Thinking About Good Soldiers Who Died for Bad Causes

Memorial day is a great day to reflect on moral complexities

Posted May 30, 2016

Memorial Day is a time to honor dead soldiers and to relax, BBQ or shop, enjoying the freedoms these soldiers won for us while losing their all.

It's also a great day to meditate on moral complexities.

Today we pay our respect to individual soldiers who died with honor. To honor them fully, we tend to set aside the question of whether they all died for honorable causes.

Few of us doubt that those who died in WWII did. Many of us doubt that those who died in Vietnam, Iraq or for the Confederate army did.

In science, "reductionism" is the argument that everything can be explained at a single lowest level of analysis, for example, the atomic level. Reductionism tantalizes because it make simple precision seem possible.

In parallel, "moral reductionism" is the dream that morality can be assessed at a single level – by what individuals do. By the moral reductionist standard, loyal, valiant individual soldiers acted morally, regardless the causes they died for.

Moral reductionism is simple and wrong. Confronting its wrongness is difficult, especially on this day devoted to honoring our war dead. Not focusing on their individual valor seems to dishonor the good soldiers who gave their lives for bad causes.

Among the dead we honor today are those who died knowing they were fighting for immoral causes. It's a good day to exploring how people end up trapped like that, giving their all for terrible causes.

Terrible causes sneak up on us. We rarely come to a crossroad where we have a choice between doing a good or bad thing and then just opt for the bad. Much more often we find ourselves half way down a path that's turning out to be a bad one. 

In politics, for example, we acquiesce in the name of reductionist morality, as individuals deciding to show tolerance, respect, loyalty and patriotism to our community even it starts to be led by charismatic saber-rattling politicians.

We rationalize, thinking that maybe these politicians won’t get too far, or that if they do, that they won't take their saber-rattling too far. We take refuge in our impotence to stop them, but also in our individual morality, us doing what’s right at the level where being loyal to our community even as it slides into evil. And then these politicians win and escalate until we're trapped into making huge sacrifices – our lives, our children, our resources forced into supporting horrible causes.

Moral reductionism is a simplistic sin, and it's rampant. We hear it every time we’re shamed for making moral choices that serve the greater good that disappoint our community, for example when we’re called traitors for not backing our nation as it escalates into immoral wars.

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You also hear moral reductionism more locally, for example when you’re berated as immoral for disappointing someone, as though loyalty is a pure virtue regardless of what you’re loyal to or what higher cause you’re serving when you disappoint them.

Moral reductionism is immoral. To be moral requires struggling with moral values at different scales of analysis, what’s good for you, your various communities at various scales, from your family to your workplace, your state, your nation, the world overall. Timescales too – what seems most moral today all the way out to what's good for future generations.

What’s moral can’t be decided with a focus on just one scale. To be moral, we must abandon the simplicity of moral reductionism. Morally, we must learn to be multi-level headed. 

These days, the drumbeat for moral reductionism is getting louder: It beckons with the argument that morality is simple. Just be loyal to the loudest saber-rattler. That's your moral duty. 

Marching to that drumbeat, we'll end up with many good people dying for bad causes. It's always been like that. People often end up facing harder moral choices by pretending that moral choices are easy until it's too late.