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The Ethics of Conscription

By Evan Arnet
21 Feb 2024
photograph of military boots and fatigues standing in line

As the conflict wrought from the occupation of Ukraine enters its third year, the nation struggles to find warm bodies for the front. Its leaders consider an expansion of the draft. Russia, too, suffers war fatigue as their conscription fueled invasion trudges on. Surrounding nations, eyeing the conflict and their own military limitations, mull expanding mandatory military service. Seeking to deter Russian hostilities, Latvia reintroduced conscription as of January 1st. Serbia, historically close with Russia but studiously non-committal on the issue of Ukraine, reopened discussions of conscription this January as a way to ensure military preparedness. Even  Germany — long gun-shy about all things military — has been reconsidering mandatory service, formally ended in 2011.

Russia and Ukraine are focused on the draft to sustain a war effort. Latvia, Serbia, and Germany are considering a general requirement to engage in military service, in peace times as well as during war.  One situation is certainly more emergent than the other, but both assert the government’s right to send its citizens (without consent) to fight and die. How might we justify such incredible power?

The most straightforward justification is that it is simply part of the deal. The “state,” the political institution which reigns sovereign over its people and territories, provides certain privileges and protections. In return, it can impose obligations on its people: taxation, jury duty, mandatory military service, what have you. Under this analysis, the legitimacy of conscription stems from the general political legitimacy of the state and its coercive powers.

A potent concern is consent. How can we justify the state’s power of conscription if people did not explicitly consent to it? This concern echoes across all the state’s coercive powers, but it is especially acute for military service where so much can be on the line. The most historically influential response by philosophers is essentially hypothetical consent. The idea is that, understanding the situation, a reasonable person would agree to be governed by the state and hence consents in theory. This is hypothetical consent to be governed, not necessarily to conscription specifically. But if we agree that a reasonable person would consent to be governed, consent to abide by decisions made through the political process, and consent to the protection provided by the state, then conscription is not far away. However, hypothetical consent clearly has its limitations: Imagine the absurdity of hypothetical consent as a defense in cases involving sexual harassment. Moreover, consent typically implies respect for the individualness of personal decisions (regardless if others may judge them as unreasonable).

One might also, while not objecting to coercive powers of the state generally, take issue with conscription specifically. If government is understood as existing partly to protect certain rights, life among them, then conscription would seem antithetical to the very nature of government. Although one may respond that the government needs to infringe the rights of some, to protect the rights of many. Governments can also provide more flexibility. For example, many European countries with mandatory service (such as Austria), provide a choice of military service or civil service.

If conscription can be justified as something citizens owe to the state, an implication of this is that the state needs to hold up its end of the bargain. A state that serves its people is best positioned to ask for service in return. A corrupt or tyrannical state, an unjust war, all these might undermine the legitimacy of conscription. Perhaps unsurprisingly, countries have often adopted a carrot and stick approach to compulsory military service. Revolutionary France, the birthplace of modern conscription, also ensured that military service provided a path of advancement for those serving. In the United States, the GI Bill, initiated at the end of World War II, provides extensive support for education for veterans.

Along these lines we may also worry about a mismatch between who benefits from the state and who pays the price of conscription. During the Vietnam war, the poor and minorities were far less able to avoid the draft than those with more resources. This unfairness is immortalized in the art and music of the time, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” or Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home,” which was written in response to the disproportionate deaths of Black Americans.

Alternatively, we may justify conscription (and indeed, the state generally) on the basis of utility — that it provides the most good to the most people. Clearly, mandatory military conscription, especially in times of war, comes with risks. But it can also come with benefits, e.g., enabling a nation to fight off an invader that could otherwise lead to far larger casualties. Arguing for conscription on the basis of benefits, or even necessity, is clearest in a moment of humanitarian crisis. More generally, the challenge is not whether conscription can come with benefits, but whether it is legitimately the best option for the people.

Can changes be made to increase voluntary recruitment? Can technology be used instead of soldiers? Can new alliances be made? In short, is mandatory military service truly the least injurious option? Using benefits to the people as our metric also places war itself in the crosshairs. Some wars, such as repelling invasion, are of uncontroversial public benefits. Other wars — Vietnam, again, is a notable example — seem to be in service of the government but not necessarily its people.

Perhaps we shouldn’t expect conscription to have a clear moral justification at all. The historical roots of conscription lay not in ethical analysis, but military expediency. In early 1800s Europe, when European governments had achieved a level of control and centralization to carry out conscription, it simply became a fact of war. This is not to say ethical reflection on the matter is not valuable, nor that it can never be justified, nor that there are not better and worse ways to implement conscription. But is a general moral justification what we should expect?  Or is it more likely that conscription is often just a government tactic in need of a moral fig leaf?

Evan Arnet received his Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine from Indiana University. His overarching philosophical interest is in institutions and how they shape and constrain human behavior. This is variously represented in writings on science, law, and labor. Read more about him at www.evanarnet.com
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