Lesson Plan on Mass Casualties and Making Decisions About War

Handout #3: Decision Making in War Analyzed from An Ethical Standpoint

What is presented here is not a new departure. In our opinion, the analysis set out below describes and labels the thought process that ethical leaders have gone through when making decisions about war. It is also the process used by historians to analyze those decisions.

Two Definitions:

Values are what a person cares about in life. They can include: acting in an ethical manner, getting rich, having a happy family life, buying a new car, being popular, wearing the right clothing, fitting in, having children, building a satisfying career, having a good marriage, eating well, traveling, having a good reputation, being healthy, etc.

In decisions about war, the values that usually come into play are continuing to live, avoiding injury, preserving health, preventing your home or business from being destroyed, acting courageously, and acting ethically.

Stakeholders are those persons or animals affected by a decision that we make, including ourselves. At times, the environment (the physical condition of the Earth) also qualifies as a stakeholder. Any action we take, like a stone thrown into a pool of water, has effects that ripple out in many directions. Relationships with people are perhaps the most important aspects of our lives. Thus, to determine if we really want to do something, we need to think about how it will affect the stakeholders and what they “value”. In war, we have to consider the effect of our actions on our soldiers, our allies, our enemies, civilians, and in the case of atomic warfare, all humankind, and the environment.


Why is it important to act ethically, especially in a war?

People who act in ways that are consistent with their view of universal good, bring themselves closer to that good, to what they believe to be holy. This unites them with the people that they care about and liberates their energy. People who act in ways that they believe to be wrong are alienated from what they consider to be transcendent in the universe. No one is more alone, isolated, or in despair than such a person. They waste their energy in rationalizing their conduct.

Wartime decisions often involve life and death. The soldier who succumbs to cowardice and fails to honor his or her responsibilities can put lives at risk. See Courage Under Fire. The business person who sells defective equipment to make a profit can cause soldiers to die. See All My Sons. By the same token, a soldier who becomes overly zealous and kills innocent civilians has committed a grievous wrong. A country that sends its soldiers to commit war crimes has lost its moral authority.


Assessment and Prediction — The Basis for Any Decision

In order to make effective and ethical decisions we need to learn the facts as best we can, check assumptions, and forecast consequences. Experience, logic and imagination are needed for this task. The process of assessment and prediction is best described as the “test of effectiveness.” Our goal is to make effective decisions which tend to unite us with what we consider to be good in the universe (God, for those who are religious). We want to avoid making decisions which are not effective or which have results which are not consistent with that which we believe to be holy.


Five Ethical Rules for Testing Decisions

We call these tests “consensus holiness” because when we examine the systems expressed by the major religions and ethical systems of the world, they can generally agree on the following guides to determine if actions will lead a person toward union with the good in the universe.

1. The Golden Rule (“How would I like it if someone did it to me?” or “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”)

2. Accepted principles of ethical conduct, for example, the Ten Commandments and the Six Pillars of Character;


(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country)


(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)


(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)


(Play by the rules; Take turns and share; Be open-minded; listen to others; Don’t take advantage of others; Don’t blame others carelessly)


(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)


(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)

3. The Rule of Universality (“What would it be like if everyone did it?”)

4. The Rule of Disclosure (“How would I feel if the whole world knew what I was doing or going to do, especially my family and school or business associates?”)

5. The Rule of the Most Honoring Choice — When values and ethical rules are in conflict (as they almost always are in time of war) we make the choice that honors the most important long term values for the most people, giving reasonable priority to the stakeholders to whom we owe duties of obligation or loyalty. In time of war, with respect to our opponents, this can be described as choosing “the less destructive alternative.” It is not right to kill or injure our enemies or to destroy their property, beyond what is reasonably necessary to defend ourselves and render them unable to inflict injury on us. When applying this rule and all others it is most important that we do not dehumanize the enemy.

Most of the ethical rules apply in time of war, but their application may change or their scope may be restricted. For example, in wartime, the Golden Rule means to fight others in the way that you would want them to fight you. Many accepted principles of ethical conduct, for example, not to kill, not to injure and not to deceive, are suspended as to the enemy. The Rule of Universality, in terms of what the military does in war, is relegated to the concept of fighting others in a way that you would approve if everyone fought that way. The Rule of Disclosure is severely circumscribed by wartime secrecy concerns and is not applied to the enemy at all.

The Rule of the Most Honoring Choice (“the rule of the least destructive alternative,”) always applies. But since our enemies are trying to kill us, soldiers are usually given wide leeway in the application of this rule. This leeway gives rise to collateral damage, non-combatants killed or wounded or property destroyed in the process of achieving legitimate military objectives.

Generally, when values conflict, we must be careful to find the choice that will honor long term values. If there’s a conflict between the ethical rules or between our own values and those of others affected by the decision, we should then choose the alternative which honors the most important ethical rules and results in the attainment of the greatest values for people, animals or the environment. This is the heart of the ethical analysis. It involves accurately forecasting what will occur, a clear understanding of the ethical rules and how they apply, a recognition of what we and others value, the ranking of those values, and balancing the possible good against the possible harm. For example, when permitted to hurt someone in self-defense, the force applied should be no more than is reasonably necessary for self-protection. The permission to act in self-defense cannot serve as an excuse for revenge.