Privatized Ethics and Public Immorality

I haven’t been following the county clerk controversy very closely, but I’ve gotten the impression that there’s a lot of confusion about the rights of conscience, and how that relates to resigning, verses refusing to comply.  I am not a county clerk, and nobody has asked me to perform or approve any immoral acts, but I am an Army officer, so I have spent a little time thinking about when it’s appropriate to disobey an order.

So.  Scenario one: Joe the Soldier has a religious epiphany and becomes a pacifist.  From his perspective, all military service, or maybe only combat, is immoral. I happen to disagree with this guy, based on my understanding of Jesus’ conversations with many a Roman soldier, but no one should violate his conscience, so any military service at all for him is a sin.  He should resign, since there is no way he can keep his job and keep his conscience.

Scenario two: Joe the Soldier is a good Soldier, and has no qualms about doing his job, until the day his direct supervisor orders him to commit an atrocity.  He should not resign.  Nothing in his views have changed, but he is being ordered to do something that is unlawful (that is, immoral) for a Soldier to do.  In fact, the one thing he must not do is resign, since in this case resignation gives tacit consent to the unlawful order.  His job, as a Soldier, is to actively resist the unlawful order, and make whatever noise he can, so that the rot can be removed from his unit to the highest echelon where it originated.  He should complain, loudly; he should call the Inspector General.  If the unlawful order is not rescinded, he may be court-martialed for refusing to obey an order.  He should embrace the court-martial, as an opportunity to bring his chain of command under investigation, and he should bring in the media when it happens.

There is a massive difference between resignation and refusing to comply; and in the event of a corrupted hierarchy, resigning in protest is a coward’s escape, because it allows the criminal authority to continue unchallenged.  Obviously, it should be done carefully, and not impetuously, because the authority being resisted has to actually be requiring an immoral act.  Refusing to comply because you just don’t wanna is just a waste of jail time.

I don’t have any real opinion on the country clerk case, whether her decision was right or wrong.  But there are plenty of good reasons for a government official to refuse to implement a new law, when that law is immoral.  It is never appropriate to privatize your ethics, in order to give tacit consent to a public immorality.

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