Moral Considerations in Military Decision Making
Department of Philosophy
Texas A & M University
In the course of her military career a professional soldier will face many difficult decisions. She may encounter anything from deciding whether or not to “pencil whip” training records in order to promote a deserving Airman, to deciding whether or not military sites in heavily populated areas should be targeted for bombing. If she is to be able to make the right decision, and make the right decision consistently she must have the proper tools to analyze and judge the morality of her choices. She must have at hand some criteria, some moral system, on which to base her decisions.
The question that
I am concerned with in this paper is what moral system should the professional
soldier use as a basis for making her decisions? The United States military
in an attempt to supply a moral grounding for military decision making
has turned to a form of virtue ethics. In virtue ethics one does not focus
on the conditions under which an action is moral or immoral, but rather
on the character of the actor. The question turns from is this action good,
to what would a good person do under these circumstances? To help answer
this question each service has provided its members with a set of Core
Values. The Air Force, for example, identifies “Integrity first, Service
before self, and Excellence in all we do” as their Core Values.
these Core Values represent is the kind of character that the services
want its members to emulate. The reasoning is straightforward. If a person
is of good character, then, it is believed that, when they are presented
with a moral dilemma they will make the proper choice. And this certainly
seems true; at least with the easy cases. A person of good character certainly
would not sexual harass a subordinate or co-worker, nor would they steal
office supplies. What of the more difficult cases, though, cases where
it is not obviously apparent what the right action is? The Air Force defines
its first Core value, integrity, as:
…the willingness to do what is right even when no one is looking. It is the “moral compass” the inner voice; the voice of self-control; the basis for the trust imperative in today’s military.
they incorporate into integrity other important character traits such as:
courage, honesty, responsibility, accountability, and justice. Knowing,
though, that one should behave justly, or courageously, or that they should
do the right thing does not tell them what the right thing is.A
person of integrity, as defined by the Air Force, would truly be a good
person, but even good people need guidelines. Simply being of good character
is not sufficient to tell one how to act. It is not enough to have the
disposition to do the right thing; one must also know what the right thing
to do is. It is necessary, therefore, even within the scope of virtue ethics,
to have a system by which one can judge the morality of an action.
So, the set of
Core Values helps develop good character, and establish a pattern of behavior,
but it does not necessarily identify the proper course of action. For that
we are going to need some other moral system, but which one? In modern
times there are two moral systems that have come to dominate the field
of ethics: Kantianism and Utilitarianism, and philosophers have been applying
both these systems to military ethics. I believe, however, that this is
a mistake. It seems that whatever system is chosen must at a minimum have
as a characteristic the capacity to be held consistently by the professional
soldier. That is, there should be no time when the requirements of the
moral system conflict with the duties and responsibilities of the professional
soldier. I do not believe that either Kantian or Utilitarian ethics can
meet this requirement.
There is a moral
system, though, proffered by Bernard Gert in his book Morality: Its
Nature and Justification, that I believe cannot only be held consistently
by professional soldier, but that is very well suited to meet the needs
of the modern military. Before I explicate Gert’s system, though, I want
to first briefly give my justifications for claiming that Kantianism and
Utilitarianism are inconsistent with the duties of the professional solider.
it is true that on a day to day basis the professional soldier has many
duties and responsibilities, there is one duty, one responsibility that
supercedes all others. There is one reason why the professional soldier
puts on a uniform—to protect and defend the Constitution of the United
States. It is this duty that I am concerned with. It is this duty that
I believe can come into conflict with a Kantian or Utilitarian ethical
claim that a Kantian ethic, or a Respect for Persons (RP) view as it is
sometimes called, is inconsistent with the duties of a professional soldier
is not a very controversial one. A cornerstone to the RP view is that all
people have certain rights that cannot be morally violated unless they
act in some way as to forfeit those rights. In the realm of military ethics
one area of concern is the loss of life. That is, when and under what circumstances
is one justified in taking a life?
According to RP
theorists everyone has the right to life, unless they forfeit that right
by taking a life, or participating in an activity that would lead to someone
losing their life. Being a military combatant, for example, would cause
you to forfeit your right to life, as would working in a munitions plant.
Being a patient in a hospital adjacent to a munitions plant would not,
however, cause you to forfeit your right to life. If it was believed that
destroying the munitions plant would necessarily cause the lose of a life
in the hospital, then a person holding to a RP view would have to maintain
that destroying the munitions plant was morally wrong. This is true regardless
of the threat that the plant poses. Imagine that the plant was developing
a biological agent that had the capability of destroying all life on earth,
and that those in charge intended to release the agent upon its completion.
If destroying the plant caused the death of one innocent person, then the
RP theorist must maintain that doing so is immoral, regardless of the positive
consequences of the action. Even the fact that the person would have died
anyway as the result of the biological agent does not effect the position
of the RP theorist. He must maintain that it is better for everyone to
die, rather than cause the death of an innocent. Such a view is obviously
inconsistent with the duties of a professional soldier. A person of integrity,
according to the Air Force, always does what is right. A Kantian when faced
with the choice between sacrificing the constitution or taking an innocent
life would hold that the right thing to do would be to sacrifice the constitution.
The professional soldier, on the other hand, while she would certainly
attempt to avoid and minimize the loss of innocent life, would not allow,
could not allow the constitution and all it stands for to perish. She could
not consistently be a Kantian.
Similarly, I do
not believe that a professional soldier could be a Utilitarian, although,
I do recognize that this is far more controversial position than the previous
one. One of the primary reasons that RP theories do not meet the needs
of a professional soldier is that they fail to take into account the consequences
of the actions involved. Utilitarianism does not suffer this from this
deficiency. It does, however, have a serious flaw. The Utilitarian would
be willing to pay any price as long as the desired consequences, the maximization
of happiness for the greatest number of people, were brought about. Even
if by doing do he where to violate or destroy the Constitution of the United
us consider whether or not the duties of a professional soldier are compatible
with the duties generated by act-utilitarianism. While, it is true that
on a day to day basis the professional soldier has many duties and responsibilities,
there is one duty, one responsibility that overrides all others. According
to the Nuremberg Principle all soldiers have a duty to humanity first and
the foremost. While, there remains some dispute over the exact nature of
a soldier’s duty to humanity at least this much is agreed upon—asoldier
has a duty not to perpetrate crimes against humanity regardless of any
orders. Again, what constitutes a crimes against humanity is a matter of
some debate. There are certain actions, though, such as ethnic cleansing,
that everyone agrees is a crime against humanity. So a professional soldier
has a duty not to engage in ethnic cleansing.
question, then, is, can act-utilitarianism require one to engage in ethnic
cleansing? If the answer is “yes,” then the duties of professional soldier
are incompatible with those of act-utilitarianism. So, what absolute duties
are generated by act-utilitarianism? C. E. Harris tells that:
Act utilitarianism judges the morality of an action by whether the action itself produces the most utility [for the greatest number of people], or at least as much utility as any other action.
duty, then, as an act-utilitarian is to perform whatever action is going
to maximize the utility of the greatest number of people—what I call “the
maximal group.” This duty is absolute in the sense that as an act-utilitarian
it supercedes any other duty one may have.In
fact it can be argued that the only duty an act-utilitarian has is to perform
whatever action is going to maximize the utility of the maximal group.
If, then, the act of ethnic cleaning maximizes the utility of the maximal
group, then the act-utilitarian would have to say that performing the action—i.e.
engaging in ethnic cleansing—is required. The answer is “yes,” act-utilitarianism
can require one to engage in ethnic cleansing if it maximizes utility for
the maximal group. So, we have a straight forward case where there is a
conflict between the duties of professional soldier and those of act-utilitarianism.
that act-utilitarianism can require actions, such as ethnic cleansing,
is a standard objection to the theory, and utilitarians have a standard
response. While it might be true that ethnic cleansing is not forbidden
by act-utilitarianism, it is forbidden by rule-utilitarianism.
Rule utilitarianism judges the morality of an action by whether the moral rule presupposed by the action, if generally followed, would produce the most utility [for the greatest number of people], or at least as much utility as any other action.
One’s duty as
a rule-utilitarian, then, is to perform the action that presupposes the
moral rule that if generally followed would result in maximizing utility
for the maximal group. A rule-utilitarian is going to claim that if the
rule, “Do not engage in ethnic cleansing,” is generally followed, then
overall utility is going to be maximized. Rule-utilitarianism requires,
then, one not to engage in ethnic cleansing. There is, therefore, on this
account, no inconsistencies between the duties of a professional soldier
and those of a rule-utilitarian.
rules, such as those presupposed by the Rule Utilitarian, as a matter of
fact will at some point conflict with one another. Consider the following
shall always keep my promises, and
(ii)I shall not knowingly put myself in a situation where I am likely to be killed.
consider a variation of an example Plato gave in the Republic. Suppose
that a friend has entrusted Bill, a stanch Rule Utilitarian, with a pistol,
and Bill has promised to return the pistol to her whenever she asked him
to. Now, imagine that Bill and his friend are in the midst of fight and
she demands her gun. When Bill ask her why she wants her pistol she tells
him that she is going to shoot him. What would Bill, as a good Rule Utilitarian,
do? It seems that he has competing maxims. Well, what I suspect a Rule
Utilitarian would have to do is generate a new maxim to deal with that
specific situation. Perhaps it would be:
(iii)I shall always keep my promises, unless by doing so I shall knowingly put myself in a situation where there is a strong possibility that I may be killed.
then suppose that Bill become a police officer, or firefighter, or a professional
soldier. By doing so Bill will be making a promise that he, as part of
the duties to his office, will knowingly put himself in situations where
there is a strong possibility that he may be killed. So, as a good Kantian
Bill would have to come up with a new rule:
(iv)I shall always keep my promises, unless by doing so I shall knowingly put myself in a situation where there is a strong possibility that I may be killed, unless a police officer, or firefighter, or a professional soldier or hold some other position that is essential to the well-being of society.
And one can imagine
other rules conflicting with (iv), and so a new rule would have to be made.
What would happen, just as it did with the rule-utilitarian, is that eventually
the rule will become so specific that Bill is no longer dealing with a
generality, he is only dealing with a particular action.
I believe both the Kantian and Utilitarian systems fail is that they do
not allow for exceptions.The Kantian
would rather see America fall than allow the taking of an innocent life.
Likewise, the Utilitarian would destroy the country if it maximized happiness
for the greatest number of people. Of course, the professional soldier
may go her entire career as a Kantian or Utilitarian and never face a conflict
between her duties and her moral system.The
possibility of a conflict by itself, though, is sufficient, I think, to
warrant advocating a new moral system.
The system that
I believe is best suited for the needs of the military and the professional
soldier is what I call “Gertian Morality.” Gert defines morality as:
…an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and includes what are commonly known as the moral rules, ideals, and virtues and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal.
are three terms in this definition that need to be defined if one is to
understand Gert's moral system. They are: “rational person,” “public system,”
and “moral rule.”
a “rational person” Gert means a person who has: “neither irrational beliefs,
desires, nor motives, and [is] not acting irrationally.”
By “irrational beliefs” Gert means any belief that would seem irrational
to a person with sufficient knowledge and intelligence to be a moral agent.
For Gert “moral agent” is going to be synonymous with “rational person.”
Gert states that: “a desire is irrational if it is always irrational to
act on it without an adequate reason.”
An adequate reason being a reason that would make an otherwise irrational
act, rational. Motives are conscious beliefs that an agent has at the time
of action or deliberation that play an explanatory role for his doing the
action. If this belief is irrational then the motive will be irrational.
An act is irrational just in case all fully informed rational persons would
advocate that no one that they were concerned about, including themselves,
do that act.
is a public system. That means that it is intended to guide a person’s
conduct as it relates to others. If there were only one person on the planet
they would be incapable of doing anything morally wrong. There would be
no moral system, and therefore no moral judgments. There is, however, a
multitude of people on the planet, so there is a moral system and hence
moral judgments. The question then is who falls within the scope of moral
judgements; that is, who constitutes a moral agent? As I stated above Gert
equates “moral agent” with “rational person.”
does identify certain required features a public system must have. They
(1) All persons to whom it applies, all those whose behavior is to be guided and judged by that system, understand it, and know what behavior the system prohibits, requires, encourages, and allows. (2) It is not irrational for any of these persons to accept being guided and judged by the system.
the case of Gert’s moral system all rational persons must know and understand
what is morally required, prohibited and encouraged. They are going to
gain this knowledge through understanding what is a moral rule and what
is a moral ideal. Moral rules identify what is morally required and prohibited,
while moral ideals identify what is morally encouraged.
particular importance are general moral rules. These are going to be the
basic guidelines that will aid the professional soldier in her decision
making process. According to Gert a moral rule governs what is morally
required and prohibited. A general moral rule is a moral rule that applies
to rational persons in all societies and at all times. No action, then,
that could not be performed in every society and at every time can be the
basis of a general moral rule. You could not have, for example, a general
moral rule that governed the use of firearms because there have been societies
that had no knowledge of firearms. Because general moral rules apply to
all societies and to all times they are unchanging and unchangeable. That
is not to say that they could not have been otherwise. If it had been the
case that moral agents could not die, for example, then there would be
no general moral rule-governing killing.
identifies ten general moral rules:
Do not kill,(2) Do not cause pain,
Do not disable,(4) Do not deprive
Do not deprive pleasure, (6)
Do not deceive,
Keep your promises, (8) Do not
(9) Obey the law, (10) Do your duty.
rules, which apply to all rational people, act as a basic standard for
human conduct and interaction. They are, however, not absolute. Gertian
Morality allows for justified violations of moral rules. According to Gert,
moral rules should be formulated in the following manner:
Everyone (including myself) is always to obey the rule “Do not…,” except when a fully informed, impartial rational person can publicly allow violating it. Anyone (including myself) who violates the rule when a fully informed rational person cannot publicly allow such a violation may be punished.
if a fully informed, impartial, rational person can publicly allow the
sacrificing of an innocent life in order to protect the constitution, then
to do so would be morally permissible. Fully informed simply means that
one has all the information needed to make a decision. Rational we have
already discussed. To act impartially with respect to moral rules, simply
means that one cannot allow the rule to be violated so that some members
will benefit, when you would not allow the rule to be violated so that
other members of the group can benefit. So, one could not justify allowing
adultery in the officer ranks, and condemn it among the enlisted Likewise,
you cannot violate the rule in relation to one group (i.e. race, gender,
nationality, rank) when you would not allow the rule to be violate towards
another group under the same circumstance. Take the munitions plant that
is developing the biological agent as an example. If you were impartial
than you would advocate bombing the plant, and to some extent the hospital
next to it, regardless of what nation the plant was in.
of things that I think makes Gert’s system so useful for the military is
that it includes in its list of general moral rules: Obey the law, and
Do your duty. After all, it is the ultimate goal of every service’s Core
Value program, I believe, to get their members to follow these two rules:
obey the law, and do their duty. More importantly, though, the duty of
the professional soldier to protect and defend the Constitution of the
United State is finally recognized for what it is—a moral obligation.
Gert’s system is in keeping with the goals of the Core Value program, but
in order for it to be effective, one has to be able to use it to determine
what the right thing to do is. Gert sets out a two step process to determining
the morality of an action. Step one is determining the kind of violation
that the action causes. Gert has designed ten questions that are intended
to do this. They are:
moral rule is being violated?
harms are being cause, avoided, and/or prevented by the violation?
are the relevant desires and beliefs of the person toward whom the rule
is being violated?
the relationship between the person violating the rule and the persons
towards whom the rule is being violated is such that the former has a duty
to violate moral rules with regard to the later independent of their consent?
goods (including kind, degree, probability, duration, and distribution)
are being promoted by the violation?
the rule being violated towards a person in order to prevent her from violating
a moral rule when the violation would be (1) unjustified?
the rule being violated towards a person because he has violated a moral
rule (1) unjustifiably?
there any alternative actions or policies that would be preferable?
the violation being done intentionally or only knowingly?
the situation an emergency such that no person is likely to be in that
kind of situation?
these questions have been answered, and the kind of violation that you
are dealing with has been specified you move on to step two; determining
the consequences of the violation being publicly allowed. So, you do not
consider merely the consequences of your actions, as you do in some Utilitarian
systems, you consider the effects of publicly allowing the violation.
the case of falsifying training records in order to promote a deserving
Airman. If falsifying the training records were publicly allowed, it would
not only undermine the position of the Airman being promoted, but it would
undermine the entire training process. Mission essential training would
not get accomplished, and training that was preformed would be suspect.
Once the action is considered in these lights it can be seen how damaging
it would be. The Gertian would conclude that falsifying the training records
is the wrong thing to do. Of course, Kantian and Utilitarian systems would
conclude the same thing, but we have already discussed the problems with
Gertian Morality in conjunction with the preexisting Core Values, I believe, can be a tremendous tool to aid the professional soldier when considering moral issues in her decision making process.