Kendall-Smith and Kant: Can the Critique of Practical Reason make you ethical?

Ever since Adolf Eichmann pretended that Kant’s theory of ethics could be used to defend his actions, I’ve wondered whether moral philosophers really have any tendency to be better people, or to live better lives. As Arendt put it in Eichmann in Jerusalem, “He did his duty… he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law…. No exceptions–this was the proof that he had always acted against his ‘inclinations,’ whether they were sentimental or inspired by interest…. [Many Germans] must have been tempted not to murder… and not to become accompliced in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.”

Well, it looks like at least one British Royal Air Force officer has actually discerned his moral duty through the haze of propaganda and pathological temptations. Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith, an RAF doctor who wrote a master’s thesis on Kant, has argued that the illegality of Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq required him to refuse an order to deploy to Basra, after serving two tours of duty in Iraq. My favorite line is a direct reversal of the Eichmannian formula: “I am a leader. I am not a mere follower to whom no moral responsibility can be attached.”

Sadly, it would appear that he was not able to make the case for illegal warmaking, as the court martial argued, following Eichmann: “Such crimes cannot be committed by those in relatively junior positions such as that of the defendant.” By stripping him of the responsibility and capacity for judgment that would be necessary to object to illegal orders, the court martial declared that only powerful and important people have the moral authority to understand their legal and moral obligations. In this, they set a precedent for many more incidents likes those at Abu Ghraib.

I applaud Kendall-Smith’s refusal to sacrifice his own judgments for those of his superiors. I applaud his courage to stand for the moral law over the petty instantiation of it we saw in the court marshall. Would that others, on both sides of this conflict, had the same courage.

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