TT19 Special Talk: Professor Mitt Regan

One Minute in Haditha: Neuroscience, Emotion, and Military Ethics

In November 2005, an improvised explosive device destroyed a vehicle in a US Marine Corps convoy, killing one man and seriously injuring another.  Less than a minute later, Sergeant Frank Wuterich saw five unarmed Iraqi men standing by a car about fifteen meters away. The men were unarmed, and made no move to advance toward him, nor did they exhibit any hostile behavior. Wuterich later described what happened next: “I took a knee in the road and fired. Engaging was the only choice. The threat had to be neutralized.” The five men whom Wuterich killed were four college students and a driver they had hired to take them to class.  The white car in effect was a taxi, although not marked as such. No weapons were found in the car.

On one account, Wuterich’s moral failure was that he allowed himself to be overcome by emotions of fear and anger that were untempered by reason.  This account is consistent with an influential understanding of moral behavior as a product of higher-order cognitive processes that distinguish us from other creatures.  As humans, we can be held responsible for failing to use reason to bring our emotions under control. 

On another account, however, Wuterich’s moral failure was that he responded to the situation with the wrong kind of emotion. This account posits that emotions have a cognitive component, and that individuals can be held responsible for the kinds of emotional responses that they habitually exhibit in specific situations. This lecture will discuss research in neuroscience and psychology that provides support for this account by emphasizing the importance of affective computational processes that are closely associated with moral perception and judgment. It will then discuss the potential implications of this research for ethics education in general and military ethics training in particular.

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