Bioethics Blogs

Guest Post: Volunteer Service

Written By Seth Lazar

Australian National University

Earlier this year, the British Army Reserves launched a recruitment drive, emphasising  the opportunities that volunteering affords: world travel, professional training, excitement and comradeship.[1]  In this sense it was typical. Military recruitment tends not to mention the possibility of being complicit in murder. But those who are considering a military career know that there is a risk they will be used to fight unjust wars. And killing in unjust wars is arguably little better than murder. How, then, should a morally conscientious individual decide whether to join the armed forces of her state?

First, it obviously depends who you’ll be fighting for. Recent years have seen clearly unjust and at best dubious wars launched by many of the major military powers (most notably the USA and UK in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Russia in South Ossetia and Ukraine). However, even for citizens of those belligerents, the probability that they will be implicated in wrongdoing alone does not settle the matter. Many activities—learning to drive, for example—increase the risks that we will act wrongfully in future; that alone does not render the activity impermissible. We need to know not only the risk of wrongdoing, but also the expectation of good. Whether it is permissible to volunteer depends (at least in part) on whether your expectation of doing good is greater than your expectation of wrongdoing. And of course members of the armed forces do a lot of good. In particular, they provide security to the state they represent, as well as aid to others in need (not only in conflicts).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.