Travel, Friends, and Killing

In David Edmonds (ed.), Philosophers Take on the World. Oxford University Press UK. pp. 25-27 (2016)
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Military recruitment campaigns emphasize adventure, skills and camaraderie but rarely mention the moral complexities of armed conflict. Enlisting in state armed forces poses the risk of being complicit in unjust wars and associated war crimes. For prospective recruits concerned with morality, the decision is challenging. The probability of wrongdoing alone does not settle the matter; many lawful activities increase risks of future wrongdoing. The permissibility of enlisting depends on weighing expectations of doing good versus wrong. Armed forces provide security and humanitarian aid, so members often do much good. To assess individual decisions, consider whether the institution itself is justified. “Minimal justification” means armed forces cause less wrong than having none. “Full justification” means they cause less wrong than feasible alternatives. If justified, the participation needed for functioning should be permitted; volunteers take risks knowingly. If minimally justified, either participation is permitted as above, or impermissible "dirty hands" roles are required, and either conscription distributes burden fairly or volunteers show "moral courage". The real question is institutional justification, not individual permissibility. To argue enlisting is impermissible implies arguing for disbanding the military. If state armed forces are at least minimally justified, enlisting is likely morally permitted or even praiseworthy. Prospective recruits should consider institutional justification and expectations of contributing to good and wrong before deciding the morality of enlisting. For morally conscientious individuals, complex realities of armed conflict pose difficult questions with no easy answers.

Author's Profile

Seth Lazar
Australian National University


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