Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Moral Responsibilities of a Soldier

by Kim Morrison

I have had the most difficult time with the topic of a soldier’s moral responsibilities. I suppose part of my problem lies in my belief that people who can philosophize about war so much have probably never experienced it for themselves. Since I don’t know the military history of any philosophers I am sure that I am wrong, at least I hope I am. The other part of my problem lies in the fact that I come from a military family. I’m a soldier’s daughter, I am the friend of soldiers, and I have been the girlfriend of a soldier. Being so close to the military all my life has given me special insight into what these men and women go through during their time in the military. I may be too sensitive about the subject and too close to it to give an objective opinion on the articles I have read, but a subjective opinion is going to be good enough. In the next few pages I hope to explain the difficulties with some of the arguments made in the articles I read. I will also comment on items presented in the articles with which I agreed.

First, I would like to address Hare’s article “Can I be Blamed for Obeying Orders?” I do agree with his position on the is/ought problem, just because someone wants you to do something does not mean you ought to do it. It reminds me of that old parental guilt trip, “So if your friend jumps off a cliff does that mean you should too?” He also points out that many people choose to place the blame on others because “they told me to do it.” According to this, a soldier is not wholly responsible for his actions because he was told to act in that manner. This is basically true. However, the chain of command is so extensive and those with authority so numerous that it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of people involved in the issuing of an order and its fulfillment. If an order is illegal then those who carried it out are absolved from their legal responsibility. However, they will be morally responsible for their own individual actions. If a soldier is given an order to kill hundreds of innocent people, it should be an automatic response to question, if not refuse to carry out, that order. Many things are illegal for a good reason. Most often, they cause pain or suffering to other individuals other than the person committing the act. It is especially important for a soldier, representing the country he serves, to act in a manner that is legally, as well as morally, acceptable.

Next, I would like address chapter 19 of Walzer’s book. I think he makes a very important point when he describes soldiers as part of an elite organization. As part of this organization, a soldier is responsible for not only for himself but for those around him. The different levels of the organization each function as part of the whole. An individual is responsible to his squad, a squad responsible to the platoon, a platoon to the company, a company to the battalion, etc. It also works in the reverse order. Cohesion in each of these sections is important for the cohesion of the whole. It may be possible for a break to occur in a tight group like this when a soldier chooses to disobey an order. However, I do not believe that a soldier should follow an order that can be viewed as illegal or immoral just to continue belonging to the group. Walzer mentions “there are other ways of responding to an order short of obeying it: postponement, evasion, deliberate misunderstanding, loose construction, overly literal construction, and so on.” I agree that any one of these methods is preferable to obeying an unlawful order. I also agree with Walzer’s position that although a soldier is responsible for his own individual actions, he is not responsible for the justness of the war he fights. This leads me to the next article.

In his article “Jus ad bellum and an Officer’s Moral Obligations” J. J. Miller proposes, in direct disagreement with Walzer, that a soldier is morally responsible for the justness of the wars he fights. When becoming a soldier, an individual takes an oath to, among other things, uphold the Constitution. That means they are bound to honor the laws and guidelines that is sets forth. By fighting in a war that is labeled unjust according to the Constitution, that soldier is therefore morally responsible for the justness of that war. After all, individuals who are elected into office take a very similar oath. They are responsible for upholding the Constitution and when they do not do so we view them as having ignored their responsibilities. However, the soldiers in our military are under the control of those elected officials. I believe it is this control that makes the elected officials, not the soldiers, responsible for the justness of the wars our soldiers fight. Unfortunately, the individuals who use their right to vote are responsible for electing those officials who make those kinds of decisions. Here a problem has presented itself. If voters are responsible for electing individuals to office and those elected officials are responsible for sending soldiers to war and many soldiers are registered voters, then soldiers could be responsible for the justness of the wars in which they fight. This is a circular and rather precarious way of arriving at Miller’s proposal but it is the only way I could justify a soldier being morally responsible for the justness of the wars he fights.

In my paper I have attempted to examine the different view points concerning the moral responsibilities of a soldier. Hare, Walzer, and Miller all have things that I agree with and things that I do not agree with. This is the most difficult paper I have had to write and I believe it is because of the sensitivity I have to the subject matter. I only hope that I was not too subjective and that my reasoning behind my agreements and disagreements was clear enough to understand.

9 Comments:

Blogger Drew said...

I agree with your anaylisis of soldiers. i also think that it is not right to ask a soldier to commit an act that he or she feels is imoral or unjust. like we talked about in class, there i a fine line of what to rules to follow and which ones not to. the military makes it very hard to appeal an imoral act, and that i dont like. if the act has proven to be contreversal in the past and he or she feels it is imoral then i think it then lays in the hands of the military to ajust the rule or revaluate the rule or comand that is being given. over all Wonderful paper, and i enjoyed it

12:38 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Kim,
I agree with you that the individual soldier is not responsible for the justness or unjustness of the war in which he is fighting. It's like claiming that a worker at McDonalds is responsible for the fat content of a Big Mac. I've made the point before, that a police officer is not responsible for what the law says, only enforcing it; and a soldier is not responsible for the war, only how he fights it. Good paper.

My biggest question to any and all who want to answer it is: Who is the rightful authority on determining what is just, or right, or moral? Some would say God is the the ultimate moral authority, but most of us shrug that one off. How about the Church? Not good either. Buddha? Mother Teresa? How about Pol Pot? Who determines what is just and moral? Sun Tzu's ideas on how to conduct war are differnt than Walzer's. Who do we believe?

The only person who can tell us what is moral or just is ourself. And we're going to agree or disagree with each other depending upon the situation.

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

Rick, Rick, the relativist!

Sorry, but some folks are just plain wrong.

You can say I've got my head stuck well into Hume's Guillotine all you want, but I'm going to say that observable phenomenon are going to be the basis for morality. Consider, for instance, Utilitarianism. It has a nice start, at the very least. I still think, though, that Hedons and Utils are too metaphysical to be worth consideration... ;)

5:10 PM  
Anonymous jamie mccall said...

I once again find myself in agreemnt mostly (wow, this is happening far to much lately). We cannot ask a solider to do that which is immoral. While I'm no expert on military structure..it does atleast appear that any rule, no matter what it is, is hard to change from simple solider complaints. While I'd like to think that the military wouldnt force soliders to do immoral things, we all know that happens...

7:58 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Mitch,
While I agree that observable phenomenon can definately determine which action one should take, it does not necessarily follow that that action is moral. And sure, the idea of Utilitarianism is to maximize utility (happiness), but what about those situations that don't *maximize* but are still the right thing to do. Such as Joe's comment that a wealthy nation should provide a fairly large safety net for the lower class at the expense of economic growth. It seems (to me at least) that the economic growth factor would *maximize* utility in the long run, but he's willing to sacrifice a bit of that "because it's the right thing to do."

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

Rick, because raising the minimum will actually raise the overall happiness. While it may irk a few people at the top of the heap, it will certainly increase the amount of people in the game at all, allowing for an increase in the overall ability of people to 'pursue happiness.' Slowing growth rates slightly in order to increase the overall ability to gain is actually a very valid economic approach. Ask the asian car manufacturers what I'm talking about and then talk to the domestic fools who are looking to loose everything because they had to push the growth rate higher every year beyond the overall ability of the companies.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Wesley Gibbs said...

I always have issues determining whether or not a soldier is responsible for the justness of the war he fights. On the one hand, I think a person should be willing to go to bat for they believe even it means being court-martialed or being sent to jail. On the other hand, within the military you have the need of an effective military force, and if they could question too much and refuse to fight certain wars then it would loose its ability to be effective.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Adam Johnson said...

The chain of command and structure of the military complicates the "But he told me so!" stance by such a huge margin. I'm still up in the air over the whole thing but I imagine I land on something like the soldier is held accountable if they follow an immoral order, but they are less accountable and less immoral the officer who gave the bad order. Meh.

11:53 AM  
Anonymous steven grueshaber said...

I don't think the McDonald's employee analogy is an accurate one. People make the choice of whether or not they want a Big Mac, the employee just provides it. If, however, McDonald's was putting poison into the burgers and the employee knew about it but continued to serve them anyway, then I would say the he was accountable for his actions and should be penalized for them.

1:36 PM  

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