Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Nuremberg Defense

i) One objection to the OT holy war command I sometimes run across is the assertion that "just following orders" is no excuse. This is sometimes dubbed the Nuremberg Defense. What about that?

ii) It's true that just following orders is no excuse. However, in that case the adjective does all the work. Surely though there are situations where there's more at stake than just following orders. There are situations in which it's costly to disobey orders. You pay a steep price for insubordination.  

iii) Apropos (ii), what about a situation in which a subordinate is acting under duress? "That's a direct command. Do it or else!"

In other words, is there an implied threat behind the order? If you disobey the order, what are the consequences for you? Suppose we have a dialogue like this:

Commander: Shoot the POW.

Subordinate: I refuse, sir.

Commander: Either you shoot him or I shoot you!

If he complies, that's more than just following orders. His action was coerced. He's literally acting at the point of a gun. In that situation, surely he does have some excuse for following orders, whether or not we think his action was morally justifiable. At the very least, it's a mitigating factor.

In addition, it's trivially easy to make the dilemma more egregious: "Unless you shoot the POW, I will shoot your wife (or mother, or child). 

Again, we might still debate whether it's morally permissible to shoot the POW in order to save his wife (or mother, or child). But he's clearly in a bind. That's a very tough call. Even if you think he made the wrong call, would you punish him? If I were a juror, I wouldn't feel it was my place to punish a defendant who had to face that dilemma. 

Or would you say the commander is to blame? If so, that's a different argument. That transfers blame from agent who carried out the order to the agent who gave the order. 

iv) Of course, I don't think Yahweh is morally equivalent to a commander who issues an abhorrent command which his subordinate is in no realistic position to defy. I'm just responding to a facile, thoughtless objection for the sake of argument. 


  1. These kinds of Hollywood-ish dilemmas are silly. Just because the Commander says that the Subordinate has control over the Commander's evil actions does not mean that he does. Ultimatums are up to the ones who make them, not the ones they are designed to manipulate. If the Commander kills the Subordinate's family because the Subordinate refuses to be coerced, the Subordinate bears no guilt. There is no reason to think that the Commander wouldn't have killed them anyway. Do the right thing and let the Commander answer for his own evil.

    Commander: "I'll kill you if you don't kill him."

    Me: "I'm ready to meet my Savior."

    Commander: "I will kill your family if you don't comply!"

    Me: "That's up to you."

    Commander: "Are you ready to lose your family?"

    Me: "Are you ready to stand before the judgement seat of God?"

    Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
    The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
    His kingdom is forever.

    1. I agree with that from a Christian perspective. However, the subordinate may not be Christian. And, in any event, I was responding to the atheist on his own grounds.

    2. Jim,
      You say do the right thing and let the perpetrator answer. Im sure you can predict another hollywoodish dilemma of hiding jews from nazis or friend from abusive spouse looking for them. Is it the right thing to give them up when asked since you are absolved from responsibility or is it right to purposefully deceive?

    3. Cletus,
      At the risk of sounding like a Muslim, I would argue that there are times when it is right to deceive. Deception was used justly on occasion in the Old Testament.

      But hiding Jews from Nazis by deception is a different situation than the one presented.

      1) Hiding Jews involves putting oneself at risk for others. The Hollywood dilemma involves deciding whether to commit murder under duress caused by a liar. How do you know the Commander's a liar? He's threatening to kill when he wants you to kill in his stead. His real purpose is to soil you morally. In this case, what is hidden isn't Jews, but motives.

      2) In the case of hiding Jews, you have some control over the situation. In the Hollywood dilemma, the only thing you have control over is whether you murder or not. Anything else is a false sense of control given to you intentionally for the purpose of manipulation.

      3) In the OT war commands, God could destroy people himself, but he's not a liar in telling the Hebrews to do the work. He is clearly manipulating them, but doing so openly. His purpose was not to soil them, but to increase their trust in him and to solidify their resolve, not against physical enemies, but against whatever false ideologies drove them to worship false gods.

    4. Mr. Pemberton: One need not risk "sounding like a Muslim" at this point. In his book "Biblical Christian Ethics", David Jones argues that the evildoer does not have an absolute right to the truth, that he has forfeited it because of his intention to do evil with the information he seeks.