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Why study the morality of killing in war?

Why talk with our soldiers about the morality of killing?

1. Helping our soldiers understand the moral justification of killing is a leadership issue. Many soldiers who have killed in war are wracked by guilt when they should not be. When our soldiers kill justly, they ought to be able to live at peace with themselves. We, their leaders, are responsible for them killing; we ought to do our part to help them live fully afterwards.

2. Our soldiers arrive in the Army without any personal experience of killing another human being. As their leaders, we need to help them prepare for and make sense of the first-in-a-lifetime experience of killing a fellow human being. This contrasts with other, more frequent moral decisions. For example, by the time I turned 18 and joined the Army, I knew that stealing was immoral. Why? Well, when I was an 11-year-old boy, I shoplifted some candy. Almost immediately afterwards, I felt guilty and ashamed of myself. A year later, someone stole my bicycle, and I experienced anger and a sense of violation. So, by the time I became a soldier, I had a well-developed sense of morality about stealing. On the other hand, I had no experience with the morality of killing.

3. When it comes to killing another human being, our soldiers cannot trust their feelings. We human beings appear to be hardwired to feel guilty after being involved in the death of another person. For example, if you are driving a car under the speed limit and paying attention to the road, yet a pedestrian negligently darts in front of your car and is struck and killed, you will feel terribly guilty, despite the fact that you know you did nothing wrong. Apparently, playing a role in another’s death elicits guilt even without any wrongdoing. Sharing this observation alone is comforting to soldiers, who often wonder why they feel a sense of guilt even though they know cognitively that it was right to kill the enemy combatant.

4. Understanding the morality of killing in war empowers our soldiers to talk confidently with family, neighbors, acquaintances, etc., about the things the Army does. Within our military communities, we take for granted that wartime killing is morally acceptable. Other communities, however, do not necessarily share that assumption. All of our soldiers will one day retire or ETS. They will likely be challenged by the ignorant, indolent, and downright hateful towards the military. If we have not prepared our soldiers to respond to questions about wartime killing, we have left them defenseless.


peter brown said…
I will try to get through your arguments, but wanted to comment before I run out the door...

I am sure you are aware of the recent neuropsychological research out of Europe (Spain, I believe) that discusses the empathy v. violence circuits in the brain. The study highlighted that these circuits show an inverse relationship to each other. The thinking is that if we teach empathy/compassion, we have less violence in the world. Sounds good...but, when we kill from large distances, we cannot possibly empathize with victims because we need to get close enough to both allow them to view our faces and allow us to view theirs - thereby activating the Fusiform Face Area of the brain that gives us the possibility to recognize them, see and feel what they might be feeling, even postulate what they may be thinking (theory of mind). Maybe the last time was with the Samurai - who used meditation to discover the impermanence of all things, and to kill with compassion. The wikileaks video is an exemplar of what happens when we fail to recognize.

This is a gross approximation and simplification of several brain-behavior ideas. Hope it was clear enough and useful to you in your researches...
peter brown said…
egin forwarded message:

From: "Ken Pope"
Date: April 9, 2010 6:35:17 AM PDT
To: "Ken Pope"
Subject: Neuropsychology of Empathy & Violence; Similar Brain Circuits

FECYT (the Spanish Foundation for Science & Technology) issued the
following news release:

Empathy and violence have similar circuits in the brain

"Just as our species could be considered the most violent, since we are
capable of serial killings, genocide and other atrocities, we are also
the most empathetic species, which would seem to be the other side of
the coin", Luis Moya Albiol, lead author of the study and a researcher
at the UV, tells SINC.

This study, published in the most recent issue of the Revista de
Neurologia, concludes that the prefrontal and temporal cortex, the
amygdala and other features of the limbic system (such as insulin and
the cingulated cortex) play "a fundamental role in all situations in
which empathy appears".

Moya Albiol says these parts of the brain overlap "in a surprising way"
with those that regulate aggression and violence.

As a result, the scientific team argues that the cerebral circuits - for
both empathy and violence - could be "partially similar".

"We all know that encouraging empathy has an inhibiting effect on
violence, but this may not only be a social question but also a
biological one - stimulation of these neuronal circuits in one direction
reduces their activity in the other", the researcher adds.

This means it is difficult for a "more empathetic" brain to behave in a
violent way, at least on a regular basis.

"Educating people to be empathetic could be an education for peace,
bringing about a reduction in conflict and belligerent acts", the
researcher concludes.

Techniques for measuring the human brain "in vivo", such as functional
magnetic resonance imaging, are making it possible to find out more
about the structures of the brain that regulate behaviour and
psychological processes such as empathy.

References: Moya-Albiol, L., Herrero, N. y Bernal, M.C. "Bases
neuronales de la empatia". Revista de Neurologia, 50 (2), 89-100,
febrero de 2010.

Ken Pope


"Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this
world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to
make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to
do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all
perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of
destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever
affects one directly affects all indirectly."
--Martin Luther King, Jr.
Matt said…
>> I knew that stealing was immoral. Why? Well, when I was an 11-year-old boy, I shoplifted some candy. Almost immediately afterwards, I felt guilty and ashamed of myself. A year later, someone stole my bicycle, and I experienced anger and a sense of violation.

Fair enough. It seems like a reasonable test.

If it were possible to be both dead and have feelings then presumably you would feel angry and violated if somebody killed you.

If that's the case could you elaborate on why killing isn't immoral ?

Or have I missed the point ?
Pete said…
@Matt, you missed the point.

By the logic you offer, any action that leaves the other person angry would be immoral, e.g., judge sentencing a criminal to jail, friend taking keys from a drunk person. I'm sure we agree that that's not the case.

My point was that we learn to make sense of our moral decisions through experience. My experiences with theft as a child--on both sides of the equation--enabled me to reflect on them and to understand the issue well.

One challenge of the experience of killing another human being is that 99.9% of soldiers do not have that experience until they are in a war, so the experience comes as a shock to them.

Does this answer your question?
If you didn't have any conscious beings in the world, there really wouldn't be morality but with consciousness that you have it.

Excellent analysis! The morality of killing seems to be a question when someone's intention is to only save his country. Killing is a mortal sin. I hope their conscience won't kill them.