Humanism & The Ethics of Ending Human Life, Part 1: Full Disclosure

If your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white,
Remember it’s ruin to run from a fight:
So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,
And wait for supports like a soldier.
Wait, wait, wait like a soldier . . .

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!

-Rudyard Kipling, The Young British Soldier

I doubt the Poet Laureate of Empire would feel validated by the continued relevance of The Young British Soldier.  The poem traces a wartime military career of a young man from eager recruit to battlefield suicide, and is the type of writing that’s most comfortably read as an account of misery long past.  However, being able to do so is a luxury that likely won’t be available to our children, much less our generation.  The Graveyard of Empires continues to absorb gallons of blood daily.

"Maiwand: Saving the Guns", Richard Catton Woodville, Jr., 1883.
“Maiwand: Saving the Guns”, Richard Catton Woodville, Jr., 1883.

My enthusiasm to associate myself with such a legacy is the least morally defensible decision I’ve made. To be very clear: I voluntarily competed for a position that made it probable I’d be responsible for ending human life – in other words, Killing.  I’m unsure if I ever fired a bullet that impacted and killed another human being; I may have.  I am sure I’ve directed others to do so, and that they complied.  I’m also sure that I put others in situations where they would independently make the decision to end human life.  By most reasonable definitions of the term, I’ve killed.

I can’t gauge how much my moral culpability shaped my own development as a thinker, but ideas and questions surrounding the morality and ethics of warfare and violence in general has been my most enduring intellectual interest.  They’re questions that are the foundation of a frequent internal monologue; one that’s always loudest during periods of solitude.  It’s not torturous or even unpleasant, but it is strong.

I also enjoy discussing the topic. Having well-considered thoughts on killing, guilt, suffering and all the other issues has become a moral & intellectual litmus test I apply to new relationships.  Thinking about those issues and struggling with them is an expectation I have of those I consider peers in a liberal, civil society.

Over the next few weeks, I aim to write a series of essays on Humanism and The Ethics of Ending Human Life.  I know neither the direction nor duration of this project, but I am confident I can offer original ideas to our broader conversation on how to be good human beings.  I eagerly invite you to participate in this conversation as well, either publicly or privately (  Compassion is my most irreducible value, and I want you to help me strengthen that part of my character.

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