Moral Autonomy and the Ethics of War

TrainerAsh

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Sorry if this is not the appropriate forum for this topic.

I’ve been discussing the ethics of war and service in the armed forces with a friend whose position is that war is morally reprehensible (which I agree with, but also believe that many times the only appropriate response to violence is more violence). Our conversation prompted a lot of thought that I wanted to get some more experienced opinions on, as, obviously, I don’t have any of my own and am unfamiliar with how the military deals with these kinds of issues.

The main point I wanted to discuss is moral autonomy. Part of my friend’s argument is that volunteering for military service requires giving up one's moral autonomy or free will, and may require you to perform actions you are morally opposed to performing or consider to be morally/ethically wrong. He brought up how in the German military, they have a concept called innere fuhrung, which guides their leadership and allows service members to object to certain assignments on the basis of ethics without legal repercussions. It specifically states that “...it is not regarded as disobedience if the subordinate does not carry out an order which would violate human dignity.” (Customary IHL - 154. Obedience to Superior Orders)

I was hoping I could spark a discussion on the ethics of war (if anyone has read about just war theory, this is the main philosophical school of thought we’ve been referencing), specifically about the issue of giving up moral autonomy and whether that bothers anyone. I know it is inevitable that immoral acts are required of people in war, but how do you justify an immoral act when you cannot have all the information/intelligence required to confidently justify it in your mind. In an age where it is easy to see the failures of the past, how can a service member be confident the actions required of them are ethical (especially in moral gray areas), and are there options available to those who feel they cannot perform an action due their ethical beliefs? In other words, how can you be confident that an order is morally justified or must one avoid trying to rationalize things in these circumstances? (Just to be clear, my friend supports defensive and protectorate wars in defense of other people, but does not agree with many of the conflicts the US has been involved with.)

Have there been any instances you could point me towards where a service member refuses to act in accordance to orders because they did not believe they were ethical? Conscientious objectors come to mind, but I’m looking more for people who agreed to the terms of combat service but refuses a particular order. E.g. would someone be punished for refusing to participate in a mission that required them to potentially kill child soldiers, if they felt morally conflicted about it? I’m assuming there are many instances where people may feel conflicted about what they are asked to do, but do it anyways because they understand that it is necessary, or because they are trained to do whatever it takes to complete a mission. What I am asking is if there is ever scenarios where those who are asked to carry out the actions are not given enough information to justify the act and must simply trust in the higher ups, thus, sacrificing their moral autonomy and potentially committing an immoral, unjustified act. (And, this might be a somewhat heavy topic, but how does one deal with the weight of having to perform these tasks?)

To offer another example, the Vietnam war might have initially seemed justifiable and moral to those who fought, but history shows that the justifications were not that strong when we look back at the leadership and their decisions. Those who were punished for going AWOL might be looked at in a different light when we consider whether the acts were morally justifiable.

If I need to clarify anything, let me know. I hope that this is sufficient enough to start a discussion on the topic, though, as it’s something that I personally still don’t know entirely where I stand on it. Do you think moral autonomy is important, or should service members be encouraged to follow orders without question? And, I guess it would help to know what outlets there are for service members to voice their objections, should they feel morally conflicted about what they are asked to do.

You might also think that it is necessary for service members to give up their autonomy, in which case I would love to hear any and all viewpoints on the matter.

You might also have opinions on the efficacy of policies, like innere fuhrung, that allow a service members to object to performing certain orders, which I’d also love to hear.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, and thanks in advance for any responses.

(This was the only somewhat relevant post on ethics I could find, so hopefully I’m justified in started this thread. Does The Military Need a Formal Code of Ethics?)
 

Marauder06

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It sounds like your friend has no working knowledge of the Law of Armed Conflict or how the US wages war in the modern era.

It also sounds like your friend has no working knowledge of history. In the discussion of war crimes and Vietnam, Hugh Thompson never came up?

No American servicemember “gives up their moral autonomy” when they join the military. to assert that they do is both highly ignorant of the way the US military operates, and is offensive to those of us who are war veterans.

War sucks but the alternative is subjugation and death. Your friend should consider the morality of THAT.
 
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TrainerAsh

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@RackMaster I’m not trying to come off as insolent, so please feel free to correct me if you think I’m off base, but I did use the search function to look for posts related to moral autonomy and didn’t find anything, and I think I raised questions in my op that that thread did not address. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reprimanded in the past for that, so I was very careful to look for any posts that already answered the questions I posed. Not trying to give you attitude. I appreciate the help. I really enjoyed the compass analogy in that thread. There were some good thoughts all around.

@Marauder06 hopefully my questions are not offensive to service members. That wasn’t my intent. To play the devils advocate, though. I believe my friend simply means that, when one joins the military, they sacrifice a certain amount of freedom in that even if they object to something on ethical grounds, they are still contractually obligated to carry out the mission of the military (though I could be wrong, hence the questions). I’m not trying to offend anyone by it, I genuinely have never seen an in depth discussion of the topic before.

I’m unfamiliar with Hugh Thompson, but I’ll look him up (as well as the other things you mentioned) in preparation for future discussions. Thanks!

I think the main point of my friends argument is that not every conflict the US has been engaged in could be considered ethical (I won’t make any specific claim to avoid misrepresenting his position). My understanding of the military is that it is an extension of our foreign policy, which isn’t always perfectly guided, so I think it’s reasonable to assume that, as a service member, you may be asked to carry out orders that aren’t always coming from the best motive. There’s room for debate there, but I didn’t want to derail the topic I came for, and it would vary greatly depending on personal opinion (I’m not trying to assert that any particular action was misguided, just that it can happen because... politicians). If that is an ignorant point of view, I’m sorry, because I think I agree with the caution to a certain extent (But I’m just an ignorant civilian whose never been there. That’s why I asked here).

Again, I’m sorry if I’m coming across as insolent, guys. I’m really not trying to be.
 

TrainerAsh

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Just trying to foster a little debate, that’s all. I understand your guys’ sentiments, but I’ve found that responding to people who hold the view in question in this way doesn’t build bridges or encourage mutual understanding.
 

Marauder06

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I don't think anyone thinks you are insolent. Insolence rarely gets thoughtful replies here. But you and your friend are operating off of fundamentally flawed assumptions that make it difficult to discuss the weighty issues you raised in any productive manner.

For example, in one of your posts above you state that you "know it is inevitable that immoral acts are required of people in war." Really? You "know" this? By what experience, or through what education, taught you this? I've deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan seven times and never committed any "immoral acts." Not one. I think most combat vets here can say the same. But then someone like your friend can come along and say (or simply assume) "well Iraq is an immoral war, so the fact that you went there at all makes all of your actions there immoral" or "anyone who goes to any war is immoral" some such tripe. Committing war crimes, or other "immoral acts," is not "inevitable" in the US military. In fact, it's an aberration. The US military goes to extraordinary lengths to prevent immoral acts, and to hold individuals accountable in the rare instances when such acts occur. In fact, we're so concerned about even the PERCEPTION of "immoral acts" that we institute practices and procedures (largely in the Rules of Engagement) that put ourselves at risk.

You raise a good point about politics and its relationship to the military. We are a tool of national policy. I'm going to venture a guess that my fellow members and I here on the site are not national-level political decision-makers. There may be some, but it's not me and if we have any, I haven't met them yet. So the vast majority of the ethical questions you're going to want answers to, especially the ones that relate to JWT and LoAC, are questions better asked of politicians than service members. We don't get to pick where or when we fight; if we did there would be a whole lot more "liberating" of Caribbean islands and small Western European nations than places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and various locales in Africa.

Finally, it's really easy for people to armchair-quarterback wartime decisions with the benefit of hindsight and the privilege of never having fought in one themselves. I have no doubt that sometime down the road, people will find all kinds of problems with the wars I fought in, and my role in those wars, largely because we didn't win them.

After looking back over your posts, I think this might be an interesting discussion to have but you're going to have to leave ALL of your assumptions at the door. We also need to get very specific about the kinds of acts and conduct you mean. What is an "immoral act" to you? Is it a war crime? OK, that is a specific category that most people will agree is immoral (in addition to being illegal). But are you also including... I don't know, watching porn in violation of GO #1 as an "immoral act?" Because there's a whole lot in between those two extremes (and if your definition includes the latter, then I may need to revise one of the statements I made in paragraph 2 of this post).
 

TrainerAsh

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"Know" is a strong word, I know. I'm a very skeptical person and there are very few things I would claim to literally know with 100% confidence. I don’t want anyone to assume my position and I don’t want to accidentally assert something I have no business weighing in on. I can easily leave my own assumptions at the door. My responses so far have kind of been a mixture of my own thoughts and those of my friend, so take it with a grain of salt. I also don’t want to try to respond for my friend, but I can get his thoughts on your comment and relay a more detailed response if that’s something you’d be interested in (I would, mostly because I think you would have a much better chance of constructing a convincing argument, seeing as I’ve never been there).

I showed him your response and he thinks you bring up valid points and understands why there would be differing perspectives. For me, personally, I know when to stay in my lane, so I’m not presuming to know about war or the morality of it. my own opinion on it is purely theoretical, and my knowledge of how it actually works is nonexistent other than what I’ve gleaned from this site and books. I’ve studied enough ethics to “know” how tricky it is to assert something about morality without encountering other valid arguments.

(For the record, my current position is that war is a necessary evil and the world would be better off if we could learn to sort out our differences without it, but obviously that’s impractical. I’ve considered military service in the past, so obviously I’m not opposed to it as a solution to some problems.)
 

TrainerAsh

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@amlove21 TrainerAsh was just a nickname I had as a kid. Please, don’t judge me too hard for it lol (I am curious what you disagree with and why, if you don’t mind elaborating.)

I appreciate everyone’s responses and hope you realize I’m just trying to get some insight for a debate I’m having, nothing more.
 

amlove21

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@amlove21 TrainerAsh was just a nickname I had as a kid. Please, don’t judge me too hard for it lol (I am curious what you disagree with and why, if you don’t mind elaborating.)
Do you mean to tell me that your screen name has nothing to do with Pokémon. And a Pokémon trainer. Named Ash.
 

TrainerAsh

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He no, it’s definitely a direct reference, just don’t let it give you pause. I’m as normal as a homeschooled 90’s child can be 🤪 (but to be fair, I never really played the game much).
 

Arf

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@TrainerAsh

Why don’t you have your friend join this site and this thread so that your debate can be continued with a perspective from actual combat veteran warfighters?
(By the way I am not referring to myself, I haven’t yet deployed. I’m interested to see this continue, however.)
 

amlove21

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He no, it’s definitely a direct reference, just don’t let it give you pause. I’m as normal as a homeschooled 90’s child can be 🤪 (but to be fair, I never really played the game much).
Yeah- so why would I want to wax philosophic about a deeply personal (and probably highly traumatic) topic when asked by a dude named Swiper_The_Fox?
 

TrainerAsh

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Yeah- so why would I want to wax philosophic about a deeply personal (and probably highly traumatic) topic when asked by a dude named Swiper_The_Fox?

That’s your prerogative, but I would hope any posts I make would be judged based on the merits of my words and not my username.
 

Devildoc

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First of all, I don't get the Pokemon thing. I guess that's my age.

Second, before you can have any meaningful dialogue everyone has to have the same definitions: ethics, morals, values, assumptions. They are not synonymous, but I am thinking @TrainerAsh your friend may not have a firm grasp of the differences, or they are getting lost.

Third, there's an old saying, "a man with experience trumps a man with an opinion, every time." Meaning, as my far-more eloquent colleague @Marauder06 put it, it's easy to armchair-QB when you (royal you) haven't worn a uniform.

Prima facie I don't think this is a bad discussion to have. But your friend needs to participate.
 

AWP

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The beauty of situations high in stress is that they expose your character. I'd submit that people making "immoral" decisions in war are just human beings exposed for who they are at their core. There are a lot of things circulating on the battlefield, but theories aren't on that list.
 

TrainerAsh

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@Devildoc Good points.

Second, before you can have any meaningful dialogue everyone has to have the same definitions: ethics, morals, values, assumptions. They are not synonymous, but I am thinking @TrainerAsh your friend may not have a firm grasp of the differences, or they are getting lost.

I have found him to be very reasonable in these kinds of discussions. We both studied philosophy a bit in school, so the importance of what you state is not lost on me (and I’m confident he understands that, as well). Most of our debates revolve around definitions of words at first and getting on the same page before any discussion of particular positions is had.

Third, there's an old saying, "a man with experience trumps a man with an opinion, every time." Meaning, as my far-more eloquent colleague @Marauder06 put it, it's easy to armchair-QB when you (royal you) haven't worn a uniform.

I couldn’t agree more, which is why I came here. I have a great amount of respect for anyone who serves, but especially those in the SOF community.

I really hope he takes me up on this (but he’s also in the middle of his last semester of his undergrad and preparing for a thesis defense, so I have no idea when he’ll be able to respond).

- Mod Edit to fix quotes -
Ooh Rah
 
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