Note: Spoilers below.
During the spring semester, I took a class on ethics. We discussed ethical situations through the Aristotelian and Thomistic lens. It felt good to have a solid foundation in ethics. But I didn’t thought I would need those principles quickly. Funny, the first movie I watched with my sister Liza this summer focuses on an ethical question.
“Eye in the Sky” explores a dilemma in the war against terror. A joint British-U.S. task force is targeting a house in Kenya full of terrorists preparing for an imminent suicide bombing. Helen Mirren’s character has an elusive terrorist in her grasps after six years of searching. With the house in hostile territory, the only option is an airstrike. But a missile strike could likely kill a girl selling bread outside the house. Should they strike? The struggle between the military and political officials reveals the tension among the need for safety, public relations, the rights of citizens and threat to innocent life.
The film shows three different types of ethics:
- Consequentialism: Only the consequences matter. Would the British officials save one girl at the risk of losing possibly 80 in a suicide bombing?
- Machiavellian: The ends justify the means. The American officials (the secretary of state and legal adviser) pressed for the missile strike without any qualms about collateral damage.
- Life matters: The American pilot controlling the drone and the British minister stood up for the Kenyan girl.
The task force attempted to save the girl by buying all her bread or targeting a different part of the house. Eventually, two missiles struck the house.
But was the attack ethical? One tool to answer this is the principle of double effect. (This webpage from St. Mary’s College explains the principle, its four conditions and the criticism over its principles. Please don’t school me on how the principle of double effect is wrong.) I applied the principles many times since watching the movie to see whether the attack can be justified.
The act: Bomb a building. Good effect: Prevention of an imminent suicide attack. Evil effect: Death of Kenyan girl.
Condition 1: The act itself must be at least morally neutral. Satisfied because the only way this condition fails is when the act is intrinsically evil (murder, rape, etc.).
Condition 2: The evil effect cannot be directly intended. Satisfied because the authorities actually tried to save the girl’s life before the attack.
Condition 3: The good effect cannot be a direct result of the evil effect. Satisfied because the bombing, not the death of the girl, prevented the suicide attack.
Condition 4: The good effect is proportionate to the evil effect. Satisfied because many other lives would be saved from the attack.
The airstrike can be justified based on the principle of double effect provided that there were no other ethical issues.
But in the movie, Helen Mirren’s character pressured her subordinate to fudge the numbers on the collateral damage assessment to state that the likelihood of the girl’s death was 45% when it was actually between 45-60%. Given that officials had put a priority on saving the girl’s life, that information would have prevented the task force from attacking the house. The missile attack is unethical because of the unethical means used to obtain it.
In the end, the messiness of life always will create ethical questions that foil sophisticated calculations for quick and easy answers. We must do the best we can with the information we have to answer those questions.