Must Moral Authority come from direct experience?

At the end of July 2012, while the Presidential election mayhem was in full swing, Foster’s Daily Democrat (Dover, NH) published a letter from Richard H. Cooper that criticized Mitt Romney for taking foreign policy stands with a military element to them when neither Romney nor anyone in his family had served time in the military.  That particular trope has become very popular among people on the left of the American political spectrum and I am, frankly, rather tired of it.  I served in the military and I think our political culture would be generally more concordant if a higher fraction of the population had also done so.  But I am not bothered that someone who has not served in the military might, nonetheless, see the need for a military venture; and the idea that someone who has never served in the military is necessarily and by definition morally disqualified from ordering military action is nonsense.  I sent this letter to Foster’s to say so; it was published on August 6, 2012.

In addition to the arguments I made in the letter, consider this: one of the responsibilities of the President is to oversee the military as commander-in-chief and to order them to arms if the situation warrants it.  To fulfill that responsibility, he or she must have the moral authority to issue such orders.  If never having served automatically precludes someone from having that moral authority, then most of the electorate — and a great many of the Presidential hopefuls from both Left and Right, and both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — must, by definition, be unable to fulfill that responsibility of the office and must, therefore, be disqualified from serving as President.  Q.E.D.  I’m pretty sure that isn’t what Mr. Cooper and his ilk have in mind…

31 July 2012

Richard H. Cooper is but the latest in a long line of smug people to criticize someone — in his case Mitt Romney — for advocating the use of the military though they and theirs have “never served a day”. It is long past time that empty trope was retired: it offers no insight, either moral or practical.

Mr. Cooper: Have you ever leaped into the heart of a raging fire to rescue someone trapped by the flames? Have you ever stepped into the middle of a domestic dispute to keep it from escalating into violence? Have you ever taught in an inner city classroom plagued by indifference and hostility? Have you ever tended and comforted patients with some fatal and contagious disease? Have you ever put your life on hold to aid the victims of some natural or man-made catastrophe halfway around the world? Have you even ever spent the day hauling away people’s garbage or cleaning their houses or doing some other equally unpleasant job?

I doubt you’ve done most, if even one, of those tasks. I also expect you think someone should do them; and I expect you think mayors and governors and presidents should advocate — and sometimes order — that people put themselves in harm’s way to see those tasks done, even if they have not done those things themselves.

There’s neither shame nor hypocrisy in that. We all ask others to take on unpleasant or dangerous tasks that we know need to be done but that we don’t want or are unable to do ourselves. It’s the division of labor and it is as ancient as hunting and gathering.

© Copyright 2012, Augustus P. Lowell

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