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The Ethics of Fighting ISIS

Is it Morally Right for the U.S. to Bomb ISIS Positions?

This blog was completed by a student of mine in my ethics class. I thought she did an excellent job in identifying the ethical issues surrounding whether the U.S. should be fighting ISIS. She chose to remain anonymous so I will simply thank her for her contribution. I have added some of my own thoughts to her piece.

As violence escalates in the Middle East by the radical Islamic group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, many Americans are questioning whether the U.S. should become involved. There are many political and economic concerns regarding America’s involvement; however, the situation should also be considered from an ethical perspective. Becoming involved would preserve people’s inherent rights and freedoms while also serving to benefit our own interests; thus becoming involved in the Middle East is a sound ethical decision.

Before America can consider how to approach the situation ethically, one must first identify the dimensions of the ethical dilemma faced by our government in deciding what to do about ISIS. The moral philosophy, deontology, focuses ethical reasoning on the rights of individuals and the intentions of the decision maker. This form of reasoning does not stress the consequences of an action, as would utilitarianism, but rather looks at one’s intentions and motivation for the action. From a virtue ethics point of view, ethical thought examines what are the ethical values of concern and the characteristics of the person making such a decision. For example, we might look at fairness, respect, caring, integrity, responsibility and accountability in the context of our decision. These are values that underlie the decision of the U.S. to attack ISIS positions.

ISIS has slowly been gaining power in the Middle East, forcing many people from their homes and issuing the ultimatum that people either accept and conform to their radical beliefs or face death. These actions disregard the inherent rights that every individual should have be able to identify with whatever religion they choose to believe and follow the basic tents of that religion without fear of bodily harm because of one’s choice.

ISIS is motivated by power and control, and are completely unconcerned with the rights of the people they want to control. This is in opposition of what deontology believes to be ethically important, or respecting the rights of others and living up to one’s ethical obligations to treat others the way we want to be treated.

Some have suggested that the U.S. should not antagonize ISIS by bombing their positions in Iraq and Syria. That sounds nice but, in reality, it doesn’t matter what we do and why. ISIS, and other terrorist Islamic groups, are determined to spread their brand of Islam and, one can say, become the world power both politically and militarily. I believe ISIS’s core beliefs are “Now it’s our turn to control the world. We have been suppressed for ages and have waited long enough. Any actions we take are justified by the greater good, as we see it, which is that the world would be a better place under Sharia Law."

The U.S. has an ethical obligation to those threatened by ISIS. Appeasement did not work in World War II and it won’t work with ISIS. When your opponent is willing to die for their cause regardless of how many they have to kill along the way and in what fashion, the only way to defeat them is on the battlefield. Sitting back and letting the events play out in the Middle East does nothing to help protect the rights of the threatened people.

Perhaps the single most important factor in ISIS's recent resurgence is the conflict between Iraqi Shias and Iraqi Sunnis. ISIS fighters themselves are Sunnis, and the tension between the two groups is a powerful recruiting tool for ISIS. The Iraqi armed forces are weak and, in all likelihood, when push comes to shove they will cave in to ISIS. There are Syrian militias fighting the Assad government, but here you can’t identify the good guys from the bad guys without a scorecard. The only true fighters with a chance to push back on ISIS are the Kurdish Peshmerga but they do not have the equipment necessary to fight a sustained conflict with ISIS. That leaves the U.S. to protect those who can’t protect themselves much as we did in World War II.

We cannot wait for other countries to join the “coalition.” Most of those countries want no part in fighting ISIS. Without the will to fight and die for one’s cause, taking arms against a fanatical group that are willing to die for their cause is a losing battle. The would-be-coalition countries have fallen victim to the “bystander effect;” standing by to watch the destruction unfold in the Middle East assuming that someone else will do something about it. And while it is not the U.S.’s duty to police the rest of the world, if we do not intervene it is very likely that no one else will either, allowing the violence to escalate further. ISIS has been able to grow in strength and power over the past few years, giving them the ability to get away with murder, quite literally.

Under the justice, or fairness, ethical theory of reasoning, every person should receive what they deserve – what they merit. The citizens of the threatened countries and regions do not deserve to be killed because of their religious beliefs. Practicing a different religion than the members of ISIS is not enough to warrant murder. These citizens deserve a government that actually has the power to govern the people and protect their most fundamental right to live and practice the religion of their choice.

These reasons alone still may not convince American citizens that the U.S. should become involved militarily in matters concerning ISIS. However, the U.S. will benefit personally by getting involved now. Fight ISIS now or fight them later when they are stronger and have amassed enough resources to engage in and, perhaps, win a protracted war that spans multiple continents.

It is easy to see what is happening in the Middle East and turn a blind eye. But while countries are sitting around either ignoring the problem or debating whether or not to interfere, more and more people are suffering. There are plenty of political and economic reasons to support not getting involved in the Middle East; but to do the ethical thing requires putting these reasons aside to do what is right. After examining the issue using multiple forms of ethical reasoning, the ethical conclusion reached is that the U.S. has a moral obligation to protect the inherent rights of those not strong enough to fight off those who would kill them for not following their brand of Islam.

Guest blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 20, 2014. Dr. Mintz is a Professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at

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