Moral philosophers spend a good bit of their time reflecting on what they call moral dilemmas. It is not entirely clear—nothing in philosophy is ever entirely clear—how to characterize them. But the usual course is to consider a case in which an agent is faced with two courses of action, only one of which can be chosen, and are such that there seem to be compelling reasons for each choice. By itself this would seem to be just a hard case; one in which the reasons are roughly equivalent and it is difficult to tell which set of reasons is stronger. But some philosophers claim that the situation can be much worse than this. It can be the case that the reasons are such that neither set over-rides the other. Or at least that with resources available for thought we cannot make such a determination. A consequence of this is supposed to be that no matter what we do we will be doing something wrong or failing to do something that we are required to do.
Examples abound in the literature. Sartre’s case of the student who wants to join the resistance but has an aging mother who lives with, and depends, on him. Sophie’s Choice to pick which of her two children will be killed by the Nazi concentration camp guard. If she refuses to pick one , both will be killed. Recently, I ran across a book—The Lone Survivor—which is an account of a group of Navy Seals on a mission in Afghanistan told by the only survivor of a failed mission. It presents an account of a moral choice that this group of four men had to make. The case is interesting to think about since it raises a number of different issues which are relevant to the theoretical notion of a moral dilemma, as well as the practical issue of how to think about such difficult and terrible choices.
The four men set out on a mission to try and locate a local Taliban leader – the head of a heavily armed group of Taliban. They do not know what village he is in so plan to remain concealed in some appropriate spot on a sparsely covered high-up mountain until they spot him and attempt to kill him. They discover such a spot and remain concealed, and still, for many hours in the hot sun. If they are spotted from above they are dead ducks. But the area above them seems completely empty. After many hours they hear a noise of soft footsteps above them and a man, wearing a turban and carrying an ax almost stumbles over them. They point their rifles at him and tell him to sit down when suddenly a flock of goats comes trotting up the mountain accompanied by two other men–more precisely one man and a boy around fourteen years old. All three men are distinctly unfriendly—which might be explained by discovering a heavily armed group of soldiers camped out on their farm.
The question arises for the Seals as to what they should do with the men. It is best to continue with quotes from the man who survived to give a picture of how they framed the choices and reasoned about what to do.
“What did we do now? They were very obviously goatherds, farmers from the high country. Or, as it states in the pages of the Geneva Convention, unarmed civilians. The strictly correct military decision would still be to kill them without further discussion, because we could not know their intentions. How could we know if they were affiliated with a Taliban militia group or sworn by some tribal blood pact to inform the Taliban leaders of anything suspicious looking they found in the mountains…. The hard fact is that if these three Afghan scarecrows ran off to find Sharmack and his men, we were going to be in serious trouble, trapped out here on this mountain ridge.” (pp 200-202)
They proceed to a discussion. One says, “I think we should kill them, because we can't let them go.” Another says, “I really don’t give a shit what we do. You want me to kill `em, I’ll kill `em. …I only work here.” The third says, “Well, until right now I’d assumed killing `em was our only option. I’d like to hear what you think, Mikey.” Mikey: …If we kill them, someone will find their bodies real quick. For a start, these fucking goats are just going to hang around. And when these guys don’t get home for their dinner, their friends and relatives are going to head straight out to look for them….When they find the bodies, the Taliban leadership will sing to the Afghan media. The media in the U.S.A. will latch on to it and write stuff about the brutish U.S. Armed Forces. Very shortly after that we’ll be charged with murder. The murder of innocent Afghan farmers.”
The men then tried to contact higher commanders who did not respond to their signal. One man sums up their choices. We kill them and bury them here. We kill them and throw them off the cliff. We get out and say nothing. We turn them loose and get the hell out of here. Marcus, the author of the book, considers a fourth option but it is not feasible. Tying the men up and leaving to establish another position. They have no rope. He casts the deciding vote in favor of letting them go, and moving to a new position. They do so. The farmers notify the Taliban. The Seals are located in their new position by an over-whelming number of Taliban troops. After a fierce fire fight three of the Seals are killed with Marcus , badly injured, surviving to tell the tale.
He believes that he made a terrible error in casting the deciding vote to free the farmers. Now there is no doubt that this is a terrible decision to have to make. There is no doubt that there are considerations which favor each of the options; we will get to them shortly. But there are many issues about which there can be doubt. 1) Were the options framed correctly? Were there options not considered? 2) Were the relevant factors framed correctly? Were all the factors considered? 3) Were the relevant factors given a plausible weighting? 4) Was the reasoning sound? 5) Was the correct decision made? Is there a correct decision? 6) What is the relevance of the fact that Marcus believed—even as he made the decision and certainly after—that he was making a mistake? 7) Is it the case that no matter which option was chosen they would be doing something wrong?
Framing of the Options
In the view of the Seals there were only two (relevant) options in the situation—kill or free the farmers. There were, of course, many other options. They could break their legs. They could feed them and give them money in the hopes this would influence their future decisions. They could simply have kept them as prisoners. But all of these were have the consequence that there would be relatives who went out to find them or left too much uncertainty about what they would do once freed. It is true could not be certain they would inform the Taliban but it is reasonable to believe that is the most likely course. The hard fact remains that they can either kill or face a significant probability that they will be killed.
One factor that was not discussed was freeing the men and abandoning the mission, Whether this is because that simply was not in their space of options, or because retreat would be as dangerous as staying around in another location is unknown from the account we are working with.
There were considerations of quite different types that entered the discussion. First, what is the “militarily proper” course of action? “ The strictly correct military decision would be to kill them without further discussion.” T his is preceded by a mention of what the Geneva Convention requires so one assumes that the “military” decision is being opposed to the “legally correct” one. And by military decision one assumes is meant something like what will promote the current set of military orders and objectives of the mission they were sent out on. This is not the same as what will most promote the possibility of returning from the mission unscathed, or at least alive. The decision is not being made on narrow grounds of self-interest—although that is certainly a relevant consideration.
There are also what might be called “political” considerations that are invoked. If they kill the farmers this will result in an immense public relations coup for the Taliban. This will make the life of the military more difficult in the future. It will also mean that he men will likely face murder charges’ again a consideration of self-interest which is relevant. They acknowledge the force of the Geneva Convention but this a legal convention. But there is some evidence that they are conscious of the moral condemnation of their actions as well, but reject it. One soldier says, “We’re not murderers. No matter what we do. We’re on active duty behind enemy lines, sent here by our senior commanders. We have a right to do everything we can do to save our own lives. The military decision is obvious. To turn them loose would be wrong.” I take it that he is not using “murderer” as a legal term, but as a moral one. To do what one has a right to do, even if it involves killing the innocent, does not make one a murderer. And, as we shall see in a moment, the deciding voter does explicitly weigh the moral considerations.
An alternative interpretation of the argument is that having weighed military, legal, prudential and moral values and norms, the correct decision is to kill the farmers. This the all-things-considered sense of the right thing to do.
Weighting of the factors
Although some soldiers seemed to give the greatest weight to what was “militarily correct” the deciding vote gave the greatest weight to the fact that innocent civilians would be killed. “Something kept whispering in the back of my mind, it would be wrong to execute these unarmed men in cold blood.” This despite the fact that he also believed that “ the imperative military decision, the overriding one, the decision any great commander would have made: these guys never leave this place alive.” It is not clear how to understand the fact that he thought the military decision was “overriding” and yet decided on the morally right course of action.
Was the decision correct?
My view is that it was. If there is any sense to the idea of there being morally binding principles which limit the use of deadly force in combat situations then there will have to be cases in which one has to adhere to them knowing that this will increase the combatants risk of death and make it more likely that one’s military objectives fail. Now there may be borderline cases , i.e. cases in which it is very difficult to determine whether the person approaching is a threat and one has to act , but the farmers do not fall in this category.
The fact that Marcus came to believe he made a mistake does not alter the issue of whether his decision was the right one. Of course, when one sees what the consequences of the decision were, when one is aware that fellow soldiers have died as a result of the decision, one will have second and third and fourth thoughts. But just as regret about a prudential decision which proves disastrous does not necessarily show that the decision was not rationally chosen, and that indeed given the same information one should choose the same way again, the fact that a decision had very bad consequences does not show that it wasn’t the correct decision from a moral standpoint.
Was this a moral dilemma?
If by that is meant was it the case that either decision would have been morally wrong then it was not (assuming you agree with me that the right thing to do was free the farmers). Can reasonable people come out the other way? Perhaps, but this would still not show that it was a moral dilemma. Only showing that both choices were morally wrong would do that. And, at least in this case, I do not see that possibility.