Foundations of (War) Ethics: Morality in AQOTWF Through the Lens of ChatGPT

In Erich Maria Remarque’s novel “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the protagonist Paul is a young German soldier who faces numerous ethical dilemmas while serving on the front lines during World War I. Through W.D. Ross’s philosophical framework of prima facie duties, we can analyze Paul’s ethical choices and evaluate them based on his conflicting obligations as a soldier in the midst of the atrocities of war.

One of the key aspects of Ross’s philosophy is the concept of prima facie duties, which are conditional obligations that depend on the particular circumstances of a situation. These duties include fidelity, beneficence, non-maleficence, justice, and self-improvement. Paul constantly grapples with these duties throughout the novel, often experiencing conflicts between them and forcing him to make difficult ethical decisions.

Paul’s exceptional sympathy towards others is evident throughout the novel. He demonstrates his compassion when he tries to console his dying friend Kemmerich, and when he comforts an allied soldier who is crying in terror. According to Ross, this showcases Paul’s duty of beneficence, which is to do good to others. Additionally, Paul’s hesitation before killing an enemy soldier indicates his duty of non-maleficence, as he considers the consequences of his actions on the enemy.

In contrast to Paul’s empathy, his fellow soldier Müller lacks sympathy for the fallen and shows a utilitarian perspective on death. Ross’s philosophy emphasizes the importance of fidelity, which encompasses loyalty and honesty. Paul disapproves of Müller’s lack of sympathy, highlighting their differing ethical positions. Paul observes, “Müller is rather crude and tactless, otherwise he would hold his tongue, for anybody can see that Kemmerich will never come out of this place again” (Remarque 14). This disagreement demonstrates Paul’s fidelity to his fellow soldiers and his belief in the significance of compassion.

Paul’s acts of tending to the wounded soldiers exemplify the principle of non-maleficence, the obligation to prevent harm. Ross emphasizes the importance of avoiding unnecessary harm. Paul’s compassionate nature extends beyond his own friends. He comforts an allied soldier, showing a profound sense of humanity and empathy amidst the chaos of war. Ross would commend Paul’s commitment to non-maleficence, as he actively seeks to minimize harm and bring solace to those suffering.

Ross’s principle of self-improvement encourages individuals to cultivate virtues and improve their character. Paul demonstrates sympathy towards Kemmerich’s mother, who is devastated by the news of her son’s death. Paul visits Kemmerich’s mother and tries to console her after telling her about her son’s death, displaying kindness and empathy. This act reflects Paul’s dedication to self-improvement, as he strives to be a source of comfort and support for others, even in the face of his own emotional turmoil.

Paul’s hesitation before killing an enemy soldier and his remorse after killing another one exemplifies the moral complexities of war. Ross’s philosophy acknowledges the conflicts between duties, particularly when it comes to gratitude to the country and non-maleficence. Paul’s hesitation reveals his struggle with the duty to not inflict harm upon another human being. Reflecting on this conflict, Paul notes, “While [the teachers/authorities] continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger.” (Remarque 13). This remorse demonstrates Paul’s adherence to non-maleficence and his recognition of the value of human life.

Overall, Paul’s ethical character emerges as one marked by empathy, compassion, and a deep understanding of the moral complexities of his circumstances. Ross’s philosophy helps us understand and evaluate Paul’s actions, highlighting the nuanced nature of ethical decision-making in the context of war. By considering the various prima facie duties at play, we gain a richer understanding of the moral struggles faced by soldiers like Paul and the profound impact of war on their ethical choices.

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