Saturday, August 13, 2011


Anscombe was clearly appalled by the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I'm always tempted to read her example of the judicial execution of someone known to be innocent as a reference to this bombing. But it seems a slightly odd way to characterize it. Why not call it murder, say, rather than execution? So this is probably a temptation I should resist. But I was struck by the second sentence quoted below from the Boston Globe:
On Aug. 6, the United States marks the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing’s mixed legacy. The leader of our democracy purposefully executed civilians on a mass scale. 
It's from an article explaining the theory that the Japanese surrendered because of the Soviet invasion of Japan, which happened after the bombing of Hiroshima, not because of the bombing itself, and not because of  reasons that already existed before the bombing. Worth reading.   


  1. Yeah, the "judicial execution" case seems different. Kai Nielsen discusses such a case (no doubt thinking of Anscombe, whose line about a "corrupt mind" he cites) in a defense of utilitarianism that was, I think, published in the 70s. But I don't know if there was some particular case--real or a previously discussed hypothetical--she was thinking of when she wrote the paper.

    (In case you're not familiar with it, Nielsen's case is one in which a magistrate is faced with an angry mob, threatening to riot, if the culprit of a terrible crime is not produced. The magistrate has no leads, but could railroad a disliked but innocent person, in order to quell the mob. Nielsen uses the case to argue that even a good utilitarian could say that it would be wrong to do so (given the potential bad consequences if the mob finds out, etc., etc. This is the sort of thing Williams critiques as an appeal to "remote effects" in his well-known critique of utilitarianism).)

  2. Thanks, Matt. Yes, that example rings a bell. Tommi mentioned a real-life case that she might have had in mind, but there's (probably) no knowing at this point. Maybe it was just the most blatant case of injustice she could think of. She wants people, after all, to use terms like 'unjust' rather than 'wrong,' and the most obvious kind of injustice is abuse of the criminal justice system. I think she sometimes talks more vaguely about killing the innocent, though, and then I think she might have Hiroshima in mind, albeit perhaps not exclusively. Nielsen seems to be thinking of the question "Sure, it's unjust. But would it be wrong?," which is exactly what Anscombe doesn't like. The fact that he answers the last question with a Yes (or a Maybe) doesn't make his position much better, from her perspective. He has a corrupt mind (she would say).

  3. A more awkward example from the point of view of the proponents of the principle of double effect might have been Britain's decision in 1940 to switch the focus of its air campaign from military to civilian targets.

    There would seem to be compelling evidence that without this change in strategy, forcing a corresponding change in strategy from the Germans, the Battle of Britain would have been lost. Britain would have been defeated, the United States would never have entered the War, and either the Nazis or the Soviets would have enjoyed complete dominion over all of Europe.

    The human consequences of such an outcome can hardly be imagined, but would certainly have outweighed any suppositious "moral corruption" which may have resulted from the shift in Britain's strategy.

  4. Well, I'm no historian, so let's assume this is right. Anscombe opposed Britain's entering World War II partly because she foresaw such tactics being used. So I don't know how awkward this would be for her. It just is her position: don't target civilians, no matter what. And part of her reason for taking such a position is her faith in God.

    It's more awkward, I think, for people like me who like the doctrine of double effect but don't have that faith. Perhaps this is what you're getting at. But I could always adopt Michael Walzer's position and say that targeting civilians is never OK except when it's the only way to stop people like the Nazis taking over. I don't like that position very much, but if I can't take cover in the fog of historical hypotheticals then I might do well to resort to Walzerism.

  5. I mentioned the contemporaneous Bentley case because I felt it was problematic for Anscombe's way of putting her argument, but there was also the Evans case, which is not - Evans was executed for murder on the perjured testimony of the real murderer, which is "procuring" (as Anscombe puts it) the execution of the innocent if anything is. But I agree with Duncan that maybe this just happened to be the paradigm case of injustice for Anscombe personally.

    I also agree that the consequentialist considerations about the run of World War II are not something that would have swayed Anscombe. I personally think she was deeply wrong morally about this, as about several other matters, but not for this reason.

  6. Yes, I agree that the Bentley case is problematic for Anscombe, although she might have said that this case was clearly an instance of injustice. That, presumably, not everyone saw it that way need not detract from the obviousness of its injustice. (Or so I suspect she might have thought.) But the concept of obviousness is tricky, I think.