Suffering for doing

I recently read about the concept of selective conscientious objection. Whereas conscientious objection refers to a person’s moral objection to war in general, selective conscientious objection refers to a soldier’s objection to a specific war or specific mission.

Historically, conscientious objectors were people like the Quakers or Mennonites who opposed war for religious reasons. The US government came up with a system to allow conscientious objectors to serve their country while staying out of combat roles. If you don’t want to kill people, you can be the medic. Sometimes conscientious objectors filled non-combat roles in the military or they did construction and maintenance of government property in the United States. Wikipedia‘s article on conscientious objection lists some of the various alternatives to fighting. People did not believe that war or killing was right, so they did not fight in the war.

Selective conscientious objection is a more recent innovation on the idea of conscientious objection. There have been recent efforts to remove penalties for soldiers who specifically choose not to fight in a particular war for moral reasons. Nuremberg Principle IV says, “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him”; just because someone in authority tells you to shoot a million people does not mean that you are not guilty for shooting a million people.

Morality is this invisible thing that we follow. I think that deep down, people can detect that it exists, but determining its nature takes extensive conversation. Law attempts to codify it, rules try to make its application fair. Sometimes people do wrong, sometimes laws are wrong, sometimes people try to do right but they are wrong. It seems like it should be intuitive that doing the right thing is rewarded, while doing the wrong thing is punished. People extensively disagree on what is right and wrong and who ought to do the rewarding and punishing; people agree most on abstractions rather than that which is concrete.

I made a chart to show six possible combinations of what might happen to a person if they make a choice in a moral dilemma. It has three axes which represent an individual’s actions, how others respond to their actions, and the moral status of the rules or laws governing that action. What happens when you choose to listen to country music is beyond the scope of this chart.

There are also handy dandy numbers to give six categories for what can happen.

1. Ideal: You do the right thing, the rules say you do the right thing, and other people reward you for it.

2. Reform: You do the right thing, other people reward you for it, and the rules get changed.

3. Suffering for doing right: You do the right thing, the rules say you are doing the wrong thing, and other people punish you.

4. Punishment: You do wrong, the rules say you are wrong, and other people punish you. You had it coming, and you only had yourself to blame. If I’da been there, and I’da seen it, I would have done the same.

5. Injustice: You do wrong, the rules say you did the wrong thing, but other people do not punish you or they even reward you.

6. Corrupt society: You do wrong, the rules are wrong, and other people reward you.

I am not a conscientious objector, although I do believe that there are times when soldiers should disobey orders. There is a limit to my ability to moralize because I have never been to war, and the point of this post is not about conscientious objection in general. The law or the rules are societal constructs, but they often follow some invisible thing called morality that we feel exists. Sometimes morality is clear: DO NOT STAB OLD LADIES. Sometimes morality is unclear: Old lady might report my secret mission to the enemy–kill or not kill? I once heard a former soldier who served in Vietnam speak, and he described a situation in which he had to kill an old woman out in a village in order to keep his presence secret! He was working behind enemy lines, and he had to be unseen in order to accomplish his mission.

Sometimes people suffer for doing good, and other times they suffer for doing wrong. Sometimes they suffer because they did anything at all! In the middle of suffering and disagreement about its appropriateness, there are a few things that we can see:

1. Suffering can be morally instructive
2. Suffering can effect personal transformation
3. Suffering can show the seriousness of an issue
4. Suffering can draw attention, period
5. Suffering can show the nature of an individual

Although I might wish for a redistribution of suffering based on need, no one suffers equally when they do right or wrong! Not only that, but a myriad of questions remain! What is to be done? Do we try to prevent consequential suffering for good deeds? Do we hold back from one good thing because of two bad things or hold back from two good things because of one bad thing? What happens when someone suffers too much for doing evil?

Perhaps I will do another post on this topic. Stay tuned.

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  1. It seems that we should weight ‘doing the right thing’ highest on your chart. The chart, while good, would perhaps be clearer if the axis spread farther than the triangle, since I found myself thinking of it more like a venn diagram and less like a set of axis.

    Written laws are primarily tools to express ‘that invisible thing we call morality.’ The way people react to what we do, while they could be a good indicator of whether or not what we did was right, should also not be our first concern.

  2. The chart basically lays out all of the things that CAN happen to someone when they take a course of action. The relative height of a category on the chart shows the relative achievement of ideal circumstances, that is, ideally a person will do the right thing, the rules will say they did the right thing, and other people will support them for doing the right thing.

    When I wrote this post, I was thinking about selective conscientious objection and suffering for doing what is right. Some people say that soldiers should not be punished for taking a course of action based on their consciences. I would like to argue that building in finer and finer articulations of rights for individual expression of conscience demeans expressions of conscience when they occur.

    Again about the chart, an individual’s actions are RIGHT or WRONG, what people do in response is RIGHT or WRONG, and the rules governing all of their actions may be RIGHT or WRONG, all of these things right or wrong according to diplomatically abstract morality. Therefore, it is ideal (or perhaps most comfortable) for you to do right and for other people to reward you for doing so.

    I think I will be doing a much more direct post on this subject, asking, “Why do you need to have permission to make every ideological stand that you MIGHT possibly make?” or, “How much protection from suffering do you need in order to do the right thing?”

  1. December 8th, 2010

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