Recently, all the highest-ranking leadership in the Department of Defense (DoD) signed and promulgated a document that establishes the “human goals” of the U.S. military. The document delineates a series of principles and objectives that describe the DoD’s approach to dealing with its human resources. The majority of the document in nothing new; it states familiar talking points from the current era of diversity and inclusion. However, right in the beginning, there is one key piece of new information—and it’s a whopper. Now, it may be that the specific wording of the statement is accidentally imprecise and the intent is really something less newsworthy. Nevertheless, to borrow a phrase from the current Commander-in-Chief, this is a “teachable moment” for our highest military leaders about how poor philosophy can yield horrible consequences.
The beginning of the document states: “Our Nation was founded on the principle that each individual has infinite dignity and worth. The Department of Defense, which exists to keep the Nation secure and at peace, must always be guided by this principle.” The news is that the DoD, drawing from the Nation’s founding principles, believes people have infinite dignity and worth. Oddly, one need not look further than the pre-eminent foundational document, The Declaration of Independence, to see that this is not the case: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So, the founding fathers believed men were equal (in dignity, worth, value, etc.), not infinite. It appears that the DoD has erred.
However, let us dismiss this conclusion as facile. Is it not more reasonable to conclude that so simple an oversight is unlikely? Considering the dignity of the offices that signed, the underpinning rationale of the document must not have originated from a simple blunder. The statement was signed by thirteen people at the pinnacle of military leadership—and we know that management (wink, wink) never signs anything that they haven’t fully read and understood, right? Therefore, let’s conclude that the DoD truly believes that humans have infinite dignity and worth, and that the DoD must be guided by this principle. This is truly newsworthy.
It’s notable for two reasons. First, the DoD (whose predecessor was the War Department) appears to value humans more highly than the Catholic Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church merely states that all men have equal but finite dignity and “worth” (CCC 1934, 705). Since man was created in the image and likeness of the infinite God, and this image is necessarily an imperfect copy due to man’s finite nature being unable to perfectly image what is infinite, man’s dignity is supreme on earth, but definitely finite. (See ST I, 96, 3; ST I, 93, 1; ST I, 4, 1; ST I, 7, 1.) Second, the DoD’s position that people have infinite worth leaves little room for the DoD to morally compel people to surrender their lives in war for the good of the Nation. If people are of infinite worth, there can be nothing greater than their life and, therefore, nothing that will make their loss of life acceptable. In other words, no goal in war can be so great as to be greater than an infinitely valued life. This makes troops’ lives greater than any military objective, rendering the call to duty as a mere suggestion from Uncle Sam. This is devastating to the DoD because, without the DoD’s moral authority to send people into battle to suffer attack and possible death, they are morally impotent to do what they were created to do.
Fortunately for our nation, the poor philosophy of DoD leadership does not establish the moral norms for its citizenry. People still have an obligation to defend this nation because, despite the DoD’s reckless assertion, man does not have infinite worth or dignity—and it is this very limitation that permits man to surrender human life for the common good. Austin Fagothey, S.J., in his ethics textbook Right and Reason, correctly states what the DoD has muddled:
But because man is such a lowly type of person [below the Most Holy Trinity and angels], subject indeed to no being but God above himself, but utterly dependent on his equals for every kind of service and abounding in needs and wants, both physical and intellectual, that only his fellow men can supply, man during his earthly life becomes a part of a larger whole whose common temporal good is greater than the individual temporal good of each member taken separately. In this sense the common welfare takes precedence over private comfort and security. Since the state exists to protect the life, liberty, and property of all, the individual may be called on to play his part in the common defense even at the expense of his own life, liberty, and property. (Austin Fagothey, Right and Reason, TAN, 2000, page 392)
The lesson for the DoD is this: Human dignity and “worth” is finite and, on a physical level, is subordinate to the common good. Man finds himself morally obliged to defend the state when it is attacked because the state, as a natural institution that protects the common good and enables man to live his life that, without the state, would be physically impossible, has a purpose more valuable than the earthly life of any of its individual citizens. Nevertheless, the state exists solely to serve all citizens by providing the needed stability in life to enable them to work toward their final end: union with God. However, the needs of the state, which really are the physical needs of men seeking their final end, must be imposed over the physical needs of individual citizens.
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