Firstly, is it ethical to convince young men (and women) to risk death and injury by enlisting in the army and going to war?

Secondly, if the person running such an enlistment campaign has absolutely no intention of doing so himself (or is physically incapable due to age), is it ethical for him to run such a campaign?

Thirdly, if the person running the enlistment campaign makes a handsome living by getting a commission for every young person who enlists, does it make this act less ethical? Or more so?

And finally, if the probability of the enlisted person dying or being critically injured in the battlefield is 60 per cent, does it make it much more unethical than if the probability were, say, 30 per cent?

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    I see how this is a question about ethics in the common sense, but in the absence of some other statements about what sort of ethical framework we are supposed to use, this appears to be merely soliciting opinions. Can you supplement by indicating some sort of particular philosophical ethical framework ?
    – virmaior
    Oct 18 '15 at 23:39
  • @virmaior - May I be so bold as to request an appropriate edit? ;-) Oct 19 '15 at 15:15
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    @KrishnarajRao Do you think it's wrong for person X to convince person Y to do action Z if X has no intention of doing Z or if X profits from Z?
    – R. Barzell
    Oct 19 '15 at 15:18
  • @R.Barzell - If Action Z has the high potential to get person Y killed, and X earns money by convincing Y to do Z, then yes, I think is wrong. The important thing is: what do you think? Oct 19 '15 at 15:28
  • @KrishnarajRao I'll let you know what I think in a moment. So for instance, if I pay a roofer to fix my roof, and the roofer may fall off and die, is my hiring the roofer unethical? What if I pay an animal control specialist to remove a venomous snake from under my porch? Or what if I hire a stuntman to do a risky stunt?
    – R. Barzell
    Oct 19 '15 at 15:30

If standing up a military is ethical in the first place, then as long as the recruiter provides correct and complete information to/from the applicant and does not apply any coercive threats/rewards to the potential recruit, everything is on the up and up (irrespective of whether the recruiter would be able to serve). The other items point out conditions where the likelihood of ethical lapses increase, but don't in themselves make the activity unethical.

Consider Unite States Army's oath of enlistment:

"I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God." (Title 10, US Code; Act of 5 May 1960 replacing the wording first adopted in 1789, with amendment effective 5 October 1962).

given that U.S. recruiting officers have made this oath themselves (since they're members of the military), the recruiting officers have an ethical obligation to perform their duties as ordered; this obligation is both personal and civic in nature. Similar oaths are used for declaring citizenship and various official government positions in the United States (might be relevant for sub-question 2); I assume that similar binding oaths are used in similar circumstances in other nations as well.

The primary professional ethics issues faced by recruiting officers are first dealing with legal issues of the applicants, second, not providing false information, and third not offering false inducements (or threats) to potential applicants, c.f. section 2 of these policies. The last two are similar to other "sales" types of positions, albeit with larger stakes. An example of an ethical failure of this type was an officer in 2005 promising the potential recruit that he/she would not be sent into a combat zone (Iraq) -- a promise that the recruiter could not ensure.

For question 2, for anyone whose made an oath similar to the quoted one above (note that this includes all naturalized U.S. citizens), then performing their civic duty by assisting with recruitment rather than "front line" military service seems like a good way to discharge the obligations that flow from that oath. What I have in mind in the following situation: an individual has pledged their allegiance to a nation (not necessarily in a official/public way), is unable to directly serve in the military, and instead fulfills their pledge by assisting in recruiting.

For 3, I'm unaware of a theory where the level of payment in and of itself transforms an otherwise ethical act into an unethical one (or vice versa). That being said, higher commission levels would seem likely to increase the prevalence of the types of ethical issues that are specifically relevant for military recruiting.

The casualty rates are irrelevant per se; but again differing levels of risk would affect recruitment rates and thus put pressure on the officers to misrepresent the true casualty rate to potential recruits. To summarize, questions 3 and 4 don't in themselves automatically make the activity unethical, but they do create the conditions where ethical violations are more likely.

I've structured this discussion to emphasize the the role of oath-keeping, including oaths of allegiance to a government, that apply to this activity, at least within the United States. The ethical responsibility to keep ones oaths is pretty incontrovertible, and sufficient for the discussion in this answer. One could also draw on broader ideas of civic responsibility, but there is complications in doing so.

The tone of your question seems to imply that there should be issues with recruiting. I can only see this as a problem if the very fact of standing up a military is the ethical issue; if so that issue is prior to any of the detailed issues in this question.


Like many of your questions, there is a philosophical "groundlessness" that can easily make people "peevish," to use your own words. And a scent of "holier than thou" attempting the pry out "hypocrisy."

First, is war ever ethically justified? You cannot even ask your questions without answering this one.

The ethical justifications of war are a complex and "all too human" problem. Few attempts are actually made by "idealists" to rationalize war, so it "just happens." In the end, I believe, there can be no "ethical" or universalist justification for war, in either the pacifist tradition or in the Kantian "deontic" tradition. And as such, the purified world of the philosophers and "great spirits" abandons the lowly world of the species that gave rise to them.

So first, a Turing Test. Are you a "human" or a pure judgmental entity?

Please define first under what circumstances you consider war, with all its horrors, justified. Then perhaps your question can be addressed. But if you are just playing a silly "holier than thou" game of leading responders into "hypocrisy" then you are in the wrong forum.

Or, less charitably, you have formed your question with a kind of saintly malice aforethought. I certainly agree that it is a good question on the historical or political level. But somehow your framing discredits it. You are ethically attempting to stand on the sidelines.

Give us a case in which "you" are instigating this war. Then your ethical challenges make sense, as they did to the Greeks and other classical philosophers.

  • To answer your first question, yes, war is occasionally ethically justified in my opinion -- at least from the point of view of a country that is literally invaded without any moral justification or reason. However, you are perfectly right in that a war "just happens" more often than not. Oct 20 '15 at 12:02
  • If you wish, you may edit the question in a way that makes more sense from your perspective, and makes you less peevish. If it seems like an improvement over the way I have framed it (removes the holier-than-thou feel, etc.), I will happily accept your edits. Peace, brother. Oct 20 '15 at 12:07
  • Fair enough. If the war is assumed justified, winning is the priority. What ethics remain are constraints against unnecessary cruelty, oppression. dishonesty, etc. in excess of that aim. A division of labor between young an old, especially "older" tacticians or strategists, is generally assumed. It makes little sense to put Lincoln on the front lines at Bull Run. Nonetheless, the situation usually gives rise to many class inequities. That U.S. leaders can declare wars with almost zero personal risk is a serious and largely modern problem. Oct 20 '15 at 13:41
  • My "holier than thou" comment is unwarranted provided you accept the war scenario you assume. It is actually a flip side of the capacity of the U.S. to wage wars with little personal risk. The same "bubble" gives rise to "armchair ethics" on the part of too many American liberals or idealists. As a leftist but "consequentialist" I have mixed feelings about the ease of such ethical stances or notions of "safe, ethical wars." I thought I had detected a strictly antiwar stance in your framing, if not then I stand "peevish" as accused. Oct 20 '15 at 13:49

This is a loaded question which is directing people towards an expected answer, by weighting motivations that are cynical.

what are the ethics of convincing young men or women to go to risk death by going to war. Is it ethical?

According to Weber, one of the defining conditions for a state is a monopoly of violence; exerted outwards this is military force. The most ethically ideal situation where military force is legitimately used is in self-defence from from an unprovoked attack. In Hobbes account it is a legitimate power and duty of what constitutes government.

For this to occur a standing army is required as one cannot know when such an attack may happen; but this means an apparatus of recruitment and training is required.

So on the whole no.

This doesn't mean that in certain situations a military cannot become corrupted, or that the case for warfare cannot be weak or non-existent; or that certain persons within this apparatus are acting from cynical motivations - it can most assuredly happen.

However one needs to at the least differentiate the individual from the apparatus, and the conditions that makes the apparatus neccessary.

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    I agree about the loaded question. On hindsight, I see it. Will consider editing it to reduce the loading aspect. Oct 20 '15 at 6:04
  • The film Schindlers list - based on a true story - showed a cynical business-man rescuing Jews from the holocaust; whereas Eichman explicitly called himself a Kantian. Oct 20 '15 at 6:27

Your question is about war and the other questions are irrelevant and just distract from the real question. To show you why, let's make these other questions abstract:

  1. Is it ok for X to convince Y to do Z if X has no intention of doing Z?
  2. Is it ok for X to convince Y to do Z if X profits from Z?
  3. If X convinces Y to do Z, should X bear responsibility commensurate to the probability that Y dies from Z?

I'm of course assuming that no deception was involved, as otherwise this would be a question about deception and 1-3 would be irrelevant.

Here are your answers:

  1. Yes.

  2. Yes.

  3. No.

Here's an example...

I need to fix my roof and have no intention of doing it myself. Therefore, I hire a roofer, knowing full well that the roofer may slip off the roof and die. The roofer fixes the roof and as a result, I sell my home for a higher price and make a profit.

I'm sure you can find many more examples.

The form of the ethical situation is not problematic, so the only issue is with the specific act involved, which means the only question here is the ethics of war. So is war ethical?

That's an open question and that too depends. What ethical framework are you using -- Deontological, Consequentialist, Virtue, etc...? Deontology would situate the ethics in the act of war itself, Consequentialism would compare whether the war causes a net increase in happiness, and Virtuism would look at the role of one's character with regards to this war.

Ethics is an open problem, and so the best one can do is spend some time studying ethical frameworks to help put ethical questions in perspective. This is is a good start.

  • @KrishnarajRao actually, I've been editing my question. Does the latest version sound peevish to you? If so, I'd like to know why.
    – R. Barzell
    Oct 19 '15 at 15:56
  • @KrishnarajRao I'd appreciate it if you would point to a place in my answer where it sounds like I'm venting.
    – R. Barzell
    Oct 19 '15 at 16:00
  • After the edits, yes, the venting is gone-ish. Except for this: "... and the other questions are irrelevant and just distract from the real question." So, now you have the option of ignoring what you consider as irrelevant questions, and focusing on just the question of war. Also, as I said earlier, you have the option to try and edit out the irrelevant questions while leaving the sense of it intact. Oct 19 '15 at 16:04
  • "So is war ethical?" I think this is a non-specific interpretation of my question. A better paraphrase may be: Is it ethical for oldish men to send youngish men out to die in war, while they stay home and profit from it? Oct 19 '15 at 16:06
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    @KrishnarajRao and right after that sentence I wrote "To show you why..." and proceeded to demonstrate why your other questions were irrelevant. I wasn't cherry-picking, I argued my case. Let me summarize; if the ethical import of a set of questions derive their ethics from the specific act involved, then those questions are irrelevant as one only has to resolve the ethics of the act involved. This is why I abstracted your question. Also, being old is irrelevant. Is it ethical for oldish men to pay youngish men to play football? Same thing -- old/young distracts from the real question.
    – R. Barzell
    Oct 19 '15 at 16:09

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