Getting to Ethical Readiness

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Do internal or external factors explain unethical behavior? In an iniquitous environment, are U.S. military personnel doomed by or able to transcend external circumstance? Questions such as these are perennial favorites among philosophers and social psychologists. Since they cannot be resolved, it is no wonder that military leaders often struggle to find the right words when outlining the importance of ethics. Unhelpful platitudes are sometimes echoed, such as “always do the right thing.” But if this is all one can say, a significant opportunity for service accountability has gone astray.

Notwithstanding recent public concerns over U.S. Special Operations Forces professionalism and ethics, the problem of ethical misconduct is a challenge for the whole of the U.S. military. “Ensuring Ethical Conduct” is one of the Department of Defense’s top 10 most serious performance and management challenges, alongside countering China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and global terrorism. To ensure ethical readiness and conduct, all U.S. military personnel are trained in ethics, but this training is not enough. The Joint Ethics Regulation guides and regulates the U.S. joint ethics training program and yet neglects to include any reference to the philosophic underpinnings of moral action. Last signed by Secretary of Defense Les Aspin in 1993, the Joint Ethics Regulation focuses primarily on the legal rules or standards of ethical conduct: provisions related to gifts, travel benefits, the use of government resources, conflicts of interest, political activities, and so on. This inadvertently provides an impoverished view of what a shared, professional, military ethic can entail.



To prepare troops to make ethical decisions with a level of understanding that goes beyond mere rule compliance, a nontraditional education in philosophic ethics is warranted. Above all, philosophic ethics should integrate and engage all members of an organization. From theory to practice, this can include anything from introducing concepts during unit-level or small-group discussions, amid dialogue, to making difficult moral decisions during battlefield training scenarios.

Why does ethical misconduct occur? Broadly conceived, the number of potential risk factors posited to explain or portend uniformed misconduct abound. Explanations include the view that an unrealistic volume of training requirements has led to a culture of systemic dishonesty and self-deception, the notion that too much emphasis has been placed on mission outcomes and not enough on the enculturation of virtues, and the allegation that toxic leadership is to blame. One strong suggestion is that past military cases of “egregious behavior” may have resulted from the corrosive or enervating effects of combat fatigue and the relentless demands of continuous war. Others have pointed to the changing character of war, which could be a harbinger of new ethical challenges to come.

To blaze a new path forward, it is important to first note that an education in philosophic ethics will not guarantee ethical conduct. To prove otherwise would, arguably, be an epistemic impossibility. Demonstrating one’s commitment to ethical readiness, on the other hand, can still be viewed as an unmitigated good. While at risk of overselling its potential, the value of nontraditional educational experiences can manifest in nontangible ways: in the care teammates have for one another, in the respect people show toward themselves and their families, and in the long-term well-being of U.S. servicemembers.

I discuss two key premises upon which my recommendations rest, delineate what a traditional philosophic ethics course entails, and then briefly detail how nontraditional learning options may forge ahead.

Premise 1: Moral Development Is Possible in the U.S. Military

In 2019, I attended a U.S. joint professional military education lecture wherein a general officer shared his personal view on ethics training: “If they don’t have it by the time they are 18, they aren’t going to get it as an adult.” This was disappointing, to say the least.

The view that professional ethics cannot be taught or that post-graduate ethics instruction is too late has “fallen by the wayside” in recent decades. Since the 1970s and 1980s, the preponderance of evidence has shown that, within the breadth of a human life, a person’s capacity for moral development does not expire. Mature adults the world over exhibit moral progress by undergoing positive, enduring, and “non-superficial” change. However, effective moral functioning is not just a matter of moral problem-solving. As suggested by Rest’s four component model, ethical conduct requires an integration of the following multicentric capacities: ethical sensitivity, moral reasoning and judgment, moral motivation and identity formation, and ethical implementation. How to target each area is beyond this scope, but in the armed forces, moral character is continuously shaped by the stresses, trials, and reflections organic to the military experience. Not surprisingly, research shows that adult moral progress is “hard-won” — servicemembers must possess both a strong willingness to learn and a high level of personal commitment.

Premise 2: Philosophic Ethics Are Taught at Schoolhouses, but More Ought to be Done to Teach it Across the Force

It is true that some military officers and noncommissioned officers have the opportunity to study philosophic ethics either as an elective or as part of a professional military education curriculum. Such opportunities are limited, however, to only a fraction of the Joint Force. Despite their universal claim to professional status, officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted are not given the same available options for professional development. This is unavoidable, but attendance in an elite school or college should not be the only military pathway to wrestle with difficult moral questions relevant to ethical conduct. Professionals are professionals only because that is what they have decided to be. Regardless of each person’s role, the human will and personality that realizes freedom and responsibility is the same as that which empowers individuals to make an ethical or an unethical choice. Greater opportunities to discuss and practice philosophic ethics, therefore, should be granted to all military personnel.

Educating Philosophic Ethics

An introductory course on military ethics will generally include prescriptive elements — such as how to frame ethical decisions based on different normative theories: virtue ethics, deontological ethics, and consequentialism being the chief examples — and descriptive elements, such as how contextual factors have heavily influenced misconduct in the past. Introductory courses will also include a selection of classic and modern works by well-known authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Michael Walzer, Jeff McMahan, and many more. Philosophia means “love of wisdom” (i.e., love of the wisdom one does not possess). Like many loves, the choice to grapple with life’s wisdoms through the written works of others is not for the faint of heart.

Among competing normative theories, the U.S. armed forces have primarily adopted an Aristotelian or virtue-based approach to their ethics programs. Virtue ethics assumes that character (i.e., a good moral disposition) can be acquired through training, education, and practice. The Aristotelian view is that, with few exceptions, each person is responsible for their own state of character. Those who exercise their reason and their moral virtues — courage or temperance, for example — will behave appropriately because they habitually do what is best and right and this becomes second nature or a part of who they are.

When things go wrong, as alluded to earlier, poor character development is not the only explanatory factor for ethical misconduct, harmful situational forces can also be to blame. An ethics course will often point to the social experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram or the Zimbardo Stanford Prison Experiment to consider how heinous acts like the 2003 prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib can occur. In such cases, abuses or human rights violations cannot be attributed, solely, to a flawed disposition or an “evil” inclination. Rather, many violent perpetrators can also be viewed as having fallen victim to a harmful environment, organization, or the situation writ large. When things go right, though, positive situational forces can exist in organizations that successfully create and maintain an ethical work climate.

To ensure ethical readiness, military organizations can promote an education in philosophic ethics through nontraditional means.

The first recommendation is to conduct unit-level or small-group discussions on ethics in the military. Leaders, trainers, or facilitators can open the floor with a historical case study, an example from personal experience, or an ethical dilemma dramatized by Hollywood. Through narrative content, abstract imperatives can take shape as moral expectations shared among military professionals. Furthermore, to elicit an open dialogue, each person must be willing to reflect critically about their own initial impressions and views, listen carefully and suspend judgement, and empathize with the different perspectives, values, and feelings of everyone present. A lesson learned by a Dutch train-the-trainer course is to think of these sessions not in terms of “inducing certain behavior” but reflective of the needs of all participants, allowing each ethics session to adapt in an interactive way. In this sense, small-group learning can be critical. From 2007 to 2008, for example, a U.S. Army division in Iraq implemented an ethics training program that incorporated a “chain-teaching” technique where senior leaders taught subordinate leaders, who taught their subordinate leaders, and so on until all military personnel in that chain of command was reached. Many ethical questions are worth exploring. What does the military oath, both officer and enlisted, commit all servicemembers to do, to be? As depicted in the 2013 movie Lone Survivor, did that U.S. Navy SEAL team make a good decision by letting the goat herders go? The list of potential topics or historical vignettes here could be endless. And, given that racial disparities, gender bias, and LGBTQ institutional injustices persist in the services, such topics could also be deemed relevant for small-group discussion. One suggestion is to emphasize the “power of diversity” while listening to the different lived experiences of others.

The second recommendation is to add ethical dilemmas into high-stress, battlefield training scenarios. In the field, simulated opposition forces can intentionally present trainees with a moral difficulty — a conflict between two or more competing values — that troops might encounter in combat: what if we receive hostile fire from a residential neighborhood; what if there is ambiguity in hostile intent; what if the enemy uses human shields? While a small minority in the Department of Defense uses a similar training method, battlefield ethics has not been directed at the joint level. In 2007, for example, the U.S. Marine Corps added ethical dilemmas into the Crucible, a 54-hour capstone event that tests Marine recruits, builds resilience, and instills pride. After basic training, all servicemembers know that, in combat, lethal force is circumscribed by rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict. These bounds are nonnegotiable. Nonetheless, combat-realistic scenarios can help troops recognize that proper conduct may also require, under pressure, the ability to apply one or more of the principles that underlie just war literature. In the moral difficulty examples above, just war action is underwritten by the principles of necessity, proportionality, and the responsibility to protect. The need to discriminate between who is liable to defensive harm and what objects are legitimate targets of war.

How salient are these recommendations to the problem of ensuring ethical conduct?

Per the first recommendation, research into the above referenced U.S. Army division’s 2007 to 2008 ethics training program is encouraging. While deployed, every U.S. soldier in that division participated in a small-group discussion on the following topics: Army values, the proper treatment of noncombatants, rules of engagement, and how ethical violations can have a detrimental effect on a unit’s mission. By comparing pre- and post-training survey results, researchers found that these small-group discussions “positively influenced” ethical behavior and that “attitudes toward ethical conduct” showed statistically significant improvement.

Per the second recommendation, to the best of my knowledge, the effectiveness of presenting moral dilemmas to troops in high-stress, battlefield training environments has not been thoroughly studied. And yet, one can still leverage the growing body of research demonstrating a “bidirectional link” between stress and ethical behavior to justify the importance of stress conditioning and embedded ethical decision-making. In an operational context, for example, servicemembers “take action” while under the influence of a unique set of situational stressors. Mission-criticality, closing windows of opportunity, power relations, social pressures, threats, uncertainties, fatigue, and fear are all situationally relevant. Mental health considerations aside, a multitude of stressors can encumber a moral agent in different ways, and these can affect how that agent perceives or orients to the ethical ramifications of individual or team conduct. Thus, presenting moral dilemmas in domain-appropriate, battlefield training scenarios can prove advantageous. Many of the combat stressors that are generally absent in an academic environment can be realistically simulated and just war actions rehearsed.

A More Ethical Force

To underscore its commitment to ethical readiness, military organizations can implement any of the recommendations above. Naturally, more can be done, but these nontraditional options are designed to integrate and engage all members from the start. For enlisted, noncommissioned officers, and officers alike, ethical engagement will require thinking beyond legal rules or standards. One hope is that through practice and dialogue, personnel will learn to adopt broader perspectives and new modes of interpretation toward their moral concepts, precepts, and ideas. Another hope is that servicemembers will thereby do greater justice to the moral needs and experiences of others and balance two sides of their human nature: their individuality and their role in society. Although major progress cannot occur overnight, troops with nontraditional education options may direct their thoughts and actions toward a more ethical path.



Lt. Col. John Huntsman is an Air Force Special Operations Command pilot currently assigned to the 353rd Special Operations Group, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan. In his last assignment, he served in the Strategy, Plans, and Policy Directorate at Special Operations Command Europe. The contents of this article reflect the author’s original views and are not endorsed by the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Yvonne Najera)