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The Humanitarian War Fallacy

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Tags War and Foreign PolicyWorld HistoryOther Schools of ThoughtPhilosophy and Methodology

03/02/2010Predrag Rajsic

Many of today's social theorists are utilitarians. Broadly speaking, a utilitarian is someone who believes justice can be arrived at through a cost-benefit analysis. For example, a utilitarian economist would tell you that, before considering a new law, one needs to determine the "social" costs and benefits of such a law. If these benefits exceed the costs, then the law is justified. Some talk about the social costs and benefits of legalizing drug sale or prostitution and conclude that if the benefits outweigh the costs, these laws should be implemented.

Ronald Coase, probably one of the most misunderstood utilitarian economists, has often been criticized for what he did not say (i.e., the so-called Coase Theorem) but rarely criticized for what he did say — that individual rights depend on the potential of those rights to create aggregate wealth. The following article is a critique of the Coasean approach to the theory of rights.

Coase, in his essay "The Problem of Social Cost," argued that, in cases where markets fail to do so, the government should allocate property rights in a way that maximizes national income. His main argument was that the existence of transaction costs would preclude efficient allocation of property rights through market transactions. Thus, this would be a job for the government.

In essence, Coase is proposing a theory of justice in which individual rights depend on the circumstances. If a government bureaucrat finds that taking away Jim's rights and giving them to Janice would bring about an increase in the national income, then this reallocation of rights is just, regardless of whether Jim and Janice agree with it.

Some economists took a more abstract approach and talked about maximizing social welfare or utility. In this framework, utility — total satisfaction by material objects, experiences, and other states of affairs within a society — is treated as a quantity that can be increased or reduced by a public policy. A policy that leads to an improvement in total social welfare is, within this framework, justified.

This approach to the theory of rights had a strong effect in economics and is starting to spill over into other areas of human activity. One of those activities is warfare.

Utilitarianism and the Politics of "Humanitarian" War

The idea of "benevolent" or "disinterested" militarism is not new. However, I will start with one of the more recent "benevolent" military endeavors. On March 24, 1999, the members of the governments of 19 NATO countries decided that in order to prevent a "humanitarian catastrophe" in Kosovo, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia should be bombed.

This war, named "Merciful Angel," has been used as an example of a successful "humanitarian" war by its proponents. Even though the initiators of wars have often justified them by appealing to the well-being of some collection of individuals (usually a nation or an ethnic group), this was the first explicit reference to humanitarianism as a sole justification for a war.

More recently, similar arguments have been used by the proponents of keeping Western troops in Iraq and Afghanistan under the banner of "nation building."

Again, in these cases, the decision on whether to withdraw or stay depends on a long-term cost-benefit analysis not only for the countries that have troops there but also, allegedly, for the inhabitants of the "host" country and the whole "international community." Many of those who support or oppose these wars differ only in their accounting methods of aggregate costs and benefits.

Typing the phrases "cost benefit analysis" and "war in Iraq" into Google finds about 15,000 hits (for these exact two phrases together). The results include scholarly articles, blogs of law experts, TV-news websites, newspaper articles, speeches of politicians and so on. These results are a rough indication of the size and scope of the utilitarian quest for the correct estimate of costs and benefits of this war. The estimates attempt to include not only the monetary expense but also "human suffering," "national security," "freedom," etc.

Another recent military operation where similar arguments were used was the 2008 bombing of the Gaza strip. It has been described by its promoters as an attempt to prevent the future suffering of Israeli civilians while keeping the Palestinian civilian suffering at a minimum. The underlying premise was that any civilian casualties of the war can be justified by claiming that they were a necessary step in preventing far-greater future civilian casualties.

These cost-benefit justifications of humanitarian wars can be summed up in the words of Frida Ghitis, a political analyst and a regular columnist for the Miami Herald and World Politics Review. Ms. Ghitis wrote to me that "war is sometimes justified to stop even worse atrocities. That's the humanitarian rationale."1

Thus, it is recognized that the humanitarian war, just as any other war, implies some costs in the form of suffering or death of innocent victims. But this suffering or death is justified if it is a necessary collective sacrifice for a greater benefit, regardless of whether the victims involved agree to being sacrificed. This is clearly a utilitarian argument where an action is just if the aggregate benefits resulting from the action exceed aggregate costs. The purpose of this article is to show why this utilitarian argument, when taken to its logical conclusions, lacks credibility.

Calculating Atrocities

The idea of a utilitarian humanitarian war implies an accounting exercise where costs are compared with benefits. Using the terms suggested by the proponents of such wars, costs are the atrocities committed as a direct consequence of a humanitarian war, while the benefits are the atrocities prevented by the war. There are two problems with this interpretation: first, how are atrocities to be measured; and second, how are we going to count the atrocities that never happened?

Something is not an atrocity just because there is a lot of the red liquid called blood around, but because a human being experiences certain emotions faced with this scene and the events preceding it. The extent to which something is an atrocity is determined by an individual's internal experience, not just the physical properties of the event.

Thus, when it comes to the measurement of atrocities, every case of human suffering is different and any objective comparison is meaningless. For example, what is a greater atrocity: a child losing its parents to a bomb on an airplane, or a man losing his eyesight to a cluster bomb's shrapnel, or a father losing his 3-year-old daughter under the rubble of their family home? Who is to evaluate the "amount" of atrocities committed?

Utility, the importance that different individuals put on different aspects of physical reality and their own lives and well-beings, is subjective. Thus, there is no objective unit of measurement for utility. We cannot compare evaluations of the physical reality made by two different individuals; we cannot add them or multiply them in any objective manner that could be equally understood by everyone.

Therefore, one cannot arrive at an objective, aggregate measure of atrocities caused by a war.

However, even if we adopted the silly idea that the justness of a war could be derived from a count of dead bodies and lost arms, legs, eyes, etc., there is another problem — we will never know what a war prevented. We can only speculate as to what would have happened if the humanitarian war never occurred.

Accepting calculations of justice based on speculations of the future would give people the right to use violence against anyone whom they suspect will commit a crime.

Even if one accepts ethical judgments based on speculation and "objective" measures of suffering, University of Chicago Law School professor Eric A. Posner doubts that any of the recent humanitarian interventions, including the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, would be justified. He argues that the costs of the recent humanitarian interventions far outweigh his estimate of the potential benefits.


Those who want to wage "humanitarian" wars need to first persuade us that they know the future. Then they need to persuade us that they know the objective value of individual humans' sufferings and deaths. Finally, they need to persuade us that some people's lives are less valuable than others.

[Originally published March 2, 2010.]

  • 1. Frida Ghitis, email message to author, May 28, 2007.

Contact Predrag Rajsic

Predrag Rajsic is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Food, Agricultural, and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. See his blog.

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