Philosophy, drone strikes, and conditional arguments

by Chris Bertram on August 8, 2012

There’s “an article over at Al Jazeera”: by historian Mark LeVine about Bradley Strawser, the philosopher who has been making a stir with his arguments that drone warfare might be morally permissible, or even obligatory. There’s quite a lot in what LeVine says that’s going to grate with philosophers. I reacted to

bq. “Most philosophers today accept the argument by the seminal inter-war philosopher Walter Benjamin that violence cannot be understood or judged except “in its relation to law and justice”.

Really? Has he done a survey? And what he says about Kant, well …

But what LeVine observes about Strawser’s conditional arguments is surely disturbing. Strawser claims that IF drones reduce civilian casualties compared to other means THEN the use of drones is justified (I’m simplifying). Philosophers will typically then say that the argument is merely conditional, and that therefore, if the antecedent is false then the conclusion doesn’t follow. Clearly that’s right. But does it get us off the hook in a world of propaganda, mass media, think tanks and the like? In the paper Levine links to, the principal evidence for the truth of the antecedent is a brochure from an Israeli arms manufacturer. And then there’s the matter of counting civilian casualties accurately, in a world in which the Obama adminstration has simply decreed that the dead males killed by drones are “bad guys”. Of course this kind problem, involving the escape of the argument from the seminar room into the wider world, isn’t limited to just war theory. So, for example, I’ve heard it argued by philosophers that IF sweatshops improve opportunities for poor people in poor countries THEN they are on-balance justified: so people shouldn’t campaign against sweatshop labour. This then gets supplemented with “evidence” that the antecedent is true, but by this time the casual listener has been inclined by the rhetoric to accept the conclusion. (That’s particularly likely if the listener, be they naval academy cadet or visitor to libertarian website is already ideologically predisposed to believe that the antecedent is true.) But where’s the evidence from? From Cato? From the AEI? From some “free-market” economist? As philosophers we claim innocence. “I wasn’t saying that drone strikes (or sweatshops) are justified, I was merely saying that IF they meet condition X, THEN they’re justified. My job is to assess the arguments, someone else can supply the facts.” That leaves me feeling uneasy.

ADDENDUM: it would be an interesting psychological experiment (which, for all I know someone has done) to test whether people who are exposed to conditional arguments in the total absence of evidence for the truth of the antecedent become more inclined to believe the consequent, perhaps especially for cases where the antecedent is some morally dubious policy. So, for example, are people exposed to the conditional “IF increased inequality ends up making the poorest better off THEN increased inequality is justified” more likely to believe that increased inequality is justified, even when no evidence that increased inequality benefits the poorest is presented?

I was planning this as a followup to my earlier post on the feasibility of guaranteed minimum income (GMI) and universal basic income (UBI) policies[1]. Chris has opened debate on some of the fundamental issues associated with a Rawlsian transition, so there might be some benefits in a parallel discussion of the specifics of these policies, which seem to me to capture a fair bit of what Rawls had in mind.

Although the two kinds of policies can be made roughly equivalent in terms of their effects on the distribution of income net of taxes and transfers, they seem (to me, at any rate) to indicate quite different political approaches, and therefore different transition paths, each with their own difficulties.

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