US Soldier’s Ethics and Deontology

The perspectives of deontology, deriving from the root meaning duty, and associated with Immanuel Kant and William David Ross, suggest the ethical complexities facing a US soldier. Both thinkers focus on not depending on what one wants to do, but on what one has to do. Although the connection to duty sounds like it would apply to a soldier, when one examines these two approaches, it is not clear that a soldier can fully meet the requirements of either system of ethics. In the three situations posited: (A) when he/she allows himself to be used to meet the government’s ends, (B) when he/she kills other soldiers to achieve the defeat of an enemy government, and (C) when he/she lies in the process of intelligence gathering/protecting classified information to protect his/her soldiers, and/or kill enemy soldiers, a soldier’s behavior might fail ethically.

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In Kant’s version of Deontology, all persons should be guided by the ‘categorical imperative’, which applies in all circumstances and is not related to our desires or preferences. This seems to apply to a soldier, because a soldier vows to place their selves at the service of the government for its ends, and does not pursue their preferences when in uniform. However, the actions they are ordered to do are not ok for all people all the time, for example, when they kill enemy soldiers or lie; civilians cannot do this without legal consequences. Soldiers certainly do not fulfill the Human Dignity Principle, because soldiers sometimes might treat others as a means to an end, for example, in intelligence gathering, and of course, soldiers involved in intelligence might lie. The Kingdom of Ends Principle, which would direct a soldier to follow no law that they would not have passed themselves, might be fufillable because a soldier might be likely to agree with the aims of their government.

Ross’s approach to Deontology is a bit different. He asserted that we can tell what is right because it feels that it must be right, a principle termed ‘intuitionist’. For a soldier, it may feel right to allow him/herself to be used for the government’s purposes, since, after all, a soldier has taken a vow to that effect. Ross believed that moral duties were real, because they were apparent to common sense, rather than being completely abstract. He called these duties prima facie. For a soldier, the act of killing enemy soldiers may or may not fulfill the duty of fidelity, and could conceivably fulfill the duty of justice. The act of killing enemy soldiers does not seem to fulfill the duties of reparation, gratitude, non-ill-will, goodwill, or self-improvement. Ross also suggested that different duties might have different weights and that figuring out which one is the most important is not a precise matter. The act of deception to obtain or protect military intelligence, which may apply to many soldiers, would fulfill the duty of fidelity to one’s government. Collecting or protecting critical military intelligence could potentially fulfill Ross’ duty of non-ill-will if the purpose was simply to protect one’s, own soldiers. However, the other duties seem unlikely to be fulfilled by military intelligence collection. The Ross ethical system does not seem to cover the activities that characterize a soldier’s existence.

Neither the Kantian nor the Ross’ system of Deontology appears to be able to quite stretch to fit all the proposed responsibilities of a US soldier. Although a soldier’s life is governed by the notion of duty to the nation, and both systems include the idea of duty, the other specifics of both these ethical systems seem to conflict with killing, and military intelligence activities. However, the obligation to place the soldier’s self at their government’s disposal for their purposes seems to be congruent with both systems because a soldier has sworn an oath of office. For a soldier, it seems that the requirements of the job may pose insoluble moral conflicts not fully resolvable by Deontology: perhaps this problem is why soldiers are set apart from the rest of society.

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StudyCorgi. (2020) 'US Soldier’s Ethics and Deontology'. 4 December.

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