As, probably, many of you have worked out by now, I am something of a fan of virtue ethics. I am sure I have already wittered on about how virtue ethics date back at least as far as Aristotle, but were largely ignored after the utilitarianism of the nineteenth century, and only fairly recently made a comeback.
Partly, I think, the ignoring of virtue ethics was because, at the end of the day, virtue ethics is a lot harder than utilitarianism or other sorts of rules based ethics. Utilitarianism offers a calculus for determining whether something is ethical or not, even though it fails to deliver on that promise. Rules based (deontological) ethics also appears to offer a neat solution, giving a clear boundary between right and wrong, until you realise that it cannot offer a rule for every situation that life throws at an ethical agent.
As a consequence of this, I was interested to stumble across a chapter in a book called ‘A Virtue Ethical Case for Pacifism’, by Franco V. Trivigno (in Virtues in Action: New Essays in Applied Virtue Ethics, edited by Michael Austin, New York: Palgrave Macmillan (2013)) and even more interested to find that the author had placed a copy on Academia.edu, where I snarfed it from. I am not exactly sure what the copyright implications of this are (I presume he had permission to post it), and I have no intention of making any money out of my use of it, so I guess it is above board. Mind you, the book itself is seriously expensive, so the circulation of the chapters would be very restricted if it were not for the internet.
My interest, of course, was at least partly related to the question of whether anything Trivigno says could possibly be related to the ethics of wargaming, and, if so, how it could be so related. In fact, Trivigno comes up with an argument for pacifism which I have not really seen before, certainly not as a standalone argument.
The key point of Trivigno’s argument is that modern military training is designed to overcome our innate resistance to killing other human beings. He argues two training strategies are used. Firstly, soldiers are trained in life like situations and rewarded for ‘kills’ and punished for failures. The idea here is that the troops, on a battlefield, engage in conditioned responses without actually thinking about what they are doing. What happens afterwards, of course, has been shown to be rather problematical, as the frequent diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder shows.
Secondly, the enemy is euphamised away. An enemy solider becomes a target. Units are degraded rather than killed or wounded. Civilians become collateral damaged rather than people killed though accident or intentional double effect. Once dehumanised, the enemy becomes easier to kill. They are no longer people, moral agents themselves with lives, interests, families and friends, but objects. Moral distance enables us not to treat them as people; dehumanisation, particularly, is easier where there are social and cultural gaps as well, as all too often there are.
Trivigno’s problem with warfare is not, a priori, therefore with the act of war in general, but with the moral damage that such training does to the soldiers. People who cannot empathise by training with another human being are damaged by that training, and so, Trivigno argues, the training for war in itself is immoral.
As a consequence of this, Trivigno argues that the state, which is responsible for the flourishing of its citizens, should not engage in war because the training for modern war involves damaging the flourishing of some of its citizens, even if the state does not participate in any wars at all. On the other hand he does admit that, for example, being invaded is not something that is likely to increase the flourishing of the citizens of a flourishing state. This latter is what Trivigno calls a narrow pacifism. The state may defend its citizens from invasion, but not engage in any other military activity.
I am not, here, trying to agree or disagree with this stance. It is to me a rather novel one and not one I can find described in the pacifist literature, for example John Howard Yoder’s Nevertheless, which outlines more pacifist positions than you can shake a stick at. But, as I said, I am a bit interested in the implications for wargaming.
Firstly, Trivigno claims that his virtue pacifism only works for post-World War Two wars, where these training methods were applied. The implication of this is, of course, that before this, troops were not trained to hate the enemy and did not have their innate resistance to killing broken down.
I do wonder if this is correct, because if it is, then we do perhaps have to rethink our views of morale and training. Having just finished Peter Wilson’s mighty work on the Thirty Years War it is clear that frequently, defeated troops were simply recruited to the victor’s side, even when one side was Protestant and the other Catholic (it worked both ways). Clearly the troops did not hate the other side, and also, at least on the ground, religion was not a major issue in the wars, whatever the propaganda said.
Secondly, if the argument (and it is based on Marshall’s investigations, which are not perhaps the most reliable ones) is correct, then casualties should be light, as indeed my memory of actions in the English Civil War suggests. Most people cannot bring themselves to actually try to harm a fellow human being. Only a few trying to be heroes or psychopaths will, without training, actively try to harm another human, at least without provocation. The other factor which may play here is the oversight of an authority, an officer standing over the men to make sure they did their duty.
Now, I expect you thought that this post would turn into another one of wargame ethics, and so, in fact, did I when I got the paper. But maybe it should cause us to think again about what we mean by morale and training for our wargame armies.