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Against Caplan’s Pacifism

April 25, 2011

Via Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan has an interesting argument in defense of pacifism as a practical foreign policy up. There is also a provocative piece by Nicholson Baker in this month’s Harpers, which I will probably chew through later. For now, it’s worth examining and addressing Caplan’s agrument.

1. The immediate costs of war are clearly awful.  Most wars lead to massive loss of life and wealth on at least one side.  If you use a standard value of life of $5M, every 200,000 deaths is equivalent to a trillion dollars of damage.

2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.  Some wars – most obviously the Napoleonic Wars and World War II – at least arguably deserve credit for decades of subsequent peace.  But many other wars – like the French Revolution and World War I – just sowed the seeds for new and greater horrors.  You could say, “Fine, let’s only fight wars with big long-run benefits.”  In practice, however, it’s very difficult to predict a war’s long-run consequences.  One of the great lessons of Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment is that foreign policy experts aremuch more certain of their predictions than they have any right to be.

3. For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs.  I call this “the principle of mild deontology.”  Almost everyone thinks it’s wrong to murder a random person and use his organs to save the lives of five other people.  For a war to be morally justified, then, its (innocent lives saved/innocent lives lost) ratio would have to exceed 5:1.  (I personally think that a much higher ratio is morally required, but I don’t need that assumption to make my case).

Caplan’s premises judge war on the amount of casualties incurred. I submit this is a pretty impractical way of judging whether or not a war is a reasonable tool to use. At first glance Caplan’s argument seems inviolable, until one considers that it is extremely glib with putting a value on human life, and ratios of human lives lost to human lives saved.

This is, out and out, far from a “common sense” way of determining whether or not launching a war is a practical idea. It is, in fact, a highly subjective moral calculus virtually impossible to imply in conflict beforehand.

Essentially all of Caplan’s argument rests on point three. However, he seems to consider wars important only in terms of lives lost and lives saved, which is a calculation that absolutely nobody, including pacifists, can be certain of getting correctly during the start of a conflict. Caplan’s calculus, would, for example, justify virtually any intervention on humanitarian grounds. It is extremely rare that launching air strikes incurs major casualties on the enemy or civilians on the same scale as say, ethnic cleansing. So essentially any air campaign using precision weapons is justifiable so long as it kills less in collateral damage or enemy soldiers than might be threatened by enemy victory. Presumably, this is not the argument Caplan is trying to make. Yet thanks to his argument’s reliance on basically arbitrary math, scaled up to the level of state military capabilities, it is very easy to justify all manner of humanitarian interventions on the basis of Caplanian pacifism.

Presumably, though, we have to factor in some future level of “new hatreds” our interventions spur, but this only justifies additional amounts of military intervention so long as they do not incur relatively high civilian casualties.

The only brake to this sort of reasoning is that at a certain point a government has more of a responsibility to its own citizens’ welfare than those of others, or a basically unreasonable and unfounded assumption of the primacy of military intervention in inducing “new hatreds” that outweigh the lives saved in a military intervention.

Caplan may not agree with the assertion that the role of the government and state power has an important role to play in making for successfully operating markets, justice systems, and other civil institutions, but if we do allow for that assertion, than the degree of state power becomes extremely important for making judgments about a war’s long term effects. Caplan tries to dismiss this argument by saying that if you accept that it is acceptable to kill somebody for “good overall consequences” then it is acceptable to murder an innocent to save five lives.

This statement makes a lot of sense if you deliberately obfuscate the moral differences between behavior in a state of total anarchy and behavior in a society which can use other means of providing social services such as healthcare besides murdering people. The international system is more like the former than the latter, particularly in cases where one country is being directly invaded by the other. Furthermore, there is a profound difference between making an argument about declaring a state of war and using force and killing a specific human being.

In reality, the conduct of a war has a great deal to do with how many lives are lost or saved. There is an enormous difference between arguing that, say, the French strategy during WWI was unacceptable and France’s participation in WWI in and of itself was unacceptable. If Caplan really wants to make his argument on the basis of calculations of loss of life and welfare, he has to discuss strategy, and acknowledge that particular strategies during war have a profound impact on their humanitarian costs. The distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bellum is a central tenet of pretty much all moral analyses of war, but Caplan does not seem to engage with these questions, or else rejects their legitimacy. But if he does, he is necessarily relying on something far more absolute than “common sense” or the three principles he asserts.

Finally, war is best judged as an instrument of policy, and that policy cannot be a simple accounting of lives saved and lost, particularly without reference to one’s own citizenry. The question should not be phrased as “pacifism or militarism” but as “pacifism for whom?” Caplan’s generalization of arguments from World War I and the War on Terror, and particularly for the United States, make this argument rather less amenable to a general argument in favor of pacifism for other countries.

As Cowen points out, a widespread adoption of pacifism would lead to startlingly different outcomes depending on the country adopting it. The United States, or even the United Kingdom, could have stayed out of WWI without suffering serious consequences for their citizen’s lives or economic welfare compared to the costs actually incurred. Could France have done so? Or Belgium? Pacifism may not have done much to improve the welfare of the French citizenry if, down the line, the humiliation of defeat spurred the ascendancy of a fascist or communist French regime. How early would France have to surrender before the bitterness of conflict made succumbing to German war aims politically intolerable or impossible? War aims exist in a dynamic with the battlefield and technology, as Raymond Aron pointed out in his own analysis of the “technological surprise.” The kind of calculations Caplan asks us to make are hardly as clear as he would like.

Today, there is no reason to think that an application of Caplanian pacifism would not encourage other states to behave more aggressively. It would be needlessly reductive to assume that all territorial aggrandizement and intimidation is due to a “vicious circle.” Numerous states, and indeed, many peoples, would disappear off the map if aggessors believed the cost of aggression to be close to zero.

In other words, there is no reason to think widespread adoption of Caplan’s pacifism would maximize human welfare, or even improve it from the system, which Caplan acknowledges has its roots in the prosecution of an extremely bloody war, that prevails today. Caplan acknowledges that some wars do have long-term benefits, but says that these cases do not disprove the general rule against pacifism. Perhaps for a 3rd party state deciding to intervene which has the geostrategic luxury of not being thrust into the war, but certainly not for a resisting state. Considering that the threat of force or the willingness and readiness to use force is a significant factor in the war planning of aggressive states, it is hard to see how widespread adoption of “common sense” pacifism based on hypothetical body counting would lead to a better world for most non-aggressor states.

The sheer difficulty of doing the moral and material accounting for Caplan’s logic means that it is not, in and of itself, a useful way to make a general moral case for pacifism. Such logic can push us to be pacifists or relentless interventionists, depending on geography, strategy, technology, and assumptions about the formation and operation of institutions which better human welfare. Far from common sense, such pacifism relies on a large number of unspoken assumptions which do not stand up to application in concrete historical circumstances on a scale anywhere near that of a practical moral doctrine.

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