Why Military Officers Must Have Training in Ethics



Robert G Kennedy, PhD

Department of Management

University of St Thomas

Mail #MCN 6001

St Paul, MN 55105

VOX: 651 962 5140      FAX: 651 962 5093

e-mail: rgkennedy@stthomas.edu

25-Jan-00      07:44



The laws are silent in time of war. (Silent enim leges inter arma.)


Oratio pro Milone, iv 52 BC


It has been for some time a generally receiv’d opinion that a military man is not to enquire whether a war be just or unjust; he is to execute his orders. All princes who are disposed to become tyrants must probably approve of this opinion . . . but is it not a dangerous one? Since, on that principle, if the tyrant commands his army to attack and destroy not only an unoffending neighbor nation but even his own subjects, the army is bound to obey. . . . The slavery, then, of a soldier is worse than that of a negro.

Benjamin Franklin



Nothing is more dangerous in wartime than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup Poll, always feeling one’s pulse and taking one’s temperature.

Winston Churchill

To the House of Commons, 30 September 1940





he questions of whether military officers ought to receive systematic education in ethics and, if so, what the form and substance of that education ought to be are a subset of a broader range of questions concerning the formation appropriate to professionals in all fields. In all professional fields, however, formation in ethics is often thought to be in conflict with sound professional practice. Ethical principles, the argument goes, are a constraint on professional judgment and action that, if taken seriously, will frequently replace excellent performance with mediocrity. This criticism is particularly acute in the context of the profession of arms, since diminished performance from officers inevitably entails direct risks to life and health. As a consequence, it is important to be clear about why education (which develops a knowledge of concepts and principles) and training (which develops skill in decision making) in ethics is an utterly necessary component of the formation of professional officers. It is the goal of this paper to explain why this is so.


Human life cannot be made entirely simple, routine and predictable. No matter how hard we try, there is always an irreducible element of complexity, disruption, and chaos. More sophisticated societies generally succeed in making much of life “manageable” by reducing the chaotic dimension through planning and routines that are themselves the result of experience and shared knowledge. Even in the most highly organized and systematic communities, however, there still occur problems and crises that are unexpected and often new. Every society enjoys and values the services of some members whose function it is both to design and implement solutions that increase the number of manageable problems and to confront new and unexpected challenges successfully. In primitive societies these shamans attempt to cope through the use of magic or by eliciting the cooperation of powerful spiritual beings. In more sophisticated societies magic and idolatry are supplanted by the efforts of professionals, who bring specialized knowledge and skill to bear on the problems of everyday life in all its dimensions.

Professionals, in a sense, live on the “cutting edge” between the tried and true and the new and uncertain. Society depends upon professionals to provide reliable fixed standards (of health, of justice, of truth, etc) in situations where the facts are murky or the temptations too strong. Their principal contribution is an ability to bring sound judgment to bear on these situations. They represent the best a particular community is able to muster in response to new challenges. By employing a knowledge of causes and principles, they are able to draw an increasing number of problems within the category of the predictable and manageable. Modern society, in many important ways, is the product of professional activity.

Every profession has its own area of specialization determined by the goods its practitioners seek to respect and protect, and by the standards of practice to which they are committed. The profession of arms is no exception. Where the medical profession seeks the good of health, and the legal profession seeks justice, perhaps paradoxically, the profession of arms seeks peace, even though it employs tools of violence to do so. However desirable it might be to avoid it, armed conflict between nations seems unavoidable as a practical matter. In preparing for and engaging in armed conflict, we may take it as axiomatic that a nation is best served when its military is led by professionals. A key question is whether these professionals are really enabled to do their jobs well (or better) when they have received education and training in ethics. My contention is that formation in ethics is not only useful but that it is essential for competent professional performance. To understand more clearly why this is so we need to look more closely at the nature of professional activity



The Essential Characteristics of Professional Practice


The unique and indispensable characteristic of a professional is the ability to exercise sound and reasonable judgment about important matters in conditions of uncertainty. This ability, in turn, depends upon three other factors that are necessary conditions for someone to exercise this sort of judgment: the professional must possess specialized knowledge, must make critical commitments, and must be permitted autonomy in decision making.


Specialized Knowledge


The sine qua non of professionalism is specialized knowledge, and not just any sort of specialized knowledge. It is an accumulated and ordered knowledge, built up over time by the experience, analysis, and insight of predecessors in the field. It is knowledge that penetrates to the root of the matter and gives its possessor an understanding not only of how things are, but why they are that way. It is also hard-won knowledge that requires time and effort to possess, knowledge that many people cannot achieve.

The professional, as a result, is the opposite of the “self-made man.” The professional is a man or woman who is deeply indebted to others from the start. Principal among these others are predecessors in the field who have discovered and systematized the knowledge and who have passed it on. Furthermore, the professional is indebted to the community. Virtually all professional education these days takes place in the context of a university, and the community (e.g., tax exemptions, land grants, donations, and tax deductions for donations, etc) heavily supports universities in many ways. The community offers this support because it values the contributions of the professional so highly, and because it expects a reciprocal dedication.

The professional is therefore obligated in justice to use his or her knowledge well, as partial compensation for the sacrifices that have made it possible for that person to become educated. In addition, he must add to the accumulated knowledge where possible, correcting it, refining it, and generally increasing its depth and breadth.

Such knowledge is powerful, and like many powerful things it can produce great benefits if used well, and great evils if used badly. For this reason, professionals have generally been careful throughout history to share their knowledge only with those personally committed to using it well, and to dismiss from their company those who evidence deep flaws in character. This is certainly true of the profession of arms, which in various ways (though sometimes unfairly or unwisely) aggressively filters out candidates for commission or promotion that it considers unworthy, regardless of their mastery of military knowledge.


Commitment to Service


To be a professional, to “profess,” is to stand for something in a public context, to make a public promise to the community. The first thing that a professional professes is commitment to address problems according to the principles and accepted practices of the discipline. The priest or minister accepts the doctrines and liturgical practices of a particular church community, just as the physician (at least in Europe and North America) adopts an approach to medicine that depends upon the physical sciences and the scientific method. As a result, someone relying upon a professional knows in advance something about how that person will deal with matters related to that professional area. A military professional not only makes a commitment, more or less, to do things “the Navy way” or “the Army way,” but also accepts a certain structure to the profession, such as a chain of command. Furthermore, it should go without saying that the commitment of the officer to these practices and structures is more serious in its entailments than similar commitments in other professions. This is reflected in the fact of the oath still sworn by officers, a practice abandoned (or never adopted) by many other professions.

Second, and more important, the true professional also professes service to others. That is, professionals publicly commit themselves to use their special knowledge principally to serve others and not primarily to serve themselves. This does not mean that professionals must be selfless in their practices. Quite the contrary, they may be well compensated in a variety of ways for what they do (though the “compensation” in some professions, such as teaching and the military, may take forms other than cash). However, their first concern in making decisions should always be the benefit to the person served (e.g., their fellow citizens or the men and women they command), and only secondarily the consequences to themselves. Furthermore, they place themselves at the service not only of their friends and neighbors, but of strangers as well. Soldier place themselves in harm’s way not only for their family and friends but also for the members of the larger community, even including at times enemy civilians. They are public persons and so have an obligation to serve those in need, regardless of personal relationship.

This does not mean that professionals must be utterly self-sacrificing in their practices, but it does mean that, as a community, we expect from them a higher level of dedication than we would from non-professionals. At times that means we expect them to work long hours or unusual hours, or to place themselves at some risk (even deadly risk), or to serve when they may not be paid, or to tell the truth no matter how unpleasant, or to do any of a number of other things that we would not always expect of others. The trade-off, of course, is that professionals by and large have a higher income (and greater related benefits) than non-professionals as well as a special status in the community. The society, incidentally, that fails to keep up its end of the bargain in one form or another risks either losing the services of competent professionals in certain areas or suffering abuses of professional power. This can be painful for society with respect to some professions, but potentially disastrous in the case of the military profession.


Autonomy in Decision Making


The third key characteristic of professionals, autonomy, or self-rule, is the liberty to choose concrete goals and specific courses of action without interference, or at least to make such choices within fairly expansive boundaries. The assumption that underlies the autonomy permitted to professionals is the belief that the real circumstances in which professionals are called upon to make decisions are potentially so varied that they cannot be adequately described in advance. In other words, the conditions in which problems present themselves in real life are inherently unpredictable, and so it is not possible to develop routines and detailed plans for coping with every contingency. Instead, we rely upon people who thoroughly understand the principles that lie at the foundation of successful solutions to craft a workable plan within the context in which the problem occurs. The value of professionals to a community lies precisely in their ability to devise successful new plans for new situations, and in order to do this they must have the freedom to break out of existing patterns when necessary.

This freedom, however, is not a freedom completely without restraint. It depends upon two kinds of criteria, and these criteria establish some boundaries. The first criterion is the welfare of the person or group served by the professional. The professional’s freedom is legitimate to the extent that it actually promotes this welfare and certainly does not permit courses of action that undermine it. The second criterion is the standard of practice generally accepted by other professionals (and perhaps even articulated in detail in a code of ethics or professional conduct). As long as professionals respect these boundaries they should be permitted to exercise their sound judgment in responding to the real problems they encounter in their practices.

More fundamentally, this freedom also depends upon trust. As a practical matter, we are willing to permit professionals a great deal of liberty as long as we believe that we can trust them to place the welfare of those they serve (clients, patients, students, citizens, and so on) ahead of their own interests, and to practice competently. Trust often comes down to a matter of personal contact and faith in a particular person. This is very obvious in medicine, where establishing a rapport with a patient can be critical. Less obvious, perhaps, but often equally important, is the trust that we personally place in individual architects, engineers, teachers, and lawyers. A strenuously enforced culture of honor and discipline in the military has a secondary function of encouraging civilian confidence.

Nevertheless, professionals sometimes betray this trust, and the community is rightly skeptical of the power of those with special knowledge. This knowledge can be used to help or to harm, and often we do not discover which it will be until it is too late. The Hippocratic Oath, perhaps the earliest professional pledge we possess, can be read as a detailed promise to honor the physician’s obligations to those from whom he learned the art, to practice according to a high standard, and to refrain from taking advantage of opportunities to use the knowledge of the profession to harm others. The specific response to incidents of betrayal in civilian life is litigation, and if the betrayal seems common enough (or too serious to tolerate even if rare), the public response is regulation (which has the effect of further restricting the professional’s liberty). The analogous response for military misbehavior may range from dismissal to criminal prosecution, and for the armed services as a whole it tends to be increased civilian oversight. For most professions it is this regulation or oversight, not ethics, that constitutes, directly or indirectly, the constraint on professional practice that undermines excellence.

The issue of autonomy and trust is critical for the profession of arms, and key for understanding why training in ethics is so important for officers. We will return to it.


Sound Judgment


As mentioned earlier, the key characteristic of a true professional is the ability to make sound judgments in conditions of uncertainty. Anyone trained in first aid will know how to deal with a minor cut or sprain. When faced with a more serious or less common injury, we turn to someone who has much more extensive knowledge and experience, and eventually that means turning to a physician. We have good reason to believe that the combination of knowledge and experience allows the professional to make good decisions even when presented with something new and different, perhaps even unprecedented. And what is true in medicine is also true in law, science and scholarship, engineering, architecture, war, and other professional areas. (Needless to say, while a particular professional might be a person of sound judgment generally, this does not mean that his or her judgment is professional judgment outside that person’s area of expertise.)

In moral philosophy, the general ability to make sound judgments is called prudence, or practical wisdom, and it involves knowing both what goals are worth pursuing and what means will be most likely to achieve those goals. Furthermore, each professional area has its own specific prudence (such as medical prudence or military prudence). The architect, for instance, should have a good idea of what makes a building both functional and beautiful, and a clear conception of what materials and techniques will be required to build the building efficiently and effectively. Or the general directing a battle should have a clear sense of what ends are really to be pursued through the application of force and of how best to use his resources of personnel and material to achieve those ends. If his judgment is really sound, he must also be able to adapt his plan during the battle in response to unexpected developments without losing sight of the good to be accomplished.

To be genuinely sound and truly useful for a community, professional judgment must concern the application of efficient and effective means to the pursuit of real human goods. Judgment that falls short cannot be properly professional, but this, too, requires education in ethics.



Why Education in Ethics is Necessary for Military Professionals


This description of the nature of professional practice allows us to identify at least two reasons for concluding that military officers cannot perform their proper functions without education and training in ethics. The first of these is that officers cannot possess or sustain the autonomy they require for exercising professional judgment without understanding what goods served by their professional practice and publicly evidencing a commitment to serve these goods. The second, and related, reason is that professional judgment itself goes beyond an ability to estimate efficiency and effectiveness and must include judgment about the goodness and badness of means and ends if it is to be fully practical and truly effective. We will consider each reason in more detail.


Ethics and Autonomy


The sort of autonomy proper to professionals of all sorts—even military professionals serving in a democracy—is not the absence of regulation, constraint, or governance. It is a liberty that permits professionals to respond to challenges posed by concrete situations in all their uniqueness and complexity. If the community is genuinely to receive the benefit of their competence, properly qualified and committed professionals must be permitted to apply their knowledge and skills as they see fit. The submission of the military in general to civilian authority is no more a forfeiture of legitimate autonomy than is the licensure of physicians and attorneys. Civilian authority, in principle, has responsibility for the good of the entire society and therefore legitimately governs and coordinates the elements of society, including professional practice.

This governance authority, however, properly extends to general matters only. The executive or the legislature, for example, may establish a budget for health care or for highway construction; they do not legitimately direct the diagnosis and treatment of patients or design the highway. Similarly, civilian authorities properly determine when military force may be used and perhaps participate in broad strategic decisions, but they violate the autonomy of military professionals if they attempt to direct tactical decisions, sometimes with tragic results. It is not a challenge to civilian authority if officers object to interference of this sort.

But to be fair, interference of the sort the military experienced at times in Vietnam, in Iran, or in Somalia, may be occasioned by a lack of civilian confidence, a failure of trust, in military judgment, that is, in the professionalism of officers. (It may also, of course, be occasioned by a variety of personal flaws in civilian commanders, as evidenced, for example, in the meddling of several heads of government during the Second World War.) The general remedy for a failure of trust entails both the knowledge and the commitment of officers.

For non-professionals to trust professionals they must be persuaded that the professionals in question really do possess the appropriate specialized knowledge. In order to establish this, physicians in private practice commonly display their diplomas and certificates on the walls of their examining rooms. Many other professionals do similar things, such as soldiers displaying emblems of their training experiences and competencies on their uniforms. This is not simply narcissism; it is a symbolic indication that individual professionals have passed the test and truly possess the knowledge necessary to perform well.

Professional commitment is not so easily demonstrated, and many professionals neglect to evidence it in favor of displaying their technical competence. It is important nevertheless. When my elderly mother remarks that the doctor who examined her at the clinic was a nice young man she is doing more than describing a personality. She is reporting that she believes that the doctor has her best interests in mind. The physician, on the other hand, who focuses on patients only as technical problems posed for his expertise, may quickly find that patients lose confidence in him regardless of his skills. Their trust cannot be elicited without evidence of both skill and commitment.

Now the particular commitment that professionals must make is a commitment to the well-being of those whom they serve. For physicians, this is a commitment to the health of their patients; for attorneys, it should be a commitment to see that their clients receive justice. More broadly, professionals ordinarily serve an important common good enjoyed by the community, such as health, justice, or in the case of the military, peace. But to serve this common good, whether on the level of the community in general or on the level of the individual, professionals must know clearly what that common good is and how it may be protected in the concrete. This is precisely the function of education in ethics.

In the case of military officers, this means that autonomy will not be granted by the community (and those who govern the community) unless the officers display the appropriate military skills and evidence a commitment to establish and protect peace. (This is a necessary, though perhaps not a sufficient condition for the granting of autonomy.) Such a commitment is not possible unless officers understand that peace is only firmly established on justice and comprehend that an application of force that entails injustice cannot bring about peace. As a consequence, they must understand quite clearly what misuses of force create injustices and be committed to avoid them.


Ethics and Sound Professional Judgment


The work of most professionals is practical, which means that it is strongly oriented to action (academics may be the most notable exception). Because of this orientation it is tempting for professionals to judge possible choices principally in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. These twin values are certainly important. We would not think much of a professional committed to waste and failure. Nevertheless, genuinely practical thinking is much more than estimating costs and calculating probabilities of success. Complete practical thinking involves two components. The first component is indeed these judgments about the efficiency and effectiveness of means and we may call this technical thinking. The second component, though, consists of judgments about the goodness or badness of both goals and effects of actions. We may call this moral or ethical thinking. To be fully practical we must not only think about how well certain means will accomplish goals, we must also consider whether the goals are worth accomplishing and whether the means we select have other effects that might be intolerable.

Professional training tends to be strongly skewed in the direction of technical thinking, which means that it tends to emphasize heavily the development of particular skill sets as well as the ability to estimate costs and outcomes from proposed courses of action. However crucial these skills are, it is a mistake of the first magnitude to believe that technical thinking is the whole of practical thinking or that it is the essence of professionalism. Instead, it is an indispensable first step that must be completed by ethical thinking.

Technical skills without moral insight are directionless, and therefore dangerous. The amoral professional (to say nothing of the immoral professional) is a tool for hire, and indeed is no professional at all; he is a technician, valued for his skill but not for his judgment.

The increasing demands in all professional areas for technical competence place considerable pressure on formation programs. Technical training tends to crowd less immediately useful subjects our of the limited amount of time available. We certainly see this in medical schools, law schools, business schools and, I think quite probably in our military academies as well. The result in most cases is a caricature of a professional.

Consider an analogy. A superbly conditioned athlete who is unfamiliar with the rules of the game will never play football, basketball, hockey or any other sport at a level of excellence. He may be able to do certain things well, but these particular skills will never be integrated with the knowledge and judgment of the game absolutely required to make him an outstanding player. So it is with professional performance. Without ethical thinking, highly developed skills cannot result in professional excellence.

The essence of professional excellence lies in the integrated ability to achieve and protect concrete human goods. Each professional area serves a distinct good or set of goods that contribute to the common good of a community (though there may be some overlap between related professional areas). The physician, for example, seeks the human good of life and health. Sound professional judgment will permit the physician to identify threats to health and to determine how best to respond to those threats. In making this determination, she must have in mind the health of the whole patient and not merely the proper functioning of this organ or that system. The physician, in other words, must be able to judge correctly that some treatments, while effective in dealing with certain symptoms, may aggravate others and leave the patient in poorer health than before treatment began.

Similarly, the military professional must be able to judge, for example, that certain tactical choices, while quite effective in accomplishing a particular mission, might not really further the cause of restoring a just peace. A technician sees the immediate objective; the professional must be mindful of the final goal. In order to think in this way, in order to be fully practical, the military professional (like any other professional) must be educated in ethics, which moves his attention beyond efficiency and effectiveness to real issues of good and bad. A democracy deserves no less than this from its military officers, and for the sake of their personal integrity, officers in training must require nothing less from those who would form them.