War in Korea

So here\’s a depressing calculation.

War in Korea is still unlikely but not as unlikely as it was.

But let us apply some Benthamite utilitarianism to the problem.

Start with this:

1) The 24 million odd North Koreans are being vilely oppressed by their own government. Millions have died in famines caused by the State\’s idiocies. Hundreds of thousands (millions?) more are in Gulags.

There is therefore, to put it dryly, some disutility from the continued existence of the North Korean regime.

Yes, of course, we\’d all prefer that this end without war. But just for the sake of argument assume that it won\’t. That the regime is sufficiently stable that power will pass on to the third generation and that matters will be much as they are for another few decades yet.

Then, again for the sake of argument assume that war does break out. Further, that the south wins.

No, South Korea is not an Elysian state itself. But I think we might all agree that it\’s not as bad as the North?

So, the utilitarianism. The depressing calculation.

What\’s an acceptable butcher\’s bill for this liberation of the people of the North? In abstract of course: no fair saying well you go and do the dying then.

We\’re playing Bentham here: what is the good of the greatest number?

Is one person dying too many? 100,000? Whatever the number who will die from the continuation of the North but will live if liberated? What value freedom, liberty, in lives lost over lives available to enjoy such?

Anyone even want to try working this out?

Finally, does the difficulty we have with this sort of calculus tell us anything about utilitarianism itself?

23 thoughts on “War in Korea”

  1. Surely as a libertarian you don’t believe such a calculation is ever possible – one (undesired) death is too much?

    Tim adds: Note the constant references to utilitarianism. This isn’t about my beliefs, it’s a (possibly very bad) test of a specific philosophical position.

  2. Furor Teutonicus

    WWII Britain lost in total 449,800 (Including civilians in bombing, etc. The U.S lost 418,500.

    Less than a million.

    Go ask your question to the 10 MILLION Jews, however many Sinti, etc etc, that were SAVED due to those LESS than a million deaths.

  3. >What’s an acceptable butcher’s bill for this liberation of the people of the North?

    24 million North Koreans.

    More seriously, though, libertarianism is not as straight-jacketed as Matthew suggests. Sometimes utilitarian decisions are forced upon you whether you like it or not.

  4. Furor Teutonicus

    Go and ask the 20 million dead Russian, no sorry you can’t.
    What about the millions who found themselves behind the Iron Curtain?

    Not arguing against our involvement in the War, but its not quite as simple as that.

  5. “does the difficulty we have with this sort of calculus tell us anything about utilitarianism itself?”

    That it shouldn’t be confused with utility?

  6. Yes, it does, since nobody’s answering your question. It tells us, as you’re implying, that the calculation is usual too difficult to solve, and that dirigisme is likely to have bad outcomes.

  7. It all depends on how far one estimates the increase in utility. Does one limit one’s self to the liberation of 24 million (less the inevitable dead) N Koreans?

    Or does one include the millions of others in countries far from the Korean Penninsular whose leaders get the message that being bad is not good for their health?

  8. Horrible exercise. And a useless basis for decision making. But I suppose you’d start by assigning a relative value of happy, free years alive versus unhappy and oppressed ones. 10 to 1, maybe? If 2 million deaths, 1 million on each side, produced peace and unity for the rest, saving the remaining 23 million North Koreans from 30 years of unhappy and unfree lives, you’d be up 23 x 27 (90% of 30) on the North side, and down 1 x 3 (10% of 30). Net utilitarian benefit of 621. on the south side you’d have a cost of 30 and no upside. so huge net benefit, go for it (you can add in unborn children on both sides and tiny fractions by the increase and decrease in chinese etc people’s happiness from the end of the regime and the occurrence of the war, and maybe even the diminished future happiness of the survivors because of sorrow) but i suppose it could be done). But what a waste of time – only a monster would claim the moral right (plenty of people act this way, but because they can, not because they should) to sacrifice someone else’s life on the basis that his own happiness is increased sufficiently to make it worthwhile. Would a pure utilitarian actually consider that a duty? And finally, you can’t start a war with any confidence in how it will turn out, which is not a reason never to start one, but certainly a reason never to start one on utilitarian grounds.

  9. I think that utilitarian considerations are rarely very helpful at the strategic level, especially with regard to the underpinning of a decision to declare war. The pros and cons are too hypothetical and poorly understood, especially by the public.

    As an example, had 9/11 not happened, there would have been no invasion of Afghanistan, regardless of any forecast benefit to those suffering under the Taliban. The justification for that action, was the mayhem they inflicted on the west.
    In those terms, our calculus was unashamedly predicated on the enhanced value, to us, of our fellow western civilians. The pursuit of our own security is a much greater justification.

    Utilitarian considerations do have a place, at a tactical level, once the military action has started. They help to select targets which will minimise harm to civilians, and maximise attrition against their regime.

    There is another phase of warfare though, at which we are woefully underperforming. And that phase is the end. How to get out and come home, without being “captured” by a population who want those troops to stick around, and do their hard nation-building work for them. And it never works anyway. Perhaps we should take a good hard look at what we want from the end of the shooting war. I would like to propose the following:

    1. Once we have won, send all their refugees back, and get the troops out while the survivors are still scared of us.
    2. Leave them with enough resources to build a peaceful civil society for themselves.
    3. Make it clear that if their trouble comes back, so will our missiles.

  10. OK as an exercise in crude Utilitarianism if we are going to do this calculation then first it would be a good idea to figure out what data we have to calculate with. The quality of life that you get under any the North Korean regime would be, for me, pretty low when compared to practically any free market country, but it is very hard to quantify quality of life. This is the basic problem why all planned economies fail, they simply cannot know what outcome to plan for. Given that there are even people out there, greens and certain brands of communists for example, that think a peasant existance under an authoritarian regime slowly staving to death or dieing form ailments that would be easily preventable in a developed society is actually a good thing the only values that you can make this calculation on is the number of people and how long that you extend their lives. Though I’m sure that some greens would object to the idea that more people being alive as a good thing as well. So you get the calculation, go to war if:

    (The average age of death in SK – the average age of death in NK)*(the population of NK)
    Is greater than
    (the average age of the South Koreans killed by the war – The average age of death in SK)*(the number of South Koreans killed) +
    (the average age of the North Koreans killed by the war – The average age of death in NK)*(the number of North Koreans killed)

    Or if you are green then replace the greater than with a less than.

  11. Remind me again.What direct threat does N Korea pose to our national interest?The same as Serbia ? Iraq? Oh I see.

  12. DBC: What do you consider to be a ‘direct threat’? NK troops landing at Brighton? If history has shown us anything, it is that it is better to deal with problems earlier rather than later. (See Rhineland, Reoccupation of.)

  13. The calculation needs to include not just the cost to South Korea of the war itself (e.g. rebuilding Seoul), but also the cost of integrating 24 million malnourished, undereducated, unproductive new citizens. If you thought integrating East Germany was expensive…

  14. @ZT
    It is not very sensible to make comparisons with the WW2 about which not all the truth is in yet.

    So we invade Afghanistan because the Afghans are what kind of threat?Their airforce?

    This is all the domino theory : the slightest slip-up and they sweep across continents.

    N Korea is no direct threat ,no indirect threat; no trade threat; no threat at all.

  15. “So we invade Afghanistan because the Afghans are what kind of threat?Their airforce?”

    As I recall, it was their air force of two 757s and two 767s, wasn’t it?

  16. “What’s an acceptable butcher’s bill for this liberation of the people of the North?”

    What are you on about?

    From the Guardian article:
    “China hopes all parties will stay calm and exercise restraint … to avoid escalation,” she said.”

    So, what would make the West want to risk confrontation with China? Certainly not the liberation of North Korea.

  17. The calculation needs to include not just the cost to South Korea of the war itself (e.g. rebuilding Seoul), but also the cost of integrating 24 million malnourished, undereducated, unproductive new citizens. If you thought integrating East Germany was expensive…

    Send the bill to Moscow. They were the c**** who started all this.

  18. N Korea is no direct threat ,no indirect threat; no trade threat;

    If they get the heavy industry divisions of Daewoo, Hydunai, and Samsung offline, there’ll be an effect all right.

  19. @Mr Potarto
    Not even the biggest carpet biting American Neo-Con believes that Afghans piloted,controlled or planned 9/11.
    @Tim Newman
    N Korea does not compete with our car industry because thanks to our market-dominated economy we don’t have one.They don’t compete with S Korean automotives.So how are they a trade threat to us? Of course if we were to engage
    in ping-pong diplomacy and get them to trade with the west ,we would have no Communist threat and millions of low paid workers putting Western industries out of business.That would be much better.

  20. You seem to be leaving out China.
    China might not want North Korea ‘Dealt with’.
    In fact China might well take an opprtunity to show that the west and its armies are not all that potent.

  21. Utilitarian thinking clearly has its place, but questions like this do indeed expose its limitations. Anyone trying to assign a greater value to a “happy, free” life than to a life of oppression tends to assume that they and their spouse won’t be the ones that have to die so that others may live happily and free. So when, Tim, you say: “no fair saying well you go and do the dying then” you’re kind of ruling out a perfectly valid objection to utilitarianism; i.e. that it’s a pretty damn subjective thing. I’d rather live unhappily than die so that some stranger can live happily. And I do not believe that others have the right to take that decision out of my hands.

    Away from philosophy and into specifics, I agree with John Malpas in that I feel we ignore the wishes of China at our peril in all this. I think it’s quite obvious that they are increasingly frustrated by the North Korean regime, but I doubt it’s to the extent that they’d permit a successful US-backed invasion of their neighbour (any South Korean military adventure would be viewed as having US support even if the Obama regime publicly disavowed it).

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