Ethics of Killing seminar at West Point
Last Friday, 22 Jan, Dr. Richard Schoonhoven led a very interesting discussion on the ethics of killing, especially as it applies to war. This was the first of a series of Departmental seminars on the Army’s Professional Military Ethic. About 60 staff and faculty attended the 55-minute seminar.
Here are a few of my take-aways from the seminar:
First, it was validating. Richard didn’t put forth a theory or an answer to the question of the moral justification for killing in war; that wasn’t his intent. Instead, he laid out the many aspects related to the question—e.g., the problem of the innocent attacker, moral responsibility, “invincible ignorance,” the relationship of citizen and state, the connection (or not) of Jus in Bellum and Jus in Bello, noncombatant immunity. Yet, in almost every area of discussion, I felt confident that my approach to the morality of killing could coherently address the issues.
Second, I realized that much of the difficulty in making moral judgment in war is not a matter of developing a coherent set of moral principles; rather, it’s a problem of information. A soldier in combat rarely has complete situational awareness of the moral situation—the justice of the cause, the motives and intent of enemy combatants, etc. In contrast, we generally have much better information while making our everyday moral decisions. So, my insight was that we can develop a coherent combat ethics that assumes full information, yet we’ll have to deal with the complicating reality that soldiers will often act on incomplete or incorrect information. The category of morally excusable actions—those that are objectively wrong but not worthy of moral blame—is a BIG one in war.
Third, I was reminded of something that I’ve often talked about yet never written about—namely, that the justice of a war (jus ad bellum) is something that must be continuously evaluated. Whether or not a war was morally right to engage in in 2003, for example, is really unrelated to what we should be doing in 2010. A war might be just at its inception yet, as conditions change, become unjust to continue; and vice versa. The question is, “Given the feasible alternatives, should we (continue to) engage in the war?” Moral decisions are necessarily made with the information and circumstances of the moment; we can’t change the past, but we can and should resolve to do what’s morally right now and into the future.