“The Allied bombings in Europe, then, and the firebombing and atomic bombing in Japan, seem to have been deliberate targeting of civilian populations: in other words, intentional attacks on innocent human life,” writes Christopher Tollefsen in  The Abiding Significance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki , and therefore,

by the standards of traditional, non-consequentialist morality, utterly wrong and intrinsically unjustifiable. And this great moral evil has itself had consequences, some of which it is salutary to note now, more than half a century later.

He argues this using the arguments of the Catholic philosophers Elizabeth Anscombe and John Ford, S.J., and by rebutting the consequentialist arguments made for the actions.

“Thankfully,” he writes, “the inference which Anscombe and Ford drew from the moral injunction against intentional killing to the moral conclusion against area (or terror) bombing has increasingly become part of our Western military ethic,” although “it cannot truly be said, for all the progress in military ethics, that the West has fully repudiated either the Allies’ actions, or the consequentialism underlying them.”

And consequentialism has its consequences:

So the actions have not been repudiated; nor has the consequentialism, which is nakedly on display in the West’s willingness to countenance the killing of unborn children for the sake of avoiding negative consequences, to countenance the killing of in vitro human beings for the sake of the positive health consequences, and, for many decades, to countenance the conditional elimination of entire populations in the event that their leaders should strike us with atomic weapons.

In each case, a decision has been made that innocent human lives are not to be held sacrosanct, or inviolable, if the consequences of doing so would be too significant. The consequentialist ethic of the Allied bombings is thus still with us, and plays a continuing, and horrific, role in our public and private moral deliberations.


Update: A reader points out that, as well as the essay linked above, published in 1956, Anscombe also wrote an essay on the broader subject of war called The Justice of the Present War Examined , published when she was 19 or 20 and a student at Oxford.

Articles by David Mills

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