Naval Academy Ethics and

the Constitutional Paradigm


Midshipman Matthew Linsley



            It is an annual summer spectacle at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.  Approximately 1200 young men and women, most less than a month out of high school, hug their parents one last time, clutch their six pairs of socks and underwear and walk through the cold, unforgiving doors of Alumni Hall.  Almost immediately, the new plebes are handed their personal copy of Reef Points, a small book that will become their guide through the jungle that is plebe summer, and instructed to memorize the mission statement of the United States Naval Academy.  Within mere minutes, a confrontational upper-class midshipman will undoubtedly order them to recite that mission verbatim.  Even at this early stage, having not even taken their oath of office yet, that plebe will tentatively respond, “Sir, the mission of the United States Naval Academy is to develop midshipmen morally, mentally, and physically….”

            Of these three areas of development the Academy seeks to foment, two of them are relatively unambiguous.  It is a simple matter to develop one’s self mentally or physically.  It is quite often a simple matter of doing push-ups or opening a chemistry textbook.  And in these two areas, few would contest the quality of the Academy’s training regimen as Annapolis regularly produces exceptional athletes and scholars.  It is in the moral development of midshipman, the least quantifiable or measurable of the three qualities, that the Naval Academy ahs frequently fallen short.  After a seemingly endless series of ethics scandals in the early 1990’s both at the Academy and in the fleet critics openly suggested that the Academy was immersing midshipmen in an “ethically corrupting system.”[1]  Out of these crises and subsequent criticism, grew the extensive ethics department the Naval Academy currently houses.  Today, midshipmen primarily receive ethics training through a required course entitled “Ethics and Moral Reasoning for the Naval Leader.”  Taught by a unique combination of military and civilian lecturers, the course challenges midshipmen to engage primary sources written by the likes of Immanuel Kant, Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls.  Where the course varies considerably from established civilian ethics courses is in the unique applications of military ethics, some even developed at the Naval Academy, that help midshipmen deal with the challenges of prioritization.  The course culminates by asking midshipmen to apply the various ethical frameworks examined during the semester to a current ethical military dilemma and conclude by making a moral judgment on the issue.  Midshipmen tend to discover that almost any action can be justified by one, though frequently several, of the frameworks taught in the course.  The following is an excerpt from this author’s own essay as he construed classical ethical frameworks to support both sides of the argument over embedding reported with U.S. troops during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq:


            Specifically, embedding entailed integrating civilian reporters into U.S. ground units throughout every stage of the invasion.  Beyond an obvious caveat to “omit place names or troop numbers,” the media was given virtually unrestricted access and journalistic liberty in their coverage.  While the desire for transparency in military operations is obvious, given that many U.S. military leaders felt, “Truth is our best defense,” the embedding of reporters opened up an ethical dilemma to which no easy solution was found.[2]  The risks associated with such an ambitious program are readily apparent.  For Iraqi military leaders looking for intelligence on U.S. troop conditions or tactics, a television tuned to CNN or Fox News was an invaluable tool.  Moreover, this increased vulnerability of American troops could pose a serious threat to morale.  Embedding is a trade-off by its very nature.  Without a doubt, the Pentagon compromised the secrecy of the invasion.  But they did so under the assumption that would receive something far greater in return.  By making their tactics and conduct so transparent, the military hoped to allay any distrust still lingering from the legacy of Vietnam.   As an additional bonus, news crews were on hand to capture compelling moments on film for the world to see that served as powerful foils to Iraqi propaganda and false accusations.  In essence, the debate over embedding is merely a new manifestation of a controversy that has raged in the United States since its conception.    On its most fundamental level, the struggle between security and liberty is a challenge of prioritization.  For by their very nature, liberty and security are like oil and water, two substances that are inherently at odds with each other.  The tenuous and highly volatile history between these two outwardly contradictory desires has oft resembled that of a pendulum as dominance has repeatedly oscillated from one extreme to the other. Americans must decide where to draw the line between the freedoms promised by the first amendment and the need for military secrecy.  In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Pentagon officials favored liberty over security, and they were morally right in their actions.

            Utilitarianism, in the simplistic form advocated by Jeremy Bentham, determines the rightness or wrongness of an act simply by the goodness or badness it promotes.  Essentially, the end justifies the means.  So, if the U.S. military has the capability of winning the war in Iraq while minimizing casualties by executing operations in a shroud of secrecy, then that is the morally correct action.  Additionally, it would be ideal if the public could be led to believe that it was being given full and unbiased coverage of the war.  While this may seem like an immoral application of realpolitik, it ultimately leaves all parties involved happy.  In the eyes of Bentham, this is the ultimate goal of utilitarianism.  His hedonic calculus merely considers seven variables related to a painful or pleasurable experience.  Maximizing the security of the troops while lying (successfully) to the American public would maximize the happiness of all involved.  Still, the possible negative consequences must be weighed.  If the public comes to realize that it is being manipulated, the backlash and loss of support could be incalculably devastating.  This reveals a fundamental difficulty with utilitarianism, that it is virtually impossible to see all the possible consequences of actions.  Arguably, this was the cause of the United States defeat in Vietnam.  It remains unclear whether the military would be any better at spinning information to the public today than it was roughly thirty years ago.  Still, it seems clear that in the age of twenty-four hour news coverage the media is infinitely more thorough and invasive in its reporting than it was thirty years ago.  Ironically, some have argued that the military, in a very utilitarian manner, was able to effectively manipulate the media in the invasion of Iraq as the practice of embedding compromised the objectivity of American journalists, forcing them to view the war through the eyes of the U.S. military.  This effectively reduced the media to little more than “cheerleaders on the team bus.”[3]

            In contrast, a far more nuanced form of utilitarianism championed by John Stuart Mill would clearly favor embedding.  While it remains possible that some troops could be compromised by the decreased secrecy, Mill maintains that nobleness of character generally benefits the entire world.  In this case, it is clear that transparency of military actions is a far nobler practice than keeping the American public in the dark.  While utilitarianism is admittedly difficult for humans to employ as it requires absolute objectivity, a true utilitarian would consider all the possible consequences.  For example, if the military situation in Iraq came to resemble the quagmire in Vietnam decades earlier, many American soldiers would die unnecessarily if the media was unable to report and reveal the futility of the situation to the American public.  In essence, the media is a crucial and necessary check on the tremendous power of the military.  John Stuart Mill would recognize this and undoubtedly condone embedding.

            Natural Law Theory, as espoused by the revered St. Aquinas, could be used to denounce embedding.  The most basic test for morality under Natural Law Theory is whether or not an action encourages or discourages the natural inclinations of humans.  One of the most basic of these inclinations is the preservation of life.  Since embedding could likely lead to an increased number of deaths, it is plainly in direct opposition to this natural inclination.  Because decreased transparency is a result of not embedding troops, the doctrine of double effect must be utilized.  Since the act of protecting troops is in itself good, the bad effect of decreased transparency can’t be avoided, the bad effect is an unfortunate side effect rather than a mere means, and the two effects are more or less proportional, a policy of not embedding troops would pass the doctrine of double effect and be deemed morally acceptable.

            Adversely, Natural Law Theory could also be employed to approve the embedding practice.  The desire for transparency of military actions is in accordance with the natural inclination of humans towards knowledge.  As stated previously, the doctrine of double effect must be applied in this situation.  Still, a debate could easily arise over the fourth condition that the good effect and bad effect be proportional.  One could argue, and rightfully so, that the suppression of freedom of speech and the first amendment is not proportional and is, in fact, far more important than the desire for military secrecy and increased troop safety.

            Another moral theory to be applied was delineated by the famed philosopher Immanuel Kant in the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.  Kantian ethics, and indeed all deontological philosophies, demand an unwavering dedication to truth telling.  Therefore, Kant would have unequivocally supported a policy of embedding reporters.  His famed categorical imperative also supports this as no rational beings could will lying to the public to be a universal law.  Kant’s obsession with the truth is especially relevant as lying to the public would undoubtedly rob it of its autonomy.  Since Kantian ethics is solely concerned with intentions rather than consequences, embedded reporters would be faultless if they unintentionally facilitated the deaths of American troops.

            Kant’s emphasis on intentions could also reach an interesting conclusion on U.S. actions in Vietnam.  While it is debatable, one could argue, especially in the beginning, that the United States had admirable intentions in Vietnam.  Likewise, the military officers who were distorting the truth for the media probably also had the good intentions of encouraging a war they saw as just.  The problem with this moral reasoning is that they viewed their duty as being to the mission rather than the truth.


            Faced with the challenge of teaching midshipmen to make ethical decisions with these easily-construed frameworks, the Naval Academy teaches what it refers to as the “Constitutional Paradigm.”  While technically encapsulating no new knowledge or thought, the Constitutional Paradigm provides military leaders with a simple tool to help them not lose sight of the larger concepts and ideals they have sworn to uphold. The paradigm was developed by Col. Paul E. Roush, USMC (ret), a 1957 graduate of the Naval Academy, while teaching ethics in Annapolis and has since become a staple of midshipmen education.  Though used below to categorically support the embedding program, its functionality can extend to all levels of military operations, whether that entails ground combat in Iraq or global strategic planning.  What follows below is a second excerpt from this author’s essay in which he uses the constitutional paradigm to reach a definitive conclusion on embedding:


The most striking argument in favor of embedding reporters comes from the constitutional paradigm.  The paradigm is particularly useful in this situation because rather than simply identifying actions as right or wrong, it provides a clear prioritization of the conflicting loyalties.  The need for operational secrecy, while undoubtedly a worthwhile concern, would fall under the category of “mission.”  Meanwhile, the need for transparency falls under the category of “Constitution.”  The U.S. Constitution, the supreme law of the land, and ultimate guiding doctrine of the United States guarantees that “Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”  This is unequivocal.  No one in the United States, not even the President or the military, can violate this fundamental right.  And in the constitutional paradigm, “Constitution” is one step above “mission.”  The constitutional paradigm would clearly endorse the practice of embedding.

            Despite these differing conclusions, I still unequivocally maintain that embedding reporters in the invasion of Iraq was morally correct.  The debate that ensued as a result was both inevitable and healthy.  But in a democracy, leaders must be held accountable for their actions.  For this reason, a free and uncensored press is absolutely necessary to the vitality of a democracy.  Without that press, a democracy can become tyrannical just as easily as a dictatorship can.  The founding fathers recognized this at the original drafting of the Constitution and the principles behind it have remained unchanged in the years since. 

            What makes this debate infinitely nuanced and complex is that it is a debate between two admirable virtues: liberty and security.  Therefore, any absolutist framework can be easily construed to support either side.  Even utilitarianism, the only consequentialist framework examined, ultimately failed to be conclusive.  The result of these inconclusive applications of frameworks seems to be a sort of boggy moral relativism where there can be no definitive moral judgment.  But rather, an irrefutable conclusion can only be ascertained through an ordering of priorities; a defined preference between liberty and security.  Luckily for this nation’s military leaders, they found just such an ordering of priorities in the constitutional paradigm.  With that reasoning, they were able to correctly identify that the Constitution and the liberties it assures all Americans cannot be ethically abridged because of the mere need for secrecy in executing a mission.  The military deserves to be commended for its remarkable growth and increased maturity in the years since the debacle in Vietnam. 

            Even as the United States was in its infancy Ben Franklin observed, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."[4]  The debate over embedding is merely the latest materialization of this struggle that Ben Franklin identified so many years ago.  Embedding does compromise operational security to some extent, but it does so for something far greater and far more necessary: liberty.  As Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke came to realize, “You can either embrace transparency or you’re going to get run over by it.”[5]


            While Col. Roush’s Constitutional Paradigm is by no means the ultimate solution to the problem of military ethics, it does, as illustrated above, represent an invaluable tool for service members struggling to make ethical decisions under constraints of stress and time.  The Paradigm has become a central feature of the Academy’s ethics instruction as it is, at least for most midshipmen, a more practical and realistic decision making model than Kantian of Aristotelian thought.  Other service academies, as well as the entire U.S. military, would be wise to consider integrating the Constitutional Paradigm into their own ethics programs. 



[1] Michael Janofsky, “Are Annapolis's Problems Systemic?The New York Times, 21 April 1996, 20.

[2] Jacobs, “My Week at Embed Bootcamp,” 36.

[3] John Burnett, “Embedded/Unembedded II,” Columbia Journal Review 42, no. 1 (May/June 2003): 43.

[4]Liberty versus security equals controversy; Anti-terror measures,” The Economist, 9 November 2005.

[5] As quoted on CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now” 18 Novermber 2004.  Transcript provided by Lexis-Nexis Academic.