Weighting lives during peacetime and wartime

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.


  1. What you are talking about is the ends justify the means. Do they never or is there a time when they not only can but do. See here in the US for years one party trashed the other about Gitmo. Saying how if they were in power they wouldn't have it. But going on 5 years now it is still there and hardly a peep from anyone anymore. I agree innocent people shouldn't have bad things done to them. But what if you know someones not innocent. Does there life hold the same value?

  2. The unreliability of representative democracy is an argument for direct democracy, and a bit off-topic.

    The legal way to know someone is not innocent is to have him convicted in court or to believe the person after a confession. To catch someone red-handed may also be considered sufficient, but I suppose many lawyers would disagree on this.

    Do the means justify the ends? At times, yes. That's simple cost-benefit analysis. Modern societies draw a line when rights get infringed, albeit stuff such as locking up criminals, outlawing libel or eminent domain are examples of rights infringements deemed to be acceptable if not necessary for the general public interest.

    The conflict between ethics in peacetime and on the battlefield arises when infringements happen that would not be considered acceptable in peacetime, especially physical harm done to innocents up to killing them.

    This includes tolerating the harm done, as the ethical conflict is about the decision - not about the act itself.

  3. Jingoist bullshit is a major mechanism in setting entire continents on fire.

  4. If I capture someone on the battlefield should he have the same rights has someone capture back home? Should he have the rights of whatever country he happens to be from? I do think that siting back home and away from wherever the fight is we forget that when you have seen your friends killed and you have the person that did that siting in front of you how hard it must be to not be judge and jury. I also wonder if the people that get upset when someones rights are violated would feel the same had it been there family that was killed or hurt?

    1. A captured enemy is a neutralised enemy - there's no need for hard feelings. Moreover, you want your POW treated well, so you should treat enemy POW well.

      You can treat them as criminals in addition to their POW status, and the law people have their rules about which rules apply when and where to whom.

      Concerning the influence of being personally affected: Philosophy seeks to learn what a totally unaffected, perfectly natural being would think about a matter. A kind of unborn wise master. The more personally affected you are, the more preferences and emotions will affect your opinion. Psychologists fill books with examples of how stupid and irrational human beings are once they are involved in something.

  5. I find arguments of the type
    "Let's say person A would benefit by ten points and person B would suffer by one point, should we execute this action?"
    to be incredibly trite.

    For the result of choosing any action is always the reframing of abstract question into some specific case that makes the chosen action monstrous.

    For instance, in the article you make A into psychopath and B an innocent victim. But I say to you: this is stupid! Of course B (the father) should take some paternity leave, suffer the loss of some income, and make A (his child) very much happier! (Additionally, the father will probably end up happier too, regardless of the real damage he suffers in monetary terms).

    Abstract ethical questions are like computer generated videos of faces: either you end up with something inhuman, or you put in all the details of life and get something convincing.

    I think you will do much better to consider the ethics of historical events and draw lessons from that.

    For instance, re the worth of a civilian human life in war: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Srebrenica_massacre

    Clearly we do in practice not value the life of other nationalities as high as the life of our fellow citizens. Unless it is in hindsight.

    "on 5 July 2011 the Court of Appeal judged that the Dutch Government was responsible for, and indeed actively coordinated, the evacuation once Srebrenica fell, and therefore is responsible for the decision to dismiss Nuhanović's brother and Mustafić from the Dutchbat compound. The Court further held that this decision was wrong, because the Dutch soldiers should have known that they were in great danger to be tortured or killed. Plaintiffs are therefore eligible for compensation."

    1. The abstract scenario showed a partial mismatch between utilitarian ethics and what's 'acceptable'. It served the purpose of some kind of falsification well.

    2. An objections I imagine a utilitarian would raise: you define the utility function before giving any information at all. Small wonder the conclusion is bad, the utility function was chosen randomly!

      Since the the utility function is central to utilitarianism, you cannot go around and just make it up without any consideration of the facts.

      I don't think any utilitarian would accept your description of their position as fair or accurate. Essentially you attacked a straw man, consciously or not.

    3. It was a proof that utilitarian weighting doesn't get approval in every case by everyone.
      This did nothing but show that the most obvious option for weighting - utilitarianism - is unsatisfactory. A satisfactory theory would have no such exceptions.

      Look, philosophy has yet to deliver the means to adequately weight the costs and benefits of different people. Economic theorists are still waiting for such a delivery, for example. Some economic theories know a best or second-best case which are both not feasible because of this philosophical shortcoming.

      It happens to affect the rational weighting of lives in wartime as well.

      Warfare is a largely ethics-free zone, constricted only by a set of quite arbitrary rules and conventions. We know no way how to wage war within our domestic and peacetime set of ethics as far as I can tell.

  6. Two men in the water, one life vest do I have the right to kill that other man to take that life vest?

    1. No, but that's seriously off-topic anyway.

    2. No, but no one can blame you, if you do so.
      It's a plain exception: in extreme situations there are extreme behaviours, and no one if forced to let himself die.

    3. Clarification: No legal advice is being given on this blog, be it blog posts or comments.
      It takes the fulfilment of certain requirements to offer legal advice in some countries.

  7. I find that since when I write it doesn't get posted that there is little point in doing so in heh future.

    1. The last comment I blocked / kept in limbo was an anonymous troll post from 15 April.