Most societies valorize soldiers. Such social norms cause the following effects, among others:

  1. It increases the benefits of being a soldier relative to the costs, and thus can induce more people on the margin to become soldiers.
  2. It tends to promote certain kinds of soldier behavior and attitudes (honor, protection, loyalty) over others (looting, rapaciousness, abuse of power).

That said, there are a variety of possible norms a society could have when it comes to valorizing soldiers. From one extreme to another, they include:

  1. Unconditional High Praise: Soldiers are heroes, no matter what.
  2. Default High Praise: Soldiers are presumed heroes, unless shown otherwise.
  3. Neutrality: Soldiers are to be evaluated in much the same way we evaluate everyone else. They are judged according to their character and their actions. If a soldier volunteers to fight in a just war, prima facie, he merits high praise. If he volunteers to fight in what he should realize or does realize is an unjust war, prime facie, he merits contempt. If a soldier has good intentions, he is to that extent praiseworthy. If he has bad intentions, he is to that extent not praiseworthy. Private citizens must exercise due care in choosing to become soldiers, given the expected moral risks.
  4. Default Contempt: Soldiers are presumed villains, unless shown otherwise.
  5. Unconditional Contempt: Soldiers are villains, no matter what.

This is only a rough sketch. There are of course more nuanced positions than these, and there are other intermediate norms.

Some questions:

A. Assuming we are discussing a social norm for a typical modern democratic nation-state, which norm is best from a rule-consequentialist point of view? That is, which norm produces the most utility (however you’d like to define utility)?

B. From a deontological or virtue-theoretic point of view, which norm seems most appropriate?

Many commentators on this blog seem to believe that norm 2 is the right answer to question A. They worry, perhaps reasonably, that if we lived by norm 3, hardly anyone would join the military, and hardly anyone would fight, even for genuine self-defense. They might agree that in the US, norm 2 tends to reinforce American militarism, but then think that norm 3 would swing us too far in the other direction. Norm 2 helps the US victimize other countries, but norm 3 would help other countries victimize the US.

At any rate, I tend to lean toward norm 3.

Regarding norm 4: I’m sure you could imagine circumstances in which this would be the most useful social norm. Perhaps it’s what Klingons need to hear.

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  • Marja Erwin

    Even if one believes violence is a necessary evil, it’s still an evil. To take up arms in dire necessity might be one thing. To willingly join an organization which can demand that one take up arms, and kill people, at its discretion and for its own ends is quite another. And obedience is a nasty vice. We need to oppose norms which call on people to surrender their own moral judgment, and especially those which call on people to follow someone else’s orders instead. We also need to resist loyalties to the American empire, to it’s ruling class, etc.; when people insist “my country right or wrong,” they are either fools or scoundrels.

    We ought to support those who try to do right amid the wrong, especially those like Hugh Thompson and Breanna Manning.

    • TracyW

      I  would far rather that the American military be obedient to the American empire’s ruling class than it decide on its overall objectives for itself.  Civilian control of the military is a very good thing in my opinion, based on countries like Fiji and Pakistan where the military definitely doesn’t feel obliged to follow its ruling class’s orders.  

      (Note, I’m not an American, nor do I want to be, although I do admire a number of things about that country). 

  • Roderick Tracy Long

    On behalf of something like (4) — I wouldn’t use the words “contempt” and “villains,” but I do think there should be a (defeasible) presumption that soldiers are doing something wrong, simply because the standards for just war are very hard to meet and are, in the real world, hardly ever met.

    Likewise, if you see person A walking peacefully down the street, and person B suddenly comes running up out of nowhere and punches A in the face, there’s a reasonable presumption that B is in the wrong, if only because this is conduct that’s very hard to justify and seldom turns out to be justified — though with enough imagination one can certainly spin a story that defeats the presumption.

    Re consequentialist criteria — I’m suspicious (and I think even consequentialists have reason to be suspicious) of any account that makes moral norms for what we should believe depart from epistemic norms.

    • Roderick Tracy Long

      Incidentally, before anyone complains about a “false analogy” — the only point of my punching-in-the-face example was to present a case where it’s (I take it) relatively uncontroversial that there’s a defeasible presumption that anyone doing this is in the wrong, and that the rarity and difficulty of such conduct’s being justified is a plausible explanation for the presumption.  So the conclusion that my example is being used to support is “there should be a presumption against soldiers because something’s being difficult to justify is a good reason to have a presumption against it,” rather than “there should be a presumption against soldiers because they’re like people who randomly punch someone in the face.”

  • Michael Carey

    To valorize is to grant some social benefit, let’s call it status.  Status is probably partially absolute and partially relative.  That is, t0 some degree if we grant status to one person we have to take it from another person.  But to some degree we may be able to grant status without lowering anyone else’s position (e.g. if we decide to trust someone because of their status it does not necessarily mean we can’t trust others).

    Both come at a cost.  If we valorize soldiers, who suffers lower relative status as a result?  What incentive effects does that have?  Does it make people less likely to be teachers (who seem to have a pretty low status given the service nature of their job).

    How costly is it to trust soldiers?

  • billwald

    How else will our owners and controllers extend their empire without conscription?

  • mercrono

    I like this framework, and I think I probably fall pretty close to norm 3 as well. But the trickiest issue for me is distinguishing what makes a war unjustified
    enough to blame the civilian leadership and unjustified enough to blame actual soldiers who volunteer. Brennan acknowledges that there is a gap here, as soldiers might reasonably be unaware of facts that make a war unjust. But I think this gap is probably larger, as I can imagine military actions bad enough to warrant voting against, but not bad enough to blame soldiers for carrying out, even where the soldiers themselves have reason to oppose it as well.

    Now, if the soldier is volunteering precisely because of the bad reasons (“gee, I sure would love to indirectly cause the death of innocent civilians!”), then that’s obviously bad. But I can also imagine a soldier (1) wanting to volunteer for the right reasons, (2) thinking that some particular military decision is unjustified, but (3) thinking the question is close enough that it’s worth deferring to civilian leadership.

    It’s also worth noting that, to my knowledge, soldiers don’t exactly get a choice of where and how they deserve — i.e., you can’t say “I want to volunteer, but only to defend the United States from attack, not to invade other countries” or “I only want to go to Afghanistan, not Iraq.” So if you think some of what the military does is justified, but some isn’t, that complicates things even more.

    Of course, I do think there’s a line somewhere, so I agree with Brennan that wars can get sufficiently unjustified to warrant blaming the soldiers themselves (and I should add that this line is well short of say, Nazi Germany). Although I would add, as others have suggested, that this isn’t a binary praise/condemn question. It’s a spectrum, where increasingly unjustified military action merits increasingly stronger criticism. With those qualifications, however, I do think it’s appropriate to judge soldiers “neutrally,” and not necessarily presume “heroic” status.

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  • Joseph Stromberg

    Not to cause trouble, but the whole is a bit analogous to deciding at what age you tell children that, no, the policeman may not be their friend.

  • Joseph Stromberg

    “whole thing” [perils of typing]

  • Adam Ricketson

    I tend towards 3, but there may be some reason to move towards 2.

    First, my neutrality is based on the idea that in the absence of an imminent threat, most soldiers enlist as professionals — they decided that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.

    However, for some of them, one of the perceived advantages may have come from a sense of duty or philanthropy (as with other professions). If that is the case, then this sense of duty may actually produce a surplus supply of soldiers, thereby decreasing the going wage for soldiers such that we should basically assume that this sense of duty contributes to the “compensation” of every soldier and therefore they are by default praiseworthy. Of course, this ignores that the wages of soldiers are determined as much by politics as by supply and demand (as are many other professions).

    The catch is that their sense of duty may be misplaced, in which case we should give them neither praise nor contempt, but pity.

  • Adam Ricketson

    “They worry, perhaps reasonably, that if we lived by norm 3, hardly
    anyone would join the military, and hardly anyone would fight, even for
    genuine self-defense. ”

    note: I assume that “self-defense” here means “national defense”.

    Anyway, to evaluate this concern we need to consider the trajectory of warfare. Warfare is increasing roboticized, which insulates the soldiers from the risks of combat and the hardship of deployment. For the people controlling these robots, there is still the psychological tension of making the daily transition from family home to killing fields, but that will not deter many people from taking up remote arms as a regular job.

    So basically, I think that this question is obsolete. The social norms relating to soldier status will not change as quickly as the nature of warfare is changing. We need to focus on the people who control the robots, not the traditional soldier.

  • TJ

    That’s a good post.  The American military experience has evolved over time from a citizen-soldier to more of a Legionairre in the post Vietnam era.  Consequently American soldiers have evolved from a home and hearth guard on call when the body politic was imperilled to a proactive force in the Foreign Policy bag of tricks.  Whereas when a minuteman grabbed his musket and mustered to defend his middlesex we might easily default to 2; as politicians use the Legion to engage in overseas ventures of meritable or despicable nature one may make a strong case to norm to 3.  The US civil-military compact wherein the Legion stays out of politics,, the decision to fight and supports and defends the fundamental law of the land for pay, which is in sharp contrast to most of the nonanglospheric nations, is in my opinion a noble one.  Perhaps that the military continues to reflect a modern Cincinnatus  approach to political power demonstrates sufficient good intent that much of the body politic, including myself norm to 2.  

  • TracyW

    I think level 3 is the wrong level of analysis.
    Unless we take the position of total pacifism and should have no military at all, I place a lot of value on civilian control of the military. There are some extreme circumstances where I think that the military stepping in and taking control could be the lesser of two evils, such as for example USSR during Stalin’s time, but overall I think it’s generally far better if the military are obeying civilian orders. I think soldiers’ morality should be judged on how they individually behave. I don’t think that, say, a solider fighting the most morally-justifiable war imaginable should on that basis be treated as a hero if they do nothing heroic and they do evil things, such as rape, or massacring prisoners.  I think that a soldier fighting in an unjustifiable war can still do heroic things, particularly risking their life to save others, be they other soldiers on their side, civilians, or prisoners on the other side. 

    I also think, that barring extreme circumstances, soldiers obeying civilian orders is praiseworthy.  To switch off your own sense of morality and follow that of your elected officials is quite tough for many people, and I think we in the West don’t appreciate how beneficial it is. 

  • j_m_h

    Perhaps you’re implicit assumption in your question is what do we think the social norm be at this point in time. I don’t really think there’s anything to gain from suggesting some social norm that is time and situation invariant.

    During a good portion of Viet Nam and for a time after, the social norm was in the 4 and 5 level where as in WWII it was in the 1 to 2 area. During the Revolution? Probably closer to 4 than 2 and in the Civil War probably closer to 2 than 4. 

    Last, I suspect there’s more romance in the interpretation of our social norm of “valorize soldiers” than there is realism. It might be interesting to compare the Ad Campaign to the actual behavior.

  • j_m_h

    So I saw an add the other day that got me thinking about this whole Civic Virtue and how society valorizes groups or class of people within our society. The add was from one the the many universities that provides more targeted educations that standard universities but I think the question still applies. 

    We tend to grant anyone who holds the title of Professor (will little concern about tenured status or if the person is an assistant or associate professor) a certain special status in our social treatment of the person — this is similar to that of “soldiers being heros”.

    But these universities and professors who are targeting student to develop skills for cyber warfare and internal monitoring of electronic communications in the name of protecting us from terrorist seem to be participating in the same questionable activities that these past posts have used to raise questions about the social status granted to military personnel, perhaps even more so because there is a clear and known intent displayed.

    My intent here isn’t to snub academics but rather to ask how the academics on this blog would then suggest which of the above suggested norms might apply to the group we call “professors” or “educators” (we certainly see the same effort to build up the respect of all teachers occurring today but here I’m more interested in what hits closer to home for the bloggers).

    The other thing that’s somewhat interesting is how the libertarian dialogue here really relates to groups and not individual action while when defending market interactions or arguing against the 
    “mob behavior” means we don’t hold individuals accountable libertarians tend to reject the group or class analysis. So I’m wondering is we’re engaging in some class analysis that methodological individualism (which I think is implicit in most libertarian thinking) tends to reject or are we safely staying in the bounds of institutional analysis and the incentives created for individual actors and the social outcomes those incentives create?

  • Sergio Méndez

    In an ideal more “neutral” world, were it was the case soldiers regulary joined the army to fight a just war, I will lean towards 3. In the real world, were the military has become universally as a institution for the state to commit abuses (and itself an abusive institution against its own members and civilians) I  lean towards 4. 

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