Sunday, January 5, 2014

The draft

Suppose Belgium is being attacked by a vicious enemy who is particularly targetting civilians—especially children—in a terroristic campaign. Currently, Belgium has an all-volunteer army. However, experts with excellent predictive track records estimate that conscripting 200,000 men for about a year will save almost as many lives, mainly those of children. These 200,000 draftees would be subject to the rigors and hardships of a tough year-long military campaign. Surprisingly, however, due to recent improvements in personal armor, the campaign is expected to result in fewer than 100 deaths of draftees.

There is nothing morally objectionable about the government having such a draft and those called up for it would have a moral duty to serve. Note that the projected death-rate expected from the campaign is about 50 times lower than the US military death-rate in WWII. Such a low death-rate makes this draft close to obviously right.

Now compare this to Judith Jarvis Thomson's arguments—like the famous violinist one—for abortion. In the Belgian draft case, in pregnancy and in Thomson's cases, people lose significant aspects of their ordinary freedoms and capabilities, and do so for the sake of saving the lives of others. I think the draft case underlines that Thomson's cases underestimate the degree to which we can be legitimately morally required to make significant sacrifices to save the lives of others.

Notice, too, three differences between the draft and violinist cases. While the particular people saved by the draft in my story are primarily children, and hence not the draftees themselves, the practice of instituting a draft in such dire wartime circumstances is one that all can potentially benefit from. If I am to be drafted and save the life of some child and I am considering running off, I should reflect that it's just a matter of my luck that the invasion happened now rather than when I was a child and when others would have been drafted to protect me. I need to do my bit or else I will be a freerider. It is not so in the violinist case. I am not a famous violinist. People are not at all likely kidnap anybody to provide life support for me! The pregnancy case here is like the draft case, but even more so. For we all not merely potential beneficiaries of the practice, but actual beneficiaries, since we all came into existence through pregnancy.

Second, in the draft case there is a not insignificant chance that the child whose life one's being drafted will save will be one's own child, while the violinist is a stranger. But in the case of pregnancy the child is almost always one's own (the exception is in cases of surrogate pregnancy). Again, the pregnancy case is more like the draft case, and even more in that direction.

The third difference may seem to play in a different direction, however. Both the pregnancy and the violinist cases involve direct use of one's internal organs. But in the draft, one's womb and one's kidneys are not being drafted—it is the use of external organs, like hands and legs, that is required of one. While there may be a small difference along these lines, I think the difference is not particularly significant. The soldier fights not just with hands and legs, but also with the brain, and is required to do so. To have one's kidneys get used, as in the violinist case, is no more invasive of one's person than to have to obey orders, to have to focus with one's brain and mind on the tasks that one's commander requires one to focus on. The loss of autonomy on a military campaign is, if anything, greater than in the pregnancy and violinist cases.

Note, too, that the draft argument gives support for two claims. First, it supports a moral claim: It is one's duty, on pain of freeriding, to do one's bit for saving lives. Second, it supports a policy claim: It can be both permissible and reasonable for the state to require this of one.

14 comments:

John Moore said...

Another difference is that the draft case is a short-term emergency, whereas the abortion issue is constantly with us.

In your example, people have a moral duty to serve, but the morality would look different if the country was constantly being invaded and the war was never-ending.

Kenny said...

John - I think most people consider unplanned pregnancies to be emergency situations; the difference is not emergency vs. non-emergency, but rather a matter of the emergency happening to one individual/family at a time vs. to the whole society at once.

Alex - You say, "There is nothing morally objectionable about the government having such a draft and those called up for it would have a moral duty to serve." I find this plausible but not obvious. Of course, if there is any case in which this is true of a draft, yours should surely qualify, so I expect you're likely to find wide agreement; I just personally have my (Kantian) doubts.

The analogy to abortion is very interesting. I bet there are some people who think your draft case is obviously acceptable while restrictions on abortion are obviously unacceptable, and I'd be very interested to know where those people would locate the difference.

Larry said...

"the practice of instituting a draft in such dire wartime circumstances is one that all can potentially benefit from."

Seems like any normal objection to utilitarian ethics would apply to this draft scenario - correct?

I'm not sure we ever have the right to the coerced services of anyone, so forcing someone against their will to fight for something I value (but he/she potentially does not) seems immoral.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That reasoning is apt to undercut many forms of taxation.

A sales tax, unless all necessities are exempt, need not differ significantly from coerced labor. For instance, a sales tax coerces the poor to work longer hours in order to support their families.

Moreover, in Western democracies, people are coerced to such labor as filling out tax forms, serving on juries, answering census questions and testifying in court as called upon. Taken all-together, this is not an insignificant amount of labor. And there seems nothing intrinsically problematic about it.

If people are to live in organized communities, coercion of labor is required.

Larry said...

If coercion of labor is required to live in organized communities, is coerced labor a necessary evil or would you classify it as something else?

Maybe a sales tax is actually voluntary, since you only pay it when you choose to buy something? For instance, you could grow your own food rather than purchase it. There might be similar voluntary ideas for the others on your list as well.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't see the coercion as an evil at all. We all have a moral duty to work for the community, since we are political animals, and there need be nothing wrong with the community compelling us to do our duty. Nor with the community making a reasonable determination of who should work in what way.

As for the sales tax, to grow my own food, I'd need land, and if I had land, I'd have to pay property tax on it.

Larry said...

Maybe I'm not grasping something (very possible!), but why would I have a moral duty to work for the community? Isn't a community just a collection of individuals? And if those individuals can determine that I work for them against my will, how is that any different than slavery?

Certainly, I personally prefer to be part of a community and I enjoy being part of it and am glad others also want to join in that effort, but I'm not sure how it's morally obligatory.....thanks for helping me through this.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, we owe love to other people, and if we love them, then we'll want to be united with them in some way, and that's some sort of community.

Maybe you're getting hung up on the words "morally obligatory". I think something is morally obligatory if and only if you have a decisive reason to do it. And of course we have decisive reasons to care for others--the very same decisive reasons that we have to care for ourselves apply in the case of others, as Nagel points out in The Possibility of Altruism.

Larry said...

I'm not sure that conscripting others to perform duties they do not want to perform for my benefit is loving. If I was to act altruistically, I would need to volunteer for military service rather than coerce someone else.

BTW - I'm enjoying your chapter in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology on the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument! I received that book for Christmas.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It is good for one to do one's duty and bad for one to have neglected to do one's duty. Thus far, it is good to be coerced to do one's duty. Of course, there may be other reasons why a particular instance of coercion isn't good.

Larry said...

But by that reasoning, couldn't a slave owner then assign the term duty to a slave's requirements and it would be considered good?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Sure, he could assign the *term* "duty" to it.

'"Father," said one of the rising generation to his paternal progenitor, "if I should call this cow's tail a leg, how many legs would she have?" "Why five, to be sure." "Why, no, father; would *calling* it a leg *make* it one?" (Stears)

Larry said...

I think is where I'm stuck. If a collection of individuals gets to determine what my duty is, there seems to be no objective point between zero coercion and slavery. Any arbitrary reason (physical fitness, intelligence, wealth or lack thereof, etc) could be used to justify coercion and then call it duty - but it wouldn't make it *duty* any more than calling a cow's tail a leg makes it a leg.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, there is a difference between a collection of individuals and a community. A community is a collection of individuals ordered to a common good. And while one has a duty to contribute to that common good, and to do so in ways that coordinate well with the contributions of others, which calls for some form of authority to ensure that coordination, not every ordinance of the community yields a duty. The ordinance must be ordered to the common good, at least minimally reasonable, not unfair, not immoral to obey, etc.

One might worry that the draft is not even minimally reasonable because it is too onerous a requirement. However, in the case I sketched, where the risk to life is not enormous but the stakes are great, I don't think the requirement is too onerous.

I suspect that if the draft as I describe were combined with a relief from all taxation for the rest of one's life, many people would go for it. If so, then the requirement is not enormously more onerous than being taxed.