Military Conscription as Hypocrisy
Things that are quintessential of the American spirit: indulgence, the working class, and of course patriotism. The ambience of the nation after World War two included a kind of unwavering loyalty to ones country that seemed as obvious a thing to adopt as it might be to get your polio vaccine. Then came Korea and Vietnam. The young men getting drafted to fight these wars were less sure of their complete surrender to whatever obligations to their state they might have. Writing after these cnflicts, in his essay “The Obligations of Citizens and the Justification of Conscription”, John A. Simmons examines and shows how military conscription actually is not as readily justifiable (especially in our country)as one might think.
To begin his account, Simmons offers up three possible types of moral obligations one might have. These three are:
(1) A requirement generated by some voluntary performance or forbearance
(2) A requirement based in some transaction or relationship
(3) A requirement based in some special but not necessarily voluntary relationship
(Simmons 45). Surmising that the third type would be most appropriate, Simmons uses a long standing analogy of the state as parent and citizen as child and rules out the first two types of moral obligations as a justification for military conscription.
With this filial relationship in tow, Simmons states that, “Children…never owe obligations of obedience to their parents”(51). This goes for children as babes, adolescents, and adult offspring. This is supported by the fact that the demands of parents are not always the right action to enact. The command of the parent has no special force outside of perhaps its affect on one’s prudential interests. Whilst living under your parents’ roof it might be in your favor to follow their rules but failing to do so would not be a moral wrong doing.
What is more are the obligations that the parent (state) have to the child (citizen) actually would entail active care giving. As a parent one has certain rights which “…may be easily forfeited by… (in short the failure to fulfill the obligations of parenthood)” (52). These rights do not pertain to the obedience of the child but instead in relation to the world. The parent has the right to make commands but the child does not have the obligation to obey these commands. However, the obligations of the parents prove far more concrete than those of the child’s. Like the state, the benefits provided by parents are literally essential to survival.
Central to this argument is the scaffolding of a subtly anti natalist rhetoric. Simmons uses the analogy of a person in their new suit who sees a person drowning in the river. They would be morally reprehensible if they did nothing. They would ruin their suit saving them and the person saved might owe them a new suit. In this way the obligation between state and citizen, parent and child is illustrated to be a mostly one sided one, with some expectations for both parties. But Simmons raises the important point of asking where the responsibility lies if you, wearing your new suit, threw the person in. You are morally obligated to save them and the suit is a casualty of your own choices. The same logic follows with a child that you bring into the world. From this we can see a nonconsensual aspect in the nature of the citizen-state relationship (especially if viewed through a filial lens).
Even if the filial relationship is shirked in favor of a more benevolent approach such as a benefactor we still run into issues of reciprocation. We know we do not owe our parents anything, especially if this reciprocity is predicated on ephemeral goods such as love and devotion. Even though the state is not directly responsible for the needs it creates (56) the obligation remains a rather arbitrary one, with the various goods it still might supply. After having taken care of you without a specific transactional scheme you are indebted to them without the specific knowledge of the ledger. Simmons writes, “…obligations of reciprocation are not “content specific”, in the way, for example, a contractual obligation is”(57). With this in mind, Simmons reminds us of the taxes that we already pay and how that could very well account for the full of our obligations to the state in this relationship of reciprocity. In fact, we may be over compensating when the benefit reaped may not be equal to the half of our salaries forfeited in exchange for… pot holed roads? This Simmons argues, and I agree, is no grounds for an obligation of reciprocation that entails loss of freedoms and possibly death.
So the filial relationship has failed to prove as an adequate moral justification for military conscription. Even so, there may be situations where mandatory military service is justifiable but these are few and far between. The circumstances must be grave and a means of determining net costs (including happiness, etc…)must be devised. However, as it stands, in a state predicated on the values of liberty and justice for all the coercive act of conscription stands as an infringement of both domestic and potentially foreign rights. In a nation predicated on the values of liberty and justice “for all” the coercive, or even forceful, act of military conscription is down right hypocrisy.
Simmons, A. John. The Obligations of Citizens and the Justification of Conscription. College Park, MD: Center for Philosophy and Public Policy, University of Maryland, 1981.