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Utilitarianism: The War On Iraq

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 5587 words Published: 18th May 2017

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Utilitarianism is the concept that the moral worth of an action is determined exclusively by its contribution to overall utility, that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all people. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral significance of an action is concluded by its outcome. Often described as “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” [1] , the topic can be classified as a quantitative and reductionist approach to ethics. With advocates such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, it is a subject that is perhaps one of the most famous within ethics, Mill’s book ‘Utilitarianism’ exemplifies this, as most scholars educated in the subject will be familiar with the work. In relation to the current war in Iraq, the subject is as relevant as ever.

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However, as with most ethical theories there are differing branches. The main debate within utilitarianism is the act vs. rule question. Act utilitarianism states that, when faced with a choice, we must first think about the likely consequences of potential actions and, from that, choose to do what we believe will result in most gratification. Rule utilitarianism, on the other hand, begins by looking at potential rules of action. To decide whether a rule should be followed, you must look at what would happen if it were constantly followed. If adherence to the rule produces more happiness than otherwise, it is a rule that morally should be adhered to at all times. Some argue that rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism, because for any given rule, in the case where breaking the rule produces more utility, the rule can be sophisticated by the addition of a sub-rule that handles cases like the exception. [2] 

For the purpose of this essay, we will mainly consider act utilitarianism in relation to the Iraq war. Obviously there are massive questions surrounding the ethical reasoning behind the invasion in Iraq, particularly on the part of the United States, but also in the UK where it is one of the big issues in current news and has been since it all began in 2003. The actual reason for the invasion of Iraq is often queried and there has never been an answer given that can be 100% proven. For example, the main reason given by Bush’s government in 2003 was the now infamous ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’. Although advised that only some degraded remnants of misplaced or abandoned chemical weapons from before 1991 were found, they were not the weapons which had been the pretext for the invasion [3] , yet it continued regardless. Some US officials also accused Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein of supporting al-Qaeda [4] , and other reasons were given such as spreading democracy in the country [5] , Iraqi government human rights abuse and Iraq’s financial support for the families of Palestinian suicide bombers [6] . The sceptics amongst us will also point towards the oil factor in the war and many believe the sole reason for invading was fuelled by fuel itself. Even America’s elder statesman of finance, Alan Greenspan, said “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” [7] 

Before utilitarianism and Iraq is examined more closely, the first factor to be considered in any ethical dispute about battle should be the Just War Theory. This concerns itself directly with the ethical debate preceding any conflict, and the actions of combatants concerning ethical execution of warfare. These two distinctions are called “Jus ad bellum”, i.e. the morality of going to war, and “Jus in bello”, meaning the morality of action within a war. Both have specific criteria to be addressed and identified before war may be decided ethical. Going to war is just, according to this theory, when there exists a “just and proportionate cause,” meaning the cause is right, and the seriousness of the issue merits the grave decision to fight. Secondly, “right intention, earning a fuller peace will be achieved after war than is possible in the absence of war, and right authority, asserting only those with “authority” can declare war, must both be fulfilled as well”. Lastly, there must be a “reasonable chance of success”, and “war must be the absolute last option”. [8] Looking at this list, you could argue that before the invasion even took place we were dealing with a wholly unethical concept. As people can’t decide on one definite reason as to why the war in Iraq actually began, it is difficult to argue that there is a ‘just and reasonable cause’. Moreover the fact that many believe the war is simply for oil again poses problems for those who would say the right intentions are behind the war, and the fact that Iraq is such a volatile state anyway indicated that the chances of peace after the war are slim. In February 2003, the U.S. Army’s top general, Eric Shinseki, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it would take “several hundred thousand soldiers” to secure Iraq [9] , perhaps indicating that there wasn’t a ‘reasonable chance of success’ either. Also in 2003 French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin stated “we believe that military intervention would be the worst solution” [10] , in direct contrast to the idea that war should be the ‘absolute last’ option. All of these would suggest that before utilitarianism has been considered, the war in Iraq is unethical anyway, as if there is such a concept, it is not a ‘just’ war. Many people might question whether any war can be a ‘just war’ but World War II is one of the few wars that nearly everyone believes was morally justified. Nazi Germany and Japan were dangerous regimes that committed atrocities against conquered peoples, and many nations felt that they needed to be stopped. For these reasons, some refer to World War II as “the good war.” In contrast, the social and political turmoil caused by the Vietnam War was based, in part, on debate over whether that war was justified. [11] 

Following on from this, there are also many legal questions surrounding the war in Iraq. With regard to utilitarianism, it is clear that something illegal should not be for the ‘greatest good for the greatest number of people’ as the UN and even representatives of supporting countries such as the UK have spoken out against it. Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, said of the invasion, “I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN Charter. From our point of view, from the Charter point of view, it was illegal.” [12] Furthermore, Lord Bingham, the former British Law Lord said the war was in serious breach of international law. He went on to accuse Britain and the US of acting like a “world vigilante”, obviously not a tag you’d associate with an ethical war. Bingham said: “Particularly disturbing to proponents of the rule of law is the cynical lack of concern for international legality among some top officials in the Bush administration.” [13] If utilitarianism is the moral significance of an action being decided by its outcome, then an invasion that besides removing Hussein doesn’t seem to have achieved much in over 6 years, and is arguably illegal anyway, then the war in Iraq seems completely unethical.

There is lots of literature that covers the topic of utilitarianism and one essay written to offer evidence of its worth as a moral premise, and to retort to common misapprehensions about it is ‘Utilitarianism’ by John Stuart Mill, who will we look at in more detail later. Utilitarianism is defined by Mill as a theory originating from the belief that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” He classifies happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain and continues to argue that pleasure can fluctuate in quality and quantity. Furthermore Mill considers that pleasures that are embedded in your ‘higher faculties’ should be superior to more base pleasures. Additionally, it is argued that accomplishment of goals such as virtuous living, and other achievement of ambitions and purposes should be considered when thinking about one’s happiness. [14] 

Mill’s thesis embodies his effort to respond to the condemnations of utilitarianism, and thereby to provide a more intricate and distinct moral hypothesis. Reasons that the theory had been criticised include that it does not afford sufficient defence for individual rights – an issue which as we will discuss later, Mill himself championed. Another criticism is that happiness is more difficult to understand than shown by the theory and gauging everything by the same standard is not satisfactory or realistic. [15] 

Mill reasons that the theory of utilitarianism overlaps with “natural” emotions that derive from the social personalities of humans. For this reason, people would innately incorporate these values as an ethical requisite, if the general public were to integrate utilitarianism itself as an ethic. He argues that happiness is the solitary foundation of morality, and that happiness is the only thing that society desires. This claim is backed up by explaining that all the other entities of individuals’ aspiration are either methods to happiness, or are taken into account when happiness is defined. In a verbose manner Mill describes that the concept of justice is actual fact sourced from utility, and that things like rights subsist simply for the reason that they are essential for individual content. [16] 

The argument for utilitarianism encompasses five chapters. His opening chapter provides an introduction to the essay, and in the following chapter, Mill presents some common delusions about the theory and considers the definition of utilitarianism. The third chapter is an analysis about the definitive incentives that the theory can offer. The penultimate chapter examines techniques of establishing the soundness of utilitarianism. In his fifth and last chapter, particularly relevant to this essay owing to issues like the Just War Theory, Mill writes about the relationship between justice and utility, and argues that ‘happiness is the foundation of justice.’ [17] 

Looking at the fifth chapter of Mill’s ‘Utilitarianism’ in more depth, we can deduce many ideas that also relate to the war on Iraq and whether it is a ‘just’ or ethical war. The first section of the chapter is largely descriptive as Mill begins by saying that throughout history, one of the major obstacles to the reception of utility has been that it does not tolerate a supposition of justice. Whether or not the justice or injustice of an act is something inherent and separate from questions of utility is what Mill attempts to determine in the chapter.

Mill commences by attempting to pinpoint the definition of justice, by coming up with a list of things that are often described as just or unjust. In trying to define justice, Mill considers many factors, including legal rights, deprivation of something someone has a moral right to possess, whether a person receives what they deserve or not, violating agreements, the injustice of preferentialism in improper situations, and finally the notion of equality as an element of justice. In the mainly descriptive first part of the chapter, Mill counters the assertion that utilitarianism is opposed to justice. He mainly writes about the classification of justice and its origins historically and it is also noteworthy that Mill does not offer his own conjecture about what is required for justice. From Mill’s point of view, justice is not a theoretical model so much as it is a feeling about morality that lots of people possess. As a result, in defining justice Mill studies what other people denote by the term. He concludes that justice exists for the reason that people believe it does, and it means what they consider it to mean. Beginning at the accepted understanding of justice, Mill envisages what associates a different set of ideas about the theory. Subsequently, he puts forward that they are amalgamated by the concept of rights, an idea he brings in through his claims about ‘perfect obligation’. For Mill, a right insinuates that an individual has a legitimate entitlement that the social order is to guard them against any desecration. Many advocates of utilitarianism write off the idea of rights, and many debates about the subject are based around whether rights do actually exist, but Mill held a different perspective.

Having just defined justice, Mill now turns to the question of whether the sentiment of justice comes from a special, unique tendency of nature, or whether it can be linked to the concerns of utility. Mill argues for the latter.

Mill contends that there are two components to justice. The first is the desire to punish a person who has done harm. This desire comes from the impulse of self-defense, and the feeling of sympathy. All animals have instincts of self- defense. However, unlike animals, humans are capable of sympathizing not only with their offspring, but with all human beings. Furthermore, humans are more intelligent, and thus have a wider range of sentiments and are able to feel that they are a part of a broader community of interests. Justice then, reflects the natural feeling of retaliation, expanded by sympathy and intellect to apply to things that harm society at large. In themselves, these feelings are not moral sentiments. Justice’s moral component can be seen rather in the quality of the outrage people feel at an injustice: people can be upset by an injustice not only if it affects them individually, but if it goes against the interests of society at large; this demonstrates a moral concern.

The other component of justice is that there is an identifiable victim who suffers if justice is infringed upon. Mill argues that the idea of a right is not a concept separate from justice, but is rather a manifestation of the other aspects of justice, namely the desire for punishment and the fact that there is an assignable person who has been harmed. A right means that a person has a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of that right. However, if one wants to know why society should defend this right, Mill argues that the only reason is one of general utility. The sentiment of justice derives its intensity from its link to the animalistic need for retaliation. It gets its moral force from the “impressive” kind of utility that is involved in rights violations–namely the interest of security. People cannot do without security, and require before they can enjoy anything else. Security is so fundamental that its difference of degree as a form of utility becomes a difference in kind. It is so important that it takes on a feeling of absoluteness, of moral necessity.

Mill then observes that if justice exists independent of utility, if it is a standard in its own right that can be understood through introspection, then it is difficult to understand why questions of justice are often so debatable. In fact, there is as fierce a discussion about what is just as there is about what is useful to society, and it is guided by many conflicting ideas. For example, there is a conflict over which acts should be punished, and over the proper apportionment of punishments. In a different arena, there is disagreement over whether people should be paid more for having natural talents, and whether taxes should be graduated, or issued at a flat rate. In fact, the only way to navigate among conflicting claims of justice is to look to the source of its authority, namely, social utility.

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This does not mean, however, that there is no difference between the just and the expedient, or that policy is more important than justice. Rather, justice grounded on utility is the chief part, and the most important part, of all morality; it concerns many of the most basic essentials for human well-being. Mill argues that the moral rules that forbid people to harm each other are more important than any rules of policy, rules about how societal affairs should be managed. Furthermore, the preservation of justice preserves peace among human beings. Thus, there is a very strong utility interest in preserving and enforcing justice’s dictates.

Mill argues that most of the applications of justice we observe today are simply ways of maintaining the notion of moral rights just discussed. Impartiality is one rule that is partly based in these, but also comes from the very meaning of utility. The greatest happiness principle doesn’t have meaning unless each person’s happiness, supposed equal in degree, is valued exactly as much as somebody else’s. People are seen to have an equal claim to happiness, and an equal claim to the means to happiness. Social inequalities that are not required by expediency are thus seen to be unjust.

Mill closes by observing that justice is a name for some moral requirements, which are higher on the scale of utility, and thus more important, than any others. However, there can be cases in which some other social duty is so important that it overrules one of the general rules of justice. Thus, it could be acceptable to steal in order to save a life. Mill argues that the previous discussion has resolved what had been the only real problem with utilitarian theory. It has always been clear that cases of justice are also cases of expediency; the difference is that very different sentiments attach themselves to issues of justice and expeediency. Mill argues that he has accounted for what this feeling is; it is simply the natural feeling of resentment, moralized by being connected to social good. Justice is the name for certain social utilities that are more important than any other kind, and thus should be preserved by a feeling that is different in kind from others.

It might be thought that utilitarianism supports the immediate withdrawal of American forces, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Indeed, two aspects of utilitarian thought suggest that immediate withdrawal would be wrong. The first of these is the fact that utilitarianism is progressive. As opposed to concepts like Kantian thought, it takes no account of the past. In utilitarianism you deal with the situation you find yourself in. Even if the war in Iraq was wrong, by utilitarian standards, and even if it’s been badly managed by those same standards, it’s a separate question what ought to be done now, given the situation as we find it. [18] The second aspect is that utilitarianism sanctions negative responsibility. Bernard Williams defines this by saying, “If I am ever responsible for anything, then I must be just as much responsible for things that I allow or fail to prevent, as I am for things that I myself, in the more everyday restricted sense, bring about.” [19] This implies that a person is responsible not only for what they do, but for what they allow also. With relation to the US occupation, if they withdraw their troops and the differing sects of Iraq, Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds etc, begin to kill each other en masse, as seems likely [20] , then from the viewpoint of a utilitarian, the US is responsible, as the deaths could have been prevented.

The question utilitarians must answer is which action, available to the US, would maximise overall utility? According to utilitarianism, Americans count for no more than Iraqis. [21] Mill describes Bentham as saying “Everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one.” [22] It may be that every action available to the US results in death and suffering, and therefore pleasure doesn’t seem an applicable notion; however the question is which action would result in the least deaths and the least suffering. Furthermore, act utilitarianism makes no distinction between the guilty and the innocent e.g. “if breaking a promise does not weaken respect for the moral rule to keep promises (in which chaos would result and bad utility would be produced), then the act can be justified.” [23] This is important because not many utilitarian supporters have spoken out about the Iraq war, and Burgess-Jackson speculates that it may be because it will “make utilitarianism look bad” [24] . He goes on to state that most Americans think American lives are worth more than Iraqi lives, i.e. patriotism. Most think that, all being equal, doing harm is worse than allowing harm. Also many think that what was done in the past is morally relevant to what we ought to do now. Finally, most Americans think that the interests of the innocent are more important than the interests of the guilty. From this spectrum you can see why utilitarianism would look unfavourable. ]

Along with the Just War Theory, utilitarian ethics both claim moral correctness through the evaluation of consequences. Other ethicists though, originally Kant, contend that “good intention” is the true substance of moral certainty. This belief led Kant to propose an ethical system comprised of “maxims” called “duty”. [25] In this type of system a lie, even when committed under implications of good consequences, is always unethical. Applying Kantian ethics to war is more problematic than this, but in comparison to predicting outcomes it is far more one-dimensional. Kant, urges us to follow a maxim authorising violent action only when our own life is threatened, “To preserve one’s life is duty” [26] . If then it was 100% proven that Weapons of Mass Destruction were present in Iraq, then the Kantian maxim for war is satisfied. At present though, it seems it is not. Ethical thinkers can therefore be roughly divided into two sections. First of all we think of those who deem whether an action is moral or immoral owing to the motive behind it. The second camp relates to those who decide whether or not an action is moral with regard to the consequences it manufactures. Kant is firmly in the former camp, making him a ‘deontologist’ rather than a ‘consequentialist’ when it comes to ethics. (Deontology stems from the Greek for duty, ‘deon’ and ‘logos’ i.e. science.) [27] Kant would argue that we are subject to moral judgment because we are able to consider and give reasons for our actions, and hence moral judgment should be directed at our reasons for acting.

As has already been established, an extremely important figure in the field of utilitarianism is John Stuart Mill, whose essay we considered earlier. Born in 1806 in London, one of the most important philosophers and writers of the Victorian period, John Stuart Mill was a political activist, and was involved in efforts for social reform throughout his life. Mill’s father, James Mill, was also a famous philosopher and historian. In order to be properly trained and educated, Mill Senior believed that a child’s mind was like a ‘blank slate’ and must be subject to a strict regimen. Consequently, he isolated his son from children his own age and kept him under a rigorous schedule. He saw to it that by the age of three, Mill was learning Greek, and by the age of eight had become skilled in Latin. Mill’s day consisted of academic work, and he was granted only one hour of leisure each day. By the age of fourteen, he had studied profoundly in history, logic, mathematics, and economics. Mill began studying Jeremy Bentham at the age of fifteen, the fundamentalist English theorist and more importantly the founder of utilitarianism. The premise of utilitarianism initiated a lifelong quest for social reform. [28] 

In 1822, Mill began publishing and a year later he had helped form the Utilitarian Society, which convened at Bentham’s house. He recovered from a severe bout of depression in 1826, attributed his emotionally restricted childhood. After this Mill resumed an active academic life, but with an altered point of view. He now allowed for a human dimension in his thought that counterbalanced the futility of utilitarianism, emphasising an intellectual attitude to life at the expense of emotions. Even though Mill was influenced by utilitarianism, a theory that addresses individuals to work for the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, he nonetheless worked to protect peoples’ rights, and in particular women. Mill’s concern for social reform had roots in his belief that the majority often denies liberty to the people, be it through moral judgments, social judgments, or indeed – law. [29] The concept of individual autonomy reappears right the way through Mill’s work. He held the belief that a person may do anything they wish, as long as that person’s actions do not harm others. He upheld that governments have no right to interfere with an individual’s affairs, even when they use laws that are intended to be beneficial to the individual in question. In effect, the only feasible grounds for any government to exist in the first place is to protect the individual so that he or she experiences defence in times of war, security in peacetime, and safety from deception. [30] 

With regards to the War on Iraq then, you can compare the war to the points raised by Mill. He held that a person could do what they liked, as long as it didn’t harm others. Obviously the war in Iraq has harmed countless people in one way or another so this is a violation of liberty. Mill proposed that governments have no right to interfere with an individual’s affairs, even when the law is intended to be helpful. Arguably, when you look at the contradictory evidence now at our disposal, Iraq was posing no threat to America or the UK. Hence if we look at Iraq as an ‘individual’, then the US government and their allies were ‘interfering with their affairs’, even though it was meant to be beneficial, i.e. disposing of Saddam Hussein. Things got so bad in Iraq that people started saying they were better off under Saddam, so for some Iraqi civilians, the interference was completely unnecessary. This is not to say that they had a good life under the dictator, just that it was the better of two evils. [31] Furthermore, Mill went on to stress that the only grounds for government to exist is so that the individual, in this case America, would experience safety from deception, security in times of war and also in times of peace. You could argue that all three of these criterions haven’t been met and hence the Iraq war violates individuals’ rights as well as being an unjust war.

Daniel Pipes raises some great points in his book, ‘Militant Islam Reaches America’ with the chapter ‘Who is the enemy?’ The first section of the chapter is entitled, ‘Vagueness and Euphemism’. He speaks of the first few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, when Bush would not explicitly name his enemies. ‘He insisted they were neither Afghans nor even Muslims but rather people, as I have noted earlier, whom he called “evildoers” or “the evil ones.”‘ [32] The chapter is based on the original invasion of Afghanistan, but everything that Pipes says rings true for the war on Iraq also. When Bush announced that military action was being initiated, he defined the goal as “the disruption and… defeat of the global terror network.” Pipes again questions what this means, ‘global terror network’ is applicable – assuming that the global network is not exclusively Al-Qaeda – to militant Islamic groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas, the IRA and the Tamil Tigers. Most interestingly however, the last group that Pipes categorises in the potential global terror network is “States like Iraq?” [33] The book was published before the actual invasion of Iraq yet Pipes predicted it, all down to Bush’s (arguably clever) vagueness when thinking of a tag for the enemies of the United States. Still no one really knows the real reason Iraq was invaded, and hence for critics of the war such the oil sceptics Pipes’ argument shows a very interesting argument. Bush’s deliberate vagueness meant that in effect, he could do whatever he liked to an enemy state, because the threat of “evildoers” “continuing to try and harm America and Americans” [34] didn’t limit his options to a specific adversary and as long as he could claim some sort of threat, i.e. weapons of mass destruction, then in his mind he could justify America going on the offensive.

In conclusion there are many topics in history that we can look at with regard to utilitarianism and war, which show surprising similarities with the Iraq war this essay was


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