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Essay: Utilitarianism and Kant: A Missile Launch Scenario Decoded

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Words: 1,300 (approx)
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Terrorism, murder: these words alone can bring chills down one’s spine. The concepts in themselves are astoundingly sobering; acknowledging the fact that another entity can take your life, your entire existence, within a blink of an eye. To know that you would never breathe another breath, see another sight, or hear another sound because of another’s actions and beliefs is relentlessly terrifying and rooted in evil. The scenario illustrated in this paper describes an opportunity for a military entity to launch a missile at a building that has a very good chance of sheltering a dozen civilian residents as well as several leaders of the major terrorist organization TKP, who are responsible for killing hundreds and threatening to overthrow a developing country’s democratic government. This paper will describe a utilitarian approach to the correct actions to take in this scenario, as well as objections. The TKP’s heinous actions must be met with the missile, even if it means killing innocent civilians. Monstrous actions must be responded with a commitment of duty, which may include violence and sacrifice.

As stated by Plato, when a citizen enters a society and reaps its rewards, they enter a social contract with the government. Citizens expect protection and means to thrive in their community. In return, a government asks that all of their citizens obey the laws. Something invaluable comes from this relationship: a sense of community. It promotes citizens to contribute in something ‘greater than themselves,’ make an everlasting connection between themselves and their community, and feel a sense of patriotism and duty. A true citizen must be willing to die for their community if it means protecting the greater good. In this scenario, it appears that there is a threat to a developing country, one that has overcome many boundaries to finally become democratic. The presence of the TKP is ruining the citizens’ way of life. They are living in fear of death, destruction, theft, and the takeover of their government. This terror must be resolved. In a utilitarian standpoint, the opportunity to kill the leaders of this group in exchange for the deaths of 12 civilians is the rational choice to make. As stated by John Stuart Mill, “The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness, but that of all concerned” (5). This is illustrated below:

1. The TKP is killing hundreds of people, and have the ability to overthrow the government.

2. There is a great possibility that all of the lead members of the TKP are located in a building close enough to a missile station that the building can be destroyed.

3. By destroying the building, the TKP would no longer have leaders, and its organization would ultimately crumble, resulting in positive impact to the developing country. _____________________________________________________________

4. Therefore, the missile should be launched and any civilian casualties would be heroes that sacrificed themselves for the well-being of their community.

Of course, some may disagree with this conclusion, and such objections should be responded to. The first objection to be analyzed will be the part of the scenario that states that the intelligence received believes the leaders of the TKP are within the building, but cannot be absolutely confirmed. This unsureness can make one feel uneasy, as innocent lives are at stake, but one must think of this in a larger perspective. While it may not be absolutely confirmed that there the TKP is in the building, it is 100% true that they are terrorists who are destroying towns, killing people, and attempting to overthrow governments, all activities which impact thousands of people. This behavior must be corrected in order to ensure the well-being of the people. Another counter-argument is that it may be possible that, given the intelligence is wrong, there may not be any civilians in the building at all. In this case, the only harm done would be on the building itself, an inanimate object that could be rebuilt at a future date. One may ask: How certain should one be before deciding to follow through and order the airstrike? This is a terribly complicated question on an ethical basis, but within a utilitarian viewpoint, it may be easier to grasp. One could measure the accuracy of the intel, the amount of people to be impacted if the civilians were to perish, the impact of killing the heads of the organization, the economic cost of deploying the missile, the economic cost of the building being destroyed, etc. The prompt says that the person providing the intel is ‘confident’ that the leaders are inside. I would believe this would mean that they are at least 85% sure. The impact of killing the heads of the TKP would make the chances of uncertainty admissible. One should not be punished for trying to do what’s best for the greater good.

According to Kant, it is immoral in and of itself to use another individual as a mere means (70). In other words, the use of others as pawns to reach a goal that will only be self-satisfying is immoral and unethical. One may argue that the civilians are simply being used in order to reestablish the government. However, there is a major difference between ‘use’ and ‘sacrifice.’ Given the usage of the word ‘pawn,’ let’s think of this in terms of chess. The objective of chess is to kill the king of the opposite color in order to protect your own king. The other pieces are used as a mere means to protect this one single piece. However, in the missile scenario, the destruction of the opposition’s ‘king’ (the heads of TKP) is performed in order to protect all of the pieces (civilians), not just the king. It should also be considered the ‘king’ in this scenario is actually the democratic government in itself, not the head of the government. So, in order to save the majority of pieces (especially the king), a few pieces may have to be sacrificed.

A Kantian may believe that using a missile to kill the heads of the TKP is not good in and of itself. They may argue that murder is simply murder, and nothing beneficial comes out of it because it is not universal law, and therefore could not be practiced by everyone at every time. However, doing the ‘right’ thing is not always the best solution, and doing the ‘wrong’ thing is not always the worst. This is especially true in terms of evil. Those witnessing evil should never sit idly. They must do whatever they can to eliminate the source of it. Therefore, the destruction of evil could be a universal law, since it brings about well-being, and therefore the leaders of the TKP must be destroyed in order to bring back peace to the country.

As a resident of a private lake, I have seen snakes. I have also seen people try to kill snakes. This one particular time, a neighbor tried to run over a snake with his ATV. He went forward and backward over the creature several times to no avail. It wasn’t until this neighbor shot the snake point blank in the head did it stop moving. Terrorism is very similar. These organizations are led by people that have brainwashed others into subordination through the preaching of radical idealism. These groups are nothing without their leaders and what was once a bountiful group instantly becomes a flock of clueless followers. Just like a snake, when the head(s) is gone, the rest of the body will halt. Given the chance ratio of the intelligence given being correct, the sacrifice of 12 individuals to kill the major heads of the TKP would ultimately be beneficial to the eradication of the developing country’s pain and suffering.  

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