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A Clash about Morality in Wartime

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Tags Philosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory


Two of the leading British moral philosophers in the years after the end of World War II clashed about America’s dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their clash has much to teach us about the principles that should govern a free society. The two thinkers are R.M. Hare and Elizabeth Anscombe. I’ll start with Hare because his way of looking at moral decisions is one many people will find reasonable, even if they don’t agree with his conclusions in this particular case. But it is Anscombe’s position that will teach us the most.

In an article, “Was Hiroshima Necessary?,” that was published in the New York Review of Books in May 1971, Hare strongly suggests that the answer is yes. But what I want to concentrate on first is not his argument that it was, but the way he arrives at his conclusion. He says that when you are faced with a decision, you should draw up a list of the good and bad consequences of the courses of action open to you and then pick the one that is best.

He thinks that this is how President Truman, who ordered the bombs dropped, reasoned. If Truman was correct in his assessment of the consequences, he was justified in what he did, and otherwise not.

If he is to be condemned, it will have to be because he did not do the best he could in the circumstances and did not take sufficient trouble to inform himself about the circumstances in order to determine what was the best thing to do. If this indictment is to be sustained, its second clause is crucial. Truman was, or would have been, very much to blame if there were other possible courses of action besides the bombing (both “conventional” and atomic) that would have ended the war at less cost in lives and suffering, and if he could have discovered and adopted them, but did not.

Hare mentions another way of looking at the question, and here his target is Elizabeth Anscombe, although he does not mention her by name.  By the way, Hare and Anscombe disliked each other intensely, and Hare also despised her friend and fellow philosopher Philippa Foot, who supported her view.

According to Anscombe, you do, as Hare says, when making a decision weigh the good and bad consequences of the various courses of action open to you. But the fallacy Hare makes is to assume that any course of action that you are physically able to do should be included on your list of consequences. She denies this. She thinks that there are some courses of action that are absolutely forbidden. These don’t go on your list at all. Among them is the direct killing of the innocent.

Hare responds to her position in this way:

There are those who would say that…the dropping of the bomb was in itself a moral crime which could not be justified by any good consequences, even the saving of more lives (enemy and Allied alike) than it destroyed. People who discuss the morality of actions will perhaps always be divided into two classes: those who think that one should do the best one can in an evil world, and those who think it more important to keep oneself unspotted, by observing, “whatever the consequences,” certain simple moral principles which are not allowed to be over about twelve words long.

Anscombe thought that even on its own terms, Hare’s way of assessing the consequences of dropping the bombs was wrong. Why are the only alternatives under consideration dropping the bombs and a full-scale invasion of the Japanese mainland? What about a peaceful settlement? As she says,

I do not dispute it. Given the conditions, that [an invasion costly in lives] was probably averted by that action. But what were the conditions? “The unlimited objective.” Given certain conditions, drastic measures appear needed; but should this very fact not make us take a close look at the supposed necessities of the present state of things? If we do not, but instead insist that extreme circumstances demand extreme responses, we are in danger of adopting the maxim that “every fool can be as much of a knave as suits him.”

But what I’d like to stress here is something more general, how her position resembles Murray Rothbard’s defense of rights. For Rothbard, rights are barriers that forbid you from doing certain things. More specifically, his nonaggression principle forbids you from initiating force. You can only use force in defense against a rights violation. You don’t weigh the good and bad consequences of initiating force; you just don’t do it. The similarity to Anscombe’s view is unmistakable.

One bad consequence of Hare’s position is that holders of it often support violent action by the state. Hare not only defends dropping the bombs but he also thinks that holding government power tends to make people better. He says, “power, though it may corrupt, does also, often, bring with it a sense of that responsibility from which it is inseparable.”

I somehow doubt Murray Rothbard would agree. Hare and his ilk not only don’t hate the state, they adore it and its minions.


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

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