War with Iran (12): Imminent Threats and Moral Blackmail

This abstract presents a slightly more formal, structured version of the argument I gave in the second installment in this series. Comments welcome.]

The Iran War of January 2020 (hereafter, “the War”) was widely justified by way of the following morally loaded question, addressed primarily to an American audience:

(Q1) If you had certain intelligence of an imminent threat to American lives, would you use military force to stop the person responsible for that threat?

Typically, an interlocutor hoping to defend the War would pose Q1, demand an unqualified “yes or no” answer to it, and take the “yes or no” to be an exclusive disjunction.

What we might call the Q1 argument strategy went as follows. Respondents answering “yes” were taken to ratify a basic presupposition behind the War. Given the additional claim that Iran’s General Qasem Suleimani had in fact posed an imminent threat to American lives, a “yes” answer would seem to justify the Trump Administration’s having assassinated Suleimani. Since the assassination precipitated war, and could have been predicted to do so, a “yes” answer implicitly justified the War.

Respondents answering “no” were taken to be guilty of an act or omission tantamount to treason, as follows. Assume that minimal concern for one’s fellow-citizens is a necessary condition of a minimally decent sort of patriotism. A citizen who would allow her fellow-citizens to be killed with impunity by a hostile power is guilty of flouting even this minimally decent sort of patriotism. Such a person, though not a traitor in the narrow legal sense specified by the U.S. Constitution (Article III, Section 3), might still be considered a traitor in the weaker sense of showing more concern for the enemy than for one’s fellow citizens.

Refusal to give an unqualified “yes” or “no,” or to treat “yes or no” as an exclusive disjunction, were widely regarded as a dishonest form of evasion.

Since few Americans would be willing to admit to anything like treason even in the weak sense just mentioned, “no” answers were effectively ruled out of court. Since refusal to answer Q1 as asked seemed dishonestly evasive to most, the legitimacy of Q1 was rarely if ever questioned. So “yes” answers were regarded as a foregone conclusion. Given this, opponents of the war either avoided Q1 or struggled to offer criticisms of the War consistent with a “yes” answer to it.

In this paper, I take issue with Q1 and the Q1 argumentative strategy, focusing on six criticisms. The first four criticisms address, in general terms, the moral presuppositions of Q1.

(1) Q1 blurs what I take to be the morally salient distinction between letting-die and both sending-to-kill and sending-to-die. A decision-maker might justifiably allow some to die from an imminent threat in order to avoid sending others to kill and/or others to die.

(2) Q1 presupposes that {S‘s sheer knowledge that X is an imminent threat is a sufficient condition for S’s being able to engage in morally responsible deliberation about how to handle X}. I argue that the bracketed proposition is false.

(3) The “treason” charge implicit in Q1 fails: it either begs the question, involves a non-sequitur, or employs a conception of treason too weak to do the normative work required of it.

(4) The Q1 argumentative strategy fails to consider the possibility that the would- be victims of an imminent threat might justifiably be targeted by the threat. Those employing the strategy would, on pain of circularity, have to eliminate this possibility before relying on Q1.

The next two criticisms address epistemic or purely descriptive assumptions involving Q1, made in the specific polemical context of the debate about the War:

(5) Q1 presupposes that a single person (or small group) plays so pivotal a role in generating an imminent threat that his (or its) elimination would be sufficient to eliminate the threat. But this was not true of Suleimani or the small group targeted with him.

(6)  Q1 presupposes that the threat in question is in fact imminent.  But no evidence was presented, weeks after the strike, that Suleimani had in any relevant sense posed an imminent threat.

The preceding arguments are severable: the truth of any of (1)-(6) would, as I see it, be sufficient to undermine the Q1 argument strategy, but since each is a separate claim independent of the others, no one claim is undermined by rebuttal of any of the others.

I end by discussing what my argument implies more generally for thought-experiments in normative inquiry. Many if not most thought-experiments in normative theory are, like the justification for the War, based on morally loaded questions. And many involve argumentative techniques problematically similar to those used by partisans of the Q1-argument strategy. Under certain circumstances, I argue, thought-experiments based on morally loaded questions involve a form of moral blackmail. Such thought-experiments, I suggest, should be avoided regardless of the merits or demerits of the conclusions they aim to establish.

3 thoughts on “War with Iran (12): Imminent Threats and Moral Blackmail

  1. It’s barely clear what the question is asking. How do you cite a name that doesn’t justify something? But the implication is obvious enough: the sheer existence of any name on the wall justifies the killing.


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