Public Reason: Vol. 3, No. 1, June 2011
Legalizing Selective Conscientious Objection
George Clifford

Currently, most nations make no legal provision for selective conscientious objection by potential conscripts or by military personnel who morally object to fighting a particular war. This article argues that nations for multiple moral reasons should grant both potential conscripts and persons already in the military the legal right to apply for and to receive recognition as selective conscientious objectors. Focusing on a nation’s collective moral responsibility to permit selective conscientious objection complements arguments centered on individual rights and duties because acknowledging an individual’s moral right to selective conscientious objection does not require a nation to recognize that right in law. Nations that authorize selective conscientious objection, from a Kantian deontological perspective, respect the moral autonomy of warriors and potential conscripts. From the perspective of Rawls’ concept of moral equality, nations with an option for selective conscientious objection preserve moral equality between warriors, between warriors and civilians, and between conscientious and selective conscientious objectors. Selective conscientious objection, from the perspective of Mill’s utilitarianism, benefits the common good by potentially ending an unprofitable war more quickly and avoiding the significant diminution of utility that disrespecting dissent causes. Even if one judges that none of the three arguments sufficiently justifies a nation establishing a provision for selective conscientious objection, the arguments are cumulatively persuasive. Finally, the article refutes several practical objections that prior opponents to selective conscientious objection have interposed against nations implementing provisions for selective conscientious objection.

Key words: selective conscientious objection, conscientious objection, conscription.


Clifford, George. 2011. Legalizing Selective Conscientious Objection. Public Reason 3 (1): 22-38.