An Objection to Conscientious Objection by Maureen C. Kelley

Kelley, Maureen C., “An Objection to Conscientious Objection: Conscience on Trial,” Responses to the War by Philosophy Majors, Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring 1991).

Tragically, it has taken the violent overtures of the Gulf War to bring important issues of peace to the public attention. Of particular concern to students was the threat of a renewed draft, and with these worries of conscription came pleas of conscientious objection. As an undergraduate, I found myself questioning not the merit of conscientious objection per se, but rather, the legal system by which conscientious objector status must be obtained.

I was at first concerned with the limiting definition of pacifism inherent in requirements for conscientious objectors. Federal law defines conscientious objectors as those who object to participating in war in any form. The meaning of ‘any form’ remains ambiguous. Does it refer to forms of participation, or to types of warfare? Given that the federal government has created a second category for those who object to war, but who do not object to performing noncombatant duties in the armed forces, it has been commonly accepted that ‘form’ refers to violent combat. Those seeking status as conscientious objectors then, must refuse to serve in any combatant role.

Accepting Duane Cady’s notion of the ‘pacifist continuum,’ this narrowed definition restricts objector status to the most extreme forms of pacifism. Individuals must espouse, at the very least, non-lethal force pacifism. Federal law does not recognize nuclear, or ecological pacifists, and it certainly does not recognize selective objectors, or persons whose consciences permit them to participate only in “just” wars. In fact, all consequentialist forms of pacifism are ruled out on the grounds that such views are deemed ‘inconsistent’ or ‘insincere,’ as compared to the deontic, or ‘principled’ forms of pacifism. In practice, most federal boards cater only to absolute pacifists, welcoming the Mennonites and Quakers, while shunning those who may find the use of force justified in limited cases. As a result, federal law has been allowed to demarcate the parameters of pacifism.

Unfortunately, government authorities have not stopped at the boundaries of pacifism, but have ventured to measure the ‘sincerity’ of pacifist claims as well. A registrant’s opposition to war must be unequivocal in the eyes of the board members, in order to achieve objector status. Several problems arise with such a measurement. First, the forum in which the sincerity of claim is determined is essentially a legal court. And while courts of law are commonly known to be decisive in matters of fact, they are infrequently known to be competent in probing matters of conscience. A vigorous cross-examination can bring out the most stubbornly held facts, but can rarely shed light on a person’s deepest convictions. In such cases, the person seeking conscientious objector status may be severely hampered by verbal limitations and thus subjected to arbitrary criteria. As one court stated, “the best evidence [on a registrant’s sincerity] may well be, not his statements or those of other witnesses, but his credibility and demeanor, in a personal appearance.” A registrant’s claim may thus be rejected if he or she gives evasive answers or appears anxious. Such an examination may reveal that the individual is inarticulate, confused, or nervous; none of which are grounds for proving insincerity.

The objectivity of the judges may also be called into question. Board members have been referred to as, “community influentials,” “extensions of the local control structure,” and “managers of the national government’s function.” In all cases, they are agents of the state, employed to protect the interests of government and subsequently, entrusted with the rights of registrants. A survey conducted during Vietnam, found that the majority of board members were ‘never active’ in politics, and two-thirds surveyed held some form of public office during their lives. Members are not typically known for holding unorthodox beliefs or divergent views, but rather for embracing a traditional system of values and ideas. That traditional set of values may very well be one which condones the act of war in the name of ‘national duty,’ and sheds disfavorable light on anyone who shrugs such a ‘duty.’

As indicated by these procedural and structural shortcomings, the system through which conscientious objector status is obtained merits serious reevaluation. In the most extreme judgment, it seems only to be a governmental artifice, designed for the purpose of thwarting those who seek its refuge. Perhaps then, we should be wary of seeking refuge from violence with those who have been the historical perpetrators of violence. As ultimately, it is not the private conscience which should bear the onus of proof, but the act of war.

Maureen C. Kelly is a senior philosophy major at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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