War and the Utilitarian dilemma

Once upon a time, I used to read the Bible. Reading the Bible is neither unusual nor a particularly special or significant act. Millions of people read the Bible.

The reason why I mentioned reading the Bible is this: As anyone who has ever thumbed through the Bible knows the Gospel of Matthew says this:

“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” (Matt. 24:6. NIV)

These says, I usually don’t read from, let alone quote from the Bible, except to make a point about something.

I swear this post actually has a point.

It’s been 15 months since the start of the confilct in Syria. The Arab Spring was supposed to bring liberty and democracy to the oppressed citizens of the Middle East, but instead of news stories of people enjoying the benefits of freedom and the lack of government oppression, I read stories about entire villages slaughtered and talk of a proxy war with Russia. This news has even an avowed apatheist like me reading my Bible.

So far, the conflict between Syrian rebels and government forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has taken over 10,000 lives (I’ve seen reports that the number of dead Syrians is over 14, 000), and recently reports have surfaced that children have been murdered, tortured, and used as human shields. Worse yet, there doesn’t seem to be an end to this confilct coming any time soon.

The world community has threatened sanctions against Syria, but is this really going to help? Will sanctions convince President al-Assad that he needs to step down? (Lets remember that Fidel Castro ruled Cuba from 1959 to 2011, and stepped down only when his health began to fail — not because U.S. sanctions forced him out of office. Castro once said,”I’m really happy to reach 80. I never expected it, not least having a neighbor – the greatest power in the world – trying to kill me every day.”) The world comunity has the option of removing the Syrian president by force, but is a military assault on Syria the most humane  or even the best way of removing a tyrannical dictator?

Obviously, something must be done to stop President al-Assad from harming the citizens of his country. But what should we do? Is it morally permissible to interveve in Syria’s conflict, and what, if anything, would be the morally correct thing to do?

What we have here is a utilitarian dilemma.

Utilitarian ethics, most notably associated with the English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill, is the ethical theory that tells us an act is morally right or permissible if and only if the act produces the greatest happiness (or good) for the greatest number of people. On Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill wrote:

“Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain.”
When a utilitarian asks whether an act is good or bad (or right or wrong) he is asking, “what consequence will follow from my act?”
So how should the global community bring about the greatest good in Syria?
If we suppose that emposing sanctions against the al-Assad regime will deter the government from engaging in acts against its citizens (thus maximizing the people’s happiness)– lets look at how sanctions have worked in the past. Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Cuba, Pakistan, and Libya have all had economic sanctions imposed in response to violations of human rights.  Iran, North Korea, and Cuba are still ruled by the established “dictatorship” to which the global community was opposed. But wait a minute: we know that Iraq and Libya are no longer under the rule of their dictators (Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi respectively). But neither was removed by way of sanctions. They were removed by force.
In 1993, the U.S. Catholic Conference stated:
“Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations.”  
The Catholic (and philosophical) doctrine of just war can be traced back to the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who both argued that war is necessary (and morally justified) if the intention is to prevent a greater evil.  It is obvious that the massacre of innocent men, women, and children counts as a great evil. And we would be morally justified in doing something — but is a military intervention in Syria the right thing to do?
This is why the answer might be no.
Anyone who has fiddled around at all with utilitarian ethics (and I’m pretty sure that’s all of us) has discovered that there is one, big problem with grounding the rightness or wrongness of our acts on what we think will happen — namely, we have no idea what will happen in the future. The problem with utilitarian ethics is that it is always speculative. We’ll never be certain of outcomes — no matter how well-intended our intentions are. And speaking of intentions, if the moral permissibility of an act is based on consequences (as opposed to duty or intentions) we can lie, cheat, manipulate, or use coersion so long as what we want is good outcomes. It’s not just that — utilitarian-based morals also allows us to mistreat or even kill other people if killing, torturing, damaging people, or violating human rights if doing so contributes to the happiness of the whole. In fact, philosophers have dozens of thought experiments explaining how utilitarian ethics screws people up.
If this isn’t bad enough, another problem with utilitarian ethics is that we just cannot properly calculate benefits and harms. We’ve all etiher heard of or experienced the effects of the “law of unintended consquences”. I’m certain that the Allies thought they were teaching Germany a lesson with the Treaty of Versailles in the aftermath of WWI, but just as the Allies had calculated that punishing Germany was a good thing (i.e. they wanted to maximize the happiness for Europe and the rest of the world), they had also laid the groundwork for WWII. If we act, and the greater happiness (good) of others isn’t the consequence of our act, we’re morally on the hook for what we did.
By the way, did I mention that we’re required to think about everybody? John Stewart Mill wrote:

“The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not…(one’s) own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.”

But — how do we know for certain what the happiness of “that of all concerned” is? How do we know if we use force against President al-Assad that we’re not just causing more trouble in the long run? If we’re utilitatians we just cannot know.