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.