Terrorism and Innocence

I’m currently working on a paper about terrorism, and I decided my first post would concern one of the main issues in that paper. It might seem to be common sense that what is wrong with terrorist acts like the attack on the World Trade Center is that such acts target innocent persons. In fact this is pretty much the traditional account: traditional just war theory states that one limitation on the conduct of war is that one may never intentionally kill innocent persons. (However, in a just war it is sometimes permissible to do things that you foresee will result in the unintended deaths of some innocent persons, via the Doctrine of Double Effect or something like it.)

Now I happen to think that the traditional account is true: what makes terrorism particularly morally abhorrent is that it takes innocent persons as its targets.

However, many philosophers reject that claim, and the account as a whole: they say that, to the extent that there is reason to distinguish between combatants and civilians (so that in a just war, the former may be killed intentionally, but the latter may only be killed unintentionally), this is not because civilians are innocent and combatants are not. Why not? The most common answer is: because combatants may be innocent too (and, by extension, civilians may be guilty.)

Thus, George Mavrodes writes: “a young man of limited mental ability and almost no education may be drafted, put into uniform, trained for a few weeks, and sent to the front as a replacement in a low-grade unit. He may have no understanding of what the war is about, and no heart for it. He might want nothing more than to go back to his town, and the life he led before. But he is “engaged,” carrying ammunition, perhaps, or stringing telephone wire or even banging away ineffectually with his rifle. He is without doubt a combatant, and “guilty,” a fit subject for intentional slaughter. Is it not clear that “innocence,” as used here, leaves out entirely all of the relevant moral considerations—that it has no moral content at all?” (“Conventions and the Morality of War,” Phil & Public Affairs 1975, 117-131.)

To me, though, this objection to the traditional account just doesn’t get off the ground. Why place so much importance on how a person feels, as opposed to what he does? Suppose someone working for the mob, before killing a suspected informant, sincerely says “I really regret having to do this; I’m only following orders, you know. I’d much rather be sitting at home right now. In fact, I don’t really even understand what this is all about.” Would this defense fly in a court of law? Suppose the killer is not too bright and has no education. Would this incline the family of the victim to forgive him? Would it so incline us? Mavrodes’ argument seems to be a version of what I call the Sentimental Fallacy: that, morally speaking, a person’s feelings matter far more than their actions. (Stanley Milgram writes compellingly about how people in his obedience experiments often tended to forgive themselves for (as they thought) giving painful shocks to innocent persons by telling themselves, ‘I don’t really want to do this, I’m not this kind of person,’ etc.) So, contra Mavrodes’ claim, ‘innocent’ has here a great deal of moral content: a child, for instance, is clearly and uncontroversially innocent, while a soldier, having chosen to be on the battlefield, is not.

I’d like to know what people think about the Sentimental Fallacy, and whether they agree that it really is a fallacy; also, whether people think the traditional account of the distinction between combatants and noncombatants can be sustained. (There are certainly issues here that I have not broached, for reasons of space.) My core view, by the way, is based in a kind of individualism: because war is such a terrible thing, people should have the right to opt out of it; the mere fact that Peter’s country is at war should not make Peter a legitimate target, unless Peter himself has, in some strong sense, chosen to go to war. Combatants, of course, have made that choice; so they are legitimate targets. (This is true even in conscription—a draft order is just another order that need not be obeyed—though admittedly the issue is tougher here because there are penalties for disobedience. But then again, the penalties are usually not as bad as going to war is.)

29 Replies to “Terrorism and Innocence

  1. Troy,
    Great post. It’s sure to generate some interesting discussion. My own thought is that Movrades needn’t be committing what you call the “Sentimental Fallacy: that, morally speaking, a person’s feelings matter far more than their actions.” He might instead be appealing to some principle about moral responsibility and coercion. It seems to me that the soldier’s feelings are important only in demonstrating that he is being coerced against his will to be a “combatant.” Now when people are coerced against their will to do something, we don’t normally hold them morally responsible for that action, at least, we don’t if the coercion is severe enough, such that the person didn’t have any other option but to comply. So Movrades might be claiming that because this soldier is being coerced against his will to engage in combat (presumably if there is draft he faces a long prison term), and so he is not morally responsible for engaging in combat. Thus he’s “innocent.”
    Now you seem to suggest that there isn’t much coercion here because the option of going to war is worse than the option of going to jail. I’m not sure that I agree. I can imagine the case where the soldier’s family depends on him for support such that if he went to jail for refusing to fight his family would starve. And, in this case, the community might be unwilling to assist his family since he’ll be deemed a “coward.” Besides, I hate the prospect of going to war, but I think that I hate the prospect of being repeatedly raped in prison even more.
    Your example concerning the member of the mob who is just following orders is presumably different. He wasn’t coerced into joining the mob. Or was he? If he was, then he might have a legitimate defense. It all depends, I think, on the nature and degree of coercion.

  2. Troy,
    I like your discussion of the Sentimental Fallacy. One place you might want to look, for relevant discussions, is the abortion literature. There, there is a great deal of discussion as to whether you may cause the death of an “innocent aggressor,” one who threatens you, but who is not guilty of malicious intent. Such cases might be roughly analogous to the case of the person who is coerced into war, or Mavrodes’ simpleton. (Unfortunately, it’s been a while since I read this stuff, so no titles spring readily to mind.)

  3. While I have some sympathy for the view that there is something like a Sentimental Fallacy, I agree with Doug that Mavrodes isn’t committing it. First, I agree that there are relevant concerns about coercion and responsibility. But second, Mavrodes doesn’t *just* talk about the soldier’s feelings; he also describes what the soldier does. Why not think that what the soldier in his example does is at least partly what is supposed to motivate the thought that he’s not a real threat? That’s why there are the scare quotes around “engaged”: he *merely* carries ammunition, puts up telephone line, fires his gun *ineffectively*. It might be a mistake to underestimate the moral significance of these actions, but to make that mistake isn’t to commit the Sentimental Fallacy.

  4. I will say something about the sentimental fallacy in general, but first – just to add to Kyle’s and Doug’s points – I am not sure that Movrades commits it in the quoted passage. In the passage quoted, Movrades supposes that the soldier in question doesn’t understand the war, has no “heart” for it, is of limited mental ability, etc. All of this suggests that the soldier does not possess enough information and/or intelligence to know that going to war will be so terrible, or that he may end up killing innocent people by going to war, etc. This may seem to excuse the soldier’s actions.
    I have not read the Movrades essay in question, but I get the impression that the quoted passage is really intended to provide evidence that it is at least *conceivable* that a person could qualify as a “soldier” or as a “combatant” without qualifying as a legitimate target. If that is Movrades’ point, I think it is probably right. Most of qualifications for “legitimate target” one might imagine – (informed) intent, feeling, action, etc. – could conceivably be absent in a person who nevertheless qualifies as a soldier/combatant. Thus, no matter how you define “legitimate target” and “soldier/combatant,” I bet their possible extensions will never be quite the same.
    Regarding the sentimental fallacy – I’d agree that basing a notion of culpability on “feelings” would produce an untenable theory. I think Troy might have something here. I doubt anybody commits this “fallacy” in *theory* very often. That is, I doubt most people would agree to something like “If someone does not feel they have done anything wrong, or if someone feels right or “warm inside” about what they have done, then they are not responsible and/or culpable for their wrong action.” However, people do often talk about what a person intended or willed by their action, and say that if a person’s intention or will is sound, then people often let the person off the hook. Now it might be argued that people often let their notions of “feeling” bleed over into their notions of “will.” And it is (for me anyway) not easy to consistently tell the two notions apart in practice. If a person feels good about what he has done, what is the likelihood that he did not intend to do right? Only crazy people, it might seem, feel good about having done something they believed and intended to be wrong. So it may turn out that in practice, people often use feelings as a way to “track” wills/intentions. And if they do, then they may commit the sentimental fallacy in practice even if they do not do so explicitly in theory.

  5. Preface: I am firmly of the belief that a war is RARELY justified, and that in our history I only know of one that would qualify.
    Terrorism is abhorrent, no because it is aimed at civilians but because it is unexpected and comes from a non recognizable source… Let’s put this in small terms first, in terms of people…
    A person can kill another, or attack another in a morally acceptable way if they are protecting themselves (this is the general moral rule anyway). It is not an uncommon practice in philosophy to compare persons to nations, and it is enlightening here. A just war is typically a war of self-defense, or a war of protecting the defenseless. Someone slaps you in the face, you react in accord. A nation bombs Dodger Stadium, the US acts in accord.
    If someone tries to kill me and I kill them as a result of defending myself, no one holds me accountable. Further, it does not matter how they die, so long as the act was in self-defense. Further, I could merely harm them by cutting off the fingers hold the gun with a nearby knife, and I am morally free from blame. I can attack ANY part of the body in such a case and we do not think it unjust. I say the same should be applied to countries in times of war. It is, in theory, an entire country that declares war on another; the country, as one entity, wars with another. The same way various parts of me (hands, feet, heart, brain) make up me, so do the various people and property of a country constitute that country. It seems to me that there is no distinction as to who can be harmed between soldiers and civilians in times of war, in the same way there is no distinction in my mind as to where I hurt the person trying to kill me (so long as it stops my death).
    Terrorism, however, is evil because it attacks without warning, and without identity. I know where a country is, and I know where the person trying to kill me is, so I can do something about it (or at least try). This is not the case with terrorist organizations. They are not entities in the same way nations are. Terrorism is more heinous, and is looked at with such great disapprobation because it is, in a sense, cowardly. Terrorist sit in obscurity and harm without fear of repercussion. That’s what makes terrorism so evil to us, because it is so unmanageable…

  6. I’ll grant Doug, et al, at least this much: the Sentimental argument is not the only argument Mavrodes makes, though it’s the one I chose to focus on. Perhaps Doug’s charitable reading is right, and Mavrodes himself doesn’t intend to put forward that particular argument at all – though I am doubtful about this. And even if he doesn’t, some philosophers, I think, do.
    Thus, in a piece criticizing Carlin Romano for urging philosophers to pay more attention to the notion of innocence after September 11, Robert Fullinwider writes that in war, “the notion of “innocence” has nothing to do with lack of blameworthiness. Rather, it divides individuals into two classes: those who may be directly targeted by military force and those who may not. [. . .] From the point of view of moral-wrongdoing and just punishment, many of the aggressor’s military personnel may be innocent; they may be reluctant conscripts with no sympathy for their nation’s actions. Likewise, among ordinary civilians, many may actively support and favor their country’s criminal aggression. They are not innocent.” (“Terrorism, Innocence, and War,” in Verna V. Gehring, ed., War After September 11, New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, p. 22.)
    The central question, for Fullinwider, seems to be whether a combatant feels “sympathy” for the cause for which she kills, just as the central question with respect to the civilian is whether he “support[s]” and “favor[s]” his country’s actions. Apparently, feeling such support and favor is enough to make one “not innocent” “from the point of view of moral wrongdoing and just punishment”! (Perhaps Fullinwider means ‘support’ to suggest something that goes beyond the agent’s feelings – he does qualify it with ‘actively,’ after all. But ‘favor’ does not seem to invite such a reading.) Thus I think David may be wrong to doubt whether philosophers do in fact commit the Sentimental Fallacy “in theory.”
    Still, even Fullinwider mentions conscription; and this issue, and the related one of coercion, does have to be dealt with. I can say more about this later, if prompted; for now let me just say that even if I granted that conscripted soldiers were coerced, and therefore not morally responsible (as Doug suggests), I could still hold the traditional innocence account to apply in all cases where combatants had not been conscripted; I might then simply have to alter my account of when it is permissible to try to kill certain (coerced and therefore innocent) combatants. (In other words, I can agree with David that “it is at least conceivable that a person could quality as a “soldier” or as a “combatant” without qualifying as a legitimate target”, so long as it constituted a kind of special case.) This seems to me a fairly small concession, for two reasons. First, neither terrorists nor their victims are (typically) coerced combatants, so the case of terrorism may not be affected at all by the question of conscription. Second, and sadly, the majority of military killing throughout history has been done not by soldiers who were conscripted into military service, but by people who were not forced to kill their fellow human beings, but who did it voluntarily.
    That being said, I still don’t think I’m convinced that conscripted soldiers are coerced and therefore innocent – at least in most cases. But I’ll leave that for now.

  7. I realize I just posted a rather long comment; but forgive me if I also take a minute to express a couple of very strong, very deep disagreements with Chris. (After this I promise a 2-day break.) I do agree with Chris on at least one thing: war is very rarely justified or justifiable. But I don’t at all accept the claim that “Terrorism is abhorrent, not because it is aimed at civilians, but because it is unexpected and comes from a non recognizable source.” First, if terrorists threaten us and then carry their threat out, we can’t say that it is unexpected, but it doesn’t seem to make what they do less bad. (In fact, bin Laden did threaten the US before 9-11, and if the attack was unexpected it was our fault, not his.) Second, I’m not sure what a “non recognizable source” is. At this point, Osama bin Laden in particular, and Al Qaeda in general, are downright famous (and they were fairly well-known even before September 2001), but if they pulled off another 9-11 I can’t see how their fame would make this less morally bad. Perhaps something else was meant by ‘non-recognizable’?
    The idea that terrorists must (by definition?) attack ‘without identity’ is dangerous, because it suggests that terrorism must be committed by private individuals, and cannot be committed by states. Surely if one state deliberately attacks the civilian population of another state, there is a strong prima facie presumption in favor of calling that an act of terrorism. (Thus 9-11 would have been terrorism even if, in fact, it had been committed by Iraqi agents at the behest of their government.) And the claim that terrorists “sit in obscurity and harm without fear of repercussion” might fit some of the organizers of 9-11, but it obviously does not fit the case of the actual 9-11 hijackers. (Moreover even the organizers knew that some sort of repercussion was in fact likely – as turned out to be the case.) The media, of course, is happy to repeat these clichés about terrorism; but they are not true.
    But my most significant disagreement is with the idea that the relation of individuals to a country is in any way morally analogous to the relation of body parts to a body. “Someone slaps you in the face, you react in accord. A nation bombs Dodger Stadium, the US acts in accord.” But it is never literally true that “a nation” bombs anyone; rather, groups of individuals sometimes inflict violence on other individuals, and they sometimes claim to be acting on behalf of their nation. In some cases they do in fact have considerable support. But there will always be individual members of that nation who strongly disagree with what is done in their name, and I don’t see why they should be held, in any way, accountable or liable for punishment. Chris seems to think that, at least in cases of self-defense, violence is legitimate when states do it, even when they inflict it on innocent people, just because they are states. This is close to Fullinwider’s position, by the way. I think it is very deeply mistaken.

  8. Excellent discussion. I’m inclined to agree with others that if there is a innocent/non-innocent distinction, it doesn’t track the combatant/non-combatan distinction. Perhaps not all combatants are non-innocent, as Mavrodes and Fullinwider suggest. But Fullinwider’s invocation of sympathy suggests to me that many who are arguably non-combatants are also not innocent (e.g., the leader of a country waging an unjust war, the designer of weapons used by the country waging an unjust war, the CEO of the corporation manufacturing such weapons, etc.) Perhaps we need a conjunctive condition for non-innocence: You are non-innocent and a legitimate target if your support for the war is both intellectual and material.
    I’d also like to slightly modify Chris’ position in order to meet Troy’s worries. The notion that terrorism is abhorrent because it’s unexpected and/or comes from an unidentified source doesn’t seem quite right, but it captures my own sense about what makes terrorism abhorrent: It blurs the line between venues of combat and ordinary places. Terrorism amounts to not ‘fighting fair’ because it introduces violence in locations that we do not see as legitimate locations for military violence (shopping malls, buses, office towers). It’s a kind of quaint idea perhaps, that there are zones of combat and non-zones of combat, but I sense that this captures Troy’s idea that terrorism being unexpected. This blurring of venues is what puts the terror is terrorism.
    Also, Angelo Corlett has written a recent book on terrorism that I understand offers a very sophisticated analysis of these issues. Anyone read it?

  9. Non-recognizable simply means that the source of the attack is unknown. We may know Al Queda and Bin Laden were behind 9/11, but that does not help us in defending ourselves against them. They lack a concrete location and are thus non-recognizable.
    ‘Unexpected’ may have been a misnomer. The idea isn’t that it’s unexpected so much as it lacks pretense. War typically builds from something explicit. Constant friction between polarized politics, flagrant and historic civil rights violations, resource disputes etc.; these are the pretences of war Terrorism does not have this same explicit and recognizable history and pretense.
    “The idea that terrorists must (by definition?) attack ‘without identity’ is dangerous, because it suggests that terrorism must be committed by private individuals, and cannot be committed by states. Surely if one state deliberately attacks the civilian population of another state, there is a strong prima facie presumption in favor of calling that an act of terrorism.”
    The bombing of Dresden seems to met this description, and so does the bombing of Hiroshima, and we do not seem to label these as acts of terrorism. Tens of thousands of innocent people were killed. Civilians, not associated with, or even near military installations. The strategy of these attacks was, in fact, to kill the innocent, to persuade these respective nations to surrender. If the distinction with terror and non-terror is the intentional killing of innocents, then both the Dresden bombing and the Hiroshima Bombing were acts of terror. But no one puts them in that light. What nullifies claims that these are terrorist act are the robust pretence and indentifiability of the attackers.

  10. In your discussion of innocents I was surprised not to see any distinction between autocratic and democratic states. Living in a democracy we are all responsible for our government’s and corporations’ actions. If these organizations behave inconsistently with our personal values, we’re responsible for controlling them. Our failure to do so makes us all combatants.
    The only possible innocents in a terrorist attack against a democracy would be the children. And perhaps we could say their parents are as responsible as the terrorists for putting the children in harm’s way.
    I’ve never understood the popular characterization of terrorists as cowards. It seems it took incredible courage to hold a steady hand on the rudder as those planes crashed into the twin towers. And the planners who stayed behind strike me as no more cowardly than generals coordinating attacks from afar.
    As far as I can see the single distinction between war and terrorism is the budget of the perpetrators.
    I believe that what we find so abhorrent about terrorism is that it makes us vulnerable. We’ve believed that we can allow our government and corporations to exploit and impose structural violence against the weak with impunity. We are the benefactors of their misbehavior.
    Our shame in this whole matter of the “war” on terrorism, is our steadfast refusal to entertain the possibility that others in the world may have legitimate grievances against us. Having no monopoly on technology or ingenuity, we’ll never be safe until we hold our organizations tightly accountable for their actions abroad.

  11. Michael: “Perhaps we need a conjunctive condition for non-innocence: You are non-innocent and a legitimate target if your support for the war is both intellectual and material.” — Perhaps, depending on just how “material” is clarified. It sounds to me like this account will be perfectly compatible with my account of what is wrong with the sorts of terrorist acts with which I am concerned; because those who attacked the World Trade Center, for example, clearly did not discriminate between those who were, and those who were not intellectually in favor of unjust US actions.
    Michael: “[M]y own sense about what makes terrorism abhorrent [is that it] blurs the line between venues of combat and ordinary places.” — Again, this sounds perfectly reasonable – so long as we remember that what makes those “ordinary places” off limits is precisely the fact that they are populated by innocent people. (Blowing up an abandoned bus station or shopping mall would hardly provoke the same moral response.)
    Chris: “War typically builds from something explicit. [. . .] Terrorism does not have this same explicit and recognizable history and pretense.” — But the history of our recent relations with the Arab world seems to exhibit all the hallmarks of what counts for you as pretense. Let’s not forget that Al Qaeda attacked the US several times before 9-11, and even tried to destroy the World Trade Center eight years earlier. Similarly, Palestinian suicide bombings are clearly terrorist acts, though they take place in the context of a long history of conflict.
    Chris: “If the distinction with terror and non-terror is the intentional killing of innocents, then both the Dresden bombing and the Hiroshima Bombing were acts of terror. But no one puts them in that light.” – Actually some people do argue that these should be considered acts of terrorism, and I think they are probably right. Perhaps this is somewhat at odds with current popular usage (ideologically infected as that is.) If you can’t get past that, then consider the following claim instead: Hiroshima and Dresden are morally equivalent to acts of terrorism: that is, equally unjustifiable, and equally evil. For as far as I can see, there is no good reason to morally distinguish between them.
    Al: “Living in a democracy we are all responsible for our government’s and corporations’ actions. If these organizations behave inconsistently with our personal values, we’re responsible for controlling them. Our failure to do so makes us all combatants.” – Virginia Held has made this argument in print. But it seems to me to fail in all cases except those where 100% of the population votes the same way, and thus are all responsible. I do not control my government, and cannot stop them from doing the things they do (would that I could.) To hold a person who votes and campaigns against a morally deficient governing regime responsible for that regime’s misbehavior, and indeed liable to be killed for it, seems to me grossly unfair. Or do we think it is permissible for one person be held morally responsible for the actions of others?
    I agree with Al that labeling terrorists ‘cowards’ is inaccurate and misleading, and doesn’t begin to get at what is wrong with terrorism. As for “the possibility that others in the world may have legitimate grievances against us,” I agree that the American public is very bad at considering this possibility. However, I would also stand by my position that, regardless of the legitimacy of those grievances, acts such as those of September 11 remain unjustified and unjustifiable (just as, regardless of the legitimacy of the US’s war against Japan and Germany, Hiroshima and Dresden remain unjustified and unjustifiable.)

  12. Lucy’s In: 2 cents:
    – there are always options (some more appealing and some requiring extraordinary courage to choose)
    – there are no innocent adult civilians in war; Peter’s war is Peter’s and Mary’s war and Joe’s war unless one takes action to disengage himself and influence the disengagement of others. And when one looks carefully there is a inherent stake in each war for each individual, from a simple sense of being a ‘winner’ (or loser) to the obvious and not so obvious economic, political and social gain (or loss).
    – our emotions are not who we are; our actions are who we are– so regardless of how we feel about killing, stealing, etc. if we do it that is a stronger if not the ultimate defining statement about us.
    – and yes, it is perhaps more unpleasant for a single individual to choose to be the recipient of physical or mental abuse (e.g. prison) rather than be the perpetrator of that abuse if he gets the opportunity and the power to do so— but let’s call that what it is.

  13. I agree with Al Baun’s post of July 24, 2004.
    How are we not collectively responsible for the actions of our government? Although as Troy Jollimore pooints out, “To hold a person who votes and campaigns against a morally deficient governing regime responsible for that regime’s misbehavior, and indeed liable to be killed for it, seems to me grossly unfair.” But then we have already acknowledged that sometimes innocents are killed in war. This would be an example of innocents being killed.
    In a nuclear exchange, most of the deaths would be civilian with varying degrees of innocence. So would a biological attack and possibly chemical as well. Such acts would be considered abhorent regardless if their targers were military or civiliam. It still embodies the idea of ‘not playing fair.’
    Have we considered our war on terror came about because of our refusal to listen to the grieveances and wishes of others? Even now we would rather destroy them, than listen to their grievances which have not changed.

  14. In distinguishing between ‘combatants’ and ‘innocents’ in modern just war theory, it seems difficult to draw any significant generalizations about innocence from a particular individual’s ‘feelings’, since the majority of combatants in our army are there because of one choice of free will or another that they made in the past. The logical exception to this would be a ‘mandatory draft’ set up by a government in the case of a larger war. While Mavrodes’ combatant may in fact be sentimentally disconnected from his actions in battle, regardless of what those actions might be (including non-malicious stringing of telephone wire), the fact remains that he made the conscious choice to join the army in a volunteer draft situation.

  15. At the risk of contributing to this discussion’s degeneration into a foreign policy debate, I just want to point out that, if I understand things correctly, the terrorists who bombed the world trade center have the aim of overthrowing the present European and North American governments and replacing them with Islamist theocracies. Most of us would agree (I hope) that their preferred system would enable abuses far worse than anything that, e.g., American corporations have been allowed to do. So it is deeply misguided, I think, to understand the terrorist attacks as a response to our corporations and/or government acting in violation of our “personal values,” as Al’s post seems (to me) to suggest. The terrorist attacks are motivated by a set of values which could not be more hostile to the values most of us have.

  16. Re: civilian/combatant status as a tracker for innocence/non-innocence
    Suppose a young man, let’s call him John, is committed to his country and desires to serve it and so decides to join the armed forces. By doing so, it seems to me that he makes some sort of commitment to stay in the forces for a certain length of time and, furthermore, to obey orders from his commanding officers. Regarding the latter point, I think a strong case can be made for the position that a soldier ought to obey the commanding officer even in those cases in which he thinks that the officer’s commands are misguided. It seems to me that giving the soldiers’ individual autonomy in making decisions would render commanding officers superfluous and drastically diminish the ability of the armed forces to engage an enemy. But this position may have interesting consequences. Suppose now that John’s fellow citizens elect a new government, one which John thinks is morally dubious and certainly lacking an acceptable foreign policy. Indeed, shortly after being elected, the new head of state declares a war which John considers unjust. He decides, however, that the commitment he made to the armed forces trumps his personal moral misgivings about this particular conflict and so he goes into action with his unit. That is, he thinks his personal obligation is to fight for his country but he thinks that the moral obligation for his government would be to cease hostilities immediately. It is not evident to me in what sense John is more guilty than his fellow civilian citizens who voted for the new government and who intellectually approve of the decision to go to war. But perhaps I am missing something.

  17. Quoting, “the terrorists who bombed the world trade center have the aim of overthrowing the present European and North American governments and replacing them with Islamist theocracies.”
    Actually this is not their aim. Their aim is the removal of American and other Western forces from Arab lands. Such as the closure of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and other areas of the Persian Gulf, and now Iraq and Afghanistan as well. They aren’t interested in overthrowing Western democracies and replacing them with theocracies because there is not support for such regimes and it would not conceivably occur anytime soon.
    The Bush Administration fosters an us vs them mentality but they aren’t interested in running (or even overthrowing any particular regime in) the United States. OF course, if the opportunity presented itself they would take it as a means to change U.S. foreign policy which is their main gripe.

  18. Sorry for the above digression.
    Quoting, “I’d like to know what people think about the Sentimental Fallacy, and whether they agree that it really is a fallacy; also, whether people think the traditional account of the distinction between combatants and noncombatants can be sustained.”
    I think we all become sentimental, but in any war civilians are killed. Modern warfare doesn’t really allow for major distinctions between combatamts and noncom’s. Even our smart bomds kill innocents. Notice our coverage usually glosses over civilian deaths, or in cases (in Iraq and Afghanistan) where wedding parties have been attacked, tend to question whether it was a wedding aprty or a group of rebels. If the wedding parties were firing guns as a part of the celebration and this led to their attack, are they contributory to the attack? To what extent can civilians be contributory to acts of war which kill them? Place of birth, or even address (the family killed when we thought we could get Saddam at the beginning of the war.) Soldiers of course see their safety and achieving their goals as having priority over the lives of civilians.

  19. Quoting Troy:
    “Michael: “[M]y own sense about what makes terrorism abhorrent [is that it] blurs the line between venues of combat and ordinary places.” — Again, this sounds perfectly reasonable – so long as we remember that what makes those “ordinary places” off limits is precisely the fact that they are populated by innocent people. (Blowing up an abandoned bus station or shopping mall would hardly provoke the same moral response.)”
    But would an attack on a national landmark of political significance (say, Mt. Rushmore) that did not intend to endanger anyone be terrorism? I’d say so. It would provoke terror, at least. Yes, the moral response would be different from terrorism that caused deaths, but I’m not sure that undercuts my claim that it’s still terrorism. Ceteris paribus,that an attack seeks to harm innocent people appears sufficient but not necessary for an attack to count as terrorism. In other words, terrorism occurs when an illegitimate target is attacked, of which one kind is a target populated with innocents. (Incidentally, this is my reason for rejecting the Bush administration’s standard description of attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq as ‘terrorism.’ It’s war, or insurgency, or rebellion, or some such thing. But an attack on military personnel on foreign soil in the midst of an armed conflict stretches the definition of terrorism, IMO.)

  20. “It was a devastatingly lamentable error in logic, to assume that rule-based systems are inherently orderly, stable, and predictable. They are not, as Poincaré, Lorentz, and Mandelbrot have all pointed out. Nonlinear system are inherently chaotic.”
    …Paging Dr. Sokal…

  21. Barry Kort,
    I have to admit, after Mandelbrot, I have no idea what you are talking about.

  22. Michael & Troy: How do you think we would have reacted if the 9/11 hijackers had succeeded in destroying the Pentagon rather than the Twin Towers? Would the Pentagon have been a “legitimate target?” If not, why not? And if so, would it have been terrorism?

  23. Troy: I’d like to argue further that in a democracy *every* citizen is responsible for the actions of government. Forgive me for not being familiar Virginia Held’s arguments. Still I’d like to make my own.
    First, the reason I distinguish democracy from autocracy is because in democracy all enfranchised citizens are empowered to speak on all activities of government. When Sadam Hussein attacked Kuwait it may have been reasonable to hold the bulk of Iraqi citizens innocent because under that regime—far from being enfranchised—they were strictly forbidden from participating in the decision. We don’t have this excuse.
    Second, even if we campaigned and voted against a “morally deficient regime,” what if our economic actions (say, driving SUVs) contributed to the government’s imperative to make an attack? I believe our gluttony is the fault that Al Qaeda points to in saying no American is innocent.
    Third, responsibility doesn’t end in the election of leaders. That I voted and campaigned for Gore doesn’t absolve me of responsibility for the actions of the Bush Administration. I wish it did.
    Fourth, to say, “I do not control my government, and cannot stop them from doing the things they do…” though true in the strictest sense, is a cop out. George Bush could use this argument. Checks and balances, and democratic dispersal of power means no one individual controls our government. So either we’re all responsible or none of us are.
    I’d say that we Americans generally behave as though we’re not responsible for our government. But that’s holding our citizenship cheap. This posture is insufficient for good government in democracy. We complain about special interests and government out of control—our posture as citizens is the heart of the matter.

  24. Collective Responsibility?
    Several arguments have been raised in defense of the idea that citizens of a democracy should be held (collectively) responsible for what their government does, even when they oppose those actions. I’d like to briefly respond to these arguments.
    (1) “[I]n democracy all enfranchised citizens are empowered to speak on all activities of government. When Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait it may have been reasonable to hold the bulk of Iraqi citizens innocent because under that regime—far from being enfranchised—they were strictly forbidden from participating in the decision. We don’t have this excuse.” (Al Braun) That we do not have THIS excuse does not imply that we do not have ANY excuse. It seems not only unreasonable but absurd to hold X responsible for Y’s action (which X vehemently opposed). This is not altered by imagining that before acting, Y deliberated, and that he was obliged to take X’s opinion into account. We might further suppose that if enough other people had also voiced opposition, Y would not have acted. How can any of this possibly make X responsible for Y’s action? We can hardly say to X, “Hey, you had your chance to participate.” He’ll just say “I did participate — unfortunately, I was ignored.”
    (2) “Second, even if we campaigned and voted against a “morally deficient regime,” what if our economic actions (say, driving SUVs) contributed to the government’s imperative to make an attack?” (Al Braun) ‘What if’ arguments are always dangerous. Not everyone in the World Trade Center drove an SUV – so even if we assume that merely to drive such a vehicle was somehow to force the US government to make the choices it has made, and thus was sufficient to make one a legitimate target of terrorist action (which is itself an extremely implausible assertion in my view) it does not follow that all the victims of the action were guilty or responsible – unless we make them responsible for the actions of those who did drive SUVs. But that’s just resorting to the idea of collective responsibility once again.
    (3) “Third, responsibility doesn’t end in the election of leaders. That I voted and campaigned for Gore doesn’t absolve me of responsibility for the actions of the Bush Administration. I wish it did.” (Al Braun) This is just a re-assertion of the position; it’s not an argument. (The same can be said about John Teal’s rather odd rhetorical question: “How are we not collectively responsible for the actions of our government?”)
    (4) “Fourth, to say, “I do not control my government, and cannot stop them from doing the things they do…” though true in the strictest sense, is a cop out. George Bush could use this argument. Checks and balances, and democratic dispersal of power means no one individual controls our government. So either we’re all responsible or none of us are.” (Al Braun) Al ignores the second part of my sentence. As a result he reads me as making the following claim: ‘If A does not completely and utterly control the government without limitation, then A cannot be responsible for what the government does.’ But the point is that I could not stop the government from doing what it has done, whereas President Bush, despite the limitations on his power, often did have the ability to do so. So the more reasonable principle is ‘If x was committed by someone other than A, and A could not have prevented x, then A is not responsible for x.’ This seems to follow from ‘ought implies can’ (if we assume that one cannot be responsible for x unless one ought not to have done x.) (Notice, by this principle, that President Bush is not to be held responsible for, for instance, moral atrocities committed by his predecessors in office. Like the principle itself, this seems to me not only reasonable but undeniable.)
    (Two additional questions: (i) Does the ‘all’ in “we’re all responsible” include children? The mentally disabled? It’s not like the 9-11 attackers attempted to exclude these groups; nor it is clear why the argument should exclude them. (ii) If “we’re all responsible,” regardless of our decisions and actions, why bother with the SUV argument, which suggests that it is in fact the nature of our actions that makes us responsible? Just what are the criteria for responsibility that are being offered here?)
    (5) “[W]e have already acknowledged that sometimes innocents are killed in war. This would be an example of innocents being killed.” And again: “I think we all become sentimental, but in any war civilians are killed.” (John Teal) True, but these are simply factual claims. I never claimed that innocent persons were not killed in war. I never even claimed that they were never INTENTIONALLY killed. (Quite the contrary: I wrote about Hiroshima, Dresden, etc.) Rather, I claimed that it is always wrong, and indeed morally reprehensible, to intentionally kill civilians. That’s a normative claim, not a factual one.
    (6) A nuclear, biological, or chemical attack “would be considered abhorrent regardless if their targets were military or civilian. It still embodies the idea of ‘not playing fair.’” (John Teal) Probably true, though this may be largely because it is almost impossible to use such weapons discriminately; they tend to cause too much ‘collateral damage,’ and so to inherently violate jus in bello. But regardless of this, the point is irrelevant: it establishes only that there were ways of killing (otherwise) legitimate targets that are not morally allowable. It does not say anything whatsoever about collective responsibility. Biological warfare is a moral atrocity because it would almost inevitably kill large numbers of civilians AND because it is a morally atrocious way of killing even those whom we are allowed to try to kill. (Why? See Thomas Nagel’s enlightening comments on this in “War and Massacre.”)
    I’d like to finish by repeating what I take to be the crucial question: what are the criteria for responsibility that are being offered here? Mere citizenship? (Then what about non-naturalized permanent residents like myself?) Living in a certain location? Driving a certain type of car? I think the positive account of responsibility on offer needs to be spelled out in considerably more detail than it has been so far, and in such a way as to make the idea of collective responsibility plausible. (A tall order, I know. In fact, my bet is that no one’s going to be able to do it.)

  25. Troy: Perhaps before I challenged your notion of innocence I should have taken issue with your first premise: “…what makes terrorism particularly morally abhorrent is that it takes innocent persons as its targets.”
    Americans generally agree that terrorism morally abhorrent, just as we do that terrorists are cowards (though I’m glad you don’t subscribe to the latter). But for just a moment, let’s attempt to look at this from the point of view of the terrorists.
    The 9/11 attacks required the coordination of tens of relatively well-educated and otherwise successful people. Their plans were very sophisticated, and required long premeditation. These people couldn’t have been coerced, and they weren’t the product of *temporary* insanity or intoxication. So what was the logic to their acts? What did they say, that allowed them commit these acts? What was their particular moral depravity? What was their intellectual mistake?
    I suggest that they weren’t crazy, or particularly morally depraved. I posit that to them it was a mere act of war. Their means precluded the possibility of bringing conventional war so they resorted to terrorism. Their choice of targets was a demonstration that to them our financial and commercial power is as much their enemy as our military power. Whether the occupants of the twin towers are innocents to us, I doubt they were to the terrorists.
    Perhaps we call terrorism morally abhorrent, when what we actually mean is that it’s emotionally abhorrent. We feel safe from conventional war. In a sense the terrorists have tricked us; changed the rules; gotten in the game without anteing up. We should be safe from these people but they’ve demonstrated that we’re not. The gall!
    In the game of international realpolitik, which we Americans—contrary to our self-image—are willing participants, we don’t want to expose our vulnerability. We are hiding our emotional vulnerability by claiming terrorism to be morally abhorrent. Further, we can only justify our disproportional conventional response if terrorism is of a morally lower order.
    What makes terrorism morally abhorrent is that it kills people and destroys property. Just as war does to a greater degree. Terrorism and war are two of a kind. Just war theory—no matter the number and eminence of its proponents—is an oxymoron. We live in the fantasy that war can be just, because we perpetrate war.
    To me, our only hope is humility. We must re-humanize our enemies. We must listen. We must respect. We must be fair.

  26. In considering the issues of war, terrorism and morality we must remember that the nature of these issues has always changed over time and participants. Surely the barbarians were considered immoral by their Roman adversaries just as the Colonialists were by the British soldier. As the nature of “warfare” inevitably changes over time and place, so too will the characterization of morality. How moral and how much of a terrorist was General George Patton (George C. Scott) when he declared that the object of warfare was “to make the other poor bastard die for his [country].” Situational ethics and relative morality have always been the case and always will. Terrorists today are not going to pack up and go home when they believe (with a little or a lot of thought) that God is on their side and condones their actions.

  27. Troy, my apologies for entering into the discussion a bit late. Here are a few thoughts.
    There seem to be several different questions raised in the discussion thus far, some of them being run together, so it might be worth distinguishing them. Here are what I take to be the important questions raised by this discussion so far, along with a few comment.
    (a) Are all innocent people noncombatants, and are all noninnocent people combatants? That is, are the extensions of ‘innocent person’ and ‘noncombatants’ the same, and are the extensions of ‘noninnocent person’ and ‘combatants’ the same?
    The answers to these questions, and the ones that follow, obviously depend on the conceptual possibility of the existence of an innocent combatant or of a noninnocent noncombatant, which, in turn, will obviously depend on how one defines ‘innocent person’ and ‘combatant’. Is the person who voluntarily works in a munitions factory innocent or a combatant? I think it is reasonable to define ‘innocent person’ as ‘one who does not voluntarily and intentionally act to promote a war effort’, and to define ‘combatant’ as ‘one who is charged with killing enemies and destroying enemy targets’. If so, then a person who works in a munitions factory is noninnocent but is not a combatant; so it doesn’t look like the extensions of ‘noninnocent person’ and ‘combatants’ are the same, nor does it look like the extensions of ‘innocent person’ and ‘noncombatant’ are the same. I also have to agree with some of the others that there can even be innocent people who are combatants, that is, that the extension of ‘innocent person’ is not even a proper subset of the extension of ‘combatant’. For example, the person who is coerced into war or Movrade’s simpleton appear to be innocent, since neither voluntarily and intentionally acts to promote a war effort; nevertheless, they are certainly combatants, since they are charged with killing enemies and destroying enemy targets. Incidentally, I think Jeremy Koons has a good suggestion. There is quite a bit of abortion literature, or at least there used to be, concerning innocent aggressors that seems to be very relevant to these questions.
    (b) Are all innocent people illegitimate targets? That is, is the extension of ‘innocent person’ a subset of the extension of ‘illegitimate target’?
    Suppose there is such thing as an innocent combatant. Is this person an illegitimate target? Not necessarily. (Again, I think the abortion literature on innocent aggressors may be helpful here.) It seems to me that the innocent combatant, since she is charged with killing you and destroying your property, may be a legitimate target, if the person targeting has no way of knowing whether or not she will carry out her charge. (And, in cases of traditional war at least, this is certainly almost always the case.) If I think that a person is going to kill me or destroy some of my valuable property, it may certainly be permissible to treat that person as a “target” (whether it is permissible to kill that person is another matter). So, I think that not all innocent people are illegitimate targets, that is, the extension of ‘innocent person’ is not a proper subset of the extension of ‘illegitimate target’.
    (c) Are all noninnocent persons legitimate targets? That is, is the extension of ‘noninnocent person’ a proper subset of the extension of ‘legitimate target’?
    I confess that I am not sure what to say about this question. Certainly most noninnocent persons are legitimate targets, since most are combatants. But is the person who voluntarily works in a munitions factory a legitimate target? Or is the factory itself the target, and whoever happens to be in there voluntarily at the time of targeting fair game? Think of it this way. Suppose Fran voluntarily works in a munitions factory: Is he a legitimate target while he is not at the factory? Is he a legitimate target while he is walking down the street, or eating dinner at home? I’m not really sure what to say here.
    (d) Is the most morally abhorrent characteristic of terrorism that it targets innocent people?
    I agree with Michael, here, that perhaps there are several things that are especially morally abhorrent about terrorism, including the targeting of ordinary places, such as Mt. Rushmore or the Washington Monument, rather than merely venues of combat. I think the targeting of ordinary places is what made the bombing of Dresden particularly abhorrent and, contra Chris, an act of terrorism.
    (e) Is targeting innocent people a necessary condition for being a terrorist act?
    Since I agree with Michael that the targeting of ordinary places without the killing of innocent people can count as an act of terrorism, it looks like the targeting of innocent people is not a necessary condition for being a terrorist act.
    (f) Is targeting innocent people a sufficient condition for being a terrorist act?
    Since I think that innocent people can be legitimate targets, I don’t think that targeting innocent people is even a sufficient condition for being a terrorist act.
    (g) Are all moral agents in a democracy responsible for the actions of its government and, hence, noninnocent persons when its government performs actions that are morally wrong?
    I don’t have anything substantive to say here other than that there has been a great deal of business ethics literature about collective responsibility that may be relevant to this question. For example, who is responsible for the morally abhorrent behavior and consequences at Enron? Enron the corporation? Those who were in charge at Enron? Enron’s shareholders? All Enron’s employees? Perhaps some of this literature may help shed some light on the question at hand here.
    I’d like to raise one more issue that I find interesting. Consider cases in which some people, including those in the military, protect themselves, their weapons, or other material by using human shields or placing them in hospitals, churches, or museums. These innocent people or ordinary places then become “innocent shields of aggressors.” My sense is that these are acts of terrorism, though I have no argument for that other than my personal, conceptual analysis. There is clearly something morally abhorrent about such acts that rises, in my mind, to the level of terrorism. What makes it so, it seems to me, is that a person is performing an act that makes what is normally an illegitimate target–e.g., an innocent person or an ordinary place–and causes it to be one that may be legitimate. If that is the case, then it looks like we can add another particular feature that makes terrorism morally abhorrent, and we’re left with the following revision of Troy’s traditional account:
    What makes terrorism morally abhorrent is that it takes innocent people who are not legitimate targets and ordinary places rather than venues of combat as its targets, or it causes innocent people who are not legitimate targets and ordinary places to be possibly legitimate targets.

Comments are closed.