It's been a while since I intervened in a discussion between two colleagues. One of them couldn't understand why Germany had no law permitting that the air force shoots a hijacked airliner down before it crashes into a city or even nuclear power plant.
I explained the reasoning approx. like this: We don't do this. We don't weight one life for another and choose to kill someone innocent to save others.
We could, but it is a slippery slope. You wouldn't want to be killed in order to allow the society to harvest your organs to save several ill people's lives, would you?
Well that is the same thing. Kill innocents to save innocents. We don't do this, period.
Besides, the whole political discussion about it was a farce anyway. We still have several nuclear powerplants only a few minutes of flight away from international airports. The air force has fighters on air policing readiness, but they could take half an hour before they would arrive on the scene. Even a 5-minute readiness (the highest standard maintained in peacetime anywhere in NATO as far as I know) would be too slow. An airliner could crash into a nuclear powerplant before flight control could even understand what's going on.
(I had a post on this years ago, but the graphic was lost in the meantime.)
There is a normative ethics theory called Utilitarianism, and at least some of its versions tell you that if in doubt, you should strive to maximise the net utility of two persons. This sounds all fine, but it is still widely rejected, and for fine reasons:
Let's say person A would benefit by ten points and person B would suffer by one point, should we execute this action?
It depends. Person A could be a psychopath who gets his benefit from enjoying to kill person B, while person B might suffer only from the bad taste of some sedative drink.
This can be complicated by the addition of opportunity costs for person B, but the point remains: We do not maximise the aggregate net benefit, period. It's official by ruling of the constitutional court.
This means we don't kill innocents to save innocents. In fact, we don't even torture suspect in order to attempt to save an innocent. A decade ago two policemen threatened a suspect in order to attempt to save an innocent person and are now convicted felons for it. We don't even do this.
So we reject such actions and still survive quite well and are actually very safe. Western civilisation at work.
This is a security policy-focused blog, though. Let's think about ho such a standard holds up in the event of war.
Civilisation's achievements, human rights et cetera are worth nothing if they get thrown overboard in the event of war or any other event, after all.
Specifically, how do we value life in wartime?
Assuming there is a legal war by Charter of the United Nations Article 2 standards, hostile combatants would obviously be fair game for almost all sorts of violence unless they're already wounded, surrendering or captives.
What about the civilians, though?
How many foreign civilians should be allowed to die in order to save a single one of our soldiers?
The troops themselves are emotionally compromised and can be forgiven to have extreme views on this. It's more irritating what certain civilians not the least from other Western (supposedly civilised) countries say and write about this question. Some pretend to or actually believe that a hundred dead civilians in order to save a single soldier would be fine. Or a thousand. Nobody seems to pinpoint a specific number, but it's clear that to many people the life of a non-allied foreigner has almost no value at least during wartime.
I would never subscribe to this, but the other end of the spectrum is very irritating as well:
Said foreign civilians would enjoy the same protection against sacrifices in Germany as would Germans. How could our ethics allow us to sacrifice but a single foreign civilian in order to save a thousand of our troops once said foreigner is abroad? We don't sacrifice innocents to save innocents, after all!
Could there be way out of this extremely impractical dilemma?
(a) Are they innocent? Maybe we should not consider foreign nationals as innocent if their nation is waging war against us?
Then again, how could we not? Save for those known to have supported a war of aggression politically, they are practically all innocent. Even those who supported the war of aggression would hardly have been found guilty by a court already, so who and how could decide that they are no innocents?
(b) Maybe the difference is all about hospitality?
How could this be? Don't we claim that human rights are universal, or don't at least the rights granted by our constitution do so? Those are no citizen rights; the rights are meant for everybody unless stated otherwise. Privileged guest or not - we couldn't sacrifice their lives to save others in a peacetime setting.
I may very well simply have missed bookshelves full of brilliant philosophical works solving the entire problem. You never know what you don't know. I just happen to guess there are no such bookshelves.
Additionally, it would be a great idea to make such results more public if they exist, for I am really an above-average suspect for learning about such results and still don't know such theories.
I suppose our peacetime society has progressed its ethics so far that ethics conflict and cognitive dissonance during times of war is all but unavoidable.
Let's keep this in mind as yet another reason to avoid unnecessary warfare. And let's consider this to be another nail in the coffin of the idea that warfare could be ethical or just.
By the way; I've recently read some jingoistic bullshit by common people in reaction to the crimes committed by some Chechens in Boston, MA that gave me the rare desire to beat and kick some assholes into hospital. I am really a peaceful person almost all of the time, but some degrees of dangerous idiocy are just out of bounds. Let's hope those assholes represent the 5-10% idiots every country has, not a more widespread sentiment.