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Soldier Soma

January 28th, 2003 · No Comments

“There comes the time when man will no longer give birth to any star. Alas! There comes the time of the most despicable man, who can no longer despise himself. Lo! I show you the last man.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Nota bene, those who ridicule the use of strange sci-fi hypotheticals in ethics. Today’s odd thought experiment is tomorrow’s genuine moral quandary. A case in point comes from Amy, who in this unsettling post cites an article from the Village Voice on new drugs in the works that could allow us to do away with such inconvenient feelings as guilt, regret, and moral self-loathing.

This is not a drug produced by the military, but the article raises the possibility that it could be used to dampen a soldier’s sense of horror at war, to eliminate, at least in part, the effect that killing other human beings has on people. If we were morally perfect, this might seem not to be a problem. We would engage only in just wars (against, presumably the morally less perfect who remained) and in circumstance where killing, while always a bad, is morally necessary, we might think there’s no point — and perhaps also a certain unfairness — in those who step forward and risk their safety for what is, after all, a morally necessary end, suffering natural pangs of conscience over what was both right and needed to be done by someone anyway. Some also draw an analogy to physical injury: would we fail to bandage the wounds of soldiers in order to increase the costs of war? Why, then, should we not medicate the psychic injuries war inflicts?

A pragmatic reply is that conscience, unlike physical injury, responds to our own moral judgments — knowledge of its reproach can act as a motive to hold back from unnecessary killing. But it might as easily be offered that it’s better not to leave the conduct of war to those who are least naturally plagued by moral qualms about action in war. I’m more interested in the core principle — the ideal case. Would we want to use this sort of drug, in a just war, to ease the suffering of soldiers who only acted rightly?

I think probably not. Let me draw an analogy. You can cook up a hypothetical where someone who’s commited a serious wrong can be left without punishment somewhere, and there are no wider incentive effects– just a question of whether you “pointlessly” punish someone who no longer needs to be restrained and whose punishment will provide no deterrent example. I think in those cases, it’s sometimes appropriate to punish not because of any expectation of a broader social gain, but only because punishment is the appropriate response to what was done. If we’re going to take the criminal seriously, as an autonomous person, then I think in an odd sense respect for his dignity demands that we punish him. By the same token, regardless of what social benefit it might serve or hamper, a sense of horror at what we have to do, even justifiably, in war is morally appropriate. For once I agree with Leon Kass: it is definitive of a very basic moral sentiment, one that makes “civil society” possible, to find killing, even necessary killing, awful — above all the killing of innocents. That doesn’t mean we should prohibit anyone from taking medication for trauma after serving in a war, but I don’t know that we (as individual people, not the “we” of government) ought to encourage it either. Feeling horror over even the justifiable killing of civilians is right, not because it serves some future end, but because it is in itself appropriate, just as it would be appropriate to react with admiration and respect to a noble action even if the reaction had no effect on what others did.

As some point out, though, we don’t face a stark choice between our ordinary moral response and a chemically induced narcosis. We’re all too familiar with the ways in which both military training and the wider propaganda delivered to civilian populations attempts in a very calculated way to dehumanize the enemy. Even the language — “collateral damage” for killing of civilians and destruction of property — conspires to suppress our sense of horror at these things. And unlike Kass, I don’t think it’s any worse if done chemically than if accomplished by conditioning. As a practical matter, that might make “conscience pills” look better as the lesser of two evils… but then, “as a practical matter” they would probably be a supplement to that wider dehumanization — shielding those at home from the terrible experiences of soldiers in the field — rather than a replacement.

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