Thursday’s U.S. missile strike on Syria, in response to the earlier chemical attack by Assad’s regime, makes for great applied ethics material. I don’t have much time to explore this event in depth, but I thought I’d write up some brief thoughts on whether the strike was morally permissible, and then open it up for further discussion in the comments thread. I’ll set aside questions concerning whether this was prudent, whether it was Trump breaking a campaign promise, and whether the U.S. should have involved itself at all.
Now, in order to give this event its full consideration, we would want to consider what the likely political and military outcomes are from the attack, and what they would have been had the US not attacked. How will the Russians respond? Will this lead us down a slippery slope to a costly war? I don’t feel like I know enough to answer these questions and factor them into our evaluation of the whether the strike was morally permissible. I’ll set these kinds of consideration aside, and just focus on what we do know at present.
Assad’s regime used a chemical strike in opposition territory, killing at least 86, but maybe many more. Many of the victims were civilians, including children. The U.S. responded by firing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. This base served as a starting place for the Syrian forces in their chemical attack. Six Syrian soldiers and nine civilians, including children, were killed by the U.S. strike. As detailed here, the Pentagon informed the Russians of their intentions to strike the base hours beforehand. The Syrians report that they too were informed ahead of the strike, leaving both time to move equipment and personnel.
So, was the strike permissible, given what we know?
I’ll assume that pacifism isn’t true. Such strikes are typically considered permissible when done in defense of a country that is facing immanent attack. That doesn’t apply here. The U.S. was not defending itself from Assad’s regime.
The strike might be permissible if it leads to less loss of life. Suppose Assad’s regime is now less likely to kill civilians. This would be a good result! We have to consider that the U.S. strike killed civilians, though. I think it’s plausible that the U.S. is not culpable for this civilian loss of life, however, given that they notified the Syrians with plenty of time in advance. This shows that the U.S. did not intend to kill civilians and gave the Syrians time to move its citizens out of the way, a responsibility that it has. And furthermore, at this time, I don’t think we know enough to say that this strike will lead to more lives saved than were killed. It’s not unlikely though.
Finally, the strike was plausibly a retributive action meant to punish the Assad regime. Given some of Trump’s comments, and the notification sent out before the attacks, this might be the best way to understand the U.S.’s actions, given what we know. It looks as though the missile strike was mostly to flex U.S. muscle, show that the administration is willing to fire, and send Assad the message that he better honor a certain set of rules that he overstepped. In the retributive case, that the strikes lead to less loss of life in the long run probably doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the punishment fit the crime. The strike would be like a fine or a jail sentence to a criminal. Assad broke the rules, and this is his punishment. I’m inclined to think the strike was permissible, if this was the purpose. The Assad regime had some sort of punishment coming, given its wrongful actions. Again, we have to consider the civilian loss of life, but the things I said above apply here too.
As of now, it seems plausible to me that the U.S.’s actions were permissible. To really feel confident in this assessment, I’d have to know more about the things I set aside in the beginning.
*Image from the US Navy/Handout/EPA.
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