More than a few soldiers might profess conscientious objection if it could get them off the battlefield. Some objectors, no doubt, would be guided by moral light.

Jeff McMahan proposes that active-duty soldiers should have “a legally protected option for conscientious refusal to fight.” General conscientious objection rests on moral opposition to participating in war of any kind. Selective conscientious objection rests on moral opposition to participating in an unjust war. His argument concerns the selective type.

Selective objection is more complicated than blanket objection. The state would have to be prepared to admit that its cause for a particular war might warrant a soldier’s refusal to fight. Of course, the state will be loath to enable soldiers to opt out by charging that its cause is unjust. Add to this the prospect of reluctant soldiers claiming selective objection as a pretext.

I count myself among revisionist critics of traditional just war theory. Like McMahan, I find absurd the traditional theory’s doctrine of the moral equality of combatants as harm-doers. So I am broadly sympathetic to his argument for selective objection: fighting in the service of an unjust war can never be morally permissible (as compared to excusable), let alone morally required.

Yet McMahan’s proposal strays when he considers penalties for selective objectors. I support a different approach that better balances the strong interest a political community has in maintaining an orderly military for national defense and the strong interest individuals have in exercising conscience about their participation in war.

The burdens of volunteer service fall disproportionately on the vulnerable. 

But first, while McMahan focuses on selective objection in an all-volunteer context, I believe that this case is illuminated by further consideration of conscription and its place in democratic society.

A conscripted military fits the democratic ideal of people sharing a political community as free, equal, and cooperating members of society. Military service would be a duty, with eligible citizens accepting the physical, psychological, and moral burdens of that service. Citizens would have this duty to each other, not to some bureaucratic entity or impersonal collective known as the state.

In such a democracy, general and selective objectors would be exempting themselves from reasonably distributed burdens of conscription. General objectors do so almost outside public political deliberation, through their unqualified moral opposition to participating in any war. By contrast, selective objectors hold that their moral opposition to particular wars can void, ad hoc, a civic duty they accept is legitimate.

We might be tempted to think that individuals who voluntarily commit themselves to serve can hardly have a compelling claim to opt out later on grounds of conscience: they knew, or should have known, that the state could turn them into instruments for killing that, in effect, are morally indifferent to the justice of the cause.

However, an all-volunteer military is at odds with the democratic ideal. The state, at least the United States, privately contracts soldiers using various inducements, which can include cash bonuses, job training, college aid, pension benefits, and an expedited path to citizenship. These inducements are not about the reasonably distributed burdens of civic duty. Quid pro quo benefits help to ensure that the burdens of volunteer service will fall disproportionately on the socioeconomically vulnerable looking for greater opportunity.

Volunteers, in short, do not trigger a civic basis for concern about selective objection—unlike conscript refuseniks, who shift a democratic burden of service onto their fellow citizens.

Testing a selective objector’s sincerity would be difficult, as McMahan acknowledges. Reluctant soldiers might have mixed motives. If objector status were granted nearly for the asking, it could prove inefficient and destabilizing for the military, even in a just war.

McMahan recognizes that the state would therefore have to impose “penalties” to deter false claims of conscientious objection. Nonetheless, he contends that this burden “would be unjust to [soldiers] who rightly believe that their participation in a war would be morally wrong.” Thus he arrives at a “legally protected” option that might not filter many false claims.

A better balanced and, so to speak, decriminalized option is available. The requirement that selective objectors repay the cost of their training, prorated for wartime served, is fair compensation to taxpayers and not punitive. A few months of community service, under release from minimum-security detention, needn’t be thought of as punitive, either, but as a sufficiently fair way to confirm moral conviction.

The practical burden of such measures would be modest relative to the moral wrong of participating in an unjust war. Selective conscientious objectors should not have to endure punishment in order to do what is morally right. But neither should they expect conscience to carry no substantial inconvenience.