Moral Responsibility and Volunteer Soldiers

Posted on December 3, 2013 by

When considering one’s moral responsibility we often take voluntariness into account and with good reason. If one was forced to commit some action against their will we usually claim that they are not morally responsible for what they did. We say this because, all things being equal, they didn’t voluntarily commit the act. Similarly, if a person was drafted (against their will)  into the military we wouldn’t hold them responsible for engaging in an unjust war. They likely did not want to be there and they are trying to get out alive. But conscription is not the way of the military any longer. The drafts that took place in the 60’s have given way to a completely volunteer military. Jeff McMahan recently penned a nice essay on how we should treat volunteer soldiers over at the Boston Review (see here). It has sparked some debates in my social networking circles and thought readers might be interested in wrestling with some of the main points. Are volunteer soldiers morally responsible for their actions? Can we blame them for engaging in unjust wars?

Let’s consider a different case first: drunk drivers. If a drunk driver kills someone we hold them accountable EVEN THOUGH they could not control themselves (or did not voluntarily kill or hurt someone) while intoxicated. We do this because we go back in time and couch the blame when they did have control (when they voluntarily decided to get bombed) and say something like “you should have known then” (this is sometimes referred to as the tracing condition in the literature on moral responsibility). In the case of a volunteer soldier, should we treat them similarly? If they kill others unjustly(i.e. because their military has ordered them to) should we blame them for doing it? Many have said no. If they are ordered to do a deed they must or may get put in prison themselves for not following an order. I’m not convinced by those who think the volunteer soldier’s moral responsibility is mitigated just because they received an order from a higher-ranking official. I’m just not seeing why we can’t go back in the same way and point to the choice they have before enlisting. Since they are not forced to volunteer it seems we can couch the blame there. Again, assuming they had knowledge that the regime regularly engages in unjust wars. Fillipino Casualties of war

The reality of the situation, at least for some who volunteer, is that they KNOW that their regime has been involved in unjust wars. For me, this knowledge is key to holding them blameworthy. Soldiers CAN BE justifiably blamed for killing and hurting others if they knew ahead of time (before volunteering) that the regime they volunteered for was engaged in unjust wars prior to volunteering, especially if it was in the recent past. It’s like getting into a car that you know the brakes have let go several times yet you decide to get in anyway because, let’s say, riding the car each day gets you a free education or some benefits. Am I not to blame if the brakes let go and I kill a family? Sure, we could blame the manufacturer (and we should), especially if the manufacturer designed the car to lose brake control from time to time. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also blame the driver who knowingly got into the car that has killed innocents in the recent past. Let’s also assume that the driver had no evidence to suggest the brakes were fixed. Surely we would think it’s appropriate to blame the driver, no? And, I see the driver similarly as I do the soldier who volunteers for a regime that they know involves themselves in unjust wars or actions. Now, if none of the wars were unjust then suddenly they were forced to engage in an unjust war–that would be different. And those cases speak to why a change to the system is needed (as suggested by McMahan). I agree that the system should be changed to fix that, but that’s a different bag of balls.

Those who say volunteers can’t say no to fighting in an unjust war therefore they are not morally responsible seem to be missing the point. If they know that there is a good chance that they could be “forced” to do so then they ought not sign up in the first place. So, I guess I’m saying that volunteer soldiers are morally responsible for engaging in an unjust war if they had prior knowledge that they would likely be asked to partake in given that regimes history (here I’m thinking of something like a Nazi Germany a second go-around–1st time shame on the system second time shame on the system and the soldiers who signed up to partake).

What do you think? Volunteer soldiers – blameworthy or not?