Once upon a time, I was thinking about the argument for the justification of mass civilian killing that is read off a sense of collective responsibility in "evil nations," and wondered:

  1. If it is justifiable for a pilot to kill civilians because those civilians bear sufficient collective responsibility for the evil actions of their military, then are those civilians themselves not justified in trying to survive air raids? If adult civilians try to save their children during an air raid, is this wrong? Were firefighters in Tokyo, for example, unjustified in trying to put out the fires caused by Operation Meetinghouse? Should all these civilians accept being killed as punishment for their "complicity" in their military's actions? Or even if it's not that, yet if killing these civilians is good because it will cause the evil nation to surrender, then in trying to survive, would these civilians be interfering with the good of causing that surrender?

Now, one time (in the Critique of Practical Reason) Kant quotes some Latin poesy:

"Be you a good soldier, a faithful tutor, an uncorrupted umpire also; if you are summoned as a witness in a doubtful and uncertain thing, though Phalaris should command that you should be false, and should dictate perjuries with the bull brought to you, believe it the highest impiety to prefer life to reputation, and for the sake of life, to lose the causes of living."

Suppose, then, that you live in a society in which the amount of mindless slaughter and the infliction of pain is so vast and is coupled with the desolation of the global ecosystem, and follows upon the murder of millions of people in non-aggressor countries, a campaign of enormous crime for which reparations have yet to be offered. (These are probably not the only things wrong with the nation in question.) If the only way for someone to "make a living" in such a country is to be an accomplice to the preceding (not everyone "runs this risk," but many do), then does Kant's proviso kick in? For in the Doctrine of Virtue he asks:

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What if you bear some measure of responsibility for the nexus of darkness in your nation at some time? Is that the kind of guilt or at least compromised position that Kant indicates with respect to the counterfactually forsaken king or the rabies-infected peasant? Or, then, something such as makes you like the "collectively guilty" civilians in some other evil realm. I ask this, though, because Kant elsewhere (in the Doctrine of Right) says:

... there can be no penal law that would assign the death penalty to someone in a shipwreck who, in order to save his own life, shoves another, whose life is equally in danger, off a plank on which he had saved himself. For the punishment threatened by the law could not be greater than the loss of his own life.

In other words, here, if the living arrangements and employment opportunities that are available to a resident of an evil state are themselves evil on some other level, yet is being such an employee akin to dealing with a shipwreck, such that one would not be given to condemn oneself to death for said evil, since only by such evil can one survive anyway?

  • "I still love you, man!" Interesting question. I might come up with an answer. It sort of applies a very long lever to Camus' famous question. I don't recall that the Existentialists addressed it.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 11 at 21:19
  • @ScottRowe insofar as the question might apply to me, the issue is that I learned the other day that eligibility for federal financial aid, in the US, is no longer contingent on having registered with the Selective Service (a sort of proto-draft), so that means I finally might be able to afford to go to college. Moreover, I became aware of Defense Department scholarships that I can apply for if I pursue a degree in a relevant field, and since I'd go for mathematics or physics, those are some of the relevant ones... But I'd have to accept a civilian job with the DoD after graduation. Aug 12 at 1:04
  • Yet I am uneasy with the idea that I would be able to gain a more-than-adequate education in topics that could be used for the sake of weapons design. I noticed that some of the major contributors to the fusion weapons program, back in the day, were also avid set theorists (Ulam and von Neumann), and my own father in his day scored well enough on the ASVAB to serve in a nuclear engineering capacity in the Trident submarine program. So I am worried that I would be disposed to insights that would be of service in the production of even more harrowing weapons than now exist. Aug 12 at 1:07
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    These are good points. I recall registering when I graduated from high school. I knew someone who was involved in the design of missile guidance systems. Your question seems to be about civilians, but you seem more concerned with what it could mean to be a "good soldier". Perhaps many people are. I think that this is a big moral blind spot. What falls within the realm of "self defense" for a person, a community, a nation?
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 12 at 14:25
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    One possibility is to not participate in military things. However, if the "more evil side" gets the bad technology first, all you've done is not aid the better side. You can't not pick a side, you must always choose "the lesser of two weevils" because as someone I know said: "There is no [spiritually] 'neutral' or 'blank'."
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 12 at 14:40


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