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What is the morality of joining the military?

Clearly, military men and women can have any number of virtues, but also are trained killers. There is the argument that they are legally so, but while I am sympathetic to the claim they are not "murderers", I also think that a lot of what every army gets up to - and I don't just mean human rights abuses - should not happen. But all nation states have an army, for a reason, and if we think that they are necessary to prevent the evil of random warlord dictatorships, then lesser evilism suggests someone has got to join.

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    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Sep 2, 2023 at 8:25
  • I think the more basic question is whether it is moral to kill in a war (i.e., killing people that one doesn't know, and which may pose no threat to oneself.) Formulating it as if itw ere about military (and organization) obscures things - military is a big organization, many of its employers never even have to fight (drivers, nurses, cooks, etc.), and even those trained may never find themselves in a war.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 9:01

3 Answers 3

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The ability to inflict damage through physical violence is probably the oldest forms to assert power (over other people) and either you reject the concept of power (over other people) categorically (anarchism, pacifism) or if you open Pandora's box you find yourself in a position where it is somewhat ambiguous. In the sense that power allows you to do extraordinary things by coercing others to do them, while on the other hand the power of other people over you might mean that you can't even do ordinary things.

So there are generally two motivations to seek that kind of power, either to abuse it or to protect yourself and others from abuse. The first is reasonably acceptable in that while violence still isn't great, but it's hard to argue with impulse of the living to keep on living and to not be subjected to pain and discomfort by the hands of others. So you can make an argument in favor of protective violence and the preparation for that.

... and you can be fairly sure that if a bad faith actor is in need of a justification to erect an army and prepare for violence, they WILL also claim that argument whether it's true or not. So again not unreasonable, certainly not great.

Furthermore there's the problem that the existence of armed forces creates a game theoretical problem akin to the prisoners dilemma., in that it would be beneficial for every side if they cooperate and not have armed forces (non productive members of society, inherent risks of coups and power grabs, provide an incentive for others to strike first), but there's a stronger individual incentive not to be the person/country that cooperates and ends up being defenseless when the rest doesn't. Which has already brought us to the development of ever more deadlier super weapons that could annihilate our existence altogether, so yeah "rationality" with respect to risk avoidance in that regard is a rather risky business.

PS: While written as if to apply to state level actors the concept applies all the way down to the individual who might bridge the disadvantage of numbers (1 against more than 1) by guns for examples. And if the states would cease their violence not just external but also internal threats might rival their power so that it's not just a conflict between peer-rivals but who is and isn't a peer-rival might change along the way. That being the most deadly superweapons are still likely to be produced by state level actors as you need an ever larger economy to produce the weapons and have the spare resources to invest in something that doesn't yield an immediate benefit.

Also with very little exceptions organized armed forces are usually not ideally compatible with democracies. Sure you could organize them in militias (ad hoc citizen armies), but modern militaries usually go for the model of a standing army that is only reinforced with regular citizens in times of war. Which usually includes a top-down chain of command, a level of secrecy and an illegality to disobey orders. Which is pretty incompatible with most democratic principles and lends itself more to authoritarian thinking as it encourages to see individual soldiers as pawns in a chess game and relegates the role of the individual soldier to that of a tool in the hands of his/her superiors.

Now from what I know, the ethical principles dealing with the military are the just war theory and the moral equality of combatants. One assumes that there are just causes to go to war, such as self-defense, establishment of a just peace, humanitarian intervention and so on and the second assume that all combatants on all sides have the same moral status; Which makes the assumptions that all soldiers get told that they fight in a just war and that they don't commit war crimes which obviously breaks that illusions and would alert them to act upon that knowledge.

So in other words soldiers are considered to be free from responsibility for their actions as they ceased their agency to their superiors meaning their last action as moral agents was the choice of their employer and their trust in that person's judgment and character to only fight just wars.

Though that largely applies only to soldiers at war when there is a very high probability that either side is lying to it's soldiers one way or another and they lack the ability to confirm or reject the official narratives. In which case it's more or less a blind faith in one's one government/military high command.

Not sure though that this actually is the "real" moral point of view of the individual soldier or whether it's maybe even the opposite of that and being in combat gives them a sense of agency to change a dreadful situation that they would otherwise just have to suffer through hoping that powers outside of their control work in their favor, though explicitly using coercive means irrespective of their moral justification as part of what they consider is necessary. The argument that they protect their families usually only works in a very abstract sense, as their services primarily takes them away from their families and thus makes that quest impossible.

And lastly as that is about joining, you could also have coercive measures to force people to join such an institution, like conscription or the lack of social security measures so that the military becomes a last resort option of a stable income and social mobility actively encouraging the individual soldier to disregard these ethical questions and just consider it as "a job". Regardless of the fact that this job has many serious ethical consequences.

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  • this covers most of the essential ground, thanks
    – user67521
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 13:31
  • I think this answer could be improved by noting explicitly in paragraph 4 that "every side" is not "every side if they (states)" but "every state if they (states, nonstate actors, small groups including criminal enterprises, and also all individuals)". Cooperate or Defect is a game played by peer rivals. If the peer rivals disarm in order to win bigger rewards from choosing Cooperate, those non-peers who didn't disarm suddenly enter the game as peer rivals. And if the original peer rivals disarmed all the way, they are no longer peer rivals at all.
    – g s
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 18:27
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The general principle is that military personnel — like police officers — protect the public and maintain the peace established within a nation. Where police mediate between citizens, the military defends against external threats. It's a noble calling, and a sacrifice made by some for the benefit of all.

There are issues with the political control of the military — politicians do not always employ the military with the best intentions — but that doesn't reflect on the soldiers themselves, who have to believe they are in a moral fight. And like anything else, some soldiers lack the moral fiber to perform their duties well. But the occupation itself is beyond reproach; if they are killers by training, they are trained to kill in defense of what they believe is right and good.

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that they are necessary to prevent the evil of random warlord dictatorships

Sometimes you just need to show to have such a strong defensive army that the "random warlord" does think thrice before attacking you. Joining the army for purely defensive goals is then a must do.

Sometimes a militar attack is the most rational thing to perform. Sure, the situation must be so irrationally pushed to an extreme (merchantilistic policies leading to extreme commerce imbalance, colonialist rulers) to allow for this.

But it is still not random. And if you attribute the majority of warfare episodes to the evilness of dictators, you are bound to believe you are always on the right side (see here for an example).

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  • hi. i am confused about your answer, which is unusual for me! can you elaborate? what do you need a strong defensive army for, if there are no offensive wars etc.?
    – user67521
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 14:29
  • ofc i am sympathetic that the military should not exist. they do, and without a clean start we may suspect that, supposing not all war gains are equal, that some military victories are preferable to others. i am sorry if that comes about as if violent of me in any way. i am not a violent person
    – user67521
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 14:34
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    what do you need a strong defensive army for, if there are no offensive wars. It is an excellent question, and one it is way long to answer and it needs abstraction. To put it shortly: the rise of the national state made a extremely strong bound between territorial existence and "homeland", so it is impossible to separate the phyiscality of a country with the land it belongs to. Before XIX century was easier, and infact most of the armies were mercenaries, not people driven by the will of "defending their nation and their nation interests" (and often defense is attack...).
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 10:10
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    @user66697 douch teenager seems an interesting book to read on war ... against acne?
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 7:24
  • against moderators haha
    – user67675
    Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 8:44

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