Justice is a social phenomenon, where people removed in time and space, say judges or future historians, agree that an action was an act of social cooperation. To take moral choices here and now, we need to do a calculation:
justice = utilitarianism x prescience x expectation
To illustrate by example suppose the British army is about to invade Libya and kill 10,000 people. Say it’s being done for cynical reasons, like oil. But I’ve determined that if I bomb an important building in London, say the offices of an oil company, the war plans will be shelved and the Libyans will be spared. My bomb will kill about 100. Is such terrorism a moral action?
First, yes it’s an instance of the trolley problem. Yes I know it’s illegal and feel it’s wrong. By why? Utilitarianism says it’s moral. 9,900 fewer people will die horribly.
Obvious mistake with utilitarianism: Valuing Londoners’s lives more than Libyans because they’re more like us.
Less obvious mistake with utilitarianism: Valuing the oil company people more than poor Libyans because they materially lead better lives.
So utilitarianism says go for it, but let’s look at the second factor in the equation. Prescience means predicting the future. That my bomb will save many more people than it kills because the war plans will definitely be stopped. But what if I’m wrong? What if the efforts are redoubled, and at the same time there’s an endless chain of terrorism?
I’d have to be pretty sure of the effects of my actions. If my estimate is to save 100 times more lives, I’ll have to be at least 99% sure how events will turn out. And actually it doesn’t matter if I’m sure, everyone else must have this certainty. The relatives of my victims would have to agree.
Suddenly the probability calculation is not so good. And it’s mostly for that imperfect human prescience that I’m not a terrorist.
Rare mistake with prescience: Being a terrorist.
Common mistake with prescience: Supporting wars.
But there’s also the third factor, expectation. If I met my victims or their families they’d say something like “well we get it but you should have minded your own business”.
Remember that justice is a social construct. It’s about doing the pro-social thing. And if everyone else is doing the pro-social thing, they expect to be treated… justly. We call their condition “innocence”.
Innocent people don’t like to be hit by bombs or diverted trolleys for the utilitarian good because they want a reasonable bargain on how to lead their lives. Suddenly switching places with the less fortunate breaks that bargain, especially if foisted on them by an idiot who lacks prescience. A lot of justice is about expectation.
A conservative mistake with expectation: Counting only the direct effects of actions, ignoring second-order or systemic ones.
The liberal mistake with expectation: Leaving too little freedom and too few consequences for people to thrive. Stifling them.
Morality is easy. It’s just a social feel for utilitarianism scaled down for unintended consequences and the desire for a social contract. Next time you meet a utilitarian with a bomb, in uniform or not, remind him of the latter two.