On Obedience and Moral Obligation in the Military

Several recent articles  including Crispin Burke’s piece on too many requirements http://www.armymagazine.org/2016/03/08/no-time-literally-for-all-requirements/ and a story on Marine Corps choosing which orders to follow, as well as my own writing with LTC David Barnes on lying and candor in the military and the SSI report from March 2015 Lying to Ourselves, have raised an interesting issue about the role of following all orders, of obedience in the military.  These debates were also brought home as the the media featured discussion about whether military members would, as Donald Trump claims, follow orders to waterboard or commit other war crimes if ordered by the Commander in Chief.

On the conventional view of the military, obedience (with the noted exception of orders that are manifestly illegal or immoral) is seen as absolutely essential to the warrior ethos in the military; obedience is a moral virtue and soldiers have an ethical obligation to obedience. One of the oaths that enlisted personnel take directly references taking and orders (understood as lawful orders) as a duty.  Various oaths or expressions of military culture and virtue heavily reference the idea of loyalty, mission, respect for leaders and working as a team, even if obedience is not explicitly referenced. Talking to military personnel even casually, one is struck by the importance assigned to issuing, taking and following orders as an integral part of military life. On first glance, it seems that in the military, the idea that one has a legal and moral obligation to obedience is clear.

There are also important practical and institutional reasons that obedience is seen as important and central the military and its proper function.  The military is hierarchical and communal in nature, functioning as a team and as a group, particularly in combat. The quick and efficient processing and executing of orders is essential to combat effectiveness, espirit de corps and trust among the combat group and likely saves lives while allowing the mission to be accomplished within proper constraints. When people do not follow orders, question orders or delay executing them, there can be disruptions and a myriad of other consequences.

In my mind, there are two questions here:

First, is obedience a virtue that is good in and of itself? Or is obedience a tool or mechanism that is valuable only or primarily to the extent that it furthers the mission, unit cohesion, the warrior ethos or some other moral norm or value?  Second, Is there a difference in this obligation between officers and senior NCO’s versus the rest of the enlisted ranks? How far up the military hierarchy does one have to go before one is considered to have discretion about whether or how to obey orders?

It does seem, as with the case of lying, that there is (in practice) a selective view of obedience. Some orders are obeyed and others are not obeyed or stalled or revised in the process. If this process is an expression of professional expertise and professionalism, then it would seem that obedience is not in fact a virtue, but rather a means to another end?  What might that end be? Why is obedience ostensibly valued so highly in the military?

One answer from a current active duty military personnel (an officer) is that is part of what is contracted, it is part of the agreement when one agrees to join the military.  That one agrees to give up some degree or freedom, one agrees to give and take orders in exchange for being given the permission to wage war (including the killing, destruction and other normally socially sanctioned activities that the military is entrusted with.)  I think this is an excellent explanation of the legal obligation, but for me it does not get to the grounds of a moral obligation.

R.M. Hare, a noted ethicist in “Can I be Blamed for Obeying Orders” argues that the command itself cannot generate a moral obligation to obey an order. There must be intervening belief and claims about the authority of the commander, about the value of what is being commanded and about to what degree the actions accord with one’s own moral views.  I think there is something to this view, and I wonder if the idea of soldier as an agent of the state does some work in explaining this, but it seems that there must be more.  Why?

The reason is that is  it seems clear from the examples cited at the beginning of the post that obedience is a virtue for enlisted, it is a tool for NCO’s and officers and more so the further up the chain of command, where there is more responsibility and presumably the moral professional development to help in the discernment process. It does seem that the claim that there is a moral obligation to obedience requires a certain amount of professional discretion and moral judgement be surrendered.  We might wonder if this is a good thing, in the same way I have wondered about lying.  But is there a sliding scale here or multiple standards?

Is it possible that there is no moral obligation to obedience and only a legal obligation and practical considerations? (Or that the only moral obligation must be grounded on utility, not on an account of virtue or military honor or moral rules/principles)  I am interested in this question….what do you think?

[For the record, I am inclined to think that there IS a moral obligation, but it must have a grounding….and what that might be is my next project! Stay tuned….]

One thought on “On Obedience and Moral Obligation in the Military

  1. Denis James

    I think that you should also consider followership when considering this question; leaders find it easier to lead when others are of the mindset to follow. Followership is part of being a good solider or officer, because, when the pressure and the stakes are highest often it a combination of the agility (speed) with which a decision maker decides and then the adroitness with which the followers follow (as opposed to suddenly putting piercing questions and alternative plans) that combine to provide the tempo which is often the key to victory. So it’s a moral obligation, as well as a legal and practical one.



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