Should We Bomb ISIS?

The Trolley Problem & The Technocratic Delusions Of The West

By Professor Uwe Steinhoff (University of Hong Kong)

November 05, 2016         Picture: Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s November/December 2016 Issue “The Great War Series (Part III): Defeating ISIS & Restoring The Middle East”.

Pacifists are often accused of being more concerned with the purity of their own hearts than with the suffering of the innocent who could be saved by violent means. To wit, some people, especially those fond of “humanitarian intervention,” might say that “one cannot just idly stand by” while innocent people are being slaughtered. Edward N. Luttwak, in contrast, has famously stated that one should “give war a chance.” “Policy elites should actively resist the emotional impulse to intervene in others people’s wars—not because they are indifferent to human suffering but precisely because they care about it and want to facilitate the advent of peace.”[1] The underlying assumption here is that it is often better, in terms of shortening war and preventing loss of human life, to allow wars to “burn themselves out.”[2] For example, an imposed “cease-fire tends to arrest war-induced exhaustion and lets belligerents reconstitute and rearm their forces. It intensifies and prolongs the struggle once the cease-fire ends …”[3]

Thus, one should not overlook the possibility that the idea that “one must do something” might often spring from exactly the same concern with the purity of one’s own heart of which humanitarian interventionists like to accuse pacifists. Not only can standing by be an idle act, interference can also be idle and might in fact have more to do with a need to feel morally good and righteous than with a concern for others. With this in mind, let us have a look at Western involvement in the conflict in Syria and Iraq (a conflict, incidentally, that would not exist – or at least not at the current magnitude – if Western powers had kept out of Iraq in the first place).

However, we need some philosophical background first. The relevance of this background will become clear in due course. The most influential tradition dealing with the ethics of war is so-called “just war theory.” This might be a misleading label since wars, including justified ones, are rarely if ever just. This distinguishes wars from paradigmatic cases of self-defense: the culpable aggressor (or the innocent aggressor, for example one in a psychotic state) who tries to kill an innocent non-threatening person and can only be stopped by lethal counter-measures has forfeited her right against such counter-measures and will therefore not be wronged by them. Killing her is just. In war, however, not only are aggressors being killed, but also innocent bystanders. Killing innocent and non-threatening people is not just, it is unjust, it is a rights violation.[4]

Nevertheless, sometimes rights violations (or “infringements,” as some authors then prefer to say) can be justified. For example, if a runaway trolley is about to kill five innocent people, then diverting it towards, and thus killing, merely one innocent person might be permissible. Nevertheless, this one person’s right to life has been violated. The same is true of an innocent and non-threatening person who is blown to pieces by a bomb that simultaneously takes out a legitimate target in a justified military attack which, we want to assume, saves five other people. Accordingly, wars in which innocent and non-threatening people are being killed (and thus, virtually all modern wars) cannot be justified by the self-defense justification. The self-defense justification, both in law and morality, only justifies the infliction of harm on aggressors. Harms inflicted on innocent bystanders, in contrast (including harms inflicted on them in the course of an act of self-defense: imagine a shotgun harming both an aggressor and an innocent bystander), can only be justified by a necessity or lesser evil justification.

It is useful to distinguish an “agent-relative necessity” justification from an “impartial lesser evil” justification. The former justification allows the agent to give to his or her own interests (or responsibilities) greater weight than to those of others. The latter justification does not allow that. Accordingly, the former justification might allow you to divert the trolley from your own innocent child to another innocent child, while the latter would not. The former justification thus is more permissive. However, while you might be allowed to give more weight to your own interests and to the interests of those near and dear to you, there are limits: for example, you must not kill an innocent child to harvest its organs to save your own child.

Moreover, the lesser evil justification is even less permissive than the “lesser” suggests. As this justification is usually understood, it does not suffice that the evil brought about is, indeed, simply “lesser” than the evil averted. Rather, it has to be significantly smaller.[5] This relates to the idea that if another person has a right against you, this gives you an especially weighty reason not to interfere with the interests protected by his right against you. Thus, while it might be permissible to violate the right to life of one person to save the lives of five (or twenty or hundred?) other persons, it is not deemed to be permissible to violate the right of one person to save two. It is not even permissible to violate the right of one person to save two other persons from their rights being violated by someone else. After all, in doing so, you would be interfering with the one person’s right; while by not doing so you would simply fail to prevent someone else’s interference with the rights of others.

Thus the limiting conditions of the lesser evil justification are a severe obstacle to the justifiability of a war, including a war of humanitarian intervention. However, one should also avoid the mistake of overestimating how severe an obstacle they are. The view, for example, that the taking of life can only be justified by the prevention of further loss of life or perhaps of such gruesome things as mass rape or enslavement is mistaken. Nonetheless, this view has even been advanced in the context of the self-defense justification. To wit, some have denied that defensive wars against unjust aggression can be justified if the unjust aggression limits itself, for example, to the annexation of territory, the robbery of resources, or the restriction of political freedom, and would only endanger the lives, bodily integrity or freedom from slavery of the citizens if the unjustly attacked state (or someone else) actually resisted the aggression. The reasoning behind this is that the limiting conditions of self-defense, in particular proportionality, necessity, and an alleged duty to retreat, would allegedly rule out self-defense against such a “bloodless invader.”[6]

Yet this argument relies on a misinterpretation of the scope and limits of the self-defense justification even in the case of private citizens – and much more so in the case of police officers.[7] In no Western jurisdiction are police officers under an obligation to simply surrender someone’s jewels to a bloodless jewel robber instead of trying to resist (and even arrest) her. If the robber then attempts to make good on her threat to use lethal force, they can shoot her. And just as the police are the potentially violent arm of the state in the interior (it is called the police force for a reason), so soldiers are the state’s violent arm in the exterior. They also need not surrender to “bloodless invaders.”


“Just as the police are the potentially violent arm of the state in the interior (it is called the police force for a reason), so soldiers are the state’s violent arm in the exterior”.


One might object that it is one thing to use lethal force against a bloodless aggressor and a completely different thing to use lethal force against an innocent person. That is true, of course, and as already noted, this is precisely the reason why one cannot justify war under an appeal to the self-defense justification alone and why one also needs the lesser evil (or the necessity) justification. Yet if five innocent lives can outweigh one innocent life in such a way that violating the one innocent person’s life in order to save the lives of the five can be justified, then, for example, the freedom of, let us say, 200 innocent people might well outweigh the right to life of one person. After all, that people do not regard their lives as infinitely valuable is shown, for instance, by the fact that they are often quite willing to risk their lives – even on a daily basis, for example by driving a car.[8]


“That people do not regard their lives as infinitely valuable is shown by the fact that they are often quite willing to risk their lives – even on a daily basis, for example by driving a car”.


Many people in a war zone might also be willing to risk their lives if such risks come with potential benefits. It they are all willing to risk their lives, then the analogy of the runaway trolley given above is misleading. (Recall that the diverted trolley was the analogy to a bomb attack that kills one to save five.) A better analogy would be a situation where there is no one on the first track, but the second track is normally not used anymore and ends in front of a prison wall. Sixty (not fifty) people are unjustly imprisoned there, and they all could escape if the trolley would be diverted, breaching the wall. Yet the debris hurled through the air would also kill ten of the prisoners. If all these people accepted a 1:6 risk of being killed as long as the course of action that brings such a risk would give the survivors freedom, then diverting the trolley is justified. In fact, as long as the prisoners accept the risk, diverting the trolley would appear to be justified even if the risk of death is 1:2. (Moreover, they can accept such a risk without having explicitly consented to the diverting of the trolley. Evidence of acceptance could, for example, be gathered from their conversations.)

An obvious question that will be raised here is: what if ten of the sixty persons adamantly object to any risk of death being imposed on them – would we then not be back to the original trolley analogy? The answer, perhaps no less obviously so, is “no.” First of all, in all (astronomical) likelihood diverting the trolley and breaching the wall will not kill precisely those ten people who did not accept the risk. Odds are that only two of the dissenters will be killed, while the eight others who will be killed have accepted the risk. If so, then the opposition of the ten will have to be strongly discounted so that we are nowhere near the original trolley example. Moreover, even if, by some cosmic fluke (it would really be a cosmic fluke: the inverse to winning in the lottery) exactly the ten dissenters would be killed in the end, this would still not bring us back to the original trolley analogy.

To wit, in the original analogy the ex ante probability of the one person being killed in the course of saving the five is 1:1 – that is, it is certain. In the prisoner example, however, the ex ante probability of getting killed is 1:6 for each of the ten. Now, it would appear that an act that for no good reason imposes an ex ante risk of death of 1:6 on someone and actually kills him is no less evil than an act that for no good reason imposes certainty of death on someone and actually kills him. For instance, sadistically pointing a revolver with only one loaded chamber at an innocent person’s head, pulling the trigger (without knowing whether the respective chamber is loaded or not, but knowing that one chamber is loaded) and killing the person seems to be no less bad and is no less an instance of murder than doing the same with a fully loaded gun. Yet the situation is clearly different if there is a good reason for doing either of these two acts: maybe it is, somehow, the only way of saving millions of innocent lives.

If in this case one had the choice of saving those lives by either using the Russian roulette gun or the fully loaded gun, it would be utterly irresponsible to use the fully loaded gun. Even if one still ends up killing the innocent person, by using the Russian roulette gun one has at least ex ante given the potential victim a chance of survival and thus shown him more respect. If one does not give the person this chance although one could have, the person has an even stronger complaint (from the afterlife, as things are) than he would if the chance had been given to him. But in the case of diverting the trolley to the prison, killing (miraculously) precisely the ten dissenters, each of the ten dissenters had been given an ex ante chance of 5:6 of survival, a chance the person in the original trolley case never had. Finally, they had not only been given a chance of mere survival, but also of liberty – they could potentially have hugely benefited from the breaching of the prison wall. This, again, is not true of the original trolley case.

Where does all this leave us regarding the permissibility of militarily intervening in Syria and Iraq? Tony Blair recently defended the decision to invade Iraq by claiming that the world was and is “better off” without Saddam.[9] Of course, as he himself notes, the Iraq war rid the world not only of Saddam but also of other human beings, including (which he does not himself note) babies and toddlers. To be sure, if the Iraq war simultaneously saved a significantly larger number of innocent human beings than it destroyed, it might well have been justified. The same would be true for the bombing of ISIS by Western powers and Russia. Yet if the original trolley case above is the appropriate analogy, so that one would have to save five more lives than one destroys in order to be justified in one’s military intervention, then there is actually little chance (short of preventing a genocide) that such interventions could be justified. Not only does the direct killing of innocent bystanders by an exploding bomb, for example, stand in the way of such justification, but also and especially the indirect effects in terms of the continuing destruction of the infrastructure, which negatively and often devastatingly affects food and water supplies and the provision of medical attention.[10] The Geneva Declaration Secretariat proposes as a rule of thumb a 4:1 ratio of indirect to direct deaths and deems this assessment conservative.[11] In the light of such numbers, the idea that the continued bombing of ISIS (and thereby of innocent bystanders and of the infrastructure they rely on) would save five times more lives than it costs lacks any credibility whatsoever.

Yet I argued that the original trolley case is not the right analogy. The more befitting analogy of the trolley diverted to break people free (and to save, we may now add, at least some lives, although not five times more lives than it costs – perhaps no more than it costs, period) while simultaneously killing others leads to more permissive results – if, that is, a large enough number of those people are indeed willing to assume the risks involved. In my hypothetical example I could simply stipulate that this is the case. In the real world, however, this is an empirical question. A July 2015 opinion poll shows that 49% of people in Syria and 56% of people in Iraq opposed the air strikes.[12] Given that the direct casualties from such strikes have recently risen considerably,[13] the opposition to such strikes should meanwhile be even stronger. Would diverting the trolley into the prison wall, killing ten people, be permissible if half of the prisoners are against this course of action? That is doubtful, to say the least. The same, then, would have to be said about the air strike campaign.

In fact, the situation there is even worse, for something else that I could simply stipulate in the example is that diverting the trolley to the prison will actually work and thereby give the prisoners their freedom. However, if they only escape the prison to be immediately recaptured and end up in another prison, then little room remains to claim that diverting the trolley could be permissible. In fact, it is then not even clear anymore whether imposing the risks on those who are willing to assume them is justified. After all, even if someone consented to you imposing a risk on her (for example, putting a Russian roulette gun against her head and pulling the trigger), this would not be enough to make imposing such a risk morally permissible (although it might not be a violation of her rights – just as there can be justified rights violations, there can conversely also be unjustified acts that do not violate any rights[14]). To do so, the risk imposition would have to serve a (moral) good of sufficient weight to outweigh the evil of the risk imposed. Without any evidence that it does so, one should not impose such risks.

In the case of Iraq and Syria, however, there is no evidence, let alone clear evidence, that bombing ISIS improves the situation. (An exception, in my view, is bombing ISIS to keep them away from Yazidis. I will turn to that in a moment.) Given the deservedly bad press that ISIS has been receiving, people might be quick to assume that killing members of ISIS just must have benefits for the Iraqi population, but in the light of the bad press Saddam Hussein had received many also thought that removing him from power would be very beneficial, and meanwhile we know how that turned out.

While Immanuel Kant’s and Thomas Hobbes’s veneration for the state’s authority went too far, they certainly had a point in noting that sometimes even a very unjust regime is to be preferred to pure anarchy and a war of all against all. But, as one observer says about ISIS (in the context of a Sunni population): “The group is offering reliable, if harsh, security; providing jobs in decimated economies; and projecting a rare sense of order in a region overwhelmed by conflict.”[15] This brings me back to that variation of the prisoner example where the prisoners soon after their liberation get imprisoned again. In fact, in Iraq the “liberation” of Sunnis from ISIS comes often enough in the form of summary killings at the hands of government forces or Shiite militias.[16] (By the time the presumed liberators arrive, the Shiites will for the most part already have fled or been killed.) In such cases, being governed by ISIS is clearly the lesser evil compared to being “liberated” by a combination of Western air strikes and Iraqi ground forces. And even without such killing the harassment of the Sunnis by government forces and militia is and has often been massive.[17] This statement made by a resident of Falluja before the so-called third battle for Falluja might therefore be understandable: “What will happen if the militias enter Falluja? We will take our guns and fight them, not because we are ISIS, but because the militias will kill us all.”[18] As it turned out, they did not kill all, but they killed many (some by beheading) and tortured and otherwise mistreated others.[19] Thus, given that there is, as I said, no clear evidence that the military interference of Western states, in particular their bombing campaigns, actually improves the situation at all, and given, moreover, that the improvement would in fact have to be very significant in order to satisfy the requirements of a lesser evil justification in light of the fact that half of the population who is supposedly “benefited” by the air strikes actually opposes them, the continued Western military meddling in Iraq is impermissible. The West should stop dropping bombs on Iraq and Syria.


“Kant and Hobbes certainly had a point in noting that sometimes even a very unjust regime is to be preferred to pure anarchy and a war of all against all”.


There is an exception though. Given that ISIS’s intention towards the Yazidis are downright genocidal and they have absolutely no compunction against enslaving Yazidi women, living under the reign of ISIS is not even an option for male Yazidis and only an absolutely horrible option for Yazidi women.[20] Here air support of the Peshmerga is permissible even when (as it will and did) it kills as a side-effect at least some of the very Yazidis it is aimed at protecting, since it is also reasonable to assume that the vast majority of the Yazidis will in principle support such air strikes.

However, there is no obligation to intervene.[21] Moreover, if the intention is to help people, it should be pointed out that military interventions are extremely costly. Many more lives could be saved if one spent the money, time, and efforts on non-militarily helping the poor and the starving. This is simply a fact of our real world.[22] Moreover, people carrying out such non-military methods of helping people, for example by providing money, food, medical help, and infrastructure, are not only more effective in terms of saving lives than those carrying out military humanitarian interventions, but they also refrain from morally problematic acts like endangering the lives of soldiers and making them engage in operations where some of them will inevitably kill innocent people, including babies and toddlers. They might also avoid making further enemies. It seems to be an overall moral (and even pragmatic) win-win situation.

In contrast, the Western idea that dropping bombs from high above or availing oneself of allegedly “smart” or “precision-guided” weapons will considerably improve the situation in the whole of Syria and Iraq (I excepted the Yazidi territory) looks suspiciously like a technocratic delusion, matched by the opposing theocratic delusion of ISIS. Sometimes less, in particular less meddling in other peoples’ affairs, might indeed be more.[23]

References & Footnotes

[1] Edward N. Luttwak, “Give War a Chance,” Foreign Affairs 78(4) (1999), pp. 36-44, at 44.

[2] Ibid., p. 37.

[3] Ibid., p. 36.

[4] Uwe Steinhoff, On the Ethics of War and Terrorism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 57-58. See also Michael Neu, “Why McMahan’s Just Wars are only Justified and Why That Matters,” Ethical Perspectives 19(2) (2012), pp. 235-255.

[5] On this point see also Uwe Steinhoff, On the Ethics of Torture (New York: SUNY Press, 2013), pp. 44-45; Larry Alexander and Michael Moore, “Deontological Ethics,” in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition),, section 4.

[6] David Rodin, War and Self-Defense (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 131-132. Rodin has popularized this argument, but it had been made before (although in other terms) by Richard Norman, Ethics, Killing and War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 134-135. Rodin further defends his view in “The Myth of National Self-Defence,” in Cécile Fabre and Seth Lazar (eds.), The Morality of Defensive War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 69-89.

[7] Uwe Steinhoff, “Rodin on Self-Defense and the ‘Myth’ of National Self-Defense: A Refutation,” Philosophia 41 (2013), pp. 1017–1036.

[8] See ibid., pp. 1028-1030.

[9] BBC News, “Tony Blair stands by war decision but sorry for families,” available at, accessed on 21 September 2016.

[10] Neta C. Crawford, Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America’s Post-9/11 Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 149-156.

[11] See ibid., p. 153.

[12] ORB International, “ORB/IIACSS poll in Iraq and Syria gives rare insight into public opinion,”, accessed on 22 September 2016.

[13] The Guardian, “Civilian death toll on the rise from American-led airstrikes against Isis,”, accessed on 22 September 2016. For updates and further details, see also

[14] See Uwe Steinhoff, “Shortcomings of and Alternatives to the Rights-Forfeiture Theory of Justified Self-Defense and Punishment,” available at

[15] Ben Hubbard, “Offering Services, ISIS Digs In Deeper in Seized Territories,” New York Times (16 June 2015),, accessed on 22 November 2016.

[16] Amnesty International, Absolute Impunity: Military Rule in Iraq (London: Amnesty International, 2014); Amnesty International, “Iraq 2015/2016,”, accessed on 22 November 2016. For this conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, which enabled ISIS and other Sunni extremist forces to pose – at times with some degree of credibility – as protectors of the Sunni, see also Oliver Hanne and Thomas Flichy de la Neuville, Der islamische Staat: Anatomie des Neuen Kalifats (Berlin: Vergangenheitsverlag, 2015), pp. 24-27; and Christoph Günther, Ein zweiter Staat im Zweistromland: Genese und Ideologie des “Islamischen Staates Irak” (Würzburg: Ergon, 2014).

[17] See the references in the previous note.

[18] Quoted from Hubbard, “Offering Services.”

[19] BBC News, “Falluja: Iraqi Shia militia ‘killed and seized civilians,’”, accessed on 22 September 2016.

[20] UN New Centre, “UN human rights panel concludes ISIL is committing genocide against Yazidis,”, accessed on 24 September 2016.

[21] Uwe Steinhoff, “Is There a Duty to Militarily Intervene to Stop a Genocide?”, available at

[22] On this, also for some interesting numbers, see Ned Dobos, Insurrection and Intervention: The Two Faces of Sovereignty, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 169-170; and Peter Singer, “Bystanders to Poverty,” in Ann N. Davis, Richard Keshen, and Jeff McMahan (eds.), Ethics and Humanity: Themes form the Philosophy of Jonathan Glover (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 185-201.

[23] For a similar thought, see also Hanne and Flichy de La Neuville, Der Islamische Staat, p. 144.

Uwe Steinhoff
Uwe Steinhoff
Uwe Steinhoff is Associate Professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration of the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of On the Ethics of War and Terrorism (Oxford University Press, 2007), The Philosophy of Jürgen Habermas (Oxford University Press, 2009) and On the Ethics of Torture (State University of New York Press, 2013), and editor of Do All Persons Have Equal Moral Worth? (Oxford University Press, 2014). He is currently writing a book trilogy on just war theory and the ethics of violence.
Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search

A masked, black-clad militant, who has been identified by the Washington Post newspaper as a Briton named Mohammed Emwazi, brandishes a knife in this still image from a 2014 video obtained from SITE Intel Group February 26, 2015. Investigators believe that the masked killer known as "Jihadi John", who fronted Islamic State beheading videos, is Emwazi, two U.S. government sources said on Thursday. The British government and police refused to confirm or deny his identity, which was first revealed by the Washington Post, saying it was an ongoing security investigation.  REUTERS/SITE Intel Group/Handout via Reuters (CIVIL UNREST POLITICS CRIME LAW TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) CONFLICT) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE WAS PROCESSED BY REUTERS TO ENHANCE QUALITY. AN UNPROCESSED VERSION WILL BE PROVIDED SEPARATELY - RTR4RBZVA Syrian refugee woman carries her belongings as she crosses into Turkey at Akcakale border gate in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, June 15, 2015. On Sunday, Turkish authorities reopened the border after a few days of closure, a security source said, adding that they expected as many as 10,000 people to come across. REUTERS/Umit Bektas      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX1GKWI