Mid-day Ramblings: War and Ethics

Do you remember a time you were in an ethics class and were given a “Sophie’s Choice?” That is, a choice between two things that are so horrible that a good choice is impossible. Common versions are “kill this group or that,” “kill this individual or this group,” “kill your spouse or your offspring,” etc.

The common thread to all these questions is that there is no solution that could fairly be called “ethical.” Let’s take the question of “kill your wife vs. kill your daughter.” You can make all sorts of economic analysis, of course. “The wife has a good job, but the daughter is expensive!” You could even do a sort of emotional economics analysis: “It’d be less painful emotionally to grieve for a wife than to grieve for a child.” You could do a genetic analysis. “The child shares half my genes. The wife shares none.” You could do a memetic analysis. “The child may share this percent of my views. The wife definitely shares that percent of my views.” You could do a projection of the future. “If I kill the daughter, it’ll ruin my relationship with my wife. If I kill the wife, I’ll keep my relationship with the daughter.”

But, of course, none of this suffices. This is why it’s useful in an ethics class. It’s a problem that can be chewed on and split into chunks, but its core cannot be digested. Regardless of your non-ethical analysis, the ethical question remains the cellulose in the shit.

I think this represents a line of demarcation between two types of questions. To get at this, I’m going to take a quick detour through a math anecdote.

* * *

A few months ago, a friend of mine (a mathematician) was talking about cake cutting. We are all familiar with the algorithm by which you solve the question of getting two self-interested players to cut the cake evenly:

1) First player cuts.

2) Second player chooses first slice.

Assuming self-interest (and cutting precision), this should always result in even slices.

My friend was speculating as to whether or not it would be possible to find a general cake-cutting algorithm to cut a cake into n slices. I tried to come up with some methods, and I think I even had a solution for even numbered slices (I unfortunately, didn’t keep my notes). The following day, while spending time with friends, I bought an oreo cake. We all spent some time speculating on the problem, without reaching many conclusions.

I later found out that the cake cutting problem is a well-studied area of math, complete with terms like “envy free division.”

* * *

I want to suggest that cake cutting and Sophie’s choice problems are fundamentally different. Here’s why: in both cases, there is an ethical and economic dilemma. In the wife vs. child question, the economic concerns are smaller than the ethical concerns. In the case of cake cutting, the economic concerns are much more important. We can imagine a case where both parties are angry because they each wanted 75% of the cake, but we believe the fair division was the bigger concern.

I think there is an important distinction there: Some problems (even hard ones) can be reduced to cake cutting. Others refuse to reduce.

An example of a hard ethical question that could be reduced to cake cutting would be the dilemma of two lovers. So you have two men who you love, both of whom you would like to be with. Social rules force you to make a choice. The ethical question is over hurt feelings. However, where we cannot countenance the emotional economics in a Sophie’s choice, we have no problem doing it for the choice of lovers. We accept that feelings will be hurt, but are willing to move forward with the analysis, prioritizing the particulars – is this person physically attractive, do we share common goals, is he smarter than the other? We’re back to cake cutting.

You with me so far? I hope so.

A famous example of a Sophie’s choice is the bombing of Hiroshima. For the sake of argument, I’m making two assumptions:

1) The Japanese would not have surrendered as a result of a demonstration of the bomb on an unpopulated area

2) It was very likely that, having used the bomb, the Japanese would surrender

3) The Japanese people who stand to be killed are largely non-combatants who don’t play a direct role in the deaths of Americans, including purely innocent individuals such as small children.

I’m not saying 1, 2, and 3 are true. I’m saying, since I don’t want to get to far into this question per se, let us make those simplifying assumptions.

If we make those assumptions, we’re back to a Sophie’s choice: Kill a bunch of American or Kill a bunch of Japanese. Once again, we can try to cut the cake: “They started the war.” “It’s important geopolitically to show the U.S.S.R. we have this weapon.” “A nation’s first role is to protect its citizens, not those of other nations.” “It will result in fewer deaths overall.”

I think you’ll agree these are (as I’m using the term) economic questions. They’re cake cutting questions. They fail to answer the central ethical concern – is it ethical to take x lives for the sake of y lives.

The cake cutting part of the problem is easy. The ethical question remains impossible.

Let’s go back to your ethics class. Do you remember how you answered the question? I don’t. But what I do remember is thinking what a pointless exercise this was – pointless, because it is a form of choice I will almost certainly never face. We’ve all faced problems that were ethically difficult, but very few of us have faced problems that we couldn’t ultimate take back to cake cutting.

Over time, I’ve come to think that’s the real answer. The answer isn’t “kill the wife” or “kill the daughter.” The answer is that we should try to avoid situations in which Sophie’s choices arise.

This is why I mention Nagasaki.

I believe it was Keegan who wrote that war is normal life turned upside down. Back home, if someone tries to kill you, he is reviled and sent to jail. In war, if someone succeeds in killing you, he is treated as a hero.

I would add that war also increases the instance of Sophie’s choices. If somehow you could plot a graph of Sophie’s choices over time, I suspect you would see it clustering around war. You might also see it around events like famine or plague, but war would likely be where the real spikes occur.

And, I think, this is as good a reason as any to try to make a world without war. We accept that nobody should have to make an impossible choice. I think we can also accept that the instance of Sophie’s choices increases during war. In other words, the ethical questions in war lack solutions in themselves, so we ought to avoid encountering the questions in the first place.

In that regard, the Nagasaki question is not one where I see an affirmative “ethical” “non-ethical” characterization. The existence of the question itself is inherently non-ethical. A good ethics then should not just provide the solution to the dilemma, but try to stop the dilemma from ever existing.

Shall we say: Make cake. Not war.


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33 Responses to Mid-day Ramblings: War and Ethics

  1. minnmass says:

    But, that’s the point of an ethical framework: to help decide in those Sophie’s Choice moments.

    While I am certainly not arguing in favor of war, the whole purpose of an ethical framework must be to help in deciding which course of action to take. Avoiding the issue isn’t helpful, and a framework that seeks primarily to do so is somewhere between useless and counterproductive. It is only when hard choices are in front of an ethical framework that it is possible to test it.

    I would, in fact, argue that a good ethicist should seek out those hard dilemmas, and see how their chosen ethic would approach and solve them.

  2. Silber says:

    That’s an interesting statement there, minnmass. So how does your ethical framework approach the wife vs daughter question? Guess I’m more with Zach on this. Nice Article, by the way.

  3. Nerdator says:

    ‘It was very likely that, having used the bomb, the Japanese would surrender’

    Wouldn’t it be better it were ‘having the bomb used on them’ or something? It looks like the Japanese used it before surrendering otherwise, doesn’t it.

  4. Oliver says:

    I remember in philosphy class (yeah, I’m French, we had that sort of class), a teacher mentioned the subject, concluded the best was to avoid situations when those problems occured…

    … And then, as a humorous conclusion, he said that if we can’t avoid it, we could also toss a coin, heads or tails, and blame fate.
    His face flashed a grim expression at that moment, we guessed this was actual experience.

    And when you think of it, trusting a random solution, tossing a coin, throwing dice, may be a tolerable solution.
    You can’t face it, but you want to avoid the unbearable moral pain ?
    Toss a coin !

    • Simon says:

      Then later, when you inevitably regret your action, you’ll blame yourself for having tossed a coin instead of thinking about the problem some more.

  5. Gingervite says:

    @minnmass I think he means not for the individual to avoid it, but for society as a whole to avoid causing these situations. At least that’s how I read it. Some clarification would be nice.

    @Oliver Very grim thing to think about…

  6. david says:

    If you toss a coin, while it is in the air you will realize wich side you want it to land on.

    • kitukwfyer says:

      I’d say, if you toss a coin, while it’s in midair you’ll realise you don’t want it to land!

      …But then, I’m the type of person who always says “Shoot the SOB who’s forcing the Choice on you!” when asked what I’d do. I probably shouldn’t talk. :)

  7. Mike says:

    Forgive me if I’ve misunderstood, but it seems like you’ve just taken a very long, convoluted path to a point which should be extremely obvious: A situation where an ethically horrible act is inevitable is a bad situation, and should be avoided; or to rephrase, making Sophie’s Choice is bad times.

  8. minnmass says:

    @Silber: The ethical framework under which one operates should speak to how to choose between having to kill one’s wife or one’s daughter. However, many individuals operate under different frameworks. Being neither married nor a parent, I have never given thought to how I’d choose between the two, but I probably should.

    @Gingervite: I agree that society should attempt to avoid imposing Sophie’s Choice-type decisions on its citizens. However, the framework under which a society operates and the framework under which its citizens operate can (and, possibly, must) differ, due to the disparate needs and wants of the individual vs. the whole.

    I do think that having the analogy of Cake Cutting vs. Sophie’s Choice is helpful in ethical conversations; it’s a useful reminder about how problems can (and can’t) be broken down.

  9. AJ says:

    Nice little thesis there,
    Just on the question of killing the parent or child, as I never studied ethics in college does this hypothetical take into account the emotions and opinions of the parent and child?

    I think it would be a fairly common response of a loving parent to be willing to sacrifice themselves for their child.
    (gross generalization follows) A parent who’s child dies will live with the personal shame and guilt of the death of their child for selfish reasons, when as a parent their job is to care for and protect the child.

    A child can possibly overcome this guilt by living a life they feel would make the deceased parent (were they still alive) proud and happy to have made the sacrifice.
    Becoming the next President and solving all the worlds problems etc or curing AIDs/Cancer/twitter and facebook addictions, thus extending the sacrifice of one life to now have saved many more.

    Though I suppose the parent could do the same for the sacrifice of the child but it may still be seen as a failure of ones position and responsibility as a parent.

    If I’ve made some sort of logical fallacy here please name it and explain it to me as I’m more interested when I’m wrong than when I’m right.

  10. Kevin says:

    Ethics should encompass the hard choices as well, even if just to put a negative weight towards choices that lead to hard choices appearing in the first place.

    Off the direct topic, it seems like the n-slice cake problem is actually solved by the same principle as the 2 slice, just worded differently. The person who cuts the cake gets the last slice choice. Given the same assumption of uniform greed (i.e. everyone wants a bigger slice), the cutter’s ideal choice is to cut evenly since they will get the smallest slice and they want the biggest. The only way for the smallest to be the biggest is if they’re all the same.

    • minnmass says:

      Who gets to choose first?

      With 3 people who each want cake, two could conspire to stick the other with an almost-arbitrarily small slice: one cuts the cake into three pieces, 1%, 2%, and 97% of the original. Their co-conspirator takes the 97% piece, the odd one out gets 2%, and the cutter gets 1%. Then, the conspirators split the big chunk not-quite in half, giving each of them 49% of the original cake.

      Eliminating conspirators may eliminate that problem, but then enforcement becomes difficult.

      • Kevin says:

        Hmm.. I hadn’t thought of that. Well, I’d probably suggest a lottery for all but the cutter who gets the smallest piece. Then conspirators would have to risk losing out on almost all of it if the draw goes badly.

  11. Jason says:

    My first thought was:
    Do I take a post seriously where they say “For the sake of argument, I’m making two assumptions:” and then list 3 assumptions.
    You also failed to realize you can’t make a slice of cake that is 75% of the cake. You’re actually making a slice that is 25% of the cake. The 75% is the remainder of the cake. The largest “slice” you can make is 50%.
    The solution to the cake problem is that the slicer has control of slice size but should be punished for slicing too large or too small.
    In the 2 person version he is punished because he gets the smaller slice. To scale this up, you now have one person slice the next person in line chooses. They can either have the recently cut slice OR they make the slicer take that piece and then the next person in line takes over slicing duties. This continues until you get down to 2 people and are back to the classic 2 person problem.

    • Kevin says:

      @jason Sure you can make a slice 75% of the cake. You’re assuming all slices must go to the center (assuming circular). Personally, I think the word slice isn’t necessarily the best choice but perhaps piece might work better.

  12. Amstrad says:

    A strange game.
    The only winning move is not to play.

  13. tort says:

    Two things.

    1. You have just argued explicitly that we should not have used force to stop Hitler from exterminating the jews. This is the example I always use when arguing with pacifists because I have been unable to find one yet who is happy to sit back and do nothing while Hitler exterminates millions of innocent people. You may be the first. Are you honestly happy with the logical consequences of your argument?

    2. AC Grayling a British philosopher dealt with this issue. He wrote a book about it “Among the Dead Cities” it is excellent. Grayling writes philosophy that is accessible to the non-philosopher and has dealt with this issue in a much more comprehensive matter than you have. You can find summaries of his argument on the net but it’s worth reading the full work.

  14. Smithsith says:

    midway through you switch from saying Hiroshima to saying Nagasaki? Was this a mistake or did you mean to make a separate point? If Hiroshima is a Sophie’s Choice type ethical dilemma, Nagasaki is barely even cake cutting. Vonnegut often commented on it, I couldn’t find the particular instance i was thinking of, but here’s more or less his take on it: “I know a single word that proves our democratic government is capable of committing obscene, gleefully rabid, racist, yahooistic murder, of unarmed men, women, and children. Murders wholly devoid of military common sense. The word is a foreign word, the word is Nagasaki.” In various iterations he would go on to say something to the effect of: [your] three assumptions about Hiroshima, regardless of their veracity has nothing to do with Nagasaki. Nagasaki was just spite.

  15. Tort says:

    I notice my last comment is still “awating moderation” so I am less than hopeful that this will get through but you do realise that the Japanese attacked the US? When should the US fight? When peaceful nations in Asia and Europe are attacked? When close allies and important partners of the US are attacked? When the peripheral territories of the US are attacked? Or is it still impermissible to fight back when the US mainland itself is invaded? If it is permissible to fight back when the mainland is invaded why are the lives of those people more important than the lives of the people in the countries Hitler invaded? Why protect US citizens but not Jews, gays and gypsies?

    I’m not “pro war”, that position is as untenable and unfortunately possibly even more popular than your position but there are situations when we must take up arms. I urge you to have a serious think about the problem and think the principles you espouse all the way through. No war means no war, it means we do not take up arms to stop genocidal dictators who murder millions of innocent people because that situation is not merely a hypothetical one, it is a situation that occurs with depressing frequency in modern wars. Otherwise say what you mean, no war unless dealing with X and we have exhausted all peaceful means to prevent X. No war unless a sober analysis reveals it to be the course of least suffering in the long run. Or whatever principles you come to in the end.

    • J-Money says:

      That’s what he’s arguing. He’s saying that in that war, we were faced with a Sophie’s choice, kill A or kill B. He’s not saying that we shouldn’t have gotten involved, but simply that no war is desirable over war. Your “Why protect US citizens but not Jews, gays and gypsies?” question is a Sophie’s Choice in itself.

  16. AYoder says:

    As stated above, Sophie’s Choice is in it’s nature a dilemma, which is important to note. A dilemma as I understand it is originally a rhetorical tool, a forced choice between two options.


    Roberty Pirsig colorfully writes that dilemma can be described as the bulls of a horn. Will you take the right horn? Or the left? But a rhetorician worth her salt knows that there are always more than two options. Pirsig’s are: ‘Don’t enter the Arena,’ (Ignore and walk away) ‘Throw sand in the bull’s eyes,’ (Talk your way around the subject, but otherwise don’t engage) or ‘Go Between the Horns,’ (Choose a third option.)

    I get the feeling that the concept of Sophie’s choice, is potentially a dangerous one. The framework of forced choice steers us away from the notion of third choices, which may be more ethically correct than the first two. It seems like we have a predilection for this in U.S. culture “Do I want the ‘Niners or the Steelers to win?” What percentage of third party politicians get elected to office?

    Ethicists would probably tell us that regular discussion of ethical decisions help us establish and develop our ethical framework. My question to all of you is: Can people develop lateral thinking skills if they are exposed mainly to two-option choices?

    To finish, the long ugly link below is to a short sweet paragraph about a civil servant who took that ‘third option.’ One of my favorites.


    To be sure, it heartens me to read that most people commenting on this page would choose “not to enter the arena,” ie: avoid a situation where war was a possibility.

    Cheers, folks

  17. Grant says:

    Hey Zach, I heard you were doing a self-education thing in science and math! What sort of things have you studied, and how do you plan what to study next?

  18. David says:

    There is no reason we can’t have both cake and war: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastry_War

  19. MogTM says:

    Martha Nussbaum has written a fair amount on this subject, which she refers to as a “tragic choice” (see 29 J. Legal Stud. 1005 (2000) Costs of Tragedy: Some Moral Limits of Cost-Benefit Analysis, The; Nussbaum, Martha C.)

    Contra your suggestion, I hope I (or most people) would in fact be able to choose. If I could save either my wife or my daughter, I sincerely hope I would choose to save one rather than letting both die. Having neither at the moment, I can’t know which way I’d jump. But the regret of inaction would doubtless be worse.

    As Tort notes above, the costs of inaction in war can also be quite high.

  20. McManus says:

    It is better to kill the leader than the army to prevent war.

    By that logic, it is far more ethical to assassinate than to declare war.

  21. Kevin Y says:

    The general cake-cutting method I’ve read about is for the cutter to move the knife over the cake, delineating a larger and larger slice. The first person to say “stop” gets that slice. Repeat until only two people are left, at which point you use the i-cut-you-choose method. I don’t know if that’s among the ones you came up with.

  22. Aiyos says:

    A very interesting read, but it seems like a self-defeating point to me. Surely the question of whether or not to go to war is in and of itself a Sophie’s choice. I’m not going to argue any form of morality here, but provided with only the options to either:

    1. Declare war on a tyrant and sacrifice people from your country in order to save the lives of those from another.

    2. Allow said tyrant to oppress his people and cause millions of deaths.

    By simply saying “I’m not going to allow myself to fall into a situation where I’m faced with a Sophie’s choice” you are in fact making a decision; choosing option 2 in a larger Sophie’s choice.

    I very much like the way you thought when you wrote this article but when you look at the summary it mostly just boils down to “In an ideal world there would be no war”. I don’t think anybody ever had any arguments concerning that.

  23. Chance says:

    A comment on the comments:
    There is no argument presented here to “not stop Hitler”. Entering a war to stop Hitler is already a “Sophie’s choice” because every bullet fired, every bomb dropped, risks hitting some two-year old in the street.
    This is an argument to “not BE Hitler”, or more recently: don’t start a war because the leader of another country might, as some unforeseen point in the future, want to acquire weapons that could possibly be directed at the U.S. if he wanted to in the future. Maybe. Because we need to remember that there are known-knowns, known-unknowns, and unknown-unknowns, and these are the ones that concern us.

  24. Hideyoshi says:

    Great post. I think, to refer to a conversation earlier in the thread, the real solution to a “Sophie’s choice” scenario, and I think that Zach was working towards this is to not make a decision. If we are faced with a situation in which we must choose to kill one person or kill another, it is better to make no choice at all. I am not an ethicist, is it fundamental to the game that there is an assumption that one choice must be made?

  25. J-Money says:

    I’m stuck between punchlines, so you get to hear both…
    “The only winning move is not to play.”
    “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
    Also the cliched and time honored favorite
    “The cake is a lie.”
    I need to sleep…

  26. Nick Beat says:

    I’m fascinated by propaganda, and how logic is twisted to motivate the populace. Consider that most every ‘choice’ we are given is what they call a ‘false dilemma’. For example, “America, love it or leave it!” presumes only two options while ignoring many others. I could simply just like America right?

    There really is never simply two options. The child and wife example is a good one. I could simply kill myself and avoid the choice. I guess someone could say, “Kill one of them or they BOTH die!” That would suck.

    Maybe what it comes down to is that certain people grow to such power that they can force people to make choices in this manner. We don’t have to be at war to find our choices manipulated, and we will never be truly free as long as elite groups continue to manipulate the masses.

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