Moral Evaluations and the Lancet Report

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I guess the Lancet report on Iraqi casualties came out during my week or two of semi-exile due to grading, because I've been seeing things about it suggesting that it's common knowledge, and I'd never really heard of it until this morning. I tried to access this link, but it seems down. There's lots of stuff about it all over the blogosphere, including some discussion at Crooked Timber. See here for some links and a careful response to the attacks against the study.

I know so little about statistics that I'm in no position to evaluate what anyone is saying about the study and its conclusions when it comes to the actual numbers. Apparently it says the number killed by the war is something on the order of 100,000. What seems problematic to me about this is what people are then doing with that number, assuming some moral significance to it that then shows that invading Iraq was clearly an unjust war. I just don't think that follows, for many reasons.

Has anyone compared Iraq to WWII or Kosovo? if not, then I don't see how someone can consistently consider that this is an objection to any action unless they fail to endorse those, show that in those cases the body count was
much, much lower, or show that the higher calling in those cases was worth the high body count. I just have no idea how that would go on these matters, but anyone criticizing Iraq here needs to be consistent in how they handle other conflicts. i just want to make that clear before moving to specific issues with Iraq.

The number the study results in does not take into account how many of the people doing the killing (not to mention many who were killed) were terrorists who poured into Iraq to fight there rather than engaging in terrorist acts elsewhere that might have resulted in another 9-11 had the Oil-for-food scandal resulted in its intended consequence of Saddam's sanctions being lifted and Saddam's WMD programs resumed. That surely affects the moral significance of the death toll.

Another issue related to this is that it might be better to have lots of killing focused in one spot than having it spread over the world where it affects everyone. I know this sounds cold, but it's not a "not in my backyard" argument. I wonder if it's genuinely morally better if you know killing will take place to contain it to a small area, even if that means a higher body count and terrible conditions in addition at least for the short run. I don't know. I'm not a utilitarian, but sometimes utilitarian arguments involve worthy moral considerations.

An additional issue is whether Bush, Blair and co. are morally responsible for something they could not have fully foreseen, even if there were voices suggesting it would be harder than anticipated (e.g. Powell). I don't think anyone could have predicted how many terrorists would come pouring into Iraq. I don't think anyone could have predicted how many people in Iraq would stay loyal to Saddam or fear his return enough not to cooperate. I don't think anyone could have predicted just how many people would die, even if they thought it would be harder than Blair and Bush were making it sound (which itself wasn't equating it with the cakewalk many commentators have accused them of making it sound like). It's one thing to say that they should have taken into account that a lot of people would die. A good just war theory requires considering the proportionality of the harm caused compared to the good intended. It's quite another to blame them for the actual result when the actual result is due to wrongful actions on the part of others that were not expected (or the extent to which it was taken was not expected), and even the most reasonable impartial observer wouldn't have predicted it to be as bad as this study says it is. The reason it's so bad is partly, probably largely, because of evil actions of evil people. Assigning moral responsibility for that to those who inititated the conflict just seems to me to be way beyond how we normally evaluate similarly structured situations with an actual outcome worse than what should have been expected by a reasonable person. It's different with Truman's dropping of the atomic bomb, which you might think was wrong both because it was a terrorist act and because it had foreseeable consequences in terms of death toll of innocents, when continued conflict may have had a higher death toll but was not assured of killing innocents in high numbers. So Truman should have known better. I can't say that Bush and Blair should have.

Another point that people aren't considering is where this will go. Since the nuts in Fallujah have now been taken out, in extremely high numbers, things are looking much better for a positive turn (not that some things haven't been incredibly positive already, as the Iraqi bloggers have demonstrated). I don't know where this will go, and neither do the authors of this study. Showing what has taken place so far only shows what has taken place so far. It doesn't show what life would have been like under Saddam during the next ten years, assuming he would live that long, or his sons if he didn't (which I would expect to be worse than under him). If things go really well within the next five years, and then a good direction leads to peace and prosperity, then Bush's aims will have been achieved. The question will be whether it will have been worth all the bad in the meantime, and that entirely depends on how things would have been in the uninvaded Iraq after the period when the actual fighting has ended. That means you need to compare what might have happened five years from now on with what will happen five years from now on, and I don't think you can do that adequately enough right now (if at all) to assert that it wasn't worth it. This may mean we can't right now assert with certainty that it was worth it, but I'm willing to accept that.

Also, we don't want to assume how many live and die is the best way to measure such things. Even on a utilitarian view, life isn't the absolute value. Happiness is. On more reasonable consequentialist view, there are lots of other things with intrinsic value, and on even more plausible ethical theories even the consequences can be trumped by things that are more fundamental. I suspect that sort of thing will help Bush and Blair here a lot.

Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber criticizes some of what I've saying about the moral significance of thee numbers as follows: "[It's] making more or less arbitrary assumptions about what proportion of the excess deaths one might be able to call "combatants" and thus people who deserved to die ... it's skewing a number by means of your own subjective assessment. Not only is there no objective basis for the actual subjective adjustments that people make, but the entire distinction between combatants and civilians is one which does not exist in nature. As a reason for not caring that 98,000 people might have died, because you think most of them were Islamofascists, it just about passes muster. As a criticism of the 98,000 figure, it�s wretched."

First, there's something right here. This doesn't amount to a critique of the objective numbers of the study, but I don't think it was ever meant to. It just shows that the study's final conclusions aren't necessarily morally significant compared to other considerations that it does not consider and in some cases is unable to.

Second, he's absolutely wrong about there being no meaningful distinction between combatants and noncombatants. Someone trying to kill someone is clearly a combatant. Someone not supporting either side and trying to stay out of the fighting is clearly a non-combatant. There may be borderline cases, but as with racial categories, species categories, and virtually any meaningful classification the existence of borderline cases does not invalidate the categories. It just means there are things that don't clearly fit into either real category.

Third, maybe some people are making arbitrary assumptions about how many people are in either category, but that doesn't invalidate the main point, that we don't know how many people are in either category. That means that even if all the deaths are tragic, some are more deserved than the others, and we have no idea how many are well-deservd, as I suspect many are.

Fourth, this kind of point is also dealing with averted deaths such as those these terrorists would have killed if they had been out and about doing other things for al Qaeda or similar organizations, particularly if they had been given enough years and resources to do some mass destruction, as is almost certain to have happened if the invasion had not taken place given the way the oil-for-food program had set Saddam on the road to getting sanctions lifted and his WMD programs back in order.

Daniel insists that the piece is a good piece of science. I have no quibble with that. I don't know enough about statistics to try. My problem is how the results will be used. I don't see any merit whatsoever to concluding much of moral signicance given these problems.

This sort of study is in fact totally useless when looking at the status of any counterfactual of the following form:

If we hadn't invaded Iraq, X would have been the case.

We need to remember how many people have criticized Chamberlain for appeasing Hitler instead of doing something to contain him. It's so easy to conclude that the world have been a better place had Hitler not expanded his power geographically. The problem is that his scientists fled because of that expansion, and they were the ones who produced the first atomic bomb. Additionally, his efforts to produce it were hampered by the war effort. If Churchill-style leadership had contained Hitler earlier, he may have conquered the world through atomic threat. I don't bring this in because of any parallel to the case of Iraq, because both issues are too complicated to see exact parallels, but I bring it up to remind us that we can't know the truth of counterfactual claims of the form people keep giving with respect to this report. That threatens the use of such a report to make any moral judgment on whether this war has been just.

1 Comments

Hi - I guess I'm the author of the criticue based on distinguishing combatants from non-combatants. See http://obsidianorder.blogspot.com/2004/10/pick-number-any-number.html . Crooked Timber doesn't have a clue when he dismisses my method for estimating combatants. Yeah, I never said it was a precise method, but it is basically the same method used by the excellent PDA study of deaths during major combat operations, and in studies of other conflicts (Kosovo etc). As you say, it is an important distinction, and there are certainly gray areas (kids age 12 carrying rifles they may or may not know how to shoot; women driving vehicles full of ammo... war is not pretty). If we assume the numbers in the study are exact, we get the following picture based on my analysis: There were 73500 violent deaths since the beginning of the war. Of those, 31500 are due to the coalition military, including 28000 combatants and 3500 civilians; 7000 are due to terrorist attacks; and 24500 are criminal murders.
Of course each of those numbers has a very large confidence interval around it (as in, could be half that much or double that much). Additionally, from comparing this with the PDA study and the IBC data we can confirm that these are in the right ballpark, and that the number of civilians killed by the coalition military since the end of major military operations is under a thousand. Now you can assign whatever moral interpretation you want to those numbers. All I can say is that it is an amazingly clean war compared to other wars, and the enemy is quite weak (or ineffectual).

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