Justifying atrocities in the name of saving lives

One of the most commonly arguments cited in defense of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings is that “It saved many lives because far fewer people died in the A-bombings than would have died in Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of Japan.”
Now, this thread isn’t a Hiroshima A-bomb pros and cons debate thread, strictly speaking. There are plenty of threads about that already. What I am asking is, to what extent are atrocities justified if they save lives?
Is torture justified if it saves many lives? (I realize some people will claim that torture is ineffective and never saves lives, but for the argument’s sake let’s suppose that it can indeed save lives in certain circumstances.) Is the firebombing of Tokyo justified if it spared a bloodier invasion? Is the use of chemical or biological agents justified if it saved lives? Is a massacre of 100 people justified if it intimidates a population into not carrying out an insurgency that would have caused 50,000 deaths? Etc. etc.

For clarification, I’m not defending atrocities - in fact, this thread is about *challenging *the logic used to justify them.

Well, this is going to depend on the fundamental ethical norms that you choose.

One person might hold that an attack on innocent human life is never justified, no matter how worthy the objective. (Not even to save a different innocent human life.) Thus an atrocity is never justified.

Another might take a utilitarian approach, arguing for whichever course of action would lead to the smallest loss of life. Thus an atrocity is justified if the loss of life is smaller than the loss of life that would have ensued, had the atrocity not been perpetrated.

It seems to me that, once you get down to that fundamental level, no further progress is possible. Neither of the two hypothetical people we are discussing can show that his fundamental ethical principle has a greater objective validity than the other’s fundamental principle; it is simply what he believes.

We also have to ask how useful or meaningful this line of argument is in the real world. Using the Hiroshima example, the dilemma assumes that the only possible alternatives were (a) drop the atom bomb, or (b) invade Japan. In the real world, there would be other alternatives, such as blockade Japan, negotiate with Japan, mount some different military operation against Japan, etc. Or you could combine two or more of these approaches. Or you could encourage the Soviets to join in your invasion of Japan so as to make it shorter and, therefore, less bloody. Or whatever.

The last one is particularly interesting in the context of this discussion. I have just pulled it out of my head, so I have no idea whether co-operation with the Soviets was possible or would in fact have resulted in a less bloody outcome. But lets assume for the purposes of the discussion that this might have been so. It’s widely suggested that one of the factors that led the US to deploy the atom bomb was (a) a desire to defeat Japan without Soviet involvement, so as to maximise their own influence in the region post-war and minimise Soviet influence, and (b) a desire to demonstrate to the Soviets their possession of a functional bomb. And once considerations like that start to enter into your calculations, you can no longer pretend that your decisions are being driven by a desire to minimise loss of life. You have started by eliminating courses of action which might reduce your own influence or prestige and, at best, you employ “saving life” as a criterion for selecting among those courses of action which are still on the table. Saving life is therefore not your overriding priority, and even as between invasion and dropping the bomb it may be considerations of national interest rather than considerations of minimising loss of life which drive the choice. Minimising loss of life may end up as nothing more than a fig-leaf for a decision in fact driven by a desire to maximise power and influence.

The point of this is not to attack the US decision to deploy the bomb - as I have made clear, my analysis is based on a fictional set of alternatives of my own invention, which may bear only a limited resemblence to the alternatives the US actually faced - but to point out that attempts to frame real-world decisions as simple binary dilemmas, with only two options and one criterion for choosing between them, are usually misleading.

Its called “believing your own propaganda”. We did what we had to do, and we “saved even more lives” sounds infinitely better than “we vaporised” a quarter of a million people in an instant

Frankly, IMO, both are stupid positions. Its war. It was an enemy target, so it was engaged and destroyed should be enough.

It certainly isn’t. At least not an open-minded one. You’ve already labeled it an ‘atrocity’ in your title.

If an entity values its survival it will do whatever is necessary to ensure it. Is it justifiable? That depends on one’s moral axioms. I personally feel that the idea of promoting cooperation leads to a greater outcome for society as a whole. So teaching the concepts of compassion, honesty and stuff like that to promote social cohesion is good.

When that order breaks down and one nation or group attacks another well it’s time to set an example so it doesn’t happen again. Once the example is made we can go back to cooperating. That’s what we saw with how the USA treated its former enemies in WWII.

Drop a nuke on you then buy your cars. Now Japan behaves and it’s all good.

I dunno. This appears to work fine if you’re the US, and Japan attacked you. But what if you’re the UK, and you have declared war on Germany? Does that mean Germany gets to “make an example” and then everybody gets back to co-operating?

And no doubt the Japanese in attacking the US would have pointed out that they did so because the US wasn’t exactly “co-operating”; it was blockading Japan, and thus preventing it from “defending its interests” in China, while it was taking no such action against the French, who were occupying Indochina, or the British, who were occupying India, and the US itself was occupying the Philippines. So who gets to set an example to whom? And who gets to decree whether a particular measure is (a) an “example”, or (b) an “atrocity”?

So, I’m not sure that this is a terribly useful way of analysing the issue. It looks more like a comforting tool that allows us to reach the conclusion we want to reach, which is that our brave boys reluctantly administer corrective examples where strictly necessary to restore international harmony and general lovey-doveyness, while those brutal thugs over there perpetrate atrocities.

Except that bombing civilians is a war-crime. So yeah, “we saved even more lives” is definitely the better propaganda.

This is not always true for individuals; why must it always be true for societies?

Speaking specifically about the example of torture, this is often justified by the “Ticking Bomb” scenario, which was first popularized in a novel called “The Centurions.” It has become the de facto argument for torture and is, to this day, still cited in serious debate.

The problem is that the hypothetical relies on a tremendous number of contrivances. The captor knows with great certainty that they have the right suspect, that the suspect has the information they need, and that torture will return the desired result in an accurate and timely manner. In real life, none of these things are guaranteed. I don’t believe these conditions have ever been met in all of human history.

Much of our moral and legal systems (for example, letting suspects plead the fifth instead of torturing them to death) is the result of accepting the inherent ambiguity and the limitations of our own knowledge.

If there will be atrocities regardless of the decision made, then taking said decision based on which will have the least cost in lives is the right course of action, IMHO. In the case of the decision to use the atomic bomb you pretty much have a binary solution, since it’s pure fantasy that there was a 3rd option (i.e. negotiated peaceful surrender of Japan on terms that would be acceptable to the allies…which, even if we go down this path and talk about blockades and the like has a very large human suffering and death cost as well). So, you had the bombs that would certainly kill a quarter of a million civilian Japanese (men, women and children) weighted against the estimates for invasion, based on data from previous invasions such as Okinawa, which indicated over half a million allied casualties (wounded and dead) and several million Japanese casualties, both civilian and military. There was also cost calculations in this, but purely based on casualties it’s hard to NOT see the justification of atrocity on the part of the US when it saved so many lives on both sides.

I supposed that depends on whether it actually worked and actually saved any lives and whether it was literally the only option available. Certainly by the above calculation hurting or even killing one individual to save 10 or 20 is ‘justified’, if it actually accomplishes that goal. Torture is difficult because it depends on what you are trying to get and how you are doing it as to whether or not you ARE getting the information you are after.

The firebombing of Tokyo had very little to do with the invasion…that would have happened, regardless, as at that point we were trying to attack the will of the Japanese people to continue to fight as well as logistics and C&C and their government. So, you can’t ‘justify’ this particular thing based on lives saved in a theoretical invasion as it wasn’t really part of that. This was a military operation using the tools and tactics of it’s time in accordance with the rules of warfare and action of basically every combatant during that time, but it wasn’t to save lives except perhaps by forcing Japan to surrender…something the firebombing of Tokyo didn’t achieve in the slightest.

Those are all tough questions with lots of complications that could led to different answers.

Sometimes, though (such as your example of Hiroshima/Nagasaki) there’s a simpler calculation - you can either kill X people or Y people, and if X is less than Y, you choose X.

Bombing civilians is only a war crime if they are the only target.

It also helps if the victor gets to tell the tale.
Which was more of a military target-Pearl Harbor, or Hiroshima?

Breaking it down to basics. Do you sacrifice the lives of 100 people to save the lives of 500 people who will certainly die if you do not sacrifice the lives of the 100
The outcome is horrendous but the answer simple the 100 must be sacrificed so that the 500 may live

And the reality we must live with is that either both sides have the right to make that decision, or neither side does, and when both sides have that right it all boils down to which side is willing to throw the greatest number of people on the pile to achieve victory.

Yes. What exactly is an “atrocity”, as opposed to some other act of violence?

No. It’s if you have the means to ensure your survival use them. Let’s strip away the pretense. In this universe might makes right. Now promoting the concept of civility, law and order, etc is useful because it helps an aggregate get potentially mightier through cooperation. But still, with regards to survival or getting a huge and lasting advantage, you do what is necessary.

Of course there is a danger in that with promoting the ideas of civility, cooperation, etc some may think that those ideas are the entities worth preserving. Which can at times be counterproductive to survival of an entity.

Good question. The answer is that those entities are acting by weighing values. And survival might not be the number one priority OR that survival is being gambled because other values while not being superior are not in the distance.

People willing to die for patriotic or religious reasons are proof you are correct. But people also commit some of the nastiest acts in the name of the same values that some are willing to die for. But why did I say what is necessary for survival is justifiable? Because it is my belief that every organism has the right to fight to survive.

If the cows and chickens could rise up and fight back I wouldn’t blame them.

Now, it’s in my own best interests to promote the idea that people should act more civilized and follow rules, even with regards to warfare. I also think humans should treat the more intelligent of the animals much better even with legal protections. We might need to appeal to that precedent if machine AI ascends.

Both were considered military targets but only Hiroshima was attacked during a declared war.