Academic journal article Social Justice

Moral Responsibility in a Time of War

Academic journal article Social Justice

Moral Responsibility in a Time of War

Article excerpt


ON A DALLY BASIS, MOST OF US MAKE ETHICAL (1) JUDGMENTS ALL THE TIME IN RELATION to private action. We make moral judgments about individuals who murder, cheat, lie, and steal. We expect that individuals will act on "universal" principles in their treatment of others independent of race, gender, sexuality, and class. At the national level, appeals to the public good and the responsibilities and duties of public office are also based on ethical judgments.

I am concerned with levels of moral responsibility and accountability. In large bureaucracies (corporations, governments, and universities), it is often difficult to attribute moral responsibility to anyone. Dennis Thompson calls this the problem of "many hands." When an action of the government causes harm to innocents, it is often difficult to trace the "fingerprints of responsibility" to individual actors. There is a tendency to deny the responsibility of an individual person, instead attributing blame abstractly to "the system," the government, or "the state." Citizens often feel unable to connect criticisms of the government with the actions of individuals inside the structures of the state (Thompson, 1987: 5-6).

The decisions leading to the war and occupation of Iraq were ultimately made at the highest levels of the U.S. and British governments. Legal and moral responsibility lies with the president, prime minister, and their cabinets, since hierarchical responsibility does coincide with moral responsibility. Yet, can an ethical analysis of the war stop with the actions of the president, prime minister, and their principal advisers? Should others in the government also be held to standards of moral accountability?

The actions of Colin Powell are examined in depth because of his position as secretary of state. From an ethical point of view, should he have acted differently? if he objected, for example, to U.S. policy in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, should he have resigned? Some argue in Powell's defense, believing that he did the right thing by fighting within the administration to correct certain ethically troublesome policies. Yet, for many other observers, it was painful to watch former Secretary Powell appear to sacrifice his moral principles with his strident public campaigning for the war. Did his failure to resign give the green light to the administration to continue questionable ethical policies?

These issues go beyond the Office of the Secretary of State. What is the moral responsibility of others in the U.S. and British governments? If an individual believes that the U.S. or British government violated basic norms of morality and justice, what is he or she to do? If the individual's voice is ignored inside the government, does this person have an ethical duty to resign?

In Britain, taking moral responsibility often means resigning from office in protest of policies the official finds ethically dubious. In the British parliamentary system, ministers have more political independence from the executive branch than their counterparts do in the United States. The list of British government leaders who resigned from office to protest Tony Blair's decision to align with the U.S. and invade Iraq is impressive, including the following: Bob Blizzard, Anne Campbell, Robin Cook, John Denham, Michael Jabez Foster, Lord Hunt, Ken Purchase, Andy Reed, Carne Ross, Clare Short, and Elizabeth Wilmshurst.

In the United States, however, accepting moral responsibility for U.S. foreign policy decisions has, for the most part, not included resignation. In the entire history of the United States, only two secretaries of state, Williams Jennings Bryan and Cyrus Vance, have resigned for ethical reasons. Certain individuals in the U.S. Foreign Service, however, did resign over Iraq, including career diplomats John H. Brown, John Brady Kiesling, and Mary Ann Wright. Were these officials correct in their actions? …

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