Friday, September 17, 2010

The Ethics of Compulsory Service and Morality with or without God

I'm knocking out a long overdue Humanities credit for my degree, and the course is Ethics. I figured I'd post some submissions here once in a while, and invite readers to weigh in on their opinion, if they're so inclined.

The nation is at war, and your number in the recently reinstated military draft has just come up. The problem is that, after serious reflection, you have concluded that the war is unjust. What advice might Socrates give you? Would you agree? What might you decide to do?

There appear to be two distinct schools of thought on compulsory military service. The first would state that if the state was an institution of freedom and liberty for all her citizens, then mandatory military service is antithetical to that very ideal; in a word, hypocrisy. The very premise of being a free citizen, yet owing a term of service [sometimes indefinite in time of war], where one’s life is demonstrably at stake, can be seen a very real contradiction.

On the other hand, the second school of thought, and one that Socrates would likely adhere to, is that it is an essential duty for a citizen to give back and serve the state that has provided him a home. Though citizens compensate the state through taxation and maintaining a law abiding existence, the duty to serve in a physical capacity is seen by many as either the epitome of serving the state or at the very least necessary for the security of it. In the question of the unjust war, Socrates states that “you must either persuade it [the state], or else do whatever it commands; and if it ordains that you must submit to certain treatment, then you must hold your peace and submit to it: whether that means being beaten or put into bonds, or whether it leads you into war or be wounded or killed, you must act accordingly, and that it what is just.”

The caveat to this deontological reasoning is that virtue ethics may contravene the actions of the state, as we have witnessed in the case of tyrannical regimes pursuing unjust and genocidal wars. Ultimately if I have concluded that the war is unjust, it will be on the grounds that the endeavor is so flagrantly in violation of the morals and principles that all societies must hold dear to be considered free, that I could in clear conscious opt out of serving in a manner that contradicted the laws of the state.

Is it possible to be moral without believing in God? Why or why not?

To state that morality cannot exist without god completely disregards the concept of free will. Free will is a necessary component of individual liberty. This not to say that the two concepts are not interchangeable and overlapping. Many of our laws are based on the tenets of the Judeo-Christian faith. But it is also easy to argue that these laws also have secular value, meaning that they require and reward citizens for being moral [as in not violating the law], irrespective of their belief or disbelief in a god. Conversely, many actions committed by people who profess a profound belief in god, can be seen as immoral by fellow citizens, when those actions restrict the liberties of others. For example, concerning gay marriage, proponents of faith may state that their moral compass is guided by their belief in god, while proponents of individual liberty will state that it is ultimately moral to allow freedom of action in what they believe is both biological and created by god and what is a fundamental tenet of freedom.

Steven Cahn writes that “some would argue that if god exists, then it at least follows that murder is immoral, because it would be immoral to destroy what god with infinite wisdom created”. He then states a flaw in this argument by stating that god [if he exists] created the capacity in humans to commit murder.

Teleologically, some may gravitate towards one side due to the possible consequences of god existing, who then rewards morality or punishes immorality. Deontologically, the argument splits between those with a clear to duty to god, and those with a duty to the moral laws of the state [which can again be the same at times]. But this discussion ultimately rests in virtue ethics in my estimation. Though this issue is deeply personal for many people, there can never be a consensus of opinion, because religion is an internal and outwardly unprovable concept.

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