Murdering Some to Save Others

In a recent New York Times op-ed titled “Is It Better to Save No One?,” liberal columnist Nicholas Kristof implicitly attacks the critics of the U.S. intervention in Libya as being heartless and/or immoral. Though he acknowledges the hypocrisy and inconsistency of U.S. foreign policy and the potential for the intervention to damage U.S. national security, Kristof calls the bombing of Libya “truly extraordinary, wonderful, and rare.” He then comes to his central point and asks the following questions: “[J]ust because we allowed Rwandans or Darfuris to be massacred, does it really follow that to be consistent we should allow Libyans to be massacred as well? Isn’t it better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none?”

The message underlying these questions and the entire article is that “we” (by which Kristof means the U.S. military) should indeed have intervened in Rwanda on behalf of Tutsis and in Sudan on behalf of Darfuris, just as we should intervene in Libya on behalf of some Libyans against other Libyans. “Intervening,” in the context of the tactics, capabilities, and political realities governing U.S. military actions, means killing Hutus, Sudanese Arabs, pro-Gadhafi Libyans, and anyone else who gets in the way of bombs, cruise missiles, and economic sanctions. Kristof and his like-minded contemporaries in the political elite appear to believe that their argument is a moral one. Even some non-interventionists and realists opposed to the Libyan intervention have fallen into this trap by arguing that the Libyan civil war simply isn’t “our” business, which to me implies that if it were “our” business, it may in fact be moral to intervene in the manner “we” have. Likewise, some have argued that even if it would be “good” to bomb Libya, the United States simply doesn’t have the resources to violently enforce human rights everywhere. Just as liberals opposed to the 2003 invasion of Iraq trapped themselves into arguing that “sanctions can work” (thereby conceding the war proponents’ claims that Iraq was developing WMDs and could not be allowed to do so), some opponents of the U.S. bombing of Libya yield far too much to the interventionist view of the world.

In my ongoing quest to understand how morality and justice apply in a complex society, I have recently been watching a series of lectures on these topics available online from Harvard University’s Michael Sandel. Professor Sandel begins the series by posing two scenarios to his audience of Harvard undergraduates. In the first, Sandel suggests that a surgeon has a choice between saving five moderately injured patients at the cost of not saving one severely wounded patient, or saving the one at the cost of the five. When asked which choice they would make, by a show of hands the students almost unanimously indicate their preference for saving the most people possible. In Sandel’s second scenario, the choice is the same, but the surgeon must actually kill the one patient in order to save the rest (in this case, to harvest the vital organs necessary to keep the others alive). This time, not a single student supports the principle of saving the many at the cost of the one. Sandel then asks members of his audience to explain the apparent inconsistency in their collective logic; although these future leaders of our political and economic systems seem to have a very difficult time articulating their rationales, the difference between the scenarios is obvious, and the implications should be heartening to us all.

Murdering some people to save others is fundamentally immoral. When this principle is put before us in a hypothetical example such as Professor Sandel’s, it is easy to understand, even instinctual. I believe that, with the possible exceptions of serial killers, psychopaths, narcissists, and other outliers, the vast majority of people left to their own devices would not follow the cold calculations of utilitarianism to the extreme of murdering another person even if that action would benefit many others. I will leave it to the philosophers to determine why this is so, but most of us know such murders to be wrong and would not participate in them.

If that is the case, what then explains the recent line of “moral” reasoning expressed by liberals and neoconservatives alike in favor of the “humanitarian” bombing of Libya? There are only two explanations I can imagine: either the interventionists are among the outliers mentioned above, or there is something about murder by the state that allows people to circumvent their own innate moral instincts. During a recent discussion I had with a favorite college professor, he wondered how different our moral view of war would be if we had not developed the technology and mindset that allows for mass murder from afar. For instance, he asked rhetorically, “Would we really have gone into Hiroshima with broadswords and hacked to death 100,000 people of all ages, sizes, and shapes? Yet we dropped a single bomb on them, and those who lose sleep over that fact are considered so far out of the mainstream as to not be taken seriously.”

The simple and uncomfortable truth is that murder is murder, regardless of whether we do it with a 1,000-lb. explosive delivered via cruise missile or with a broadsword. As much as I would like to blame the pro-war liberals and neoconservatives for the horrors they support, the reality is that it is the state that allows and perpetuates the limitless destruction brought about by war in our name. The appeal of this destruction is so powerful that even people (such as Nicholas Kristof) who generally seem not to be mass murderers or overall “bad” folks can be seduced into blind support of absolutely immoral actions. If we accept that otherwise “good” people cannot be relied upon to maintain their moral principles when it comes to the actions of the state, the only way we can hope to inoculate ourselves against the temptations of state violence for “humanitarian”  causes is to adopt a strictly non-interventionist foreign policy. I would not want to live in a society that condoned surgeons actively murdering some patients in order to save others; likewise, I despise and regret my implicit support for a government that murders Libyans to theoretically prevent the deaths of other Libyans. As heart-breaking as it is when people on the other side of the world kill each other, it is indeed better to save no one if that is the only way to avoid committing murder.

Author: Nicholas Kramer

Nicholas Kramer is a former associate investigator for an oversight & investigations (O&I) committee in the United States Senate. He no longer lives or works in Washington, D.C. He may be reached through his website at