Thought Experiment "J" Followup

Last week I posted the following hypothetical Thought Experiment J:
You represent a human aid organization in central Africa and help refugees and victims of a gruesome tribal war based on local religion. It is a country without natural resources, the UN won't intervene. You make no distinction and help the hungry and wounded of both factions/tribes. For your organization to work safely in that area, both war lords demand payment in terms of food and money. You give away a part of your resources (food, medical aid supplies) for your aid workers to be safe. Here's the dilemma:

- You help and treat both sides. Since there is no distinction between civilians and soldiers (there is no army, they do not wear uniforms and do not know the Geneva convention), once wounded combatants drop their AK47 and report at your hospital, you identify them as civilian and you treat them. But when they leave healed, they pick up an AK47 somewhere and start fighting again. The warlords have food, manpower and money, so the fighting continues. While 50,000 die each year, you save an estimated 200,000 lives each year. You feel you make a difference. The bad side is, this war has raged for 10 years already and will continue at least another 10 years, if not longer.

The alternative:

- You stop giving aid. About 250,000 people die each year of famine, sickness or fatal wounds. Because of the high casualty rate, one side claims victory in 2 years, but the county is a graveyard (think Rwanda). Still, peace settles in after the war has ended.

As a rational thinker, you can do the math (500,000 dead in both cases). On moral grounds, you meet difficulty. Still, you'll have to make a choice: Will you stand by and watch genocide happen or will you intervene, but let the war continue? What will you do? This is a very hard question, if not a bit of a sick one, I admit. But it has tested my thinking and ethics. Also, when people are acting/intervening based on religious grounds (especially if one side is christian!), what would happen?

Thanks so much to all of you who tackled this hypothetical question. My favorite answer came from Jay Knight who said he'd get a sniper rifle and go in and kill one of the leaders, then leave a note saying the other leader did it, then repeat as necessary. I love the answer even though it isn't following the "unspoken rules" of the thought experiment (that you have to stay within the parameters given). Instead of leaving the note that Jay suggested, I would leave a note from God himself (not sure how that would work) where God tells people in the note that he disapproves of war and to love one another. My other idea for a note to leave after killing one leader is to say, "This war is not cool. I will kill any leader that perpetuates it." And leave it at that.

Personally I feel the above Question is one of those lose-lose situations that I just can't stand. What would I do? I've thought about this for awhile now and I just don't know. If I stay within the parameters of the Question, I guess I'd have to not give aid because it lengthens the war and accomplishes nothing. No extra people are saved, but different people die. I think I'd have to find better ways to use my time than help perpetuate such a pointless war.

Jobson, who sent me the question, has a very long answer:
First, I'd like to state that in this case "ethics are a luxury". We (the western world) are always quick to respond and have our ideas ready on what to do and not to do (our call for cease fire often will fall to deaf ears). This is where I would like to make a comparison between this fictitious case and religion. One must be very careful about 'projecting' morals and ethical standpoints onto others. This is often where oppression begins (why ‘liberators’ often eventually are seen as an occupying force. See Iraq). Especially when you combine the two, results can be disastrous, however 'good' one’s intentions may be. See also what Christopher Hitchens wrote about Mother Theresa. To the readers and commentators, I’d like to emphasize the opinion below is my own, you are allowed to disagree. I do not claim to have THE correct answer. This is a difficult topic to discuss rationally, and perhaps too sensitive of nature as I have noticed. Please don’t flame either me or Neece, we are not here to convince anyone and do not wish to be convinced. Just a warning, especially if you are religious :)

As some of the commentators were on the path that I will give as my answer below, some if not most chose the option to intervene (do good while you can). A good point, action is required, but I think some aspects have been overlooked. The fact that giving aid prolongs the conflict is in my opinion, overlooked (sorry, you can disagree whether it's realistic, but it's part of the case here.). Also, an evaluation of the both situations AFTER the conflict has ended, has not been made.

Good, I'll give you my point of view now. First, we must understand that 'saving lives' is not the first objective in this case (both 'routes' lead to the same amount of casualties, and no the numbers aren't high, compared to Rwanda: 800.000-1.000.000 in 100 days ). Our objective should be to avoid long term suffering and reaching peace (emphasis on ‘long term’). However, from a religious or political standpoint, one could argue that saving lives is priority. Still, we do not have the means to apply (enough) force to stop the fighting and we cannot guarantee safety for huge amounts of people (as both Daillaire in Rwanda and the Dutch experienced in Bosnia). This also applies to the above question. Failing at such tasks, one eventually becomes a third participant in the conflict, being criticized constantly (even from our own ranks). Worse, one could even be under fire by one or both parties involved. We must understand and accept there is conflict (even if we think reasons are trivial), and evaluate our position carefully. Citing both Sun Zu and Von Clausewitz, we must avoid that our own politics (= ethics) dictate actions in the field (E.g. in the laughable case where Dutch opposition party ‘green left’ has tried to negotiate with Dutch government on what Afghan police is allowed to do and not to do, after being trained by the Dutch, in exchange for support for the mission. This is bound to fail miserably, the country is at war. No man with a rifle will stand by idle. But that's my opinion). I recommend to watch “The Trap: What happened of our dream of freedom” by Adam Curtis on Youtube or Google video if you want to get the idea how Bush/Blair acted during the second Gulf War/Iraq.

I would argue that ‘time’ is the main objective here: to end the conflict as soon as possible. ‘Ending’ in this case is not to reach a cease fire, i.e. maintaining a ‘50-50 state’, in which at any moment fighting can recommence (thus prolonging the conflict). I follow (again) Sun Zu in this case. What I mean is that the conflict itself must be resolved definitely, in the shortest time possible. If that means that one side wins, by killing the other, it is hard, but as we are bystanders, either forced or by opinion, we must choose to either accept, or intervene fully (but in our case, the death toll will be the same). There are no gray area here. It is best (in my opinion) to make sure the least number of generations will live and grow up in a country at martial law or war. If over 3 generations knew nothing else but fighting and violent oppression, reaching a prosperous and economic stable country within a decade will be very hard, if not impossible (which is the case in Afghanistan, armed conflict has become part of its culture). In such countries, there is only ‘law of the gun’ and common moral grounds among people are easily replaced or driven out by religious dogma, creating even more separation (Iraq: Sunni vs. Shia). In this case, I argue we save our resources and employ them only and only then after the war has ended, to make sure the country and its people benefit optimally from our aid and get to know a peaceful life as soon as possible. Our objective therefore should always be long term peace, not short term intervention based on moral, political of financial grounds, perhaps at disregard to the situation at hand. It means we must sometimes ignore suffering, or allow it to continue. We must be aware that all our actions, of any type or any intention, may have negative outcome. Our course of action should be based on rational thought and discussion, whilst we ignore emotional input. Especially if one is religious (yes, I do imply that religion clouds judgment).

Still, should we do nothing during conflict? Can we not influence the war in this case? I think that is possible, but it is (in this case) very hard to do. We could bargain our aid services and goods to one or both sides, luring them into a more peaceful position. This will probably not impress anyone, unless they are in a desperate state (but again, we risk prolonging conflict). But we could also ‘tip the balance’, forcing a more resolute solution. As for Libya, the current western strategy is possibly a good one (the west has take side with the rebels, still it took way too long to take a standpoint. Politics. Politics.). Again, time will tell if this is the correct strategy. Personally, I think it is (the cat’s out of the bag since Egypt).

Remember, this ethical challenge I’ve posted is much the same question the U.S. government was faced with in 1945. After 5 years of fighting, many were to accept a few hundred thousand casualties, even civilians, by using nuclear bombs on Japan. The alternative, which was to invade and occupy Japan, would have resulted many more dead (estimated millions) and would have prolonged conflict. Still, I do not condone the use of nuclear arms, but I understand and accept choices made.


  1. Haha, am I too violent for ethical dilemma questions?

  2. Ha, well, just think how many people would be saved from the horrors of war if you did it your way. It's really how you look at it. Would you kill one violent leader hellbent on a bloody war to save 500,000 innocent people? I would.

  3. Too many good posts lately and I haven't been able to respond...

    So let's start...

    Whose lives are you saving? Because you cannot tell the noncombatants from combatants, what you are actually doing is enabling them to fight on. In fact, you're not saving anybody. Those people go out and kill others. They go out and get killed. You are only perpetuating and enabling the violence to continue. Not only that, but because you're dragging out the war, you are therefore causing a great more injured. Death tallies inevitably are the same, but injury tally rockets.

    But this isn't the worse part, you are not only indirectly helping them, but also directly helping them. You posted the dilemma after the key part... you're directly funding both warlords by giving them supplies as bribes.

    ... and as if that wasn't enough, there are more key reasons why you shouldn't interfere. And that is, there are ten years and massive amounts of funding unaccounted for in one scenario.

    By helping, you wasted all that time and funds for the same outcome of doing nothing... when there are so many other places and people that need your time, help, and funds. By not helping in the war torn area, you could redirect and help another, and instead save those 2 million lives without any consequences outright. In fact, maybe even more, since you'll be dealing with less injury related emergencies.

    So choices extend beyond the false dichotomy presented... Help, don't help, go help somewhere else.

    Jay also gave a good response, however, he's ending remarks fall to the same oversight. We could have used the nukes without targeting cities with large populations of civilians. We could have targeted military bases, or even just used one and we would have gotten the same result. Nearly all ethical dilemmas are easy once you understand that the choices given almost always are a false dichotomy.

  4. I agree, GMN, especially that this is a false dichotomy. Thanks for pointing that out.

  5. Ah, GMN, good answer! The key is to think beyond the options given and explore them further (action taken and effects on short and long term). About the nukes, for those want to read more, there's an interesting article on wiki: