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« Richard Bradley on Understanding Decisions | Main | Catalin Avramescu on the Idea of Cannibalism »

November 21, 2009



I think that McMahan here has an idealistic view of personal morality. Firstly, central to his arguments is the concept that some or all wars can simply be categorised as just or unjust. He admits that this is a difficult problem to unwrap, but I think the view that (even if we had complete information) we could decide who is right and who is wrong in a conflict between states is somewhat naïve. Alternatively the idea that even if nobody knows for sure there is still an objectively right and wrong side is equally flawed.

Furthermore the idea of a central council dealing out pronouncements on who are the goodies and the baddies in a war situation fills me with dread. It is morally dangerous and completely impracticable in the real world of fallible, exploitable, and flawed human beings.

Secondly, the very notion of a soldier taking moral responsibility not only for the personal actions he undertakes in war but the rightness or wrongness of the conflict as a whole is an unsound one. Necessarily, a soldier who joins the army knows that his skills will be put to use by politicians who may sometimes hold different opinions to him. It’s a very different thing to refuse to kill civilians in a warzone than to refuse to fight entirely because you disagree with the reasons your nation went to war. I’m with you Nigel, I don’t want soldiers like that defending me whilst I sleep.

If anything, I think going down this route of general moral outrage at war means that we should arrive conclusions like ‘Joining an army is immoral’ because putting yourself in a situation where you give up the right to decide for yourself is a poor one, or “For a nation to even have an army is immoral”. Being morally repulsed by one side of a conflict and not the other seems wrong.

In reality of course I think most of us understand that we need people to give up their agency and be soldiers, tools of the state. Given this reality then, to later hold soldiers morally responsible for carrying out the instructions we, as a nation, have asked of them, is ridiculous. If anything, one could argue that it’s morally wrong for a soldier to decide off his own back not to conduct a general action that everyone else has sanctioned and requires him to do. If the war is not something the public endorse, of course, that is another matter entirely and not the responsibility of the soldier either but the politicians who have instructed the conflict anyway.

If McMahan wants a clear cut kind of morality, as he seems to, I think he’d be better off making general moral statements like “Killing is always wrong.” I don’t see it as inconsistent to say something like this if you believe that a moral person would only ever kill through the lack of other options. If a nation is invaded unjustly (let’s say this is one of those hypothetical clear cut scenarios), then if its soldiers could immoblise and disarm all of the enemy forces painlessly and without killing, wouldn’t that then be the moral thing to do? Why do we want to say that killing is morally ok here, rather than simply a necessary evil? ‘Moral’ and ‘rational’ or ‘prudent’ are not the same things.

Killing is always wrong, but sometimes we choose to do it anyway because we simply lack the power to prevent a greater wrong by any other means.

Michal Tatarynowicz

+1 Matt, I was about to write the same thing, though I suppose not as eloquently. Let me just add two points.

I think the whole idea of objective good and objective evil is absurd, let alone a committee deciding which side in a violent conflict is justified. War is always justifiable in some way, otherwise it wouldn't be waged. You may say that the justification used in a particular case doesn't convince you, but that doesn't make it universally immoral.

I think any kind of violence is "bad" in that we should avoid it if possible. In case we consider violence unavoidable, we should choose a path that eventually leads to least violence done to least people. This is by necessity speculative, so asserting that you can judge it beforehand is unwise.

Basho Matsuo

I have also been moved to comment on this one. It is too long to go into here, so - should you wish - my views are written up at my site:

Quote:"I want to depart from the larger pictures representing the mired discussion of international relations for a moment (we will come back to it – as it forms the conclusion of the argument I am going to advance), to discuss killing on a much more individual and personal level. For while we may, and often do, ascribe individual concepts (concepts designed for individuals and their actions) to larger concepts (concepts such as ‘a nation’), we are stretching outside our terms. I believe it is a mistake to start talking about a “nation’s will.” National will is fractious, and necessarily so in a democracy. Trying to claim there is such a thing existing for more than a short moment in history is anthropomorphising unnecessarily and incorrectly. Conclusive national will is not really like fish swimming all together, but rather like marbles falling down a stairs; gravity draws them in the same direction; it is directed chaos. Armies, nations and states do not have a moral consciousness, generals; soldiers; combatants do."

Thanks for continuing an excellent podcast!


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