In praise of double standards

Bryan Caplan seems to be suggesting that double standards are morally indefensible:

We often have ethical arguments about when it’s morally permissible for us to do seemingly terrible things to them.  Examples:

1. When is it morally permissible for us to deliberately drop a nuclear bomb on their civilians?

2. When is it morally permissible for us to launch an attack that we expect will lead to ten civilian deaths for every target killed?

3. When is it morally permissible for us to torture one of them?

The general conclusion of these discussions – unsurprisingly given group-serving bias – is that it’s morally permissible for us to do almost anything to them.  Sure, there are a few random exceptions – it’s OK to nuke their civilian population, but wrong to waterboard suspects.  (Huh?)  But by and large, we give ourselves a big green light.

At the same time, we almost never have ethical arguments about when it’s morally permissible for them to do terrible things to us.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a debate about:

1. When is it morally permissible for them to deliberately drop a nuclear bomb on our civilians?

2. When is it morally permissible for them to launch an attack that they expect will lead to ten civilian deaths for every target killed?

3. When is it morally permissible for them to torture one of us?

If Caplan is criticizing double standards, then I don’t agree.  Suppose that in 1943 we knew for a fact that dropping a bomb on Germany and Japan, and killing 3,000 civilians, would have caused them to surrender.  Would the act have been morally justified?  I’d say yes, but only because we were fighting the ”bad guys.”  On the other hand even if Al Qaeda knew for a fact that killing 3,000 Americans would cause us to surrender, it still wouldn’t be morally justified.  They were fighting the “good guys”  (or for you Chomsky fans, the “less bad guys.”) 

Here’s another example.  Suppose I had been drafted into the German Army in 1940, was opposed the war, but was too chicken to refuse to serve.  Would it have been morally justifiable for me to shoot allied soldiers?  Of course not.  The only moral action would have been for me to intentionally shoot over the heads of enemy soldiers.  (Thereby hoping to end the war more quickly.)  On the other hand it would have been completely justifiable for Russian or American soldiers to shoot me.

BTW, here I am considering a separate issue from the validity of “rules of war.”  One can be a “rules utilitarian” and favor rules that apply to good guys and bad guys equally.  But that’s a different question from whether the liberal-minded German draftee is morally justified in shooting at enemy soldiers.


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43 Responses to “In praise of double standards”

  1. Gravatar of Wimivo Wimivo
    21. September 2010 at 18:46

    The disagreement seems to revolve around exactly how relative morality is. Caplan is apparently taking a “completely 100% relative” stance – in the eyes of Japan, Japan *was* the good guy. Since good and bad are simply a matter of perspective, Team A harming Team B is equally immoral as Team B harming Team A for any neutral onlooker.

    But from a utilitarian perspective it should be clear that the efforts of Germany and Japan were causing massive blows to world utility – and thus, immoral. They were clearly Bad Guys in a utilitarian sense. Bad Guys harming the Good Guys causes a decrease in world utility. But Good Guys harming the Bad Guys causes an *increase* in world utility. Hell, even if the Good Guys leave the Bad Guys alone utility will decrease, since Bad Guys are doing Bad Things without resistance. There really is no double standard in this view – the key is to understand one direction improves utility and the other direction reduces it, that “good” and “bad” can have SOME objective meaning, even if it’s a little fuzzy most of the time.

  2. Gravatar of Leigh Caldwell Leigh Caldwell
    21. September 2010 at 18:52

    Aren’t you begging the question?

    Surely Caplan’s point isn’t: are the good guys allowed to do things that the bad guys are not? The answer to that is fairly clear (at least for a utilitarian).

    His point is: we give plenty of consideration to whether “they” are “bad guy” enough for us to bomb them. Do we ever give the same level of thought to whether “we” are “bad guy” enough for them to bomb us?

    If we did, the answer might be that we really are the good guys. That would be reassuring. But, mostly, we don’t even ask the question.

    What _would_ we have to do (or believe) in order to justify someone bombing our innocent civilians?

  3. Gravatar of David Tomlin David Tomlin
    21. September 2010 at 19:54

    Wimivo:

    But from a utilitarian perspective it should be clear that the efforts of Germany and Japan were causing massive blows to world utility . . .

    The Germans and the Japanese didn’t think so. The Japanese thought they were defending their fellow Asians against the evils of Western imperialism. The Germans similarly thought they were revising unjust territorial arrangements imposed by the victors of WW1, and later that they were saving the world from Communism (or Bolshevism, as they still liked to call it in those days).

  4. Gravatar of William William
    21. September 2010 at 20:46

    Please clarify whether or not this post was meant to be a joke.

  5. Gravatar of JeffreyY JeffreyY
    21. September 2010 at 20:59

    If the answer to “When is it morally permissible for *us* to deliberately drop a nuclear bomb on *their* civilians?” is “When *they’re* doing sufficiently bad things.”, then surely the answer to “When is it morally permissible for *them* to deliberately drop a nuclear bomb on *our* civilians?” is “When *we’re* doing sufficiently bad things.”

    Simply defining ourselves as the good guys, without thinking about what makes us so and whether we’re still living up to it, is exactly how one gets into stupid wars with other people who are just as convinced they’re the good guys.

    Conversely, the only way I can think of to convince people that they’re the bad guys is to consider the kinds of arguments that might convince me that *I’m* one of the bad guys.

  6. Gravatar of Norman Norman
    21. September 2010 at 21:07

    I know it might be unfair to mention this, but by the first corollary of Godwin’s Law, Caplan automatically wins this debate.

    Seriously, is there *any* situation where the double standard is clearly OK unless we invoke Nazi Germany and World War II?

  7. Gravatar of woupiestek woupiestek
    22. September 2010 at 01:09

    Someone with a jewish name like David should be realize that for some Germans the war was not about territories or communists. Also, the national socialists (also know as nazis) where in favor of some kind of socialism. A lot of social security in my country (the Netherlands) was implemented by the nazis during the occupation.

  8. Gravatar of Ryan Ryan
    22. September 2010 at 03:08

    You’re not praising double-standards, you’re just obscuring the standards with details. Here, I’ll show you:

    1. In your first example, you’re appealing to our knowledge that Nazi Germany was a genocidal nation bent on world domination. Because we all understand this implicitly, we will never call them the “good guys.” You then give appearances of a double-standard while implicitly accepting the tenet that “Nazis are always bad guys.” This is what’s known popularly as “playing the Hitler card.”

    2. In your second example, just because you and the Allies are both shooting doesn’t mean you’re both acting according to the same standard. You are deliberately missing, because you know they’re the good guys. They’re shooting to kill because they have every reason to believe you’re doing the same.

    Caplan’s question is, Under what set of circumstances would we accept the same behavior from the other side that we expect them to accept from us? War is actually a “great” example, because both sides expect that the other side intends to destroy their own side. Agricultural subsidies are a different matter. The USA expects other countries to “just deal with” the subsidies we pay our farmers, yet complains loudly about any subsidies a given country pays its own workers. THAT’s a double-standard. If subsidies are okay for us, then under what conditions are they okay for other countries?

  9. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    22. September 2010 at 05:01

    Wimivo, You said;

    “The disagreement seems to revolve around exactly how relative morality is. Caplan is apparently taking a “completely 100% relative” stance – in the eyes of Japan, Japan *was* the good guy. Since good and bad are simply a matter of perspective, Team A harming Team B is equally immoral as Team B harming Team A for any neutral onlooker.”

    Interesting. I read exactly the opposite way–that he was criticizing a relativistic approach.

    Leigh, You may be right. That’s why I wrote “seems to be suggesting” as I wasn’t sure. I suppose it was silly of me to assume the worst.

    I’m not sure he’s right that people don’t admit when attacks on them are justified. Yes, it occurs less often than the reverse, but that’s so obvious that it is hardly even worth a blog post, so I assumed Bryan had something bigger in mind.

    David, Yes, but what matters in judging the morality of an action is not what people think they were doing, but what they were actually doing.

    William, No joke.

    JeffreyY, I agree.

    Norman, I also invoked the Japanese War, but the Korean War would have done just as well. Any war where we are fighting a profoundly evil enemy. The 1991 Gulf War would be another example.

    Ryan, See my answer to Norman.

  10. Gravatar of Ryan Ryan
    22. September 2010 at 06:09

    “Any war where we are fighting a profoundly evil enemy” is not a double standard, it is a universal one. We universally agree that the enemy is profoundly evil.

    Caplan is getting at the question of how we reach those conclusions and whether we are capable of ever seeing our own actions as profoundly evil assuming that our own actions truly are evil. See the difference?

  11. Gravatar of frankl frankl
    22. September 2010 at 06:10

    the german officer would have shot the war-opposer for cowardice – as the british did too

  12. Gravatar of Joe Joe
    22. September 2010 at 07:10

    Scott,

    Your examples aren’t true double standards, because the ends of the US and the Nazis were acting toward weren’t comparable. I think your use of Hitler and Osama as counterparties is obscuring Bryan’s point here.

    Imagine that there is a group of Quebecois terrorists hiding out in Frenchie-friendly New England, and the American government is unable to apprehend them. They are precisely as dangerous to Canadian life and liberty as our targets in Afghanistan are to American life and liberty.

    We tolerate military strikes that we know will kill innocent Afghans to take out our enemies. Would we tolerate military strikes by Canadians against the Quebecois that would kill the same number of Americans?

    We tolerate the use of torture to extract information about national security threats. Would we tolerate the Canadians swooping in and torturing Americans to find information about these terrorists?

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. September 2010 at 07:50

    Ryan, You said;

    “Caplan is getting at the question of how we reach those conclusions and whether we are capable of ever seeing our own actions as profoundly evil assuming that our own actions truly are evil. See the difference?”

    I think people can see this after the fact (Germany vis-a-vis WWII) and some Americans vis-a-vis slavery and treatment of native Americans. Indeed many Americans even believed this was wrong at the time, as did many Germans. Obviously if a majority of a country does X, they must in some sense think it was justified. So I hope Caplan meant more than that we when do something, we usually don’t think what we are doing is evil.

    frankl, What if they simply were not a good shot? How would you tell the difference? In any case it doesn’t change my argument, as there are certainly battle situations where it could apply.

    Joe;

    “We tolerate military strikes that we know will kill innocent Afghans to take out our enemies. Would we tolerate military strikes by Canadians against the Quebecois that would kill the same number of Americans?”

    Obviously many Americans are nationalistic, I wasn’t trying to deny that. I was addressing a point that many people make, that seems wrong to me. The point they make is that some tactic like killing or torturing is wrong irrespective of the issues at stake. If Caplan wasn’t making that argument then fine. (BTW, I’m not pro-torture or even very hawkish on foreign policy.)

    BTW, in the example you cite I might not object to the Canadians entering our territory, although I understand most Americans are more nationalistic than me and would object. Of course in the real world I see no similarity between Canada going into the US and the US going into a country like Pakistan. And I gather from your answer that you at least agree with me on that point. It depends on context.

  14. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    22. September 2010 at 08:06

    For a long, long time, I thought the US dropping of A-bombs on women and children during WWII (Hiroshima, Nagasaki) was defensible. Yes, they were innocent; they in no way controlled Japan. But they had to die so that more lives could be saved.

    Now, I am not so sure. It was militaristic men of Japan who were waging war. But we were hitting women and children.

    Morever, we were not on the verge of losing the war.

    I don’t suppose there is a right answer to the question.

  15. Gravatar of Wonks Anonymous Wonks Anonymous
    22. September 2010 at 09:47

    Mao’s kill-count has been recently updated. It occurs to me China might have been better off had the Japanese won.

  16. Gravatar of TonyD TonyD
    22. September 2010 at 16:15

    Unrelated Trivia: I once had dinner with Edward Teller (“father of the atomic bomb”) and he was outraged that he was lied to by Truman that the Germans were also working on an atomic bomb. He was also outraged that the bomb was used on civilians – the idea of use on non-populated areas (in the sea off the coast) was floated at the time. This is probably still supposed to be secret– but the first time they dropped the bomb they weren’t sure if it would destroy the planet (atoms exploding surrounding atoms.) Truman gave the order – in spite of the scientists splitting 50-50 in their guess about total world destruction.

  17. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    22. September 2010 at 16:27

    TonyD-

    More unrealted trivia.

    JFK also famously said he thought it was 50/50 we would go to nuclear war over Cuba, and Russian emplacement of missiles there (1962).

    Imagine the carnage and suffering, globally, just because of the incredibly stupid leadership of two elites of two nations, if we had a nuke war in 1962. Oh, what glory.

    Depending on who you belive, “Khruschev blinked” (or had a whiff of common sense) or the USA backed down on some missiles in Turkey.

    At that time, in my elementary school, we were hiding under our desks in surprise and repeated air raid drills. If we saw a flash we were supposed to cover our eyes. You can’t make this stuff up. Monthly air raid sirens would go off all over Los Angeles, in a test of the air raid system. I can remember the ominous wail even now.

  18. Gravatar of JimP JimP
    22. September 2010 at 17:30

    On the latest Fed statement:

    This guy, at least, thinks what the Fed said was quite different from anything said recently by any central bank.

    begin quote
    The Federal Reserve broke a taboo yesterday when it said quite baldly that inflation in the US is now below the level “consistent with its mandate”. In other words, it is too low. This is a very big statement for any central banker to make, since the greatest feather in their collective cap is that they successfully combated inflation after the 1970s debacle. Led by the Fed’s Paul Volcker, they re-asserted the importance of monetary policy, after two decades of failed wage and price controls. Since that period, most central bankers have been careful to avoid any language which even hints that a rise in inflation is acceptable to them. I can certainly find no previous record of the FOMC saying that inflation is too low, so it was a jolt to see this stated so starkly in the Fed statement yesterday.

    No equivocation here. In the considered view of the FOMC, the current rate of underlying inflation is below that consistent with the Fed’s mandate. In simple terms, the Fed now sees its task as being to make inflation rise.
    end quote

    http://blogs.ft.com/gavyndavies/2010/09/22/the-fed-breaks-a-taboo-on-inflation/

    One might sure wish that they would have talked about “income” rather than “inflation”, as Scott suggests. That would make all of this a lot easier politically and also more accurate.

    But still………its not nothing.

  19. Gravatar of David Tomlin David Tomlin
    22. September 2010 at 18:40

    Scott Sumner:

    Yes, but what matters in judging the morality of an action is not what people think they were doing, but what they were actually doing.

    You don’t see any moral difference between causing (net) harm deliberately and causing it because of an erroneous belief? If that’s what you mean to say, I think it’s a very idiosyncratic view.

    What’s morally relevant is not just what a person happens to believe, but how culpable it is under the circumstances not to have formed a correct belief before acting. That’s why tort law is full of ‘reasonable person’ standards.

    woupiestek:

    Someone with a jewish name like David . . .

    It’s a Christian name.

    Also, the national socialists (also know as nazis) were in favor of some kind of socialism. A lot of social security in my country (the Netherlands) was implemented by the nazis during the occupation.

    Point?

  20. Gravatar of rob rob
    22. September 2010 at 23:23

    For the record, we are all expecting you to respond to TC’s post regarding the FT claiming the Fed is being more aggressive than US commentators have been saying.

    I’ve been trying to look up current TIPS spreads, which I think would be most indicative of the reality — but don’t know where to find an up to date chart as of yesterday.

    Could this be the real deal, finally????!!!!

  21. Gravatar of Jaap Jaap
    23. September 2010 at 03:30

    @Benjamin: in the Netherlands we still have the monthly sirens… it used to be weekly in the eighties (I remember there was a change when I was a kid; related to the fall of the USSR? likely)

    @David: about nazi’s being partly socialist; it is in their name! it is just the way the left wishes to call rightwingers nazi’s when something doesn’t suit them. would be uncomfortable if nazi’s were considered nationalistic-leftwing. a bit uhhh like a lot of current socialist parties in Europe nowadays.
    a point pro putting nazi’s in the rightwing-block is their affiliating with the corporatist-fascists of Italy and their enemy the Soviet USSR. though there was plenty of infighting and namecalling in the USSR as well.

  22. Gravatar of cournot cournot
    23. September 2010 at 04:41

    Actually Caplan is not being a relativist. From his other posts he’s a naive pacifist. He thinks fighting in war is always immoral and not justifiable.

  23. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    23. September 2010 at 06:36

    Benjamin; You said;

    “I don’t suppose there is a right answer to the question.”

    I agree.

    BTW, I look at things from a utilitarian perspective, in which men, women, and children are all equally innocent, at least as a class.

    Wonks Anonymous, That’s possible (hopefully my wife doesn’t read this.)

    TonyD, I’ve heard about the risk of world destruction, but I doubt they were split 50/50. If so, there would have been much more opposition. One can also find a few scientists who think the Geneva particle accelerator might destroy the planet, or universe. BTW, I’m not suggesting the fears should be ignored. I do think it possible that scientists might accidentally destroy life on earth. They need to be extremely careful, especially in biotech.

    Benjamin, I also recall that period. BTW, I’ve never understood why people always mock the preparations. Many people survived Hiroshima, and I don’t doubt that those precautions would have save lives if there had been a nuclear attack on the US. It depends you close you are to the center of the explosion. But I agree there was a sort of mad, Dr. Strangelove aspect to the entire period.

    Most people also think it’s silly to prepare for plane crashes, but more people survive airliner crashes than die in them.

    JimP, Yes, it was along the lines that Bernanke was hinting at in his Jackson Hole speech, but a bit more explicit.

    David Tomlin, You misunderstood me. I seem to recall we were talking about countries going to war and intentionally killing people. My point is that it doesn’t matter whether some militaristic dictator is serving God’s will, or just being intentionally cruel. We treat it as equally bad, and rightly so. I agree there is a difference if someone kills someone else unintentionally, as in a traffic accident. I think that was you point. But when they kill someone intentionally, it doesn’t really matter if their intentions were justified in their mind. Not all intentional killing is evil but we judge whether it is right or wrong on external factors, not whether the perpetrator was deluded in some sense.

    rob, OK, I’ll try to do a post on that.

    Cournot, I think war is justified in self defense. In general, I oppose wars that are not fought in self-defense. BTW, I define “self-defense” broadly to include not just individual countries, but alliances as well.

  24. Gravatar of woupiestek woupiestek
    23. September 2010 at 06:53

    The point is that for the nazis the second world war was not just about territories or the first world war, but also about racism, world domination and a flawed economic model. For these latter three reasons the nazis were the bad guys.

  25. Gravatar of TonyD TonyD
    23. September 2010 at 10:19

    I spent hours with Edward Teller. There were many details that I’ve never read.

    Teller had Einstein approach the President. He told me that he made a list of physicists to gather because: “any mechanic can build a bomb. I gathered the worlds best physicists to figure out if it would destroy the world.”

    Finally, under pressure by Washington to reach a conclusion, he told me that he took a vote – it was basically 50-50 (slight edge to not destroying the world) So he got 9 physicists to brief Truman. Four representing each view, Teller moderating. Truman listened and said nothing during the entire briefing. At the end, Truman stopped at the door and said “detonate the bomb”.

    I saw a documentary where the pilot who dropped the bomb described being extensively briefed about weather considerations when dropping the bomb – apparently, they never told him why they were so concerned about altitude and clouds (atom density and pressure considerations.)

  26. Gravatar of David Tomlin David Tomlin
    23. September 2010 at 12:41

    woupiestek:

    The point is that for the nazis the second world war was not just about territories or the first world war, but also about racism, world domination and a flawed economic model.

    Ever since Napoleon, it’s been a staple of British propaganda to claim that the enemy of the moment was aiming for world conquest. In the case of the Axis powers this has become conventional wisdom, but historians who specialize in the matter say otherwise. World conquest was not a realistic possibility, and the Axis leaders knew it.

    The British went hog wild for socialism after WW2.

    When the British complained about Iran nationalizing their oil interests, the Iranian prime minister offered to have the nationalization reviewed by a British court, under the same rules by which the British were busily nationalizing their own industries. Of coursed they declined. We all know how that turned out.

  27. Gravatar of David Tomlin David Tomlin
    23. September 2010 at 12:47

    Jaap: @David: about nazi’s being partly socialist; it is in their name!

    I wasn’t disputing the point. I was inquiring about the relevance.

  28. Gravatar of woupiestek woupiestek
    23. September 2010 at 14:47

    David,

    I don’t care what the British think. I’m Dutch. My country was occupied by the Nazis and would have been part of the third Reich right now if they had not been defeated. Now I’m not going to deny I’m being partisan here, but consider this: the Netherlands were neutral in the first world war and our economy was less communistic before the occupation. If as you say “the Germans thought they were revising unjust territorial arrangements imposed by the victors of WW1, and later that they were saving the world from Communism”, what business did they have invading my country? Besides the occupation, what business did they have killing so many Jews? They didn’t care about the utility of the Dutch or of the Jews. Only their own utility mattered to them because they were the “master race”.

  29. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    23. September 2010 at 15:44

    TonyD, Here’s a general rule that’s always worked for me. When someone tells me something that goes against standard history, I don’t believe it without confirmation. Obviously if what you say is true then Truman would be 100 times more evil than Hitler. There were 10 people in your story, has anyone else confirmed it? It would be insane to do something with a 50-50 chance of destroying the world.

    I actually heard a similar story, but the version I heard was that there was a tiny chance of the Earth blowing up, not 50-50.

    woupiestek, Yes, elsewhere I’ve argued that the Nazi’s were about as far from utilitarian as it is possible to be.

  30. Gravatar of Liberal Roman Liberal Roman
    23. September 2010 at 16:04

    “World conquest was not a realistic possibility, and the Axis leaders knew it.”

    That’s completely wrong. Axis leaders might have known it. But Hitler had other ideas. Axis leaders told Hitler that attacking Russia would be a mistake and would be a drain economically (not a boom like Hitler thought). But that didn’t stop him from doing it.

    Here is the Wikipedia article on Hitler’s plan for world domination:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Order_%28Nazism%29

  31. Gravatar of David Tomlin David Tomlin
    23. September 2010 at 17:30

    woupiestek:

    If as you say “the Germans thought they were revising unjust territorial arrangements imposed by the victors of WW1, and later that they were saving the world from Communism”, what business did they have invading my country?

    I’ve wondered that myself. The occupation of the Netherlands wasn’t essential to the campaign against France. And you are correct that the Netherlands gained no territory from WW1, and in fact gave asylum to the Kaiser.

    Most likely they wanted Dutch territory for bases to use against the British. They may also have feared it being used against them, either because of the Dutch government abandoning neutrality after the fall of France, or the British occupying the Netherlands themselves.

  32. Gravatar of David Tomlin David Tomlin
    23. September 2010 at 17:50

    woupiestek:

    Only their own utility mattered to them because they were the “master race”.

    I doubt that. I think the Nazis found it easy to believe that the untermenschen would benefit greatly from being governed by their racial superiors. That is what most colonial peoples have believed, yours and mine not excepted. (I’m American.)

    After WW2, the Netherlands tried to re-impose their rule in Indonesia. This is one of the most obscure events in the history of the Twentieth Century. I only know about it because I read a memoir by a Dutchman who served in that war in his youth. His account reminded me of Vietnam. I don’t think I’ve seen this war mentioned in any general history of the post-WW2 era.

  33. Gravatar of mbk mbk
    23. September 2010 at 18:56

    Just some random details. Edward Teller was the father of the hydrogen bomb, not the atom bomb. Regarding the main figures surrounding the atom bomb, Oppenheimer comes to mind, and as a driver, maybe Slizard, who got Einstein to write the letter to the President.

    The story about world destruction as I heard it was about the risk of igniting combustion of atmospheric nitrogen (79% of the atmosphere) with oxygen (20%) and as far as I remember this applied to the hydrogen bombs that Teller helped create. Nitrogen forms oxides with oxygen in all sorts of regular chemical combustions, such as inside car engines, and the question was whether the extreme temperatures of a nuclear blast could make such a N-O combustion self sustaining and inflame the entire atmosphere. It was not a far fetched idea by any means but the computational risk seemed low to most physicists. In any event all bombs were detonated experimentally first, so the Earth risking decisions were already made at the point of testing.

    Dutch rule in Indonesia counts amongst the more unglamorous episodes in colonialism, if not quite reaching the heights of the monstrous savagery of the Belgians in the Congo.

    Speaking of colonialism and world domination, one could of course point out that in modern memory it was the British that aimed for and indeed reached kind of world domination, by territories owned. In a puzzling episode here in Singapore an elderly man once approached me and told me without provocation or prompting that he thought Hitler was a good thing, because he broke the back of the British Empire. Puzzling to me was that Hitler’s allies, the Japanese, murdered countless Singaporeans and still some seem to think WWII and its side effects was worth it because at least it rid them of the British in the long run. This goes to show how people can have all sorts of perceptions and as Westerner I would not always be too sure of how non Westerners see the glorious West.

    And finally for the record, I strongly disagree with the idea that the ends justify all and any means. The means are part of whatever “ends” there may be. If societies can only maintain their existence by violating the principles upon which they are built then something is seriously inconsistent in them. There may be some wiggle room as in all systems, there may be a place for Bill Bennett’s “constructive hypocrisy” (I suppose he is a good example himself) but there are limits to how far you can stretch it. The atom bombs, the firebombing of German cities, the carpet bombing of Vietnam, all clearly way cross the line. The Harris’s and LeMay’s who are responsible for this curiously seem to have seen this as well. LeMay acknowledged that had the US lost he himself would have been hung at some Nuremberg equivalent trial by the axis victors, had it happened. The victors tend to not see these hypocrisies, but the losers, or bystanders like myself, do.

  34. Gravatar of TonyD TonyD
    23. September 2010 at 19:12

    Scott,

    I’m mostly taking at face value the story from the architect of the H-bomb, the architect of Star Wars, Director of Lawrence-Livermore Labs, Medal of Freedom holder, Presidential Medal of Honor holder, recipient of the Albert Einstein Award, the Enrico Fermi Award, and the National Medal of Science.

    He was also a Hoover Institution fellow along with Milton Friedman — but far more famous in his field of Physics.

    I would add that there are many confirming facts to his story — just not in the official histories.

  35. Gravatar of Jaap Jaap
    24. September 2010 at 04:05

    @David re. Indonesia;
    this is indeed a black page from our history, many times handsomely forgotten.
    I have been reading a serious newspaper since I was 8?, 10?, and only when I was like 16, I read about this when I was about 16. it’s not because my family wasn’t involved. my maternal grandfather was sent there as military nurse with his whole family. it turned out to be a major trauma for my mother, especially once they came back to the Netherlands. no more servants (!!), no more large house, but one bedroom per family, with weekly showers, oh and the added shame for coming back from a non-heroic war (like Vietnam).
    the subject was just never touched at home…

  36. Gravatar of woupiestek woupiestek
    24. September 2010 at 05:18

    @ David:

    So you think the Nazis did have bad intentions, but that they themselves believed those to be good. I don’t want to debate that, but “revising unjust territorial arrangements and saving the world from communism” sound like good intentions to me. That is clearly a very small part of what the Nazis really wanted to do.

  37. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    24. September 2010 at 15:52

    mbk, You said;

    “In a puzzling episode here in Singapore an elderly man once approached me and told me without provocation or prompting that he thought Hitler was a good thing, because he broke the back of the British Empire.”

    I’ve noticed that people in non-western countries have a lot of peculiar views about a lot of things. Imagine the horror if Singapore had ended up a British colony, like Hong Kong.

    In fairness, Westerners also have a lot of peculiar views.

    Tony, Yes, I know that Teller was a great man, but he was also a very peculiar man. I still find mbk’s account more plausible. If you are right, and Teller supported the test, he’d have been much worse than Hitler. (And before people jump all over me, I said “if,” I don’t think Teller actually believed that.)

    I think we can all agree it would be obscene to do a test that had a 50-50 chance of destroying the world.

    Woupiestek, I agree. Anyone who thinks Hitler had good intentions in his own mind should read “Understanding Hitler.” He knew he was evil.

  38. Gravatar of WhiskeyJim WhiskeyJim
    24. September 2010 at 21:22

    Caplan’s question is hampered from the beginning. We ask ourselves those questions. The other side already does all of them all the time. Therein lies the moral question in the first place; should we let a deranged fifth century dictator with a death wish have the bomb?

    Germany and Japan knew they were the bad guys. Their words after the war proved it. Like Milgram proved, evil is banal and we do almost anything if authority asks us.

    The instance of Quebecois in New England furthers the western difference; many Americans would shoot the Quebecois themselves, and if they were hanging out with them, many Americans would say they had it coming if a drone caught them. In any event, The Americans and Canadians would work together to root them out. So the example only goes to show the huge difference between the West and East.

  39. Gravatar of David Tomlin David Tomlin
    25. September 2010 at 00:20

    WhiskeyJim:

    Germany and Japan knew they were the bad guys. Their words after the war proved it.

    Goering made a spirited defense at Nuremberg. He blamed Himmler for the camps.

  40. Gravatar of scott sumner scott sumner
    25. September 2010 at 06:08

    WhiskeyJim, Yes, I also find that our press is very critical of US human rights violations, so I wasn’t sure I agreed with the premise of Bryan’s argument.

    David, I presume if he “blamed Himmler” he understood they were wrong.

  41. Gravatar of Bentham is turning in his grave « Andy Hallman's Blog Bentham is turning in his grave « Andy Hallman's Blog
    29. September 2010 at 16:12

    [...] in Massachusetts. In a response to Bryan Caplan’s post about double standards in war, Sumner wrote: Scott Sumner: Suppose that in 1943 we knew for a fact that dropping a bomb on Germany and Japan, [...]

  42. Gravatar of Mark B Mark B
    2. October 2010 at 07:17

    I’m always a little confused by illustrative contrafactual situations which are not, in point of fact, contrafactual. The US _did_ kill many thousands of civilians in both Europe and the Pacific, and they probably believed that doing so would hasten the end of the war, thus saving more lives in the long run. We can have the very debate you want to have about utilitarianism and double standards using the actual events.

    @TonyD It sounds possible to me that you are misremembering some details of this conversation with Teller, or that different issues were conflated in the telling of that story. By the time of the drop on Hiroshima there was nowhere near a 50% split on the probability of the bomb igniting the atmosphere, because _we had already tested it_. And even before the Trinity test on June 6, 1945, the split wasn’t near 50%.

    There may well have been a 50% split, however, on the question of the morality of dropping on a primarily civilian target in a country which was, in Oppenheimer’s words already “essentially defeated”(in the Bird and Sherwin biography). There was indeed a campaign among the scientists to prevent the use on Hiroshima, they proposed instead a demonstration on an uninhabited island. (The June 2010 issue of Physics Today has an article on the campaign) I don’t know where Teller stood on that question in 1945, but I suppose it is possible he was involved in presenting sides on the question to Truman — though I think it is unlikely, as even before the end of the war, he was primarily focused on the hydrogen bomb. Maybe he was involved in a later controversy about the use of the H-bomb?

  43. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. October 2010 at 08:36

    Mark B, You said;

    “I’m always a little confused by illustrative contrafactual situations which are not, in point of fact, contrafactual. The US _did_ kill many thousands of civilians in both Europe and the Pacific, and they probably believed that doing so would hasten the end of the war, thus saving more lives in the long run. We can have the very debate you want to have about utilitarianism and double standards using the actual events.”

    No I can’t make the same argument, because although I would have favored the hypothetical in my post, I oppose the actual firebombing of German and Japanese cities. Too many dead for too little strategic gain. I wanted to pick a hypothetical with equal numbers of dead, and a certain end to WII, to make the contrast with 9/11 stand out more sharply.

    I completely agree with the rest of your post, and also thought Tony’s story sounded implausible.

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