Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Trusting leaders in contexts of war

Two nights ago I had a dream. I was in the military, and we were being deployed, and I suddenly got worried about something like this line of thought (I am filling in some details--it was more inchoate in the dream). I wasn't in a position to figure out on my own whether the particular actions I was going to be commanded to do are morally permissible. And these actions would include killing, and to kill permissibly one needs to be pretty confident that the killing is permissible. Moreover, only the leaders had in their possession sufficient information to make the judgment, so I would have to rely on their judgment. But I didn't actually trust the moral judgment of the leaders, particularly the president. My main reason in the dream for not trusting them was that the president is pro-choice, and someone whose moral judgment is so badly mistaken as to think that killing the unborn is permissible is not to be trusted in moral judgments relating to life and death. As a result, I refused to participate, accepting whatever penalties the military would impose. (I didn't get to find out what these were, as I woke up.)

Upon waking up and thinking this through, I wasn't so impressed by the particular reason for not trusting the leadership. A mistake about the morality of abortion may not be due to a mistake about the ethics of killing, but due to a mistake about the metaphysics of early human development, a mistake that shouldn't affect one's judgments about typical cases of wartime killing.

But the issue generalizes beyond abortion. In a pluralistic society, a random pair of people is likely to differ on many moral issues. The probability of disagreement will be lower when one of the persons is a member of a population that elected the other, but the probability of disagreement is still non-negligible. One worries that a significant percentage of soldiers have moral views that differ from those of the leadership to such a degree that if the soldiers had the same information as the leaders do, the soldiers would come to a different moral evaluation of whether the war and particular lethal acts in it are permissible. So any particular soldier who is legitimately confident of her moral views has reason to worry that she is being commanded things that are impermissible, unless she has good reason to think that her moral views align well with the leaders'. This seems to me to be a quite serious structural problem for military service in a pluralistic society, as well as a serious existential problem.

The particular problem here is not the more familiar one where the individual soldier actually evaluates the situation differently from her leaders. Rather, it arises from a particular way of solving the more familiar problem. Either the soldier has sufficient information by her lights to evaluate the situation or she does not. If she does, and she judges that the war or a lethal action is morally wrong, then of course conscience requires her to refuse, accepting any consequences for herself. Absent sufficient information, she needs to rely on her leaders. But here we have the problem above.

How to solve the problem? I don't know. One possibility is that even though there are wide disparities between moral systems, the particular judgments of these moral systems tend to agree on typical acts. Even though utilitarianism is wrong and Catholic ethics is right, the utilitarian and the Catholic moralist tend to agree about most particular cases that come up. Thus, for a typical action, a Catholic who hears the testimony of a well-informed utilitarian that an action is permissible can infer that the action is probably permissible. But war brings out differences between moral systems in a particularly vivid way. If bombing civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is likely to get the emperor to surrender and save many lives, then the utilitarian is likely to say that the action is permissible while the Catholic will say it's mass murder.

It could, however, be that there are some heuristics that could be used by the soldier. If a war is against a clear aggressor, then perhaps the soldier should just trust the leadership to ensure that the other conditions (besides the justness of the cause) in the ius ad bellum conditions are met. If a lethal action does not result in disproportionate civilian deaths, then there is a good chance that the judgments of various moral systems will agree.

But what about cases where the heuristics don't apply? For instance, suppose that a Christian is ordered to drop a bomb on an area that appears to be primarily civilian, and no information is given. It could be that the leaders have discovered an important military installation in the area that needs to be destroyed, and that this is intelligence that cannot be disclosed to those who will carry out the bombing. But it could also be that the leaders want to terrorize the population into surrender or engage in retribution for enemy acts aimed at civilians. Given that there is a significant probability, even if it does not exceed 1/2, that the action is a case of mass murder rather than an act of just war, is it permissible to engage in the action? I don't know.

Perhaps knowledge of prevailing military ethical and legal doctrine can help in such cases. The Christian may know, for instance, that aiming at civilians is forbidden by that doctrine. In that case, as long as she has enough reason to think that the leadership actually obeys the doctrine, she might be justified in trusting in their judgment. This is, I suppose, an argument for militaries to make clear their ethical doctrines and the integrity of their officers. For if they don't, then there may be cases where too much disobedience of orders is called for.

I also don't know what probability of permissibility is needed for someone to permissibly engage in a killing.

I don't work in military ethics. So I really know very little about the above. It's just an ethical reflection occasioned by a dream...


Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Really good book to read on this is "Church of Spies, The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler" by Mark Riebling. I'm about 2/3rds of the way through.

M.A.D. Moore said...

1) “someone whose moral judgment is so badly mistaken …is not to be trusted in moral judgments relating to life and death.”

I was in the Marine Corps from 2001-2005. For reasoning somewhat similar to this, I realized at the time that I would not have enlisted had Mr. Gore won the election.

2) Unfortunately, the number of military members who have enlisted because of what can generally be termed “principled”
reasons is very small. That is, notions of defending the homeland, fighting for justice, are virtually non-existent ideals as to why young people exist. Most enlist for the job security, excitement, GI Bill post-enlistment, or very often, the lack of opportunities for someone with only a high school diploma. This is offered as practical background information to let you know how rare, in fact, the concerns you mention would be to the average GI Joe or Jane.

3) In battlefield-type scenarios, perhaps such as the one you describe, split second decisions are of course determinative of life or death. That being the case the junior enlisted (I speak for the role about which I am most familiar) are trained to obey immediately, decisively, and with focused effectiveness. Thus, it is, in a fundamental sense, to fail to fulfill the role of Marine or soldier if one does conscientiously weigh all the decisions delivered from superiors. A delay added here or there, multiplied by the chain of command, gets not only me and you killed, but perhaps squads and whole units destroyed as well.

4) In non-battlefield situations, the approach is somewhat different. My unit did fund-raising, initiated and conducted by a handful of warrant officers, for the ostensible benefit of raising disposable income for the junior Marines, but which transparently also served to enrich the officers. The scheme was to force (“voluntold” was the word of the day) junior Marines into working the concessions at professional baseball games in San Diego, while the officers gained free admission to the games to “supervise” from the stands, while also making a profit off the work of others. I was the only one who refused to do this work, on the belief that I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, not to enrich for-profit 3rd parties. I was prepared to approach a Navy Judge Advocate General (~ military lawyer) for help if push came to shove, but instead I only had to deal with bad blood for the final 6 months of my enlistment. In contrast to the difficulties I mentioned about battlefield scenarios, there are probably not a few occasions in the military where one does need to stand his ground.

Heath White said...

I have heard of several relevant instances from veteran students, or philosophers connected somehow with the military. The gist is, like M.A.D. Moore’s #3, that the military expects immediate obedience to any orders, and therefore it effectively presumes epistemological deference in moral matters. They do teach just war doctrine at the officer academies, and you are allowed to refuse an illegal order, but in practice, standing on your morality against an order from a superior is likely to get you jailed or discharged, the more so the more junior you are.

My own view is that the current military/government cannot be trusted to issue moral orders, and therefore Christians would do well to stay away from military service. I have advised Christian students accordingly in the past.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mr Moore:

Thank you for this helpful discussion of the realities.

In battlefield situations, presumably immediate obedience is needed. So the issues of trust need to be figured out before battle. At the same time, split-second judgments that something is immoral are possible in really clear cases ("throw a grenade at that group of children in the middle of the field").

It is interesting that the ethical issues come up in non-violent aspects of military service. I suppose one would have many of the ethical issues one sees in the business world, with the added complication that the expectations of obedience are stronger but also with the safeguard provided by a better-defined set of procedural rules.

Alexander R Pruss said...

One thought I had since posting is that many of my worries was generated by this principle:

(C) Unless your credence that killing x is permissible is very high, say 0.99, then it's wrong to kill x.

But on reflection, C may be false. In particular, we can generate counterexamples to C by considering cases where a lot is clearly at stake. And wars are permissibly waged only when much is at stake.

For instance, consider a case where it is clear that killing x will save ten innocent lives, and it is likely but not very likely (say, credence 0.75) that killing x is permissible. Then it seems likely that in some cases like that it may be permissible to kill x.

Maybe. After all, I don't think that killing is permissible in all cases like those in the previous paragraph. Consider a case where a murderous mob will kill ten unless Jones is sentenced to death by a judge (simplify by supposing there is no jury). Suppose, further, that the situation is such that if Jones is guilty of the crime he's accused of, the death penalty is permissible. But it is not clear to the judge that Jones is guilty: the judge assigns probability 0.75 that Jones is guilty. It doesn't seem right in this case for the judge to sentence Jones to death. (Suppose there are four accused people and the judge knows for sure that exactly three of them committed the crime, but the judge has no idea which of the four is the innocent one. The mob, however, will kill ten people for each unexecuted accused person. It is clearly wrong for the judge to execute each one, even though by executing each, he has a 0.75 chance of executing a guilty person.)

There is need for a lot of work about making decisions in situations of moral uncertainty.