Consider military conscription, which is where a government forces its own citizens to join the army and fight in foreign wars.

As I understand it, the typical argument is that freedom is not free, and rather must be fought for. Therefore we, as free peoples, have the responsibility to maintain it.

But there's a critical conflict buried here; namely, that the state is actively restricting the freedom/liberty of its citizens (at least temporally) in the name of security and expanded freedom in the future.

Therefore, my question is whether this can ever be morally justified. Is it ever just for a state to force individuals to join the army against their will and lead them into conflict and other life-threatening situations? What specific philosophers have written about this conflict, and what have their conclusions been?

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    One argument would be that conscription might decrease the probability of foreign war since everyone would have skin in the game. This does not address you issue about the state restricting liberties. Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 4:17

8 Answers 8


But there's a critical conflict buried here; namely, that the state is actively restricting the freedom/liberty of its citizens (at least temporally) in the name of security and expanded freedom in the future.

That's not a conflict; that's the state's raison d'etre.

With the exception of a few libertarian anarchists, all philosophers operate from the premise that the state is going to "actively restrict the freedom/liberty of its citzens (at least temporarily)."

As for the details of how much liberty can be restricted for what purpose, and by what ethical justification, there are as many different answers as their are political philosophers. You're going to have to narrow the question down quite a bit in order to get a more detailed reply.

  • The question is (quote) "whether this can ever be morally justified". The consensus of philosophers in general, as focused on in this answer, is irrelevant since just one example of justification, with respect to one set of morals, is enough to answer "yes". That's the power of the word "ever". The general consensus is also irrelevant as an answer to the sub-question "What specific philosophers have written about this conflict, and what have their conclusions been?". To answer that, one would have to mention at least one "specific philosopher". Commented May 11, 2015 at 15:08

I am actually doing a paper for university at the moment on conscription or compulsory military service - the 'Draft'.

Reading St Augustine's 'Just war', Augustine re-iterates the view of the Church that all governments exist and are legitimate because God allows them to exist.

St Augustine says that we have a duty to follow the laws and commands of our government and that all citizens have a duty for the national defence - to protect the community.

Now i dont know if this expands to the 'world community' or 'regional community' - the definition of community is another thing.


Conscription is the forcible restriction of an individual and an initiation of force against them, to force them to defend society against a common enemy.

This makes some assumptions; that Society as a whole takes precedence over the individual and that it is necessary to force people to defend themselves.

Ayn Rand offers an interesting view of the draft that runs counter to what many intuit:

Of all the statist violations of individual rights in a mixed economy, the military draft is the worst. It is an abrogation of rights. It negates man’s fundamental right—the right to life—and establishes the fundamental principle of statism: that a man’s life belongs to the state, and the state may claim it by compelling him to sacrifice it in battle. Once that principle is accepted, the rest is only a matter of time.

– The Wreckage of the Consensus, The Draft

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    Ayn Rand has never offered an interesting view.
    – D3L
    Commented Jul 29, 2014 at 4:41
  • Regarding "that Society as a whole takes precedence over the individual ", that assumption is not well founded. It has often been the case that war, and conscription, has been undertaken because some invididuals (leaders) have felt that they took precedence over society as a whole. And it would not surprise me if that's the most common case. In such a case it's all justified wrt. those individuals' morals. Commented May 9, 2015 at 17:15
  • Rand is right. Conscription means that some force other than the individual is making a value judgement. A most important value judgement. Since the 'state' is not a decision-making entity, what it means is some man or men is deciding to use others as pawns and sacrifices. Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 21:25

I would consider whether the conscription--the temporarily restricted freedom--would prevent outright oppression by an opposing belligerent who may end up taking over the country in question should it lose the war. If one can reasonably argue that conscription at a given level (producing a certain amount of reduced freedom) would prevent more freedom from being lost in the event of defeat, that yes, it is justified.

But this applies only if the opponent would actually subject the country to widespread or severe oppression. If this isn't the case, it would not be justified.


An action X is moral if it is moral within the Philosophical theory being discussed.Hence, Whenever you ask whether action X is moral or not, you should also mention the philosophical theory under which you want the answer.

Hence, if we want to judge Conscription under a Capitalistic Philosophy which supports individual freedom, the act of Conscription is Immoral.

And if you judge it under a Communistic Philosophy where government commands and takes the decisions pertaining to the people, the Conscription is Moral.

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    I was going to upvote before you detoured into capitalism=freedom, fascism=communism territory. Your point in the general case about requiring a philosophical structure is spot-on. Commented May 17, 2012 at 18:24

There is a major distinction between just restricting liberty and insisting upon an absolute inconsistency.

Of course every state has the right to "actively restrict[] the freedom/liberty of its citizens (at least temporally) in the name of security and expanded freedom in the future." Otherwise it could hardly be a state. If it cannot restrain murderers, in the interest of making it safe to walk the streets, it is not really a state.

The problem with the draft from a Quaker point of view is that Western states supposedly support religious freedom, and are populated mainly by people whose religions forbid killing. By making a Christian or a Jew decide what kind of killing is allowed, contrary to the fact that loving my neighbor as myself probably implies not killing him, and there is an absolute commandment against killing in the Old Testament, you are destroying their ability to really hold one of these religions.

If you are an Islamist state you might have a draft -- it offers access to a martyr's death. In a Confucianist state where sacrifice for the general good is a primary value, you might also. But in a state that originates from Christian domination, even if you have a State religion based on Christian doctrine, you are caught on the horns of a dilemma -- who decides what degree of literal Christianity is protected?

In a more modern nation that has cut ties with any older religion, even when that religion is one that should allow conscription were it the State religion, we have laws protecting religious pluralism, and that still means letting individuals decide whether or not they can kill.


If a supposed free state forces you to die for it, what makes it more free than the non-free state/organization you are fighting?

Another argument can be: how do you know your government reasons are the right ones? What if you don't agree with them? In WWI both sides were convinced they were fighting for a good reason (it would be the war that would end all the wars: it wasn't), and some time after it we don't see a real difference between both sides, just a stupid war where people died for nothing, but for these same pro-conscription arguments themselves. Did this forced patriotic commitment make these nations and its citizens more free, or just the opposite?


Let's consider reality. Conscription is done in many countries, including democratic ones such as Norway. Those who have decided it have all necessarily been convinced that it was morally correct to make that decision, whatever their morals were. Hence the answer to “can it” be justified is trivially yes, by inspection of reality: looking at an X, one must conclude that X can exist, since it does exist.

The question of whether it's the right thing to do, or can be answered at all, according to some specific morals that one has in mind, depends on those morals.

The question of whether it's OK, or can be answered at all, according to some idea of absolute morality depends on one's definition of absolute morals, if there is one.

  • @downvoter: It would be nice if you could argue your point, if any. I am pretty sure that the downvote is about the answer being an actual answer with simple proof, rather than vague allusions to some recognizable names' helpless complexity: for good reasons I do not expect more from SO readers in general than such mindless herd behavior. However, please do prove me wrong about that. Commented May 11, 2015 at 15:00

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