Bryan Caplan — An Argument for Pacifism

Bryan Caplan,

Release Date
May 8, 2017



Prof. Bryan Caplan tells Dave Rubin why he supports pacifism: the only predictable thing about war is that innocent people will get hurt. Full interview here

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Bryan Caplan:
By pacifism, I don’t mean never resisting violence, so I don’t mean that if someone is coming at you with an ax, you shouldn’t fight back, or anything like that. Rather, what I mean by pacifism is opposition to war, violence organized by governments. How exactly is that different? The answer is that war is actually almost never defensive. In the sense that all of war almost always involves either deliberately murdering or recklessly killing innocent people. Isn’t it theoretically possible that it wouldn’t be that way? Sure, but in practice any time you fight any kind of a serious war you either wind up deliberately murdering a whole bunch of civilians or you wind up recklessly endangering them where you go and you drop a bomb in the general vicinity of a whole bunch of civilians and you kill them and say, “Collateral damage. What’s the big deal?”
If the police fought crime the same way that the US government wages war, this would be way bigger protest than anything that we’re getting right now. Look, you need to go … Minimum, it seems to me, there is some moral problem with war. Which again is glossed over by the, “Well, we’re just defending ourselves.” Normally, you’re defending yourselves by murdering a bunch of innocent people. At first glance, this seems like it’s a problem. People often want to say, “No, there’s no innocents on the other side.” It’s like, there’s no innocent babies in the other country? There’s no one who’s never done anything? Seems like this is a pretty flimsy defense.
Then there’s also the, “Well, anyone we kill is totally on the hands of the bad guys that we’re fighting against.” It’s like, “Really? What if you went and bombed people in the neighboring country? Would that be on the hands of the bad guys, too?” Why exactly is it that … Is there some limit to what you can blame on the bad guys? It’s one thing if you’ve got someone holding a hostage right there, and they’re shooting. Again, what if, say, there’s just a school next to a criminal? Can you go and bomb the school because, “Well, that’s on him. The fact that we killed all the kids in that school. Sad, but we’re just trying to get that one murderer.” It’s like, that seems like a very flimsy defense.
Now, again, I am actually never an absolutist. I’m always willing to say, “Maybe we have to do this terrible thing for the greater good.” I always want to be open to that argument. That’s where I say, “Let’s actually go and carefully look at how great is this good and how certain can you really be that you got it.” Just to back up, you’ll say, the argument for pacifism is just accepting the harsh reality that war is not really defensive. It does involve actually going and murdering or at least manslaughtering a whole lot of innocent people. No matter, the nicest country that wages war, the most careful one, does this. With modern weaponry, it would be hard to do otherwise.
Dave Rubin:
Can be in and of itself moral, though? In the case of World War II where we weren’t in our homeland … Well, Pearl Harbor, but our homeland wasn’t threatened by the Nazis per se. We killed a lot of people and the Allies firebombed Dresden and all that. We also then saved a lot of lives.
Bryan Caplan:
Again, that’s next step. First step is just accepting that the United States government murdered a lot of innocent people. The United States government murdered children. They did the kind of thing that we attack terrorists for, which is murdering a bunch of innocent people because you think it’s for the greater good. Again, normally when we say terrorists are terrible people, we don’t have some big factual argument about how what they’re doing isn’t really for the greater good. It’s like, “You murdered innocent people. That’s a terrible thing to do.” We say, “There’s at least a moral presumption against this, which maybe can be overcome, again for the greater good.”
That’s where I say that there’s this great philosophical example involving a doctor who’s got five patients who each need a different organ donation. Then a guy walks by who happens to be perfectly healthy and the doctor thinks, “Hmm, maybe I should go and murder that guy and harvest his organs.” Then he searches. “He has no family, no one’s really going to miss this guy. I can save five lives by murdering one person. Seems like a good idea.” People’s normal reaction to this is, “That’s horrible.” If you start-
Dave Rubin:
I’d want to know a little more about the guy.
Bryan Caplan:
… Start ramping up the numbers, maybe it’s a million people. All right, that’s fine. Anyway, at least that five to one ratio seems to really bother people and say, “No, you can’t go and deliberately murder a person to save five other people.” It is this premise that I bring in in my case against war saying, “Look, now it may be that there’s a war for the greater good, but are you actually getting something like this five to one ratio? Furthermore, how confident can you really be?” That’s where I bring in the last body of evidence which is that people’s predictions about the results of war are terrible.
Again, the whole idea of prediction is you have to state what you think is going to happen before it happens and then you look at what occurs and see how accurate your prediction was. There is a fantastic political psychologist named Phil Tetlock who ran a big experiment along these lines. In the 1980’s, he went and asked a bunch of foreign policy experts their predictions. Then 20 years later came back and weighed their predictions against the actual results. They did really badly. This is experimental evidence on people’s ability to forecast the actual long-run benefits of war are very poor. Of course, we don’t really need to do experiments. We can just go to the views about what would happen in World War I, where all sides were saying, “Out of the trenches by Christmas.” No one is saying, “I think this will end in Communist revolution.” Certainly on one was saying, “Well, I think the long-run result of this will be a Communist regime in North Korea, a country that doesn’t even exist right now.”
Yet, if you know your history, that is the key event in why there’s Communism in North Korea. Now, if you stack these pieces together, moral presumption against war, five to one ratio, something like that minimum in order for it to be justified, and then finally, great uncertainty about what the effects of war are. That’s where I get my case for pacifism. It’s like any time there’s someone proposing a war, my reaction is, “First of all, is it even plausible that you are going to save five times as many lives as you are going to murder here? Is it reasonable to be that confident given how bad most people’s track records are?” If you put that together, then I say that for almost any actual war, it’s really hard to make a case in his favor.