From a would-be conscientious objector

Ethan asked:

I’m set to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces but I have the option of not serving if I want to (by acquiring an exemption) so I was debating whether it would be morally right to serve or not. I came to the conclusion that it would be morally wrong to serve because of the unjustified harm it would cause to Palestinians. But here’s the problem, if I think it’s immoral to serve if given the option not to, I would then have to say that anyone with the option to not serve shouldn’t. But if everyone with the choice to not serve didn’t serve the military would collapse and a war would ensue causing more deaths than there would have been if people had served. Does that then make my claim that it is immoral to serve in the military wrong?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Israel is beset by enemies whose only desire is the complete destruction of the country and her people. That is a view held by the majority of Israeli citizens. One can only dream of a future when the danger is past and peace reigns in the Middle East. In the present situation, however, the capacity for self-defence is a necessity, and universal conscription is part of that strategy.

The dilemma over conscientious objection is not new. You allude to Kant’s Categorical Imperative when you say, ‘If I think it’s immoral to serve if given the option not to, I would then have to say that anyone with the option to not serve shouldn’t.’ But, actually, Kant’s view is more nuanced than this. He talks of the ‘maxim’ of my action. So, in this case, the maxim in question is not simply, ‘I shall acquire an exemption’, but rather, ‘I shall acquire an exemption in order that I should not cause unjustifiable harm to others.’

Unjustifiable harm to others is wrong, period. It is wrong by definition. It cannot be justified. In that case, no-one should serve. Everyone should seek an exemption from having to serve in the armed forces. Because those who do not will cause unjustifiable harm. End of discussion!

The outcome we would like (or you would like) would be one in which those who have special objections to serving in the armed forces do not serve, while the majority who do not have special objections do serve. No-one would question an exemption granted on serious medical grounds. You would only be a liability if, say, owing to a weak heart there was a chance that you would drop dead in the middle of an exercise. Similarly with psychological health, say, if you have recently suffered a mental breakdown. The question is whether there could be other reasons for seeking an exemption that do not fall into either category.

Here’s one reason that comes to mind. I have heard it said that through force of circumstance, the culture in the Israeli armed forces is strongly macho, and those who let the squad down are reviled and despised. Fear that you might fail to make the grade would be one compelling motivation for seeking an exemption but, applying Kant’s test to the maxim of your action (‘I will seek an exemption because…’) would not yield the result that you want. It is quite likely that the majority of new conscripts are fearful of failure, even if they don’t admit to it.

Another possible reason is simply morbid fear of causing the death of another person. You will be given a gun and taught how to shoot. Guns kill. This looks to me a more likely candidate, because not everyone feels this way. It is irrelevant whether the killing in question is justified or unjustified. The very thought of killing is unbearable to you, although others (sufficiently many others) do not find the thought unbearable, unpleasant though it may be. However, this looks to me like a problem of psychological health. Would you really not pick up that gun, even if intruders threatened to murder your family? (a frequently used argument against ‘conchies’ during the Great War).

Although I haven’t suggested acceptable grounds or a ‘maxim’ that would pass Kant’s test, in principle there is no reason why there should not be one. The notion of a ‘conscientious objector’ is enshrined in the law in many countries, including Israel where exemptions are granted on religious grounds. This is the point where you really need to think hard about why you object to military service. It is not enough to cite the fact that the experience will be unpleasant, or that you will get your hands dirty. There has to be a special reason, one that sets you apart from the others who, willingly or unwillingly, respond to the call-up. — What is it?

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