Morals versus Ethics: A Narrative and a Challenge for the Military

On the first day of many of my classes (mostly ethics courses), I spend a few minutes on a critical, but oft mucked up, distinction: Morals vs. Ethics. This is a very important distinction in the discipline of philosophy, and one that I will argue the military needs to attend to in its education.

First, the distinction. Morals generally applies to the moral values, preferences and commitments of an individual or social group and our discussions of morals tend to be descriptive. I might say I think that moral is immoral or we might say that social group x thinks female circumcision is good.  At this level, there is no way to arbitrate conflicting claims or evaluate them, so we then resort to ethics.  Ethics is the study of different moral claims or systems and asks questions like: How are moral claims justified? What does it mean to say x is immoral? How does one resolve moral conflict? So ethics requires a step removed or a critical analysis of morals, not simply accepting them as given or true.

So what does all of this have to do with moral education in the military? With my claim that its time for the military to move from moral discourse to ethics?

A bit of rough narrative will help us get there. (At this point I would stress that what follows are my observations from reading and thinking about military ethics for 25 years. This is not history. This is not anthropology. This is not sociological analysis, but a narrative.) If we look at writing about the history of the military and the military profession (like Janowitz, Clausewitz, Huntington, and Don Snider more recently) we notice that the 19th and early 20th centuries was really concerned with developing the Art and Science (technical craft) of War as a discrete discipline and body of knowledge.  In interwar, post war and Vietnam periods (the latter two especially) we see the rise of the social science as there is an increased focusing on articulating the morals/values and frameworks that comprise the Military Professional, Military Ethos (especially the Warrior ethos.) Accordingly there is more focus on the empirical and descriptive methods; the aim during is to articulate and provide a consistent and coherent framework to explain what the military profession is and what characterizes the members of this profession as distinct from other professions and the civilian society.

I would note that the social science focus fit well the some of the traditional and conservative anti-intellectualism of the military which tended to be suspicious of theories and theoretical, philosophical thought as either inapplicable or too subject to debate and change to be a useful foundation.  Many have noted the tendency, even in moral education in the military, to want a check list approach or at most a few theories (virtue ethics, deontology, consequentialism) that are static and can be boiled down to a formula or a couple slide presentation.

However, the internal crises and organizational reflection occasioned by Vietnam and the move to an all volunteer force provided an opening for some trained in ethics (like Anthony Hartle at West Point) to begin to push for more ethical reflection and teaching, although this was a tough argument to make and much of what happened was still more rooted in morals and moral education than ethics and ethical reflection, as a look at the materials from the 70’s through early 90’s will show.  The ethicists working within the military, teaching at the academies and staff and command colleges were still, unsurprisingly, constrained by the hold of social science on the military and there were very few, if any, civilians involved in this process.  It was an internal conversation amongst the members of the military profession that the civilian powers and society were largely content to let the military sort out on its own.

I would argue this all came to fruition in the mid to late 1990s with the adoption across the various branches of Core Values models, character education and a general pivot toward the idea that moral education in the military was about instilling early in a career certain virtues and values that represented the military profession.  Once this was done, there was not much else to be done and those who failed morally were either outliers or had failed to learn the character and values lessons offered.  Its important to note that this is very much still in the realm of morality and morals, not ethics. The Core Values are presented as the model, but ethics would ask whether it should be the model? What are the reasons for the 7 Core Values in the Army? What happens when they conflict?  Does one take priority?  What is the justification for this group of virtues? How might they be changed?

After 2 protracted wars generally conceived as part of a larger GWOT (Global War on Terror), and in the last 5 years what I would call the Narrative Pivot, this approach is ripe for reassessment.  In the last 5 years (or longer depending on how you count), we have seen service members blogging, engaging their experiences on social media with others (both military and civilian), writing fiction., plays, poetry and producing other forms of art and history that we would consider fully in the Humanities tradition.  This work engaged produced in military, civilian and mixed circles serious questions of moral injury, the justification of war in general and these conflicts in particular and highlighted the military/civilian culture gap.  At the same time, thinkers like Don Snider, began to move tentatively towards these questions. In an important 2009 monograph and in subsequent work, he raised questions about whether the current Army ethos (especially the Warrior ethos) was the best one, whether the Army was a profession currently (as opposed to a bureaucracy) and whether it would be a profession in the future.  Tom McDermott recently called for a reassessment of how the military approaches ethics and military education and like Snider, made some interesting suggestions.

My critique, which will no doubt appear self serving,  is that neither of these sets of suggestions really address the issue that the Narrative Pivot has raised, of taking the conversation outside those in the military or those who may be civilians but teach or are engaged in military institutions.   We see the beginnings of conversations to engage senior NCO’s but little to engage civilians who might work with ROTC or other military groups.  We also need engagement from civilian scholars and academics with expertise, but who are not already in the military as an institution.

It is time to move to an Ethical Pivot, which requires moving a level up from what is to thinking about whether that is the way it should be, why it is so and how we articulate and justify the grounds for such a moral framework. The Petraeus problem and other high level ethical failures, debates about to what extent senior military (also retired) ought to be engaged in policy and politics, the Lying to Ourselves study and other documents reveal problems with the current system and a time for reassessment, but it needs to be ethical reflection – not just an internal conversation with those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Innovation and disruption are the current buzzwords…..ethically speaking what does this mean??  It means looking around the table and seeing who is not there. It means posting a draft of your new doctrine on social media and inviting comments. It means being willing to face moral failure and engage in ethical reflection in ways that will be risky and challenging. If we take up the challenge, it will help us produce leaders who are not just moral, but trained in ethical habits and reflection as well.


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