Like “The Passersby,” “Still Valley” is set late in the Civil War, as the South is losing the war. It is in this context that the episode addresses the ethics of war and warfare. There are two large questions about the moral status of war. The first is: Are there ethical grounds for engaging in war? The second is: If the answer to the first question is affirmative, are there limits to what is permissible as a participant in a war, and if there limits, what are they? These two questions about the moral status of war and warfare are referred to respectively as jus ad bellum, and jus in bellum – when a country can fight a war, and how a country can fight a war. “Still Valley” concerns the second question, raised from the perspective of the losing side. In desperate circumstances, are there limits to what actions soldiers in battle can take to defend themselves and advance their military goals?
War provides the opportunity to engage in morally allowable, and even in many instances morally required behaviors that in civilian life are morally impermissible. If killing individuals who are not immediately threatening you is permissible in war, but not outside of war, what is impermissible in war? What are the ethics of warfare, since they clearly not are the same as the ethics of everyday life?
A quick review of the history of conflict between nation states easily generates a list of morally questionable military practices, including torture, espionage, attacks on civilians, the use of chemical and biological agents, and the use of nuclear weapons, to name just a few familiar modalities in modern warfare. “Still Valley” does not investigate the moral status of a particular military practice or strategy. Instead it ask a more basic question: Does the context of war justify doing evil, or put another way, cutting a deal with the devil?
Two confederate soldiers are scouts checking the advance of their Union adversaries. Their mission is dangerous, and one of them questions whether they are required to take the risk. AT this stage of the war, he is really questioning whether he is required to continue to fight this war at all. His main concern is is own survival. Is this a morally permissible stance for an active duty soldier?
Sergeant Joseph Paradine, the other soldier, does not question is role in the army, and heads down to the valley where the Union troops may be located. He arrives to find the Union soldiers frozen in place, the result of spell put on them by black magic, the work of the devil. Paradine is given the book, and has the power to neutralize the Union soldiers wherever he finds them. Should he do “the devil’s work?
The argument ensues. Paradine is tempted to get “in league with the devil,” but he resists the temptation when he realizes that to do so means rejecting God, that is, rejecting the moral order that has guided his life to this point. Essentially, what he realizes is that he shouldn’t do what is morally wrong, which in this context is not a trivial truth. The circumstances of war do not excuse behavior that we otherwise would find morally repugnant. Even the horrific, desperate circumstances of war can’t justify stepping outside of morality.
John Kekes, “War” Philosophy, Vol. 85, No. 332 (April 2010), pp. 201-218.
Steven P. Lee, Ethics and War: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2011).