Moral philosophy is complicated. Some philosophers insist the only consideration that matters when judging the morality of an action is the principle that guides that action. The outcomes of our choices, they say, are morally unimportant. Others counter that it is absurd to disregard consequences. If an act brings more pleasure into the world than pain, then surely that is the right thing to do. And then there are those who find both approaches overly formulaic. If you are a good person, they contend, you will make good choices.
One result of this complexity is that moral theory tends to be an activity for moral theorists and of little value to the rest of us. But seven questions, taken together and in order, can narrow the gap between theory and practice and bring discipline to the enterprise of moral reasoning.
1. The “situationist” tribe of moral theorists contends a person’s environment plays an outsized—some say decisive—role in moral reasoning. One well-known experiment seems to confirm the situationist claim. Few of us imagine we are capable of administering potentially lethal shocks to fellow humans, yet for most subjects in the 1963 Milgram experiment, instructions from the lab-coat-clad experimenter proved sufficient to overcome moral reservations. Milgram concludes that our disposition to obey authority can overwhelm our most basic notions of right and wrong.
2. See Rick Rubel, “Rescuing the Boat People,” in Rick Rubel and George Lucas,
Case Studies in Military Ethics, 5th ed. (Boston: Pearson-Longmans, 2014), 13–15.
3. Jessica L. Wildman, “Trust in Swift Starting Action Teams: Critical Considerations,” in Neville Stanton, ed., Trust in Military Teams (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2011), 73–82.
4. Daniel Kahneman makes a distinction between “Type I processing” (quick and intuitive) and “Type II processing” (deliberative). See Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).
5. Stephen Coleman, Military Ethics: An Introduction with Case Studies, 1st ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
6. Some argue that this would not have been murder on the grounds that the goatherds were serving as a reconnaissance team and, therefore, could justifiably be treated as enemy combatants. This justification collapses quickly. Even if we grant the premise that the goatherds were essentially combatants, they were in the custody of the SEALs. Once enemy combatants become prisoners, they are enemy combatants no more. In legal terms, they are hors de combat, out of the fight. Prisoners of war have recovered their rights not to be harmed, and killing them would be murder. Full stop.
7. Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, 1st ed. (New York: Back Bay Books, 2008).
8. We waive rights by choice; we forfeit them through misconduct. When boxers step into the ring or Marines cross an enemy beach, they waive their rights not to be harmed. A person who commits a felony forfeits the right to liberty. A person who threatens the life of an innocent loses the right to life.
9. As a moral exemplar, Batman is a bit problematic. He’s a vigilante. We admire his courage and commitment to justice, but only because he lives in Gotham City, a pretty awful neighborhood. Hopefully, my students will emulate Batman’s finer moral qualities while also drawing on Black Panther or Wonder Woman to complete the picture.