War is a very particular accounting issue

For me, like Chris, [going to war] is an accounting issue.

Thus sprach Paul. But I think that’s an ugly, confusing way of phrasing it. In retrospect perhaps you can decide whether a war was a good idea with a quick tally ex-ante and ex-post death tolls with some role for economic performance, but a forward looking evaluation is very different.

My priors suggest strongly that killing people is very wrong. My priors are very strongly biased in that direction. Call it a personality flaw! I think you’d have a tough job convincing me that killing one person was worth probably saving a hundred.

Thinking about war as something likely to be fucking terrible and which definitely has incredibly high costs and definitely has incredibly uncertain benefits is useful. It sets the bar for war incredibly high. No particular policy position needs be behind the war or your opposition, I am just talking about stacking the deck.

Stacking the deck gets a bad name, but stacking the deck against killing people is a self-evidently pretty good idea. War is one subject where I think the principle “first, do no harm” is a good one.

Why? Because history. The historical record says that some truly awful actions can lead to prosperity but that truly awful wars normally just lead to death and suffering. So, for example, my priors tell me to somewhat support what’s happening in coastal China, but not what happened in Iraq. I’ll do the same in the future too.


6 thoughts on “War is a very particular accounting issue

  1. I once ran up against a utilitarian wall on something rather like this question. A friend asked: “Suppose you were careering along in a railway car. You can just barely steer, but you can’t stop the car. You come upon a fork in the track. To the left, there is one person tied to the track. To the right, ten people. Whichever way you choose, the people on the track will die. Do you go left, or do you go right?”

    I spluttered for a while and eventually decided I couldn’t answer, because it didn’t matter—because in my own mind, I had no utilitarian impulse to move me that killing ten people was worse than killing one.

    When told that not making a decision was a cop-out, I said that, indeed, it wouldn’t matter.

    Then I was called heartless.

    Can’t win, eh?

    1. Ah yes, the old “what would you do in this absurdly contrived hypothetical situation, where you have perfect knowledge of the outcomes, which I have carefully constructed specifically to produce the response which best aligns with my pre-existing notions?” approach to moral philosophy…

  2. You haven’t rebutted what I said, just refined it. You can place a high cost upon deaths, and an uncertainty discount upon expected benefits, but you’re still in the realms of accountancy.
    It’s only if you take a Kantian/pacifist line and absolutely prohibit killing that you leave this realm – and very few do.
    The “do no harm” principle needs arguing. R2Pers would say that inaction does harm too – eg allowing a genocide to occur.
    PS – I regard “ugly” in this context as a compliment.

  3. I concur with Chris on this one. His ‘ugly’ statement was, I suggest, quite deliberate at it boils down the utlitarian argument to the basics. The fact that utilitarian judgments in real life will always be based on incomplete information does not prove it’s wrong to try to make the best use of utlilitarianism that you can – that is, in the end, what experts should be for.

  4. A refinement yes, I think my problem is that going to war shouldn’t be seen as a single decision. I think thinking about a portfolio is more useful.

    A convincing just so story can be constructed for pretty much any war, there were certainly plenty for Iraq. Treating each was as a separate calculation is dangerous because its better to look at war as a whole. The fact is that the prior probability that going to war will kill loads of people should be the starting point for any war and any particular just so story of a war going well should be pretty much ignored.

    I think we’re all coming at this from the same place.

  5. I’ve had this rattling around my head for a while now, and it occurred to me the other evening that perhaps risk management is a more useful discipline to consider than accounting. We’re concerned not just with the intended and / or anticipated outcomes (and their associated probabilities), there is also a very large range of risks to consider, some of which, whilst relatively unlikely, are very severe indeed. And this, it seems to me, is where we keep falling down… As far as I know, nobody even considered the possibility that the overthrow of Gaddafi would result in forces linked to his regime destabilising Mali and threatening Niger, for example. (And a relatively mild example at that.)

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