Memorial Day is a day for honoring those members of the armed forces that died in battle. But, as you know, many people are more interested in barbecues and other forms of recreation these days. Faced with an increasing number of people who would rather bypass the rituals and opportunities for remembrance, we might take a moment to think about how we could argue in defense of a more thoughtful Memorial Day.
Ethics is not, in philosophy at least, synonymous with a set of customs, rules, commandments, or morals. It is essentially an activity of using reason to justify our beliefs about what is right and wrong (when it comes to actions) and good and bad (when it comes to the things or people we value). Ethics involves formulating theories and principles that we can use to construct arguments in defense of our positions on a range of moral dilemmas. Ethical theories seek to provide a basic understanding of right and wrong and good and bad; they define our moral terms on a very general and fundamental level. Once you have a theory you can then derive principles of action from the theory. These principles or rules of thumb can then be applied to help us make well-argued judgments about specific moral issues.
So if our defense of Memorial Day exemplifies ethics in action then we will need to use some theory, derive a guiding principle, and use this principle to come up with some argument to defend our position. I think the following strategy can be employed.
1) We can use virtue ethics as our fundamental theory. This theory, unlike many other rule based approaches, emphasizes being a good person rather than doing good, and defines a good person as a person with excellent character traits or virtues such as courage, justice, wisdom, temperance, generosity, and so on. These virtues facilitate good judgments in the majority of situations. And these good judgments can, in turn, help us lead fulfilling lives. For the virtue ethicist, an act is right if it develops virtues; it is wrong if it develops vices. Practices and institutions that help develop virtues and discourage vices are to be supported and implemented wherever possible; ones that support the development of vices should be eliminated. One central guiding principle of virtue ethics is the golden mean: everything (except adultery, theft, murder and a few other inherently vicious actions) in moderation, i.e., nothing in excess, nothing in deficiency. Action in the mean helps us develop virtues over time to be a better people. Another principle is the moral exemplar principle which prescribes that we look to moral exemplars – virtuous people – and use their actions as a guide. For example, if your father is a virtuous person you might ask yourself: what would my Dad do in this situation?
2) Now that we have a theory (virtue ethics) and guiding principles of action (the mean and the moral exemplar principle), we note that among the many actions and emotions for which we need to develop virtues there is one action, namely remembering and respecting those who die in battle, that can be done excessively, deficiently, or, in the mean: at the right time, in the right place, to the right extent, and toward the right people. We also want to note that there are certain emotions that come along with this remembering that should be cultivated and directed towards the appropriate things: emotions such as gratitude, remorse, regret, piety, etc.
3) Memorial Day (as well as other events throughout the year like Veteran’s Day and the anniversary of 9/11), gives us a chance to remember the dead at the proper time. And those who died in service to our country are those we have good reason to remember: they are proper objects of our memory. No, we don’t have to remember excessively; but we would be deficient if we rarely remembered and therefore Memorial Day is one opportunity for us to develop remembering in the mean: remembrance as a virtue. Moreover, it offers us opportunities, through parades, presentations, speeches, symbols, recollections, dialogue, and so on, of moral exemplars: people who exemplified virtues and can serve as role models for us.
4) So Memorial Day can help cultivate, especially in the ungrateful, the disposition of remembering the dead and the associated virtues of gratitude, respect, and wisdom. To be sure, war is often unjustified and many ideals are ideologies that conceal greed and imperialism. But that doesn’t and shouldn’t take away from those who trust leaders to do the right thing and give their lives to serve others. With the ability to remember, pay respect, and feel certain emotions towards the dead, we can hope to be in a better position to make better judgments about, say, our liberties and the political process that protects them. Too many people are oblivious to the political process and to the liberties they are in a position to lose (and have lost already and are losing right now). Perhaps the ability to keep in mind the importance of the fundamental truths we hold to be self-evident is something a “holiday” like Memorial Day can help develop. If this is the case then Memorial Day is good and sincerely participating in its rituals is the right thing to do. On the other hand, going to a parade to have fun and perhaps complaining about the rain and/or heat may not be acting toward the right object, at the right time, in the right way, and to the right extent. Our social order has rituals to help develop virtues but, as time goes by, their meaning often gets changed and we lose the direction they were supposed to give for good moral development. Memorial Day as the “first day of summer” often betrays a culture of extreme forgetfulness that flows from that shortsighted egoism which is the enemy of objective moral truth and its concern for a good that transcends our selfish pursuits of pleasure. It may also be one of the many enemies of a stable, fulfilling, and flourishing social order.
In any case, that is one conservative defense, among others that could be made, for a more thoughtful Memorial Day. We employed a theory (virtue ethics) and guiding principles of character development (action in the mean and the moral exemplar principle) and then, based on these, argued that it should be taken seriously because it can help engender virtues. We therefore provided a judgment that, rather than just describing facts objectively like a scientist might, tells us how we should act – it prescribes something. Such virtues would facilitate good judgments that have good consequences for us as individuals and as a country.