The Missing Link in Military Ethics Education


Consider the following:

On a regular basis there are stories in the media detailing some form of unethical (and sometimes illegal) behavior from military personnel, notably at the senior officer levels. Whether sexual harassment and assault, espionage, adultery or misuse of various forms of power, these stories, the David Petraeus scandal being the most notable, seem to detail moral and leadership failures.

Add to this recent discussions about in military professionalism circles about whether and to what extent a garrison mindset and bureaucracy/careerist oriented military and 2 wars have eroded or are eroding military professionalism. (Don Snider recently made this very argument in a Parameters article.)  Last year, the Lying to Ourselves report detailed extensive and systemic lying and misrepresentation in the military, while Paul Paolozzi has argued the candor is the missing element in the Army Core Values.

There are several intuitive ways to look at these things. The first is they all show the moral failures of individuals, reflecting the downfall of moral training in the larger society from which we draw members of the military, and is no different from what we find in other professions.  Another view is to say that this shows the failure or lip service that is paid to military professionalism and Core Values, and we need to reassess those and how we do moral education in the military. I don’t necessarily disagree with the last point, and there is some evidence to support that view, but I think it is premature.

The explanation lies along a different path, and to do so we need to take a small road trip through Aristotle. The Core Values approach is essentially a version of his virtue ethics, the idea that the ethical person demonstrates certain virtues and that these virtues are developed through habitation and practice, as opposed to them being innate. (See Nicomachean Ethics, especially Books I, II and VI)  However, this is only half of the picture.  Aristotle argued that one needed virtue of character (Core Values) but also virtue of thought, prudence or practical reasoning in order to be an excellent (virtuous) person.  Prudence is the ability, using thought and experience, to reason and deliberate about the best means to a particular end, but also about the ends themselves as they related to human community and concerns.  Prudence is the form of reason that Aristotle thought was necessary to becoming an ethical person; one must be able to deliberate the virtues of character, human ends and how best to achieve these ends based upon experience.  This is one reason he argued that youth could not be virtuous, they have less experience and less ability to reason (be prudent) effectively.

What is notable in the discussions about ethics and Core Values in military professionalism is the lack of any discussion of prudence, or what I call Professional Judgement and Discretion aside from a mention here and there of military judgement, a focus on critical thinking (What is that? Why does it matter?) and more recently the idea of disruptive, creative or innovative thinking.  There is very little in depth treatment of any of these things, and even more problematic, little to no exploration of how these forms of thought are related to ethics, military professionalism and the Core Values.

So half of the equation is missing. Before we can discuss whether Core Values are good or whether that is working as a framework for ethics and professionalism in the military we need to address Professional Judgement and Discretion, what it looks like and how it relates to the virtues. Two examples to get us started.  First, parking. I am actually a terrible parker (as my youngest will tell you). To park well, you need experience, practice and an ability to judge angle, speed distance and the space that your vehicle takes up. Over time, and by success, reinforcement and also by making mistakes, we become more adept at this. I know that I do better not parking in small spaces, if I have two spaces to swing my truck across and generally not to parallel park if I can avoid it.  I also have my youngest spot me in the back, since I know I am particularly terrible at judging that angle. All of this requires judgement and discretion, shaped by experience and reasoning.

Second, lets shift to a moral example, the virtue of Loyalty.  As one of the Core Values it seems like this is straightforward. But as we do in my military ethics class, even a light and superficial foray into this virtue quickly reveals all kinds of tensions and issues. Who should one be loyal to and in what circumstances? If loyalty unconditional? Should you be loyal to a fellow solider, even if they have committed a war crime? Is their loyalty to them, to the Army, to your commander, the oath you took?  What happens when there are conflicting loyalties? (Much less when this Core Value conflicts with another Core Value.) In order to work through all of this you will need prudence to reason about means and ends, the priority of different values and obligations, and experience – the virtue itself is not enough.

At the risk of sounding flip, this is not about decision trees or flow charts, but holistic thinking that integrates values and experience relative to a human end and asks how best to achieve that end. What I will call the ‘Narrative Pivot’ is necessary here – reading, writing, AAR discussions, case studies, poetry, art all designed to put these things in the context of the human experience, human society and the place of war and the military in those things. Critical and innovative thinking is important, but you also need a body of content to discuss; form and content go together here.

In addition, (and y’all will not like this I know!) failure is your friend and is in fact necessary to the learning process; this does run counter to the zero defects culture of military training.  We need to recast what we are doing as excellence, not perfection. For Aristotle the virtuous, excellent person was not perfect, but was virtuous habitually, learned from her mistakes and became more so as they aged and gained experience. Given this, we should find more virtuous behavior in the older and those who hold higher rank as they have more experience and have had more time to home their Professional Judgement and Discretion.

In future posts, I will be working out what PJD looks like, what the elements of it are, how it might be taught and how it is related to ideas of military professionalism and the Core Values. And I invite your thoughts as we go along….

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