Morality Case Study – 1998 Afghanistan

[I am teaching a morality class. For one of our cases studies we read a section from Ghost Wars by Steve Coll (circa page 422) about a situation in 1998 Afghanistan during the early hunt for bin Laden. The students were required to apply the principle of double-effect to the case, and recommend the proper course of action for the President to take. I think the case study was interesting in itself, and so present my sample answer.]

In early 1998 Osama bin-Laden’s organization al-Qaeda bombed two American embassies in sub-Saharan Africa killing 211 and wounding around 2,000 people. The US is trying to track, capture, and kill bin Laden in order to stop the threat of future attacks. The CIA has evidence that bin Laden is seeking to possess biological and chemical armaments and would like to plan an attack within the US itself. A CIA source has provided information that bin Laden is in a compound in eastern Afghanistan. At the site are various Taliban leaders (another designated terrorist group) and a cache of 23 Stinger missiles, these are surface-to-air homing missiles for firing at helicopters and low flying aircraft. The information about bin Laden comes from one source, and there is no other independent confirmation of his existence at the site. Odds of his presence: 50%


The US has a submarine in Persian Gulf armed with two Tomahawk missiles ready to fire at the site. Using GPS coordinates the missiles are quite accurate, however there is a possibility of error and missing the target. A mosque next to the location has up to 300 innocent civilians present, including many women and children. Based upon some cursory research on the accuracy of Tomahawk Cruise Missiles, the estimated civilian casualty count is between 20 and 300.

Do we advise the President to command the attack?


A moral action is made of three parts: The intention, the object, the consequences.

The Principle of Double Effect dictates that when our actions have both good and bad consequences, we must prudently consider the right course of action. We may only take an action when the following conditions are met:

  1. The evil effect does not necessarily cause the good effect.
  2. The action is acceptable.
  3. The intention of the will is directed towards the good end.
  4. The means deployed are proportional to the harms caused by the action.


  1. In this case the US intention is to stop bin Laden’s terrorist attacks, protect American and allied lives. These are morally acceptable intentions.
  2. The action of firing an attack missile can be justified at times and so the action is acceptable.
  3. The deaths of the civilians do not cause the death of bin Laden and so they are a foreseen but unintended consequence of the action, which could be acceptable.
  4. 211 lives have already died because of this organization. Killing bin Laden would greatly weaken the organization. Bin Laden is planning future attacks of unknown size, but presumably of at least equal size to the most recent attacks. A 50% chance of stopping 211 more deaths has an expected value of saving 155 more lives, but we know bin Laden is planning more attacks than just that. We could be saving anywhere from 211 – 10,000 lives. Additionally, the destruction of the Stinger missiles and the death of a few Taliban leaders would also be a good additional outcome.

On the other hand, 20 – 300 civilians would die. If bin Laden is not killed then we did not save many lives at all, if any. Additionally, America would look weak. The international community would be upset with US belligerence and that may hurt our trustworthiness with allies, causing less cooperation and life-saving measures in the future. Furthermore, the families of the civilians likely may become lifelong enemies of the United States, creating more terrorists for the future to deal with.

Other possibilities: Osama bin Laden is a uniquely talented organizer and terrorist. His death would make al Qaeda far weaker for the foreseeable future. OR bin Laden has top lieutenants who will continue on the war against America just as effectively, so killing bin Laden will not save as many lives as we had hoped.


My recommendation depends upon obtaining two further facts. One, current American understanding about the skillset and replaceability of Osama bin Laden within al Qaeda, and two, given that bin Laden is present at the target site what is the probability of him dying in the strike, this depends on both the accuracy and destructive power of the missile. A deeper understanding of both factors would be required for me to be surer of my judgment.

If the missile was 90% likely to kill bin Laden given that he is present and that it hit the target squarely. And if there was a 90% chance of the missile hitting the target squarely, then there would be a 40.5% chance of killing bin Laden, in exchange for these 20 – 300 civilian deaths. Not knowing the future of 9/11 and the War on Terror, this seems like not too great a risk. I think I would still not recommend the strike.

In retrospect from 2021, when it comes to terrorism, motivation and organizational know-how are the scarce factors. Thus, it seems that bin Laden was a uniquely big threat to the US, because without him al Qaeda was significantly less effective. At least, I think this is the case. With the gift of hindsight, I think it is (too) easy to say it may have been worth it after all.

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