Kuehn the Warmonger


[N.B.: (i) the topic title is meant in jest; (ii) I realize I just entered into a hornet's nest, but I welcome dissenting opinion.]

Brian Doherty, at Reason’s Hit and Run blog, catches Daniel Kuehn criticizing the analogies between Sandy Hook and U.S. drone attacks. Doherty’s initial criticism may not directly address Kuehn’s point, but the critique is sophisticated. I more-or-less agree with it, although I sympathize with Daniel, as well. One of the main factors is that I oppose the war in Afghanistan, and more generally think that much of U.S. foreign policy towards terrorism is misguided — it stopped being a defensive war when Bush targeted the Taliban, and Afghanistan as a whole.

But, these kinds of statements by Doherty miss the mark,

Indeed, the very reason why those opposed to U.S. drone strikes might feel it necessary to make that analogy that horrified Kuehn (and as I noted would undoubtedly horrify most Americans, if they’d heard it) is the very reason that it horrifies him: that people opposed to drone strikes find it very difficult to get their fellow Americans to understand that there might be something horrific and evil about a policy that murders children with bombs from the air, and that a moment where they are mourning and hating a crime involving someone murdering well over a dozen children with guns might be a moment they are open to understanding this; perhaps more so when they consider that unlike the one-time horror of Sandy Hook, with a dead perpetrator, this policy and practice is ongoing and may well result in more dead children.

The intention and purpose behind drone strikes isn’t to kill children. Dead children represent collateral damage. I’m not claiming that this collateral damage is necessary, or that certain drone attacks should have occurred, but I can think of a hypothetical situation where Doherty’s position wouldn’t be so clear.

Suppose that we live a stateless society, and that part of a small communal defense force we have a number of heavy weapons, be them drones, artillery pieces, et cetera. One day, we’re attacked and we repel the attack and take it to the rival territory as a means of eliminating their capacity to strike again. However, when we use our artillery and drones, there is unfortunate collateral damage, including children. But, in a war, it’d be difficult to avoid collateral damage — indeed, not just civilians on rival territory, but those in yours who are caught in the battling. As unfortunate as the collateral damage may be, it’d be difficult to argue that it shouldn’t have happened: that would essentially mean not being able to defend ourselves.

Of course, we can decrease the probability and extent of collateral damage. We do this by developing weapons with better precision: drones are an example.

The “morality” of collateral damage depends on the legitimacy of the war being fought. I don’t consider the war in Afghanistan (and Iraq) legitimate, but others do. You can’t persuade these people that drone attacks are bad on the basis that children are dying, because: (a) it’s a legitimate war, and collateral damage is an unfortunate consequence of war; (b) we have developed weapons to lower the probability of collateral damage. You have to persuade them on why these attacks are unjustified to begin with; i.e., why the attacks are unjustified given their intentions.

P.S. While there are some sophisticated arguments out there, and those are by no means included in the following caricature, I can’t help but feel that some of the cases against drones resemble the liberal case for gun control.

  • Daniel Kuehn

    Great post – I think this is exactly right.

    This really shouldn’t be all that hard or controversial I should hope. If one finds oneself thinking that the task at hand is to convince the other person that the dead innocent children outcome is a bad thing, then red flags really ought to go up. It is the very rare sociopath that doesn’t agree on that.

    Clearly the issue is deeper and that there is a question of trading off competing bads.

    Maybe we economists are just more inclined to think in terms of constrained choice, I don’t know.

  • Stadius

    You do know that warmongerer isn’t a word? It should be simply warmonger. I can see how you arrived at the former though, via a backformation of warmongering.

    • Daniel Kuehn

      Extra “er” for emphasis, I think :)

    • http://economicthought.net/blog JCatalan

      Thanks, I actually didn’t know that. I had to look it up on Google.

  • Roman P.

    Maybe the honest answer should be that the kids of WASPs *are* more valuable than the children of arabs? Don’t take it as an insult… I understand that few would want to admit such an ‘unspeakable’ thing.
    Yet, it is better to acknowledge one’s desires and make peace with oneself. Even if you are pretty empathetic, it’s ok to only spend it on those you could relate with. Dehumanizing outsiders is nothing new, anyway.

    • http://economicthought.net/blog JCatalan

      It may be someone’s honest answer, but it isn’t mine. Although, it’s true that it’s normal to dehumanize in order to better cope with subjective judgements. But, the dehumanization can be a result, and not the cause. For example, I’d have trouble deciding the morality of an action which resulted in the death of white San Diegan children if the action was an artillery shell intentioned for invading forces. That the real world examples are Arab children isn’t the deciding factor in the above analysis.

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