It came as a great surprise to his family that Private Kenny was not awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery. After all he had died smothering a grenade that would have killed a dozen or more of his comrades. If that was not a 'signal act of valour or devotion in the presence of the enemy' then what was?
They demanded an explanation from his regiment. The statement issued by the army read: 'It has been the practice in the past to reward such actions with the appropriate medal. However, we have decided that it is a mistake to consider such acts as requiring an exceptional devotion to duty. All military personnel are required to act in the interests of the whole unit at all times. To suggest that Private Kenny's act was over and above the call of duty, therefore, suggests that it might be acceptable to sometimes not act in the interest of the whole unit. This is clearly absurd. Therefore, we no longer reward such acts with posthumous awards.
'Although we appreciate this is a painful time for the family, we should also point out that Private Kenny would have died in the blast anyway, so it is not even the case that he sacrificed his life for his colleagues.'
It was hard to fault the cold logic of the statement, but in their hearts Kenny's family were not persuaded that he had acted anything other than heroically. But on what grounds could they appeal?
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 43.
Based on my understanding of moral feelings, I'm confident you'd all like to award Private Kenny a medal for bravery. This would especially be the case if you or your family members were in the room with him at the time of his act. So where to begin poking holes in the "cold logic of the statement" from the military?
First off, I'd point out that the rule where "all military personnel are required to act in the interests of the whole unit at all times" is impossible to uphold as well as unwise and potentially immoral. As I pointed out in my published paper, our actions ought to lead towards the survival of all life. This requires wise balancing acts to be performed between the needs of all forms of life: from individuals, through societies, to ecosystems, all interacting over evolutionary timeframes. We have millennia of development in our genes that favoured looking out for ourselves so this is quite a tough task. Heck, it's only been 150 years since we even discovered the fact of evolution, so it's no wonder we sometimes struggle with considering the ramifications of our moral choices on all the "others" out there into the far off future. But that *is* what we *ought* to do. No military law should try to overrule that. And the mere words on the page that try to do so shouldn't stop us from decorating a hero who manages to overcome the selfish part of his evolutionary heritage so decisively.
Next, I'd bring up how knowledge of the future is only probable at best. The military letter claimed that "Private Kenny would have died in the blast anyway", but do they really know this? What if, instead of diving on the grenade, Private Kenny had been able to dive behind a steel girder, which would have shielded him and him alone from the blast? What if the grenade had gone off earlier than expected and Private Kenny had simply been a bit closer to the grenade as it killed everyone? What if another soldier had been nearer to the grenade, or born with faster reflexes, and he had jumped on the grenade just fractions of a second before Private Kenny? After all, everyone is supposed to act in this way according to the military's letter. But then, Private Kenny might have been unnecessarily injured by being too close to the blast when it killed this other grenade smotherer. Surely that outcome wouldn't be in the interests of the entire unit. Given all these possibilities for different outcomes, even if you were to reasonably expect members of the unit to throw themselves on grenades for the good of their comrades, Private Kenny should be rewarded for wisely making the right split-second decision about how best to act.
Finally, I'd ask the blind bureaucrat who sent this letter where the harm is in celebrating someone who has done their duty right up until the difficult end? Sure, we may not want to cheapen medals by handing them out every time someone covers their mouth during a sneeze, but I think we can agree that when a soldier dies doing his or her duty, then we should thank them for their service and remember that they signed up for it in the first place.
So, Kenny gets his medal for what philosophers call a supererogatory act. According to Baggini, "this is when someone does something good which goes beyond what is demanded of them by morality." I would point out that morality cannot "demand" anything (only societies can do this though laws), but in the great balancing act of the sacrifices required for life, surely some sacrifices go above and beyond the norm. Thank you for all the ones you have made. I wish I had a medal for you too.