Is a military draft the moral thing to do?

Is a military draft the moral thing to do? September 8, 2014
Photo: US War Department
Photo: US War Department

This is an adaptation of a short essay I wrote in my moral philosophy class about conscription (military draft) and the morality of a volunteer vs. draft based armed forces at a time of war.

In chapter 4 of Michael Sandel’s book Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do, Sandel deals with the issue of morals in a free market. Sandel did this by applying libertarianism and utilitarianism to two different scenarios where the morally right thing to do is more ambiguous.

The two issues he dealt with were the volunteer army and pregnancy for pay. Both made important cases for libertarianism in that each scenario could be viewed as impeding on someones freedom or liberty, meaning one choice, to a libertarian was a clear correct choice and one was an infringement on their rights. Both scenarios also showed an important role of utilitarianism and the principle of utility, meaning the end result brought the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Though from the Utilitarianism argument, the issues of right and wrong were not as clear cut.

Out of those two issues, I will be addressing the volunteer army. Sandel talks about two major scenarios in front of us. A total volunteer army, meaning paid soldiers who signed up to join the military, versus conscription (draft). Meaning a draft to fill the ranks from citizens. The libertarian argument seems clear cut, a volunteer army is made up of citizens who decided on their own to join the military and any draft would be a violation of citizens rights. The utilitarian argument however, may not be so cut and dry. Using the principle of utility, we should look at what makes the greatest number of people happy, and at first glance, that is a volunteer army, most citizens would be happiest knowing they do not have to go into battle and a smaller number of citizens are doing so of their own free will, meaning they signed up for the task.

A much closer examination however, reveals this may not be the proper use of the principle of utility. You have to first exam who makes up the military. It is filled with soldiers who make up the working and middle class of our country, the children of working class parents, and many are minorities. They are joining the military not out of a desire, but out of necessity. They don’t have job opportunities awaiting them, they don’t have the ability to pay for college, and the military offers them that chance. But once soldiers are joining out of necessity, you immediately remove the libertarian argument that they are joining fully of their own free will. How free is a choice when it may be your only choice. The wealthy are not joining the military. The sons and daughters of congressmen, CEO’s, corporate bankers, these are not the children filling up our ranks and heading off to battle. As Sandel quotes in the book “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” (p. 76).

So is this the principle of utility in action? Is this class inequality what is right for greatest amount of happiness? I don’t believe so, and I don’t think John Stuart Mill would think so either. This inequality, Mill would argue lessens the value of life of the soldiers compared to those who do not have to enter the army for a job, schooling or whatever other reasons have forced men and women to join based on necessity. These soldiers are not living life to the highest end. A volunteer army can only be morally justified in a pure egalitarian country. No class inequality or social stratification can exist.

The only moral solution I could find was a draft. A draft where every eligible man and women had an equal chance of being drafted and your social status had no weight on your rank or job in the military. The presidents son is just as likely to see combat as the son of a steel worker in Pittsburgh. No deferrals of any kind, your parents paying to enroll you in college just to avoid the war won’t help you.

This is the only way to ensure that if congress wants to declare war, they do so knowing their own children could be sent away. This goes against every belief of a libertarian, and I believe many utilitarians would try to argue the same, but if you want to argue morality, you cannot do so while oppressing the classes you consider beneath you and claiming your life is more valuable than theirs. I do not believe society can be truly happy on the suffering and death of others, and because of that, I see that the principle of utility could be easily applied to defend the draft.

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