“I think that when you know you’re able to save a significant number of lives by causing significantly less harm, you’re required to do that. The problem is, I don’t think a strike now is going to save any lives,” she said. “The last time Trump did that, it clearly didn’t prevent the regime from using chemical weapons.” Similar strike options are reportedly under consideration now.
At this point, she added, a strike “shows our distaste for the chemical attack, and it’s a show of force. And those are things that it’s good to do—but it’s not good to do it by killing people.” When I asked Frowe what she thinks it would be good to do—what she would do if she were president of the U.S. right now—she said, “Christ, I don’t know.”
Nancy Sherman, a philosopher who teaches at Georgetown University, had a different answer. “If I were president, I would probably have some limited strike to avert chemical-weapons use.” But Sherman was more interested in emphasizing another requirement of just-war theory: The intervener has to have the right intentions. As a virtue ethicist, she focuses on a person’s inner moral qualities, so intentions are particularly important to her.
Sherman cited Aristotle, the father of virtue ethics, who encouraged people to look to role models—rather than a rule or formula—to figure out how to live ethically. The leader of a polity in particular is expected to be an ethical exemplar, someone who models virtuous intentions and behavior. “Trump is an extremely troubling moral leader,” she said. “One doesn’t know what his intent is other than self-aggrandizement or publicity. Whether or not he’s interested in the cause of justice is very much a question.”
Sherman acknowledged that it’s possible for a leader to do the right thing for the wrong reason. But if he’s not imbued with virtuous intentions, he may get one action right and yet be likely to get the next several actions terribly wrong. She said that although she herself would probably order a targeted strike if she were president, the difficulty of establishing right intention in Trump’s case “tempers my view that, in general, a strike that would deter future humanitarian tragedy is justified.” That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not justified. But when Sherman was asked whether today’s America—the one that has Trump as president—should intervene against Assad right now, she said, “Oh boy. I don’t know. … I really don’t know.”
All these “I don’t knows” raise another ethical question: What do you do if it’s just too late to do the right thing—if the trolley has already careened past you and the switch, unflipped, is useless under your hand?
Previous wars have confronted the international community with this question. After World War II, many asked how leaders could have stood by and watched as the horrors of the Holocaust brought millions to their deaths. The prevention of genocide and mass atrocities became an urgent field of study. Yet the world kept failing to respond in time to stop genocides such as Rwanda’s and massacres such as Srebrenica’s.