Civilian Duty

For a while I thought I didn’t like fiction, despite reading plenty of it voluntarily as a kid. I prefer to read non-fiction most of the time, unless I’m tired and don’t feel like focusing. In comparison, fiction feels like watching a movie. This isn’t meant as an insult, as there is a great deal of artistry and technical skill that goes into making a movie. Fiction can transport its readers to different worlds and capture the imagination, the pleasant escapism quite literally diverting.

Speaking of which, when I saw the movie Starship Troopers several years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the satire and thought it was a lot of fun. I learned it was originally a book published in 1959 and made a note to check it out sometime.

Earlier this year, while going through boxes of books looking for something, I stumbled upon it; it belongs to my partner and he said it was good albeit different than the movie. This is true but it’s still an interesting read. Set in the future, the protagonist’s teacher for History and Moral Philosophy goes on a diatribe about the previous civilization: ours.

From chapter 8 of Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein:

“They had no scientific theory of morals and they tried to live by it… by their theory was wrong–half of it fuzzy-headed wishful thinking, half of it rationalized charlatanry. The more earnest they were, the farther it led them astray. You see, they assumed that Man has a moral instinct.”

“Sir? I thought–But he does! I have.”

“No, my dear, you have a cultivated conscience, a most carefully trained one. Man has no moral instinct. He is not born with moral sense. You are not born with it, I was not–and a puppy has none. We acquire moral sense, when we do, through training, experience, and hard sweat of the mind. These unfortunate juvenile criminals were born with non, even as you and I, and they had no chance to acquire any; their experiences did not permit. What is ‘moral sense’? It is an elaboration of the instinct to survive. The instinct to survive is human nature itself, and every aspect of our personalities derives from it. Anything that conflicts with the survival instinct acts sooner or later to eliminate the individual and thereby fails to show up in the future generations. This truth is mathematically demonstrable, everywhere verifiable; it is the single eternal imperative controlling everything we do.

“But the instinct to survive,” he had gone on, “can be cultivated into motivations more subtle and much more complex than the blind, brute urge of the individual to stay alive. Young lady, what you miscalled your ‘moral instinct’ was the instilling in you by your elders of the truth of your own personal survival. Survival of your family, for example. Of your children, when you have them. Of your nation, if you struggle that high up the scale. And so on up. A scientifically verifiable theory of morals must be rooted in the individual’s instinct to survive–and nowhere else!– and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts.

… [the teacher is still speaking but its not necessary to add here]

“The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual. Nobody preached duty to these kids [juvenile delinquents] in a way they could understand–that is, with a spanking. But the society they were in told them endlessly about their ‘rights’.

“The results should have been predictable, since a human being has no natural rights of any nature.

Mr. Dubois had paused. Somebody took the bait. “Sir? How about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?”

“Ah, yes, the ‘unalienable rights’. Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. …”

… [the teacher gives examples like a man drowning in the Pacific; “The ocean will not hearken to his cries.” Nature doesn’t care]

“And that was the soft spot which destroyed what was in many ways an admirable culture. The junior hoodlums who roamed their streets were symptoms of a greater sickness; their citizens (all of them counted as such) glorified their mythology of ‘rights’… and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure.”

(Heinlein 123–26)

It seems we indeed lack a scientific theory of morals, and what we have instead is a form of utilitarianism which is calculated by appealing to relativistic and epicurean attitudes toward life. This moral code, or patchwork quilt, is not a framework and as such, does not produce social virtues. Without them, societies as dynamic systems of human interaction, gently decays. We become a collection of sick, atomized animals guided by an economic shepherd until we die.

There is no endogenous moral instinct, instead it’s learned and reinforced through the people one is surrounded by. The moral instinct is duty generated from a number of motivations, all derived from our instinct to survive. We work together because we benefit from cooperation. The truth is indeed mathematically demonstrable, everywhere verifiable. Truths, or fragments of them, are detected by various religions, cultures, and peoples over human history. Many are covered by metaphor, requiring an alternate reading or perspective to identify and understand the message.

Later on in the book, a different teacher states:

“Service men are not brighter than civilians. In many cases, civilians are much more intelligent. That was the sliver of justification underlying the attempted coup d’état just before the Treaty of New Delhi, the so-called ‘Revolt of the Scientists’: let the intelligent elite run things and you’ll have a utopia. It fell flat on its foolish face of course. Because the pursuit of science, despite its social benefits, is itself not a social virtue; its practitioners can be men so self-centered as to be lacking in social responsibility.”


The analysis continues on page 193:

“But this universe consists of paired dualities. What is the converse of authority? Mr. Rico.”

… “Responsibility, sir.”

… “To permit irresponsible authority is to sow disaster; to hold a man responsible for anything he does not control is to behave with blind idiocy. The unlimited democracies were unstable because their citizens were not responsible for the fashion in which they exerted their sovereign authority… other than through the tragic logic of history. No attempt was made to determine whether a voter was socially responsible to the extent of his literally unlimited authority.”

Social virtue is not the same as social benefit. What kinds of social virtues do we have, and which moral framework are they appealing to? Do we have good reasons, empirical reasons perhaps, for adopting this framework? Probably not.

We are not responsible to each other, there is no duty to each other in our current system. We are isolated and placated by the destruction of standards, left alone to do what we please and able to shut out those who disagree with us. The problem is this lack of responsibility and is thus the real cause of depression, as no reward can be found from inaction. Ultimately, the challenges with their pain and suffering is required for growth, allowing us to appreciate the small things in life. Hardship is not meant to be avoided, it’s meant to be addressed head-on because in doing so, wisdom can be acquired. A moral code requiring a duty to one’s fellow man lifts everyone up through trial-and-error, and those who cannot pull themselves up must be lifted up by others. Of course, a duty to others must be balanced with a duty to oneself.

I wonder if the movie is different from the book because the book paints us in a rather negative light. “We can’t show that to our paying audience, now, can we?” Instead, the future is depicted as somewhat absurd with a goofy militaristic society. While the book does depict a strict legal system, this is due to the belief that a moral sense is taught and reinforced since it is not an instinct. Without striving for something greater, our animalistic traits can flourish and take over the mind. Because this often leads to self-serving behaviours and apathy, this degradation is not ideal for human societies. We are social beings that require a particular set of principles to live and act well. It’s not easy but it is worth it.

Satellite Science Fiction cover by Alex Schomburg (circa 1958)

Works Cited

Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. Penguin Publishing House, 2006,