Monday, March 21, 2011

Making Ethical Decisions: Libya as Test Case

I hope to lay out sometime this week the basic process of formulating an ethical decision.  The general contours of such decisions, it seems to me, involves something like the following:

1. We get a sense of the general moral principles involved and their relative places in the hierarchy of values.  For Christians, love of God and neighbor stand at the top of the list.

2. We get a sense of the potential consequences of various courses of actions.  These play into the way we prioritize our values.

3. We check our motivations.

4. We decide on a course of action in the interplay of these elements.
So using the current Allied action in Libya, here are some thoughts.

1. The love principle makes us want to help those who are being oppressed.  The love principle recognizes Gaddafi himself as an unambiguous force for evil in his country and, at least previously, in the world.

Another set of principles have to do with the sovereignty of nations.  In this instance, Gaddafi does not seem to have the consent of the governed, he is in the act of squashing his people, and there is broad international support to act to protect his people.

Some Christians of course do not believe that war can ever be justified.  Most Christians, however, believe that war is sometimes a necessary evil or sometimes can be justified as "just."

2. It is usually impossible to foresee consequences with clarity, but here are some thoughts.  Sometimes when you cast a demon out, 7 more that are worse can come in.  Also, what if we help the revolution and Gaddafi still wins?  He would then be worse than ever.

The tricky consequences of invading a sovereign nation to dethrone a ruler have become fairly clear, again, after invading Iraq (not that they weren't clear before the invasion of Iraq).  Economically, they are a major factor in our current debt crisis.  Humanly, the war resulted in thousands of American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives.

One potential consequence is the continued movement, just maybe, toward democracy in the Middle East.  It is not clear, again, that Libya would necessarily move in that direction, but certainly helping out the revolution might result in a replacement government that was more friendly with the West than Gaddafi.  Gaddafi's sons are looking to be another 50 years of the same.

There are also potentially bad unintended consequences.  Can nations maintain these sorts of ethical standards once war has started?  Can ethical caution be maintained uniformly from the highest levels down to the level of the individual soldier?  I think history would teach us that all out war always involves atrocity on all sides.

Is there some future tyrant among the mercenaries of Gaddafi's army?  Is there someone like bin Laden who fought with Afghanistan against the Russians?

3. False motivations could easily become involved.  Since I've recently driven to Florida, that $3.50 a gallon price tag has me wanting to stabilize Libya's oil.  Gaddafi is of course accusing the West of wanting his oil.

4. The current action, in my mind, seems justified.  The main goal is to ground Gaddafi's air forces and stop the oppression of his people.  Since we are not committing ground troops, it is possible that there will be no loss of life to Allied troops.  Since we are mainly bombing air bases, the loss of life on their side will not be great either.  The justification is to prevent atrocity on Gaddafi's part.  Stabilizing oil, making friends are nice consequences, but they are not the primary motivation.

Because we are not invading, the rebels continue to be fighting for their own freedom rather than us fighting for them.  Meanwhile, Gaddafi's soldiers tend not to be Libyans anyway, so we are not promoting one side in a civil war but discouraging a mercenary army.  And we have broad international support.  Indeed, the US did not lead this charge in the UN.

I think the current action can be justified in the light of the moral calculus above.  Limited engagement, mostly to destroy equipment, with the goal of ending atrocity and enabling the removal of an evil dictator, with the support of the people and, as far as we can foresee, strongly beneficial consequences.

We'll see...


JohnM said...

Gotta go now. I couldn't resist just a few thoughts:

I'm no pacifist, but I know war means breaking things and killing people. The people you kill are also human beings made in God's image, no matter how bad they may be. Again, not a pacifist, but in which direction should our bias lie?

Your neighbors include your fellow Americans also. What impact will this have on them?

What is worse about Gaddafi than all the other muderous dictators we haven't attacked?

In a real sense who's the "we" here? Do decisions made by the government and consequent actions taken by other individuals equate to me loving my neighbor? Maybe in a democracy kinda sorta, but pretty distant.

Like I said gotta go. I'm against. Maybe more later, we'll see.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Pretty good illustration about how our decisions are not clear-cut "Love you neighbor", but priorities of value to us personally, organizationally, and/ or nationally.

Fortunately, in our country, while we might pay a price at the pump because of the problems in the Middle East and we are dependent on the decisions of those in power to determine how or whether these "inconvienences" will be alleviated, we still have choices about our personal life and its values, for the most part. That is, if we haven't committed to the military or other organization that would be mandating our live's "incidentals" or speicifics.

Whenever we make commitments that would bind us, then we must be aware of what the possibilities/costs might be before we commit. This is why most "contracts", other than military service have what is expected "spelled out" in the contract.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

This also means that the "moral ought", or the "duty" of people living in a free society, will not be "formed" completely, by outside "ideals", but inside determinations. And these "inside determinations" are also prioritized goals/purposes in attaining these "ideals" of the individual within his own life.

People disagree about foreign policy and what that might mean for our nation. The individuals within our nation might not agree with thier own chosen political party in certain speicific instances. And thse disagreements might be reasons for resignations, or "letting go" of policy/staff in the President's cabinet.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

If the first "moral obligation" is for nation-state sovereignty, then how does one support the United Nations?

Isn't this the question about who determines our nation's obligations and purposes?

Some think that humanitarian needs are "ultimate concerns" of value, for promoting the "love ethic", while others believe that situations must be considered as to costs overall, when we attempt to do "the good". Most often humanitarian aid is usurped by those in power, etc.

I just don't think that "Christian ideals" are competitive ideas when it comes to real world poltiical solutions!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Consent of the governed means that government must also be balanced as to its power over people.

In the instance of so many of our foreign "engagements", they are not Constitutionally defensable. Our engagement should be for protecting our national security and interests, and when our nation declares "war" then we must also allow Congressional engagement, so "the people's" elected officials can have a "voice".....

Anonymous said...

We should stay out of their business. if they kill one another, let them.

Ken Schenck said...

Interesting, I thought I would get a reversed reaction. I thought those who didn't like my immigration post would like this one and those who liked it would not like this one. I don't take positions by party lines, but are there party lines on this issue? I heard one radio commentator briefly criticize Obama for not bombing sooner.

What are you all hearing? I've heard two interesting reactions in this comment, neither of which make sense to me: 1) we should stay out of foreign affairs, except when it is in our direct national interest and 2) they're Muslims, let them kill each other. Are you all hearing these somewhere?

::athada:: said...

If I take the libertarian economists at their word, we always act in our self interest, even collectively in foreign affairs. If that's the case, can't we assume there are a whole host of ulterior motives & selfishness that will prevent us from using this military action as an effective means of loving our neighbors? Given the sparse history of using military force effectively as a means of "love," I'm inherently skeptical.

Their premise (correct me if I'm wrong) is that following our own self-interest almost always results in a positive social outcome for more than just us. However, this may be one of those exceptions. It's in our self interest at the gas pump to have dictators looking over the oil fields. Christians here must part ways, I believe.

Ken Schenck said...

These are my biggest questions. How limited is this going to be? My sense, rightly or wrongly, is that we are so economically and militarily gun shy right now that a peace mission is surely the only real plausible basis for doing it. It must have passed the utilitarian calculus or they wouldn't have done it.

Anonymous said...

well if you were referring in part to my comment, i didn't say antyhing about them being muslim. we have enough going on without getting involved in another war. I don't care if they are muslim, buddhist, so called christian or nothing, if they wanna fight and kill each other, let them. we should keep out

JohnM said...

This is another case where I'd say let's use words that are to the point, i.e. war rather than foreign affairs. Even when war is justified, like it sometimes is, better to face up to what we're calling for and and not talk around it.

National interest is another problematic phrase. National interest can mean all kinds of things besides our security, which is what we supposedly are talking about here. Of course avariciousness has given national interest a bad name. Maybe part of the reason "except when it is in our direct national interest" doesn't make sense to you?