Moral Education in the Military – Some Not So Random Thoughts and an Invitation

I came across and recently read an interesting paper from 2002 “Ethics – Redirecting the Army’s Moral Compass” (it’s amazing what you find when you are researching something else!) in which the authors raised the following concern: “There is no grand strategy or building block approach that ethically develops soldiers as they progress in rank and responsibility” (iii)  The authors detail many of the same concerns that the 2015 report, “Lying to Ourselves” highlights  and make a variety of recommendations. In the process, they tie their suggestions for a progressive, building block idea of ethics education in the military (for both officers and enlisted) to the classic Kohlberg model of moral development.

I do agree with many of their suggestions, but would also note that some of them seem to have been implemented since the piece was written, but I think the idea of tying it to Kohlberg is problematic. In last 40 years there have been numerous critiques of Kohlberg’s model from numerous quarters as a way to understand moral development, notably from feminist and womanist thinkers like Carol Gilligan (see In A Different Voice).  This major line of critique (only one of many mind you) is that the model is exclusively linear, Western and justice oriented and fails to take into account ethics as care, relational modeling and the role of networked community as it focused on the primacy of universal, abstract moral principles as the highest level of morality.

Fortunately, I think that there is a much easier and more intuitive argument to be made to justify consistent, integrated and progressive ethics education in the military: that as people spend more time in the military, rise through the ranks, they gain more experience, but they are facing more complex ethical issues as they are given more responsibility and must interact with a more diverse range of demands and constituencies. It is seems clear that the private faces a certain range of ethical issues and choices that is different (and more straightforward in terms of complexity) than a major or a general officer.  As in many professions, as one rises in rank and responsibility the moral complexity that one encounters changes and often increases.  This fact alone justifies a different approach to moral development in the military than simple character education, relying on individual morality or ethics education with ‘refresher’ courses every so often.  None of these things really address the problem of increasing moral complexity.

Is the central claim of the authors still true? What, if anything has changed? First, a caveat. I am not sure we have a good, thorough empirical answer to this question; therefore, see the invitation below. On the face of it, based on anecdotal evidence and perceptions, not much seems to have changed. The basic ethics guidance and regulations date to the 1990’s and the Core Values have not been substantively changed since their adoption in the late 1990’s. There is a new Army Professionalism document (very new) so to the extent that intersects with5booksshelf5booksshelf ethics questions (it does) that reflects some movement and progress, and FM 22-100 Army Leadership was updated in 2006. These are both important as guiding documents that intersect with key ideas and concepts in the ethical discourse, so serve a kind of integrative role. In addition the academics and practitioners that teach at the service academies, staff and command colleges, ROTC and other educational institutions regularly update and augment their curricula, but this is done independently based largely upon local conditions and concerns without much formal integration across services, and institutions

I do think that there has been progress in beginning some integration between the Core Values and Professionalism discourses and trying to apply these at a much lower level than before. CAPE and other elements within the military, or avenues with some connection to the military are providing PME materials that can be used by unit and other small group leaders to facilitate discussion, in addition to the class case study idea that has been around for some time.  But I would also point to what I’d call the “Narrative Pivot” by which I mean a resurgence of interest in writing (fiction, non-fiction, blogs and on-line journals especially), reading and public discourse more generally that engages ethical issues and give a chance for discussion with a greater variety of players.

That said, there is still a heavy focus on self-development and some have pointed out that the timing of some of the ethics education comes too late in terms of when it would be useful, arguing for specific components earlier. There is more of a focus on progressive, building block ethics education, but one still sees the idea of ‘refresher’ courses which assumes if you have a good ethical foundation that is all you will need; this fails to take seriously the increasing moral complexity problem. Finally, it is not clear what ethics education looks like for senior NCO’s and officers past the staff and command college stage, especially General Officers.  While a few institutions have new initiatives in these areas, they are just that and there needs to be a much more robust conversation so these are not piecemeal and local, but an integrated part of a larger whole.

So where to next? I have a few ideas that will need to be fleshed out in more detail, but I offer them as a thumbnail sketch for discussion.  First, the Core Values and character education paradigm have not really been revised since their institution in 1998. Its time to revisit and I suspect efforts are underway.  Second, more attention needs to be given to the integration and connection of Core Values and the other aspects and components of ethics education. Third, ethics education needs to continue the trend begun to take into account the increase in moral complexity – ‘refresher’ courses do not cut it and are conceptually problematic. Last, we need to look at developing a model of Professional Judgment and Discretion which takes into account the intersection of moral reasoning and experience. Aristotle is one model of this (not the only one)  and this can take into account not simply the officer/enlisted divide, but responsibility and experience. We do need to teach problem solving skills, but we also need the Narrative Pivot to develop moral imagination, empathy and skills in creativity so that leaders and their followers can cope with the unexpected and the changes that come in their roles.

Accordingly, I am inviting your thoughts (in this forum, via Twitter or privately) in particular extending an invitation to contribute your experiences in ethics education – What have you seen and done?  What has been helpful?  What have you wished for and not had access to? What do you think will be necessary for the future?


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