tactics that were used.  And the culmination of this disagreement came as a challenge to me in the form of " do you believe the ends justify the means?".

I think this statement is problematic.  It's a discussion ender.  It is a form of Argument from Intimidation.  e.g. "only a completely immoral person could think that the ends justify the means".  But also problematic is that the statement implies more than it actually contains.  I think what it really means to say is that "do you believe that this particular end justifies any means", which is another way of asking whether a particular end gives you a moral blank check.  I do not believe moral blank checks exist in reality.

I doubt that either of us would disagree with that point.  In order to have a rational discussion about this topic, you would have to be very clear about which ends and which means you were referring to.  For instance:
  • In war, when you are fighting for your survival vs. some state aggressor.
  • The End is to achieve unconditional surrender and cessation of hostilities   
  • You may have to kill some civilians but this would not be indiscriminate.
  • Indiscriminate killing would be immoral.
  • Using rape, such as in Africa, is the type of thing that would be off limits.

I wish I had made my points that well during the discussion but it was on the fly and not as clear.  In fairness, the conversation did close with an acknowledgment on the part of my friend that the principal difference in our positions was that I did not consider civilians of an aggressor state to be "innocent".  Which is correct.

The exchange still rubbed me the wrong way though.  What I disliked about it... what I felt was being perpetrated was a sense that if you can be painted with the "ends justifying the means" brush, that you are automatically wrong.  And I tend to think that whenever that dynamic is present, that there is likely to be a fallacy involved.  It felt like an aggressive ultimatum and such a thing doesn't belong in a conversation among friends.