Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bennett and the Cruel Sea

Extract from an unpublished piece. See Bennett. The Act Itself.

The naval captain is too squeamish to go after the submarine (killing ship-wrick survivors floating in the water) just in order to go after the submarine. He loses his squeamishness, however, when he considers the possibility of killing the personal enemy. Bennett suggests that acting on the intention to kill the enemy would be a way for the captain to fulfil his military obligation, but that it would contravene the obligation not to kill one of the survivors. He also suggests that failing to drive through the survivors, out of squeamishness, would contravene his military obligation. Therein lies the problem, a dilemma in which the first horn is doing the right action on the wrong intention, and the second horn being not doing the right action at all. However, Bennett is mistaken in his presentation of both horns.

On the first, it is not the captain’s duty simply to drive through the survivors; it is his duty to take militarily appropriate action, with the proviso, whether or not this is specified explicitly in military law or the commands of this individual’s superiors, that it is a very serious wrongdoing to conduct operations on the basis of personal enmities, let alone personal enmities with people on his own side, or non-combatants. The proposal before him, according to Bennett, is to do exactly that: to drive through the survivors in pursuit, not of a submarine, but of a personal vendetta. This is not a proposal to fulfil his military duty; it is a proposal to put the warship and sailors at his command to a purely personal use. It would be an act of piracy.

Since he would be also driving through the survivors if he were doing his duty, this clearly represents a golden opportunity for him to pursue his vendetta without being detected. That, however, obviously does not justify his action. Again, his commanding officers might prefer him to behave, outwardly, as he ought to behave, with the wrong intention, than not to behave that way at all. It should be clear, however, that obligations, even military ones, are not just about bodily movements: the same bodily movement might be required and forbidden in conjunction with different mental states, such as beliefs, expectations, and intentions. Obligations govern actions in the full sense, behaviour plus the mens rea, the mental element. So the preference of the military superiors for our captain to move his body in a certain way, regardless of what he is thinking, does not show that his action in doing this would necessarily be the action required by military duty.

On the second horn of Bennett’s dilemma, suppose that the personal enemy were not there, and the captain ‘could not bring himself’ to drive through the survivors. Would that be a failure of duty? Usually, when people say they can’t bring themselves to do things, they mean simply that they have a strong aversion to doing it, which gives them a reason not to do it, and that they don’t value the reason in favour of doing it sufficiently highly to do it anyway. The same people who say that they could not bring themselves to put down the cat, or sack the cook, would do it soon enough if enough depended on it. If Bennett’s captain was on a Soviet ship, and if he had a political commissar standing beside him on the bridge, holding a revolver to his head and reminding him of his obligations, he might suddenly find it in him to do the action after all. If the captain’s inability to do it was of this kind, then it would be true that in failing to do the action the captain would be failing in his duty, for he would be failing, in a kind of moral laziness, to get a grip on himself.

However, that is a distracting thought, because this is Bennett’s example and Bennett tells us that the captain ‘could not bring himself to do it.’ We must take him at his word and assume that the captain really could not do it: there was some kind of psychological blockage which not even a revolver-toting commissar could overcome. We should think of the captain as having a kind of breakdown, akin to shell-shock. The question is whether, in these circumstances, the captain would be failing in his duty in failing to drive through the survivors, and the answer is clearly ‘no’. No one should blame a person who is literally incapable of doing an action for failing to do it. The best thing, militarily, might be for the captain to grow wings and fly over the survivors, plucking them from the ship’s path, but no one is going to drag him before a court martial for failing to do that, for the simple reason that he can’t do it. He might have more difficulty in persuading his superiors that he couldn’t drive through the survivors than that he couldn’t grow wings, but he would not be the first officer to crack up under the stress of combat, and even military law acknowledges the principle ‘ought implies can’. Since there can be no duty to do the impossible, the captain’s incapacity dissolves his obligation to drive through the survivors.

Bennett’s dilemma dissolves with it. The choice before the captain turns out to be a choice between an act of cold-blooded personal vengeance contrary to both ordinary moral principles and his military obligations, and remaining in a state of catatonic passivity caused by the harsh realities of war. This, of course, is a psychologically incredible situation, but that is not the fault of the moral principles, or of their reliance on the concept of intention.

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