Details of wartime atrocities, from mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners of war to the butchering of villagers in remote African nations, jump off newspages, slapping us in the face with a heavy hand of moral outrage and confusion.
Far removed geographically and emotionally from the events, civilians struggle with questions surrounding the atrocities:
Why do soldiers commit war crimes?
How much does institutionalized policy, peer pressure or the convolutions of combat training influence the character of individuals who end up wielding instruments of torture and death against innocent victims?
Two West Virginia University philosophy assistant professors in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences will be spending the next year formalizing answers to those and other questions that lie at the motivational heart of war crimes and whether individuals who commit them are responsible for their actions.
Drs. Jessica Wolfendale and Matt Talbert were recently awarded a grant through the Character Project at Wake Forest University, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, to investigate the philosophical aspects of war crimes and write a book detailing their resulting theories.
The project, Failures of Character: War Crimes, Obedience, and Responsibility, may go a long way toward helping the world understand what contributes to wartime atrocities and, the researchers hope, lead to steps to avoid future crimes.
The work dovetails with the University’s strategic plan goal of conducting research with global impact to improve people’s lives.
Philosophers, psychologists and theologians have struggled with the questions of how to define good character and how to improve it because understanding character lies at the heart of human identity, according to the Wake Forest University team that awarded the grant to Wolfendale and Talbert. The Character Project seeks to use the perspectives of psychology, philosophy and theology to better understand what our characters are like and how people can improve them.
The John Templeton Foundation, which awarded the root grant to Wake Forest, serves as “a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality.”
Talbert explained that he has long been fascinated by the question of how we come to be morally responsible for our behavior. Wolfendale said she has been studying the causes of war crimes and whether “situationism” the theory that factors such as peer pressure and training rather than character traits explain some human behaviors best explains why war crimes occur.
“When we read about the Wake Forest project, it seemed like a natural for us to combine our efforts for a project aimed at a closer look at moral responsibility and war crimes,” Talbert said.
Wolfendale said she first became interested in the topic when she watched a parade on ANZAC Day a commemoration of her native Australia’s ill-fated attack on Gallipoli during World War I.
“I began thinking about the act of killing in war and how soldiers are trained to kill, and what the consequences of killing are,” she said. “It is a topic that I kept coming back to as I pursued my education in philosophy.”
At WVU, Wolfendale specializes in studies of the ethics of political violence, bioethics, moral psychology and ethical theory. She is currently studying issues associated with the ethics of torture, including the question of whether the right not to be tortured is inalienable.
“I am also interested in the moral psychology of political violence,” she once wrote. This topic involves looking more broadly in how those involved in institutionalized state violence see the morality of their actions, and how this affects their moral responsibility for what they do.
Talbert, a South Carolina native who specializes in ethics and moral psychology, said that one question they will investigate is the degree to which military culture and conflict undermine moral responsibility by impairing the ability of some soldiers to disobey an illegal order or deliberate about morally relevant features of their environment.
Much of his recent work has centered on studies about the psychological, emotional, and historical conditions connected to moral responsibility and blameworthiness
The Wolfendale/Talbert team will consider other factors in the research like learned contempt for one segment of society by another, the evolution of child soldiers into adults, heat of battle situations, and simple battlefield error, all in an attempt to develop theories about how moral decisions are made.
The researchers said their Wake Forest/Templeton Foundation grant of $84,184 will allow them to perform a nuanced analysis of the responsibility for war crimes.
“It is all about looking at the factors surrounding the victim and the victimizer,” Talbert said. “That’s where we can get a clearer picture.”
CONTACT: Gerrill Griffith, WVU Research Corp.
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