Integrity and Selective Conscientious Objection


Paul Robinson

Graduate School of Public and International Affairs

University of Ottawa




Official tolerance of those who have a principled objection to serving in all wars, and refuse to fight, is well established in most Western states. Conscientious objectors of this sort are excused combat service in wartime. By contrast, those who wish to be exempt from being called up for military service not because they object to war in general, but because they consider that the specific war in question is unjust, are not granted their wish. In addition, those already serving in the military who refuse orders to participate in a particular conflict which they deem to be unjust are court-martialled for disobedience (unless, as is infrequently the case, that are granted permission to resign). In short, selective conscientious objection is treated differently from general conscientious objection. Furthermore, there is a clear view that military personnel who refuse to fight for this reason are deficient in character. This is reflected in the fact that selective conscientious objectors in the regular military are often not merely punished for their disobedience, but punished by means of a dishonourable discharge. For instance, the Judge Advocate at the 2006 court martial of Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith, a British Royal Air Force officer who disobeyed orders to deploy to Iraq, accused him of ‘amazing arrogance’ (Gulam & O’Connor 2006, 69), and sentenced him to eight months in jail and a dishonourable discharge. A US medical officer, Captain Yolanda Huet-Vaughn, who objected to serving in the Gulf War of 1990-1991 was similarly jailed and dishonourably discharged.

            This paper asserts that the accusations of dishonourable character in cases of selective conscientious objection by service personnel are often misplaced. Through an examination of military virtues, it will demonstrate that selective conscientious objection, if undertaken sincerely and after proper deliberation, is compatible with the form of integrity demanded by modern military institutions. By simultaneously demanding that soldiers show integrity and punishing them when they do, these institutions are acting inconsistently. Having made this point, the paper will then examine arguments that permitting selective conscientious objection by military personnel would cause grave harm to military effectiveness and state security, and will show that evidence to support this view is lacking. Indeed, objection of this sort may even bring some positive benefits.

            Finally, the paper considers the proposal that military personnel who believe that they are being ordered to participate in an unjust war should both refuse to obey their orders and also willingly accept punishment. It will be shown that while this position has some points in its favour, it also suffers from several weaknesses. Furthermore, even if one accepts the necessity of punishment of some type, subjecting selective conscientious objectors to a dishonourable discharge from the military is inappropriate. Whatever one thinks of the soundness of their judgement, any actions driven by the virtue of integrity are honourable ones, and so a dishonourable discharge is not a suitable response.


What is Integrity?

Debates about selective conscientious objection by military personnel tend to base claims in its favour on the right to freedom of conscience (e.g. Hammer 2002, 145), and claims against it on grounds of consequences (e.g. Kasher 2002 & Medina 2002). This article will instead examine the issue from the perspective of virtue, and in particular the virtue of integrity. This is one of the qualities most commonly cited in official lists of military virtues (see Robinson, de Lee, & Carrick 2008, Table 1). Most military institutions in the West stress the need for their members to act with integrity. At the same time, they forbid those members to practise selective conscientious objection. If it can be shown that selective conscientious objection is compatible with integrity, then it would appear that military institutions, by opposing the former and demanding the latter, are acting inconsistently.

Philosophers disagree as to the definition of integrity, but what military people generally seem to imply by it is the idea of a person who is true to himself or herself. The principle here is what Lynne McFall calls ‘coherence’: ‘integrity’, she writes, ‘is the state of being “undivided”; an integral whole. … One kind of coherence is simple consistency: consistency within one’s set of principles or commitments. … Another kind of coherence is coherence between principle and action. Integrity requires “sticking to one’s principles”, moral or otherwise, in the face of temptation’ (McFall 1987: 7). It is the second kind of coherence which I would suggest is the more relevant for this discussion. The person of integrity does what he or she thinks is right, even in the face of disapproval by others. In this sense, integrity is very similar to a sense of internalised honour (doing things in order to live up to one’s own expectations of oneself). The foreword to the Cadet Honor Committee Procedures of the United States Military Academy at West Point, quoting an article first published in 1929 by Robert Wood, the foreword describes the ideal of the ‘honourable man’: ‘honor … is an individual concept, an inner feeling which can arise only in the heart and soul of the individual. A man must judge for himself what is right, what is wrong. … The man of honor … is true to himself … he clings to what he knows is right with all his strength’ (United States Corps of Cadets 2002: i).

            In a similar vein, the Fundamentals of Canadian Defence Ethics published by the Canadian Department of National Defence borrows the definition of integrity given in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy as ‘the quality of a person who can be counted upon to give precedence to moral considerations … To have integrity is to have unconditional and steady commitment to moral values and obligations’. Fundamentals of Canadian Defence Ethics continues: ‘It is in this sense that each person in the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence is expected to be a person of integrity, a person who can be counted upon to give precedence to moral considerations even when there is strong inducement to do otherwise’ (Defence Ethics Program 2002, 21-22).

            The reasons for the stress on integrity are clear. Military forces need soldiers who will resist peer pressure to misbehave and who will do what is right not only when the gaze of others is upon them, but also when it is not. However, there are problems with integrity as an absolute. Unfortunately, ‘people of integrity can do horrific things and maintain their integrity so long as they are acting in accordance with their core commitments’ (Cox et al. 2005: 4). A person may sincerely hold principles which the rest of us find repugnant. We would surely not wish such a person to display integrity, defined purely in terms of internal coherence. As William Ian Miller says, ‘even though we can envisage self-esteem without independent confirmation, it is hard to achieve and not always a virtue if achieved, for it can be as easily the defining trait of the sociopath as of the saint, of the self-centered boor as of the self-confident person of inner strength’ (Miller 1993: ix).

            One may be certain, therefore, that military institutions do not imagine integrity to mean sticking to one’s beliefs whatever those beliefs may be. In line with this, some philosophers seek to redefine the term somewhat. Lynne McFall, for instance, states that ‘When we grant integrity to a person, we need not approve of his or her principles or commitments, but we must at least recognize them as ones a reasonable person might take to be of great importance’ (McFall 1987: 11).

An alternative is to discard the concept of integrity as an absolute and instead view it as an Aristotelian mean flanked by excesses such as arrogance and weakness of will (Cox et al. 2005: 8). Somebody who shows no respect for what others think is guilty of arrogance. Somebody who gives in to others when he is certain he is right is guilty of weakness of will. The person of integrity has Aristotle’s ‘practical wisdom’. He considers properly what others have to say, and knows when to follow their advice and ignore his own inclinations just as he knows when to discard that advice and follow his own will.

            In either case, true integrity depends not solely on the decision made, but also on the manner in which it is made. As Cox, Lacaze and Levine say, ‘The steadfastness and sincerity of a person’s moral beliefs are not enough, they must also be arrived at in the right kind of way … people who have merely taken on the moral beliefs of someone else without properly convincing themselves of their truth should not be said to have moral integrity, or perhaps should be said to have only limited moral integrity, no matter how steadfastly and sincerely they hold to and live by their beliefs’ (Cox, Lacaze & Levine 1999, 520).

To summarise, therefore, integrity implies coherence of belief and action, as long as the belief is one which ‘a reasonable person might take to be of great importance’, and as long as the action is being initiated not on a whim but after due reflection and proper consideration of the opposing arguments

This means that to determine whether a selective conscientious objector has displayed integrity in refusing to participate in a war which he or she considered unjust, we must decide both whether believing that one should not fight in an unjust war is a reasonable and important belief and whether the objector has made his choice after proper deliberation.

As far as the second point is concerned, when we look at the profiles of selective conscientious objectors, we see that more often than not their decisions to act are the result of long deliberation, informed by philosophical understanding and supported by personal experience. In Israeli examples cited by Ruth Linn, ‘The data of both the Lebanon and the Intifada selective refusers show that both groups made their decision to refuse after serving at least one tour of reserve duty in the war in Lebanon and/or the territories prior to their refusal’ (Linn 1996, 426). Data from Israel further suggests that ‘it is not uncommon for selective objectors to be leading army officers and loyal soldiers who are in many cases proud members of elite combat units’ (Paz-Fuchs & Sfard 2002, 130). Indeed, ‘the selective refuser during the Intifada is a college graduate in his thirties, in a liberal profession, and capable of abstract thinking and the ability to justify his moral action from a growing moral perspective. ... Over 60% of the refusers were not only morally capable of morally understanding the illegality of disobedience and its societal implications but also succeeded in maintaining this competence when asked to explain the morality of their actions’ (Linn 1996, 424-5). Flight Lieutenant Kendall-Smith was also obviously capable of informed moral judgment, having written a thesis on the morality of Kant, and having subsequently taught Kantian ethics at Otago University in New Zealand (Gulam & O’Connor 2006, 68). 

            In short, it is impossible to say that a decision to refuse to serve is necessarily arrived at improperly. This merely leaves the other condition of integrity to be satisfied; that the belief to which one is committed be a reasonable one. Believing it is wrong to fight in an unjust war is clearly a reasonable belief, and an important one. Indeed it is one with considerable (though not universal) support in Judaeo-Christian doctrine and just war theory. It seems clear, therefore, that even if one disagrees with a refuser’s decision, one cannot automatically say that he has not acted with integrity.

            This leaves military institutions in a quandary, for it is obvious from this discussion that selective conscientious objectors who reach their decision not to serve after proper deliberation have displayed the very virtue that those institutions demand of them. Punishing them for their action means punishing them for following the institutions’ own moral teachings.


Do Other Virtues Override Integrity?

How, then, can the prohibition on selective conscientious objection be maintained? One way would be to argue that integrity is just one of many virtues demanded of service personnel. It must be balanced against others, and on occasion must cede precedence. Apart from integrity, the virtues most commonly cited in official lists of virtues are courage, loyalty and obedience. I will, therefore, examine these virtues to determine whether they should override integrity in the case of selective conscientious objection. I will then also examine a fourth virtue of great significance in military ethics, that of respect for human life and dignity.



Courage is sometimes considered the supreme military virtue. It is difficult, though, to see any way in which it could be deemed to be incompatible with integrity in the case of selective conscientious objection.

            Physical courage enters into the equation only slightly, but since selective conscientious objectors face at present the very real prospect of imprisonment, we may surmise that at least some physical courage is required to undertake the act. Moral courage is here more significant, and is in many ways very similar to integrity. As the US Army pamphlet The Bedrock of Our Profession puts it:

‘Courage, however, goes beyond the physical dimension. Moral courage, the courage of one’s convictions, is equally important. It takes a different kind of courage to stand up for what you believe is right, particularly when it is contrary to what others around you believe. Each of us must perservere in what we know is right and not make it easy for friends, peers, comrades, or superiors to do the wrong thing. Our moral principles must not be compromised because of the situation or circumstances’ (Department of the Army 1986, 3).

Given this definition of moral courage, one must conclude that selective conscientious objection can be a morally courageous act. It requires soldiers to overcome the significant pressure to conform which exists within military institutions. As Linn remarks, refusal ‘requires some form of lonely courage … the courage to be alone’ (Linn 1996, 426). ‘Selective refusal’, she continues, ‘is not an easy decision in a society that celebrates moral connectedness’ (ibid, 429).



If the relationship between integrity and courage is mutually reinforcing, that between integrity and loyalty is more problematic. Doing what one believes to be right by refusing to fight could be considered egotistical, as it places all the burden on one’s comrades, whom one abandons by refusing to fight by their side. ‘Comradeship’, says Asa Kasher, ‘is an essential value of military ethics. … damage to the common sense of comradeship among troops and officers is a blow to the very ability of military combat units to act as such and accomplish their missions. … refusal … to serve within the framework of their combat units causes damage to the necessary sense of military comradeship’ (Kasher 2002, 176-7).

            What is noticeable here is the stress placed on loyalty to one’s immediate comrades. Undoubtedly this is important. A soldier does have obligations to his comrades, and must have very good reasons for refusing to help them in their tasks. However, one is entitled to ask whether standing to one side while one’s comrades are sent to fight, kill, and perhaps die, in pursuit of an unjust cause is a true act of comradeship. Alternatively, it can be argued that the presence within military units of personnel who harbour deep objections to the battle at hand is hardly likely to be conducive to cohesion or to morale. As Michael Davidson notes, ‘there are practical advantages to allowing a potentially disruptive member of a unit to leave military service, or be reassigned elsewhere, rather than jeopardizing unit coherence on the battlefield’ (Davidson 2005, 139). Far from harming his comrades, by leaving the unit the objector may in fact be doing them a favour. In any event, the obligations of comradeship can be interpreted in many ways other as than simply standing by your colleagues under all circumstances.

            In addition, the virtue of loyalty transcends immediate comradeship; it also includes loyalty to the nation, to humanity, and to abstract moral principles such as the truth. US military academies, with their honour codes, oblige cadets to report to the authorities their peers who lie, cheat or steal, demonstrating that loyalty to comrades is not considered the highest loyalty. Loyalty to higher values trumps comradeship, not vice-versa.

Furthermore, the benefits of unit cohesion mentioned by Kasher may be overstated. As Peter Olsthoorn has recently noted, ‘according to most research, social cohesion has no clear correlation with performance’ (Olsthoorn 2007, 276). Excessive emphasis on loyalty to comrades may also lead to gross moral failings. As Christopher Browning writes in his book Ordinary Men, men of the German Police Battalion 101 who massacred Jews in Poland in the Second World War did not have to participate in the slaughter. Those who refused were not punished. But most were afraid of looking weak in front of their colleagues and of letting the team down by adding to their burden: ‘to break ranks and step out, to adopt overtly nonconformist behaviour, was simply beyond most of the men. … it was in effect an asocial act vis-à-vis one’s comrades’ (Browning 2001: 184-185).

‘The heart of all ethics consists in the ability morally to transcend the group’, writes James Toner (Toner 2002, 318). As has been pointed out, true integrity does not imply completely ignoring the demands of the group. But if one is never allowed to transcend the group, any form of real integrity is impossible.



More problematic is the clash between integrity and obedience. Obedience is an extremely important military virtue. As the Judge Advocate at the court martial of Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith stated, ‘Obedience of orders is at the heart of any disciplined force … Refusal to obey orders means that the force is not a disciplined force but a disorganized rabble. Those who wear the Queen’s uniform cannot pick and choose which orders they will obey’ (Gulam & O’Connor 2006, 69). Equally, according to Davidson, ‘It is a foundational professional precept of the American armed forces that they will follow the lawful orders of their military superiors and of the nation’s civilian leadership. As one military ethicist [James H. Toner] posited: “No stronger principle of American civil-military relations exists than this: In the United States, the professional military is wholly subsidiary to the civilians elected to high office in our republic”. This “principle of civilian control is sacrosanct”’ (Davidson 2005, 146).

            Any social group requires laws to avoid a descent into anarchy. Obeying the law thus has an inherent moral value. In the case of professional armed forces, by voluntarily entering into a military contract, soldiers agree to obey and so have an added moral obligation to do so. At the same time, disobedience of manifestly illegal orders is mandatory, and it is not necessarily the case that all legal orders are moral. Disobeying a legal order is very unlikely to be the morally correct thing to do, but it may be. In Bosnia in the mid-1990s, for instance, Canadian soldiers were ordered when they left not to bring with them any of the Bosnian civilians, such as interpreters, who had been helping them. There may have been very good reasons for this order – perhaps helping these civilians to escape would have caused political harm at the highest levels. But at the level of the soldiers, things were very different. They had good reason to suspect that the moment they left, the civilians would be killed. They also felt a strong obligation to help those who had helped them. In these circumstances, it is very hard to condemn disobedience as immoral. By contrast, when Dutch troops in Srebrenica in 1995 obediently followed legal orders to put their own safety above the safety of those whom they were meant to be protecting, disobedience might well have been a morally better choice. 
            Nor does the fact that career soldiers have voluntarily entered into a profession which demands obedience deprive them of the obligation to make moral judgments. Obviously people must have extremely good reasons for breaking contracts that they have freely entered into, but, as Colonel John Mark Mattox writes, ‘Army officers are not, and indeed cannot be, automatons. They are moral agents who must recognize their responsibility (1) never to issue an immoral order, and (2) to refuse an order – or even a suggestion – to undertake military operations inconsistent with the ideals they are sworn to defend’ (Mattox 2002, 303).

            The issue, therefore, is not whether disobedience of legal orders may be justified, but when it may be (bearing in mind that this will be exceptionally rare). At the Nuremburg Tribunal at the end of the Second World War, US Justice Robert Jackson remarked that the waging of aggressive war was the most serious of all war crimes. Jackson’s statement was a legal one, but it also has some moral force. All the crimes of war are possible only because of the initial decision to wage a war. If we return to our earlier definition of integrity, it is perfectly reasonable to consider an unjust war to be utterly immoral, and so to consider an order to participate one which must be disobeyed.

            According to Avi Sagi and Ron Shapira, ‘The fact that the violator of the law genuinely opposes it has never been held to be a good ground for tolerating the violation. Tolerance or some level of leniency is sometimes justified when the violator not only acts for a principled reason or in pursuance of a political ideology, but also protects his identity as a moral human being’ (Sagi & Shapira 2002b, 259). Again, waging an unjust war falls into this category. ‘There is a strong moral and legal basis for a right not to kill’, writes G. Albert Ruesga (Ruesga 1995, 68). ‘To require one man to kill another is therefore to strike at the heart of his moral sense. … we also thereby strike a profound blow at his dignity’ (ibid, 71). ‘The killing of another human being without just cause, i.e. murder’, says David Malament, ‘is probably the most extreme violation of conscience that the government could coerce’ (Malament 1972, 370).

            A common reply to such arguments is that governments are much better placed than soldiers to determine whether a war is just. The soldier should therefore defer judgment on this issue to those who are elected to make decisions on his behalf. This position is strongly argued by Kenneth Kemp. ‘Unlike the leaders’, says Kemp:

the individual soldier or citizen is not in a good position to know (or to find out) all that needs to be known. They are moral agents, responsible for their choices, but they lack the time, the experience, and the resources to make a fully informed choice. …Although it might seem dangerous to suggest that soldiers need not concern themselves about such things, permitting them to do so opens the door to an equally, if not more, dangerous breach of the principle of civil supremacy over the military. … In practice, we must insist on a strong presumption in favor of the legality of one’s deployment orders. (Kemp 2001, 8)

Barak Medina takes the argument further. The danger with selective conscientious objection, he writes, is ‘the prospect of soldiers’ erroneous judgments … In a typical case a soldier is unfamiliar with all the relevant data … An act that seems to the uninformed as manifestly wrong may actually be morally justified’ (Medina 2002, 82). ‘The risks of erroneous moral assessment … are significant’ (ibid, 86). ‘The United States government’s reasons for entering military operations enjoy a reputable presumption of legitimacy that the American soldier should be able to rely upon’, comments Davidson. And Bishop O’Brien, Archbishop for the US Military Services, wrote in a March 2003 message to troops: ‘Given the complexity of factors involved, many of which understandably remain confidential, it is altogether appropriate for members of the armed forces to presume the integrity of our leadership and its judgments and therefore to carry out their duties in good conscience’ (Davidson 2005, 147).

            These are powerful arguments, and even quite recently it would have been appropriate for service personnel in democratic armed forces ‘to presume the integrity of our leadership and its judgments’. Unfortunately, it is nowadays not at all unreasonable to doubt this integrity. The general public knows that US political and military leaders knowingly and repeatedly lied about the conflict in Vietnam (see for instance McMaster 1998, passim), as did the UK government in 1956 during the Suez crisis. It knows that the assertions made by British and American leaders concerning Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and links with al-Qaeda prior to the invasion of Iraq were false. In conversations with the author, British officers have remarked that they and many of their colleagues had grave doubts about the invasion of Iraq, but in line with the advice in the previous paragraph had assumed that they lacked all the data, and that the government knew something that it was not telling them. Having learnt that this was not at all the case, they now feel, in their words, ‘betrayed’.

            The usual response to this is that the soldier should fight because, ‘in taking the oath to serve, he implicitly heightens the level of presumption in favor of the government. If he thought the government was trigger happy, he should not have enlisted’ (Kemp 2001, 8). ‘They need to make their moral judgment at the time they enlist’ (ibid, 7). In Kemp’s view, the decision to trust the government is a one-time choice.  But this is unrealistic and incongruent with integrity. The British officers mentioned above clearly began their careers trusting their government. That does not mean that they must now ignore the evidence that their trust was misplaced.


Respect for human life and dignity

It appears that orders to participate in an unjust war constitute as strong an example of justification for disobedience as one is likely to find. This conclusion is supported by reference to another important military virtue – respect for human life and dignity. Virtues such as courage, loyalty and obedience are essentially functional – that is to say that they are promoted primarily because they are important for the effective functioning of military organisations, rather than because they are valuable in themselves. But the purpose of military ethics is not solely to enable the military to function more effectively. Other military virtues are ‘aspirational’ in purpose – ie, they are promoted because they aspire to some higher moral purpose beyond pure efficiency (for a discussion of the distinction between the functional and aspirational approaches to military ethics see the chapter by Jessica Wolfendale in Robinson, de Lee & Carrick 2008).

            One of the most important purposes of military ethics throughout history has been to protect the innocent from attack by armed forces. Consequently, encouraging soldiers to develop the virtue of respect for others is of prime importance. Thus, the British Army document Soldiering – The Military Covenant states that, ‘The responsibility of bearing arms and using lethal force makes it vital that all soldiers act properly under the law and maintain the highest standards of decency and a sense of justice at all times, and to all people, even in the most difficult of conditions’ (Ministry of Defence, 0312). The code of ethics of the Israel Defence Forces further specifies that, ‘The IDF and its soldiers are obligated to protect human dignity. Every human being is of value regardless of his or her origin, religion, nationality, gender, status or position’ (Israel Defence Forces).

Even more striking is a statement in the Fundamentals of Canadian Defence Ethics:

The Statement of Defence Ethics contains a hierarchy of three general principles: (1) Respect the dignity of all persons; (2) Serve Canada before self; and (3) Obey and support lawful authority. The ordering of these principles reflects the relative importance of the obligations of our nation’s military institution to the human community in general, to the Canadian society, and to lawful authority. … In practical terms and as a general rule, the ordering means that Principle I takes precedence over Principles II and III, and that Principle II takes precedence over Principle III’ (Defence Ethics Program 2002, 9).

            This makes it very clear that obedience even to lawful orders cannot trump moral commitments to the ‘human community in general’. But it is very hard to see how participating in an unjust war could be said to be consistent with a commitment to humanity. Killing people unjustly is hardly compatible with respect for human life and dignity. The logic of the Canadian statement is thus very clear. Far from overriding integrity in the case of waging an unjust war, obedience must give way to it. As James H. Toner writes:

The first and most fundamental task – the first absolute of any legitimate warrior ethic and of all genuine soldiers – is to protect innocent life. The object of military ethics, after all, is to help soldiers understand that there are things they cannot do, lines they cannot cross, means they cannot employ – even if they thereby sacrifice certain military advantages – because, by doing so, they destroy not just rights, but Right itself. … when countries of commanders or specific orders depart from or, worse, violent a transcendent standard, then citizens and soldiers alike – people of ordinary sense and understanding – must very carefully consider whether the country has forfeited its claim upon them’ (Toner 2002, 333).


Consequentialist Objections

We can see that selective conscientious objection is compatible with integrity, and that integrity should not in this instance be trumped by other virtues. There remains only the consequentialist argument against permitting selective conscientious objection, this being that, if it were allowed, the number of objectors would greatly increase and the ability of the state to wage war would be adversely affected. This was, for instance, the argument put forward by the Israeli Supreme Court when it ruled that there was no legal right to selective conscientious objection. As Chief Justice Barak said, ‘it affects security considerations themselves, since a group of selective objectors would tend to increase in size. .. Yesterday, the objection was against serving in South Lebanon. Today, the objection is against serving in Judea and Samaria. Tomorrow, the objection will be against vacating this or that settlement’ (cited in Friedman 2006, 90).

The difficulty with this argument is that the consequences of permitting selective conscientious objection are unknown, as no state has ever done it in time of war. One way of determining what the possible effect would be is to extrapolate from the evidence of general conscientious objection. That evidence is, however, mixed, and can be interpreted in completely contradictory ways. For instance, Medina says that ‘The evidence from other countries in this respect is unequivocal: The number of conscientious objectors soared after legitimizing conscientious objections to serve’ (Medina 2002, 98). By contrast, Amir Paz-Fuchs and Michael Sfard comment that the actual number of conscientious objectors (even after any ‘soaring) is fairly small. Thus during Vietnam War, the number of registrants for conscription classified as conscientious objectors was in 1971 only 34,402, whereas ‘over 7 million enjoyed deferments for reasons other than conscientious objection’ (Paz-Fuchs & Sfard 2002, 128).

            In any case, extrapolations from general conscientious objection may not be valid, especially when one is considering professional soldiers. Given the commitment which these people have made to military life, and the intense pressures to conform which generally exist within military institutions, the likelihood that sufficient numbers to adversely affect the war effort would choose to object to fight in a specific war may reasonably be considered to be extremely low, unless the war is quite egregiously unjust. Thus Paz-Fuchs and Sfard claim that, ‘the fear of mass disobedience that will spread like a plague seems to be more in the minds of politicians and lawyers, and stands contrary to research in the field of social psychology’, especially given the ‘psychological comforts of obedience and the discomforts of disobedience’ (Paz-Fuchs & Sfard 2002, 127; for a more detailed attack on the consequentialist argument against selective conscientious objection, see Enoch 2002).

            Let us nevertheless imagine a situation in which so many soldiers chose to object that the armed forces found themselves unable to fulfil their mission effectively. In such circumstances, as David Malament points out, ‘it would be questionable whether the government was justified in going to war in the first place’ (Malament 1972, 382). Selective conscientious objection might perhaps limit the ability of governments to wage wars which very large numbers of their own soldiers consider unjust, and one might, therefore, regard it as a sort of tripwire, warning governments and the public when they are engaging in morally dubious activities. As Capizzi says, ‘if we imagine that enough young men were to resist conscription into a particular war, we have reason to wonder whether the democratic government of our country would have the mandate of the people to participate in that war. In fact, it might be the kind of resistance a government ought to desire, where a people provides a critical perspective on a difficult decision that must be made’ (Capizzi 1996).

This is not the only benefit which selective conscientious objection may bring. US Army Chaplain Tim Rietkerk points to another: ‘In defining their duty under Just War Principles, selective conscientious objectors can ably serve their country. If there is a conflict of values and they are called upon to serve in an unjust war, their moral candor needs to be permitted in order to contribute to the Army’s ethical environment’ (Rietkerk 2007). And Medina, though rejecting most instances of selective conscientious objection, nevertheless points to yet another benefit, namely that, ‘Acts of refusal have an important role in stimulating public and political discourse … Therefore, acts of refusal should be legitimized in cases of “symbolic” acts, which are essential in order to stimulate an otherwise insufficient public deliberation regarding official activities’ (Medina 2002, 107 & 108)

In short, the consequences of selective conscientious objection are unlikely to be as terrible as they are often made out to be, and the practice may in fact have some advantages.


Proving Sincerity

Taking all the above into consideration we may conclude that the soldier of integrity who considers a war to be unjust is morally justified in refusing to participate (the option of resignation may be open to some, but to most regular soldiers it will probably not be, thus putting them in a position where the only means of refusal is to disobey orders). Having said that, ‘the perspective of the person considering disobedience must also be distinguished from the attitude that the State should properly adopt towards such persons. … justification of the objection from the perspective of those who are considering it, does not commit one to the justification of State tolerance towards the same objection’ (Gans 2002, 44). In other words, an argument may be made that the objector is right to object, but also that the state is right to punish him.

            One of the arguments often made against selective conscientious objection is that of the US Supreme Court, that [in Davidson’s words] ‘claims of selective objection are “intrinsically … of uncertain dimension”, could be supported by a “limited variety of beliefs” or other subjective variables, many of which might be indistinguishable from political, non-conscientious objections’ (Davidson 2005, 134). According to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, ‘over the realm of possible situations, opposition to a particular war may more likely to be political and nonconscientious than otherwise. The difficulties of sorting out the two, with a sure hand, are considerable’ (cited in Malament 1972, 373; for a similar statement by Justice Barak of the Israeli Supreme Court, see Friedman 2006, 91).

            There has to be some mechanism for filtering out the sincere from the insincere, and the conscientious objectors from the political objectors. The threat of punishment is such a mechanism. Paz-Fuchs and Sfard note that, ‘We need a standard to discriminate legitimate conscientious objection and claims based on self-interest. The touchstone distinguishing between the two is the claim to “moral seriousness”’ (Paz-Fuchs & Sfard 2002, 134). Those who are morally serious will accept punishment; those who are not, will not, and in the face of its threat will be deterred from action. In this way, punishment weeds out the sincere from the insincere.

            This is, at heart, an argument based on administrative convenience, but it does have a certain practical logic. This is well expressed by John Rawls, who wrote that:

No doubt it is possible to imagine a legal system in which conscientious belief that the law is unjust is accepted as a defense for noncompliance. Men of great honesty with full confidence in one another might make such a system work. But as things are, such a scheme would presumably be unstable even in a state of near justice. We must pay a certain price to convince others that our actions have, in our carefully considered view, a sufficient moral basis in the political convictions of the community (Rawls 1999, 322).

            Some take this even further. A strong case can be made that ‘A person of integrity is willing to bear the consequences of her convictions, even when this is difficult, that is, when the consequences are unpleasant’ (McFall 1987, 9). Since the argument in this paper in favour of selective conscientious objection is made from the perspective of integrity, it would therefore seem that there is also good cause for stating that the objector should willingly accept punishment. ‘The willingness of the agents of change to redeem the society by personal sacrifice is an expression of their values and their sincerity’, write Sagi & Shapira (2002a, 212). ‘The moral force’ of men such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, ‘was indeed manifested by their willingness to bear the price of breaching a law’ (ibid, 213). Thus, Colonel Mattox comments that, ‘Army officers must recognize their responsibility … to refuse an order … to undertake military operations inconsistent with the ideals they are sworn to defend. Moreover, when an informed judgment leads them to the conviction that an order is morally wrong, they also must possess the maturity to recognize, and the fortitude to accept, the personal consequences of refusal’ (Mattox 2002, 303).

            These are strong arguments. There is, nevertheless, something a little perverse about them, in that it is proposed to weed out the morally righteous by punishing them. Yet one would imagine that rules should be constituted to punish those whose motives and actions are impure, rather than vice versa. Furthermore, it is not at all clear whether the administrative concerns about distinguishing between sincere and insincere selective conscientious objection are valid. As Malament says, ‘however imperfect our ability to judge states of mind, juries make such judgments every day in cases where intent or sincerity is a factor in determination of guilt. … I do not see why it should be essentially more difficult to judge the conscientiousness of a selective objection to military service than it is to judge the conscientiousness of a universal objector’ (Malament 1972, 378 & 380).

            Additional arguments against this position are provided by David Enoch. Either the war is just or it is unjust. Either the act of refusal is justified, or it is unjustified. Whether one is willing to pay the price for refusal does not in any way alter these judgements. As Enoch says:

Even if acts of refusal would be more powerful if the refuseniks were willing (in the relevant sense) to pay a hefty price, still this observation does nothing to undermine the moral status of the refusal that is not accompanied by such willingness. … Perhaps – though I do not see why – refuseniks who are willing (in the relevant sense) to pay a very high price without protest would be more courageous, or perhaps more virtuous in some other way, than refuseniks who devote some efforts to reducing the price they have to pay. But even if this is so, all that follows is that current refuseniks are not maximally heroic, or are less than perfectly virtuous. But, of course, no one is, and it is hard to see what follows from this … I can find no sense of the willingness-to-pay-the-price intuition according to which a willingness to pay the price is necessary for the justification of the refusal’ (Enoch 2002, 250 & 252).

            Above all, though, it is self-contradictory to demand that people display integrity and then punish them when they do. If military institutions preached unquestioning obedience and not integrity, then a case could be made that they were justified in punishing objectors. But the position proposed above requires open hypocrisy, and is therefore difficult to support.

Further, as Enoch notes, ‘even if there is some strength to the willing-to-pay-the-price intuition (however it is fleshed out), surely it does not extend to a requirement to be willing to pay any price (and what’s more, without protest!)’ (Enoch 2002, 250). In particular, accepting a public label of dishonour appears unfair. Integrity, we have seen, is similar to the internal sense of honour. Maintaining one’s integrity by refusing to serve in an unjust war cannot, therefore, be deemed a dishonourable act. Given that the act of refusal is not dishonourable, a punishment of dishonourable discharge appears to be inappropriate.



Military institutions which preach integrity and yet punish selective conscientious objection are acting inconsistently. To escape this inconsistency, it appears that either they should either redefine their commitment to integrity or permit those who consider a specific war unjust to refuse to participate in it (as long as the objectors can show that their belief is sincere and has been reached by a process of proper consideration). Given the importance of integrity for all other aspects of military service, the first option would likely be problematic. Instead, consideration could be given to creating a mechanism which can differentiate between sincere and insincere objectors. Unless a military force intends to engage in morally dubious activities, the operational consequences should be very minor. Selective conscientious objection could then even further military goals by drawing attention to questionable undertakings, and thereby helping to reduce injustice. Far from viewing it as a threat, democratic societies should consider it to be an act of integrity.




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