Ethics of Killing seminar at West Point

Department of English and Philosophy Seminar on “The Ethics of Killing”

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.



donna207 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
donna207 said...

I hope you get to read my comment.
I have recently become interested in learning more about the ethical issues of combat. I came across your blog last night and am glad to read your perspective on this and other matters (though you unfortunately post - here - infrequently).

Finally I don't that you set up a suggested blogroll but I assume you know others who may either blog or write on these matters. Therefore, if you're inclined and able to compose a brief URL list could you send it to my personal email address:

I'd appreciate it.
My name is Donna Goldman and I am a divorce and family law attorney in South Florida.


Anonymous said...

I think it is just as important to teach our soldiers about killing as how to kill. They need the skills to make split second decisions and the psychological skills to live with them. There is much grey area in war and our soldiers must always be given the benefit of the doubt in war. These guys sign up for the toughest job in the world and too many citizens second guess and hide behind hindsight as some kind of obvious knowing that any stiff could discern the proper action at the time action was brought to bare. May God Bless our soldiers and heal them of any ill effects of such a difficult life and death job. I for one am deeply saddened at how many good soldiers have been dragged through the mud by poorly trained or worse politically motivated investigators.

Anti Money Laundering said...

If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values - that all reality hinges on moral foundations and that all reality has spiritual control.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the "Ender's Game/Speaker for the Dead" problem.

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