Utilitarianism and the Politics of "Humanitarian" War

Typing the phrases "cost benefit analysis" and "war in Iraq" into Google finds about 15,000 hits (for these exact two phrases together). The results include scholarly articles, blogs of law experts, TV-news websites, newspaper articles, speeches of politicians and so on. These results are a rough indication of the size and scope of the utilitarian quest for the correct estimate of costs and benefits of this war. The estimates attempt to include not only the monetary expense but also "human suffering," "national security," "freedom," etc.

Another recent military operation where similar arguments were used was the 2008 bombing of the Gaza strip. It has been described by its promoters as an attempt to prevent the future suffering of Israeli civilians while keeping the Palestinian civilian suffering at a minimum. The underlying premise was that any civilian casualties of the war can be justified by claiming that they were a necessary step in preventing far-greater future civilian casualties.

These cost-benefit justifications of humanitarian wars can be summed up in the words of Frida Ghitis, a political analyst and a regular columnist for the Miami Herald and World Politics Review. Ms. Ghitis wrote to me that "war is sometimes justified to stop even worse atrocities. That's the humanitarian rationale."[1]

Thus, it is recognized that the humanitarian war, just as any other war, implies some costs in the form of suffering or death of innocent victims. But this suffering or death is justified if it is a necessary collective sacrifice for a greater benefit, regardless of whether the victims involved agree to being sacrificed.


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