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.”
“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 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.