Moral Agency and Selective Conscientious Objection

This entry for Sojourners’ Truth and Conscience in Warseries will deal with moral agency. Moral agency, simply stated, describes the ability one has to freely choose in accord with their morals. A moral agent is free, and freedom is the basis for all moral reasoning. If someone is not fully free, they are not full agents; their agency has been inhibited in some way.

What does this have to do with conscience?

Conscience, in its most basic form, is what guides our moral choices. We rely on our conscience to inform the most difficult choices we make: We try to buy sustainable and fairly traded goods because our conscience has been provoked by the latest documentary or Sojourners banner ads, or maybe we try to bike more because Al Gore has shown us what excessive use of internal combustion engines can do to our fragile environment. In each case, it ultimately is not Sojourners or Al Gore who were the catalyst, but their effects on our individual conscience.

So what does this have to do with war?

We have an “all volunteer force,” so it is assumed that those who volunteer have done so freely. A while ago, I blogged, right here on God’s Politics, about the enlistment contract and questioned whether that choice is indeed entered, each and every time, with full consent and awareness of the consequences.

The most recurrent objection to SCO that I hear in talking to other conscientious service members (whether objecting or participating in some way) is the obligation a service member has to their enlistment contract. I do not disagree with this sentiment, and ideally, SCO would not be grounds for discharge, but merely reassignment to noncombatant duties (much like the existing 1-A-O status in the regulations now).

Turning from a kind of legal perspective to a more religious one, you will find that Christian theology has consistently described conscience as a channel through which God self-expresses. In his The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis wrote “God whispers to us in our pleasures and speaks to us in our conscience.” That soft, still voice that guides our actions is something like an echo of God. Vatican II taught that “conscience is a person’s most secret core and their sanctuary. There one is alone with God whose voice echoes in their depths.” (Gaudium et Spes, 1965)

Now, I am no advocate of anarchism, but I do realize that there will be times when a nation calls individuals to acts they cannot, in good conscience, perform. The United States is one of the best countries on earth (for precisely the reason that it protects agency), but it’s not perfect. If God is indeed greater than us (including “U.S.”), then conscience ultimately trumps the enlistment contract. When that soft still voice within us tells us we “shalt not kill,” as the Apostles remind us, “We ought to obey God rather than [humans].” This is less a call to disobey the State than it is a reminder that when it and God make contrasting demands, it is conscience that must finally inform our actions as Christians.

**Originally published here; http://sojo.net/blogs/2010/11/01/moral-agency-and-selective-conscientious-objection

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