General Kuribayashi

Nicholas Chen monday, november 15, 2021
I went on a Wikipedia binge this morning and ended up reading about General Kuribayashi, the Japanese general responsible for the defense of Iwo Jima during WWII. Preparing for the battle, the Americans thought it'd last 5 days. It ended up lasting 26. After the first day of combat, the American general had this to say: "I don't know who he is, but the Japanese General running this show is one smart bastard." His contemporary adversaries respected him, modern historians do as well.
The interesting thing is that he adopted this role reluctantly. Having studied in the United States, he saw firsthand its immense industrial capacity, and was quoted as saying America is the last country in the world Japan should fight."1 His fellow generals on the war council saw him as a defeatist; there is speculation that he was assigned to Iwo Jima as a suicide mission precisely because they disliked him.
Despite all of this, he mounted an exemplary defense at Iwo Jima.
I got all of the above from Wikipedia, I don't know whether any of it historically valid, but I'm sure the broad strokes of it are correct and the details don't matter that much for what this essay is actually about. This essay is actually about ethics. More specifically, it's about the difference between utilitarianism and virtue ethics, which I think General Kuribayashi's conduct illustrates.

Utilitarianism vs Virtue Ethics

Utilitarianism is the ethical theory that we should act to maximize the most amount of good for the most amount of people. Usually, this involves quantifying the good of actions in terms of utility, then judging different courses of action on how much utility (or disutility) results.
Virtue ethics is the ethical theory that we should act how an excellent person would act. Whereas utilitarianism tries to be precise and rational in guiding our actions, virtue ethics is vague (some would say purposefully so), telling us instead to embody fuzzy traits like "courage" or "magnanimity."
Imagine you are General Kuribayashi in 1944, preparing to defend Iwo Jima. A utilitarian would tell you to give up. I'm no historian, so I don't know if this is true, but there's a decent chance you know that Japan is probably going to lose at this point. Your fighting will be for nothing; if you throw in the towel, not only will your men live, but the enemy's men will live as well. Throwing in the towel provides the most amount of good for the most amount of people.2
A virtue ethicist would tell you to fight as hard as you can. Giving up is something a coward would do, and you don't want to be a coward - you want to be brave. Not only do you want to be brave, you want to be brave and smart, so you'll prohibit pointless bravado like banzai charges (this is an actual rule General Kuribayashi instituted, to the surprise of the Americans). You should pursue excellence in everything that you do, and this seemingly suicidal task is no exception.
History shows us that General Kuribayashi took the virtue ethicist's advice.

Against Virtue Ethics

Thought General Kuribayashi is generally admired by historians, it's not hard to make a case against the man - he fought for an empire that committed some of the worst war atrocities in history and put up an all out defense that cost the lives of tens of thousands of men that ended up not changing the result of the war anyways.
In light of this, it's quite easy to condemn virtue ethics. The pursuit of blurry, imprecise, quixotic ideals like "bravery" and "courage" ended in almost all of General Kuribayashi's men going to their graves, alongside almost 7,000 American soldiers.

Against Utilitarianism

Faced with the fact that both contemporary adversaries and later historians admired him, the utilitarian would understandably accuse both of harboring outdated, chauvinistic ideals. I'm not sure we should accept this rejection of "fuzzy ideals" at face value, however. In some sense, the main difference between utilitarianism and virtue ethics is the difference between using rigid calculation to decide action versus using imprecise ideals, so it's worth examining this difference closer.
One interesting question to ask is, "Which theory describes how people make decisions in reality?" The entire field of economics assumes utilitarianism, and for the most part that holds true for the situations economists like to analyze - purchasing decisions, employment, etc. etc. In other situations, however, most people don't think like utilitarians. Faced with the decision to enlist in the army, whether or not to cheat on a partner, or how to deal with the death of a loved one, we are far more likely to make use of vague concepts like "bravery", "honesty" and "resilience" than we are to make abstract utility calculations.
Faced with (relatively) trivialities like purchasing decisions, we are utilitarians. Faced with more serious problems, we become virtue ethicists. Granted, we deal with purchasing decisions far more than we deal with the deaths of loved ones, so we are more often utilitarians than we are virtue ethicists. However, we are virtue ethicists for the decisions that really matter.
So far we've talked about how people make decisions in reality, which doesn't neccessarily correspond to how they should make decisions. We might use virtue ethics to make serious decisions in reality, but that could be a bad thing - maybe it's something we should change. In fact, it seems almost ridiculous that we choose rigid utilitarian calculation for decisions that don't matter, and use unreliable and fuzzy concepts like courage to make decisions that matter a lot.


1: Another curious fact: the other Japanese general admired by historians, Isoroku Yamamoto, was similarly reluctant to go to war with the United States. He actively lobbied against it until he saw that it was inevitable, then decided he'd do his best to help Japan win, which ultimately led to him putting together the plans for Pearl Harbor.
2: I should also add here that I've oversimplified the historical situation greatly - at the time, maybe there was still hope to secure better terms of surrender, or to wear out the US public's will to wage war. Continuing to fight would not have been completely pointless. I think the utilitarian calculus remains the same nonetheless, however.
edited 8 months ago
Another thought on General Kuribayashi: It is always instructive to learn from the best virtues of one's enemies.