The Imperative of Moral Agency

Conceptual Exploration by Logan (Mehl-Laituri) Isaac

Selective Conscientious Objection (SCO) was at the center of many discussions I either overheard or participated in during the TCCW. SCO as a national military policy would guarantee individual service members the right to conscience in each conflict they are asked to serve. That sounds incendiary, given our “volunteer” force, but I assure you, it is not. The problem of moral agency sits at the center of the debate that often unfolds around conversations about faith and service.

We are all moral agents; God gave us free will and we make moral choices everyday that affect others as well as our selves. Moral agency is at the core of free will, it is the nucleus of the liberty molecule, so to speak. When a person makes a choice that has an injurious effect on
someone else, it is often considered either a sin or a criminal act. Therefore, a person exercising moral agency is accountable to their actions, since they had the freedom to choose to commit the act. Someone who is not a moral agent (infants, the mentally impaired, etc.) cannot as clearly be held accountable, since their capacity to make informed decisions has been inhibited. When people make the argument against SCO, the basis is that the enlistee signed a contract, that they consciously agreed to be bound by its terms and have forfeited their moral agency. Does the enlistment contract legitimately inhibit one’s moral accountability?

If service members are NOT moral agents, they cannot be held accountable for their actions, since they are acting on our behalf, not having chosen the action themselves. If, however, they ARE moral agents, they similarly are accountable to their actions and bear the full responsibility of their behavior. In boot camp, recruits are told they are “not paid to think,” to instinctively obey their superiors (who assume moral agency & accountability). But when we send them to war, we tell them that they are required to disobey unlawful orders (though such a thing is nowhere defined in the Uniform Code of Military Justice), which begs the question; how may they discern unlawful orders if they are required to disable their cognitive process?

We throw our troops under the proverbial bus when we ask them to perform mutually exclusive moral tasks. SCO would secure freedom of conscience and bring moral clarity to the ambiguity of armed service.