Saturday, May 14, 2011

Enemy Combatants and More on Higher Ed

The Economist's Will Wilkinson wrote a rather impassioned article on how he thought that America's operation against Osama bin Laden was dubious because it was conducted on foreign soil without notifying the host country (national sovereignty) and because bin Laden was unarmed.I'm going to go ahead with my gut feeling and say that he's wrong on both counts.

Back when I dabbled in philosophy, there was a special emphasis people put on gut feeling, if only because what feels right is usually indicative of some higher moral sense. Well, now I have to justify it, don't I.

From a moral perspective, the idea of killing an unarmed man is what a philosopher would call "problematic." I have a more nuanced view than most because I don't support the death penalty but have had no sympathy for bin Laden's situation. I suppose the difference is the manner and time and place of a killing. The death penalty is an execution. Its victim is someone who has already submitted to or been compelled to submit to state power. In that kind of situation, where the prisoner poses no thread, there is no reason to kill an unarmed, helpless man.

In bin Laden's situation, even if he was unarmed he did have armed men guarding him. He was actively participating in trying to harm others. No matter what he was doing at any given time, bin Laden was a threat to somebody. That he didn't fight back was more likely due to the fact that he had no opportunity to do so than anything else. And moreover, there's an argument to be made that whereas a typical wrongdoer's capture does nothing, bin Laden's life serves as a standard for other loss of life.

War in the traditional sense of nation-states fighting hasn't existed for bin Laden. But there is no doubt that he was at war with the United States (does that mean he was a sovereign over his organization? maybe). I think there is also good reason to think that the death of bin Laden would be any bit as justified as the shooting down of Admiral Yamamoto during WWII or a raid on an enemy headquarters. It's war. Whereas I'm not comfortable with classifying Guantanamo detainees as "enemy combatants" unless they actually did bear arms against the US, with bin Laden I think there's no moral trouble.

And re: sovereignty of Pakistan, let's just say Pakistan hasn't had the teeth to enforce its authority over its own territory for a while now. This is a diplomatic problem, not a moral one.

As an aside on higher education, it was brought to my attention that my focus on cost-benefit analysis is probably best put another way. There are many reasons that someone goes to college - bandwagoning, the "thing to do," actually liking learning, wanting to become a specific profession regardless of income, etc. But I think it's a pretty safe bet to apply a cost-benefit analysis to one major: Business. There's really no reason to major in business other than to make a whole lot of money. I think this is the real reason why it's less problematic of a proposition to use cost-benefit analysis for business education (as Schumpeter has) rather than higher education in general.

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