Some Thought Experiments Involving Assassination
by JASON BRENNAN

1. Suppose an evil demon appears before you and says, “I plan to kill hundreds of thousands of foreign civilians and destroy their country’s architecture unless you kill this one innocent person.” Under these extreme circumstances, might it be permissible for you to kill that innocent person?

2. Suppose an evil demon appears before you and says, “I plan to kill hundreds of thousands of foreign civilians and destroy their country’s architecture unless you kill this Mafia don, a criminal who has himself killed many people and who plans to kill many more.” Under these extreme circumstances, might it be permissible for you to kill that Mafia don?

3. Suppose an evil demon appears before you and says, “I plan to kill hundreds of thousands of foreign civilians and destroy their country’s architecture unless you kill the president.” Under these extreme circumstances, might it be permissible for you to kill the president?

4. Suppose the evil demon possesses the president. The evil demon, in the guise of the president, plans to invade a foreign country. Suppose you know that the invasion is unjust–it clearly violates the correct theory of just war. Suppose you also know that the war will kill hundreds of thousands of foreign civilians and destroy their country’s infrastructure. Suppose killing the demon-possessed president will stop, or at least has a good chance of stopping, the invasion. Under these extreme circumstances, might it be permissible for you to kill the president?

5. Suppose there is no evil demon. However, suppose the president, though not possessed by an evil demon, acts just like the possessed president in 4. The president appears before you and says, “I plan to invade a foreign country.” Suppose you know that the invasion is unjust–it clearly violates the correct theory of just war. Suppose you also know that the war will kill hundreds of thousands of foreign civilians and destroy their country’s infrastructure. Suppose killing the president will stop, or at least has a good chance of stopping, the invasion. Under these extreme circumstances, might it be permissible for you to kill the president?

Jason,

1) Humans war. They always have and always will. It is impossible to resolve all conflicts by peaceful means.

2) The demon and the president are participants in a war.

3) As participants in the war they are outside daily civil legal and moral prohibitions we have constructed for peaceful interactions: our prohibition on violence does not apply. War revokes the prohibition on non violence. That is the purpose and point of demarcation of ‘war’.

4) Moral rules are general rules. They are a shortcut that allows us to propagate contractual terms which help us reduce our error in calculating property transfers when they are beyond our perception and knowledge. Moral rules are not abstract truths. The confusion is created by the priority one gives to the genetic structural categories of family, tribe, and nation, versus the egalitarian structure limited to the categories of the individual and humanity. Much religious content seeks to extend the familial category to the universal as a means of creating an opposition to the state. And approaching questions of property as questions of morality is an artifact of applying religious techniques that seek to simplify complexity into emotionally accessible social rules, to what are practical contractual constructs the articulation of which is too complicated for general use.

5) There is is no longer a genetic composition to war – the need to fight other tribes for genes to persist – which necessitates one’s participation in tribal war. Wars are now, and have been for a long time, conducted for economic interests, even if those economic interests apply only to the costly norms, status signals, property rights portfolios, and political systems that vary between groups. Therefore the individual is free to choose sides.

6) As free to choose sides, one may calculate his interests and those interests of those with whom he shares interests, and determine if he is benefitting or harming those with whom he shares interests. And if it is in his interest and the interest of those with whom he shares interest, then he may act to kill the demon/president/minister/general or not at his will.

Propertarianism is correct: all human ethical and political statements can be reduced to property rights, and done so without contrivance. That is because all morals and all human moral feelings, are expressons of property rights when property rights are articulated such that they fully encompass the entirety of those things which humans treat as property.

It is hard to do this topic justice in short form. But hopefully this is enough of a sketch to illustrate the problems of both moral parlor games, and treating war as other than a utilitarian construct.

So the thought experiment misleads the reader with false premises.
a) Argued on abstract and loaded absolute moral grounds, not articulated contractual grounds, in order to mislead the reader.
b) Moral statements are general contractual rules for peaceful mutual exchange.
c) And war by definition is outside of that contractual environment.
d) ‘Just War’ is not an abstract moral truth but a contratual proposition between parties who seek to limit their own costs (See Kagan).

So, the thought device is dependent upon the error of the common parlor game, in which one which poses false dichotomies in order to confuse the participants into thinking (like the train-lever parable) that morals are absolute rules foiled by specific extremes, rather than that morals are general statements of property rights loaded with emotional content so that they propagate more easily.

The error here is confusing a statement of abstract and absolute truth, with one of utilitarian contract. The first is the meme. The second is a fact.

Sometimes we must take risks. Otherwise, we risk also confusing convenience with conviction.

 

One Response to A Critique Of Jason Brennan’s Thought Experiment: Just War Is A Utilitarian And Contractual, Not Absolute Moral Concept

  1. Hey Curt,

    With respect to the everlasting nature of warfare, I wonder what you think of Steven Pinker’s thesis. Perhaps you’re right, and war will never cease (I’m inclined to think you are). If so, is there any chance that the number of deaths per armed conflict will continue to decline decade by decade. My understanding is that it is currently at about 2,000 deaths per armed conflict. Could it drop to about 1,000 in the foreseeable future, and then 500, and then 300, and so on?

    That is, is it possible that a trend toward significantly less carnage could continue into the significant future?

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