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Are Soldiers Morally Exploited?

By Michael Robillard and Bradley J. Strawser

The idea of soldiers as an exploited group is hardly anything new. Throughout much of human history, wars serving the interests of the ‘haves’ have largely been fought by the ‘have nots,’ with members of the latter group finding themselves opting into military service from a place of pronounced vulnerability and minimal alternatives. As Thomas Hardy puts it, in his poem ‘The Man He Killed’,

He thought he’d list, perhaps
Off-hand like, just as I –
Was out of work – had sold his traps
No other reason why

Philosophers typically conceive of exploitation as taking unfair advantage of, or garnering excessive benefit from, another’s vulnerability or weakness. In such cases, the exploiter makes use of the exploitee’s vulnerability and limited options to gain benefits (often with the exploitee’s consent) that would otherwise not be granted. Classic examples of potentially exploitative practices include sweatshop labor, organ sales, prostitution, and commercial surrogacy.

The case of the common soldier appears to share many commonalities with this list, at least in some instances. But how exactly are soldiers exploited? One thought might be that soldiers are taken advantage insofar as they come to take on additional physical or psychological risks associated with combat. We do not dispute this claim. However, we argue that it is nonetheless partial.

While part of the burden of being a soldier is the acceptance of danger, the burdens extend beyond these risks. Rather, there is also a set of profound and weighty moral burdens that individuals are expected to shoulder once he or she consents to join the profession of arms. If, however, the soldier’s decision was heavily conditioned by his or her pronounced vulnerability (socio-economic, age-related, or myriad other factors), then it is doubtful that the soldier was in a position to refuse the additional moral responsibility, moral risk, and potential blameworthiness thrust upon him or her by military service.

Accordingly, we contend that the common soldier is exploited in this additional and under-acknowledged way. That is, soldiers are exploited insofar as they are pressured to shoulder additional moral responsibilities, moral deliberative roles, and moral risks that they would not otherwise agree to shoulder were they not vulnerable. This type of exploitation, which involves unfairly off-loading or outsourcing moral burdens onto those who are vulnerable, we call moral exploitation. To better understand this idea, consider the following case:

Academic Misconduct – Jones and Smith are both academics at a university. Smith is a senior professor with a tremendous amount of clout and sway in the department, while Jones is a young assistant professor coming up for tenure. Jones is assigned to jointly teach a course with Smith. During the course a very complicated and morally problematic cheating incident occurs. Aware of Jones’s approaching tenure board, and knowing that, because of this, Jones will likely be compliant with whatever course of action Smith suggests, Smith tells Jones that she, not he, will be the sole person to make the final (and likely controversial and difficult) decision with regard to the cheating incident.

Here Smith takes advantage of Jones’ vulnerability to get her to solely take on a moral deliberative role she would not accept were she not vulnerable. Many similar cases are easy to imagine. Here’s another example: consider a case in which a senior cop exploits a rookie cop by getting him to agree to walk a beat in a neighborhood with a long history of morally problematic incidents. In such a case, the senior cop distances himself from the possibility of having to make a difficult moral decision or (perhaps worse) of making a moral mistake, by leveraging the rookie cop’s vulnerability (due to rank) to get him to accept the job instead.

In both of these cases, the issue isn’t simply that moral responsibility is being distributed disproportionately. Rather, what is fundamentally morally problematic is the way in which the agent comes to take on disproportionately heavy moral responsibilities in the first place. The fact that the agent, because of her vulnerable predicament, cannot reasonably refuse taking on these additional moral burdens is the real issue at the heart of moral exploitation. This helps explain the intuitive difference between the moral responsibilities accepted by heart surgeons or defense attorneys versus those placed upon the junior professor or rookie cop.

“While part of the burden of being a soldier is the acceptance of danger, the burdens extend beyond these risks. Rather, there is also a set of profound and weighty moral burdens that individuals are expected to shoulder once he or she consents to join the profession of arms.”

Returning to the specific case of soldiers, we contend that there are several ways in which soldiers are wronged when they are exploited in this distinctive way. For one, there is the experiential duress that a soldier bears when sorting through the endless difficult moral decisions that must be made in war. Second, it is wrongful to disproportionately expose vulnerable groups of agents to morally high-stakes situations, in which they risk making a serious mistake. Indeed, even if a soldier makes all the right decisions every time she finds herself in such a situation, she is still over-exposed to the mere opportunity to get things wrong, which seems morally problematic in its own right. Lastly, one might think that morally exploited soldiers are placed in situations where incurring “moral residue” or “dirty hands” is highly probable, if not inevitable. Oftentimes in war, soldiers are morally required to commit wrongs in service of the all-things-considered good. For example, it might be necessary to cause the collateral deaths of innocent people in order to wage a justified war. Even if we grant that soldiers can be obligated to choose such actions, there remains an important sense in which the soldier still commits a wrong, the residue of which stains their moral ledger. Insofar as it is unfair for a small and oftentimes vulnerable segment of society to be the frequent and repeated bearers of this moral residue, the institutional and societal arrangements that facilitate this unfair distribution wrong those persons.

The idea that soldiers are morally exploited tightly dovetails with the notion of “moral injury.” Moral injury is usually understood as a kind of psychological harm that results from transgressing one’s moral code or performing some wrongful action. The concept of moral exploitation says something important about background conditions that place certain vulnerable agents into contexts where the risk of moral injury is considerably higher. Thus, just as Nancy Sherman points out that the average soldier risks sacrificing not only her physical body, but her moral character, moral exploitation points to the fairness (or lack thereof) of the distribution of those risks amongst society as a whole.

If we have correctly identified this further, distinctly moral, way in which the common soldier is routinely exploited by the society she serves, it is natural to then ask what could be done to ameliorate this injustice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, clear solutions to this problem are hard to come by. Yet some possible ways to mitigate moral exploitation, however minimally, do present themselves. These include a more equitable distribution of the moral burdens of war by instituting a fair and universal conscription process for military service. Or, at the least, encouraging a greater awareness of war’s costs by instituting a direct and fair war tax, paid by all members of society. Furthermore, we could work toward reducing the vulnerable states that soldiers-to-be often find themselves in, from which they make the decision to join the military. This could include relatively simple changes such as raising the minimum age of military enlistment, so as to allow for greater cognitive development before one agrees to take on the moral burdens of war, as well as reforming the recruitment process itself so that it places a greater emphasis on the difficult moral realities of military service. Of course, to further reduce the vulnerable state of recruits, one would want to improve the economic conditions that can drive people to conclude that military service is their only feasible option of escaping poverty. Such massive, society-wide economic changes would be difficult, to say the least. We will likely always have some poor in a given society, and some need for military service. Given reasonable benefits of such service, it is hard to know how to ever undo this moral hazard. Indeed, it is a sad but true reality that throughout history, humans have likely chosen to become soldiers on account of empty pockets and empty stomachs than abstract concepts like service to one’s country, ideology, religion, or just war principles.

“the average soldier risks sacrificing not only her physical body, but her moral character”

But even if all these prescriptions and remedies were undertaken, it seems the strained moral relationship we have been articulating between a state and her soldiers would often remain. If that’s the case, however, and if one believes that the existence of a military is both necessary and justified, then it may simply be that the moral exploitation of a society’s soldiers is an endemic feature of war. The moral exploitation of soldiers may be, tragically, unavoidable. If so, this is a predictable wrong that should be counted on any proper moral assessment of war and any decision to put young men and women in harm’s way.

More broadly and finally, many soldiers feel that wider society has shirked its moral responsibility for having even a minimal level of concern over the wars it asks its soldiers to wage. This sentiment is often expressed by soldiers serving today – men and women who have done countless tours in the endless conflicts raging across the world over the past 15 years. These soldiers find themselves, and the wars they fight, nearly forgotten by the society that deploys them. Your average American citizen, for example, seems to care far more about reality television, celebrity gossip, or their local sports team, than the moral horrors of war unleashed upon and by the military which serves them. Mere moral concern over such matters is a bar that most don’t even seem to reach. On the most basic level then, what is really needed to stop the moral exploitation of soldiers – and countless other systemic wrongs today – is a society-wide awakening to the moral realities and moral responsibilities that bear upon us all, individually and collectively, when our government resorts to war. Put bluntly, our soldiers need a society that gives a damn about them and what they are asking them to do. The soldiers give a damn, and so much more. But they far too often don’t have much of a choice in that decision, or at least not a very good one.

For an expanded account of this article and related themes be sure to check out Robillard and Strawser’s forthcoming book, Outsourcing Duty: The Moral Exploitation of the Citizen-Soldier, due for publication by Oxford University Press in Fall 2017.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Ethical War Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations. 

Published 15th July 2016

Michael Robillard and Bradley J. Strawser

Michael Robillard is a PhD candidate at the University of Connecticut and a former research fellow for the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership. He works primarily on issues concerning exploitation, just war theory, military ethics, and bioethics.

Dr. Bradley J. Strawser is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He works primarily on the ethics of war, just war theory, and military ethics.


  1. Paul Haefele

    Thank you for writing this Michael and Bradley. Couldn’t agree more with your assessment that reality TV gets more coverage than the wars we are currently fighting and lives we are destroying on both sides as a result.

    I just recently setup http://www.conscript.me / http://www.conscriptme.com to see if I can perhaps get people to notice. I am wondering if I can perhaps get the left and right to engage on this as a common issue by this sort of campaign.

    Also found work by Andrew Bacevich very instructive.

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