Ethics, Human Rights, and Militarism

Glen T. Martin


Ethics involves the use of our practical intelligence and practical reasoning to reflect on the good in human life and to make choices intended to actualize that good in our own lives. As such, it may well be the most important kind of activity that we engage in.  What could be more important than to understand how best to act, what kind of potentialities we should be trying to actualize with our actions, and how best to attain fulfillment and well-being in our lives?  And it is clear that, if there is an objective  good or goods to be attained, and if there are actions that are proper to realizing that good in our own lives, then others deserve that same good or goods, and others deserve the same opportunities to actualize the good in their lives.

Ethics involves, therefore, the question of justice: how should I treat other people, and what should I not do to other people?  It involves what Alan Gewirth calls “the principle of generic consistency,” treating all people alike concerning their basis human right to pursue and actualize the good as they understand it in their lives. As Plato pointed out, a just person is just not only to themselves and in terms of themselves but in relation to others, and these should be reflected in the structure of society. Questions of ethics require reflection on the question of justice which, in turn, requires reflection on the best kinds of society (that make possible justice and ethical living for the persons participating in them). One cannot live a life of thoughtful practical reasoning and personal moral development apart from questions about the organization of society and the actualization of justice within society.

Militarism, we are often told, cultivates virtues such has honor, courage, and obedience. But this conclusion is false, for honor needs to be capable of standing with integrity for what his worth standing for, and a profession of killing other people under command is not something worth standing for.  What is the difference between a military person and a hired killer?   If the honor cannot specify why its actions (of killing and destroying some designated enemy) are actions of integrity and goodness, then there is no honor in this activity.  It is the same with courage.  The courage to face danger is admirable if the danger is faced in the defense of what is good or intrinsically valuable.  But courage in facing danger does not carry value in itself.  Some very bad people face danger, and some good people face danger foolishly or needlessly.

The same is true of obedience.  It is not likely to be a virtue when it is blind obedience to a chain of command that requires those who are obedient to kill and destroy other human beings and their life-support systems.  In his essay “On Disobedience as a Moral and Psychological Problem, psychologist-philosopher Erich Fromm distinguishes “autonomous” obedience from “heteronomous” obedience.  Autonomous obedience to one’s values, rational beliefs, and dictates of conscience is a virtue. However, blind heteronomous obedience to another is an abdication of virtue and responsibility.   Fromm also distinguishes rational from irrational authority.  A teacher’s authority is rational in that the interests of the teacher and student harmonize and empower the student. However, military obedience, Fromm points out, has resulted in atrocity after atrocity in human history and may result in the final nuclear holocaust executed by obedient military personnel.

The process of training for military duty in the United States should serve as an eye-opener to the real moral problematic of doing military duty in that country.  The process is described by Dr. Kathleen Barry in her book Unmaking War, Remaking Men.  She describes the intentional wiping out of the recruit’s personal identity as it was formed up to that point, the intentional conversion of that identity to absolute dependence of the military group, and the intention turning of the recruit into a “remorseless killer.”  There is no virtue in enduring this process of humiliation and denaturing of one’s moral conscience.  There is no virtue in blind obedience to orders to kill and destroy whomever the commanders designate as “enemies.” 

The first principle of nearly all declarations of human rights is the right to life. Scholars of human rights often distinguish between those rights that are ‘absolute and inviolable’ and those rights that must be balanced with other concerns.  For example, the right to privacy of person must be balanced against the right of the public authority to prevent or control crime.  In his book on Human Rights,  Andrew Clapham says that “the absolute rights discussed so far do not allow for limitations, exceptions, qualifications, or balancing against other rights. Genocide, crimes against humanity, slavery, and torture are simply international crimes, which are prohibited and can be individually punished by any state, wherever the acts were committed” (Oxford U. Press, 2007, p. 96). It is striking that the right to life does not appear on this list.  One would think that there cannot be slavery, torture, etc., without life, but, as Kathleen Barry points out [foot] there are contradictions within the Geneva Conventions.  These conventions try to regulate war in certain ways: civilians are not to be targeted, prisoners of war not executed or tortured, etc.  But the fact that war is accepted as a fact shows that the right to life is not accorded to soldiers in battle, only to war prisoners, civilians, etc.

But the right to life is indeed absolute: Article three of the UN Universal Declaration states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.”  Surely military personnel have the same right as “everyone.”   Yet the very fact that they are military personnel indicates that they are not accorded that right.  As Kathleen Barry puts it, they are “expendable.”  The Preamble to the Universal Declaration declares that “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.  War, and training for war as described above, systematically violates that inherent dignity that is the foundation of freedom, peace and justice.  Placing oneself into a military organization means giving up one’s own inherent dignity, making oneself “expendable” for some supposed greater good, which no one has a right to do.  If at least some rights are inherent, inalienable, and absolute (such rights as life, and freedom from torture, slavery, or genocide), then I cannot morally and rationally give up these rights for myself.  Nor can I morally or rationally take them away from others in obedience to orders that I kill these others.