Ethical Decision-Making in the Military Decision-Making Process

Contribution to the JSCOPE 2000 Conference “Moral Considerations in Military Decision Making”.

Dr. D. (Desiree) Verweij

Lieutenant Colonel G.A.A.M. (Gérard) Cloïn (drs.)

Major E.C. (Erhan) Tanercan MED (drs.)


Tel: +31 76 527 46 53


A great deal has changed in the Royal Netherlands Army (RNLA) in recent years. Not only has the task of the RNLA changed, but so has its composition. To begin with the first aspect: the task of the RNLA and that of the armed forces as a whole has been extended. This means that operations outside the Netherlands in all manner of international frameworks, such as the UN and NATO, have become the rule rather than the exception. The composition of the RNLA and of the armed forces has also changed. We no longer have conscripts in our army; we have all-volunteer forces, forces that wish to reflect society on a number of important counts. One of the significant consequences of the changes in respect of the new task and composition of the armed forces is the confrontation with different cultures and with different and new values and standards. To ensure that military personnel are able to deal with this situation in a professional manner, education in ethics is extremely important. This article elaborates on why this is the case and how such a professional attitude can be achieved.

Section 1 contains an explanation of what exactly constitutes ethics, with section 2 taking this a step further and concentrating on the division of general ethics into corporate ethics and professional ethics. Another division takes us to the ethics of military practice. Thus section 3 deals with a number of characteristics typical of the RNLA, followed by a brief discussion of the RNLA’s code of conduct. In section 4 and 5 the operational decision-making process and the ethical decision-making model are covered respectively, followed in section 6 by an indication of how the two may be integrated. Finally, section 7 answers the question of how ethical decision-making can be taught.

1.What are ethics?

Ethics are the systemic reflection of morals[i]. Morals may be described as the set of standards and values, of manners and customs in a certain group of people at a particular time. Most people act on the basis of a certain moral, in other words using particular standards and values. But what are standards and values, exactly? A standard is a rule, a guideline for behaviour. An example of a standard is politeness. Standards may be regarded as guides towards a certain objective, a certain value. A value is the objective of a standard. In the example given, ‘politeness’ is the standard and ‘respect for another as a person’ the objective. This example may be used to illustrate that a standard is empty without an underlying value, and thus has little purpose, because if there is no respect behind the expressed politeness for the person in question, the politeness is nothing more than a sham, and thus has no meaning whatsoever. 

A value may be regarded as an ideal, as something to be pursued, something one tries to achieve. Values are things that people say are important; hence the assertion that something is valuable or has value. This is said, for example, of peace and security; these are two values which form a significant justification for the deployment of military personnel. In its Mission Statement,[ii]the Royal Netherlands Army indicates a number of values and standards that are important for the army and the execution of its tasks. On the basis of these values we can establish rules of behaviour that apply for all members of the organisation. 

As mentioned above, values form the basis for action. We are not constantly aware of this; we adhere to rules and have certain ideals without actually thinking about it. An increasing number of organisations and professional groups are realising that it is a good thing to think about this sometimes; hence the increased attention being paid to corporate ethics and professional ethics. 

2.Corporate ethics and professional ethics

Corporate ethics and professional ethics constitute a further division of general ethics, as discussed in section 1. The ethics of the armed forces, or military ethics, contain both. In practice, corporate and professional ethics often coincide. The difference between corporate ethics and professional ethics is usually seen as the difference between the individual and the organisation as a whole. Applied to the armed forces, this means that professional ethics concern the moral aspects (values and standards) of the actions of the individual soldier; corporate ethics concern the moral aspects (values and standards) which play a part in the activities undertaken by the armed forces, or the RNLA, as an organisation. This difference between corporate and professional ethics is sometimes referred to as the difference between corporate ethics[iii] and individual ethicsi. This differentiation is usually a distinction between two angles of approach regarding ethics. In practice it is not always an easy distinction to make, as corporate and professional ethics often coincide, as mentioned above. Applied to the armed forces, one could say that corporate ethics can be seen as forming part of military operational management, and professional ethics as part of the training, development and professional practice of the individual soldier. This means that corporate ethics are geared towards the sound operational management of the RNLA and the armed forces as a whole, and professional ethics towards sound personal development and sound pursuance of the profession of the individual soldier. This is the rationale behind the definition of ethics for the RNLA: “All forms of thinking about human behaviour within the RNLA in respect of its tasks, from the perspective of good and bad, of standards and values, of responsibility and choice”[iv]. As indicated, corporate ethics and professional ethics often coincide in practice, and indeed must coincide if policy is to be effective. The values for which an organisation stands - or for which it claims to stand - must actually be shared by the person who is to implement the policy. Not only does this concern the personnel in one’s own country, but it also relates to the tasks to be carried out abroad. Corporate ethics are only effective in combination with professional ethics. In other words: within an organisation there must be a link between corporate ethics and individual ethics. This means that the general policy (corporate ethics) must be substantiated by an individual who genuinely endorses it, and who demonstrates this in his/her actions (individual ethics). This is confirmed by the code of conduct for the armed forces as a whole, and the derived code of conduct for the RNLA. 

3.Characteristics of the RNLA and the RNLA’s Code of Conduct

The code of conduct for the armed forces of the Netherlands was presented to parliament in November 1996, to be subsequently tailored further to the specific organisation of each Service. Before dealing with the RNLA code of conduct in further detail, it is important to look first of all at a number of special characteristics of the organisation from which the aforementioned code of conduct stems. For the RNLA there are five special characteristics worth mentioning[v]

a)Force. Together with the police, the armed forces have the monopoly on the lawful use of force. This also means that the RNLA, if directed to do so, must use force. Members of this organisation must be trained to use force on a large scale. However, rules for the use of force exist (rules of engagement, fire orders, RNLA directive for the use of force, etc.) and must be observed.

b.Command. In the armed forces, orders and commands from superiors must be accepted and carried out, even if personal arguments sometimes stand in the way. Here, too, there are rules with which a military order must comply[vi].These rules protect subordinates from unfairness and the abuse of authority.

c)Reflection. The RNLA recruits its personnel from the Dutch labour market. As indicated in the introduction to this article, the armed forces constitute a reflection of society in the sense that they recruit personnel from all strata of the population. However, the armed forces are not a reflection of society when it comes, for instance, to tolerance regarding the use of drugs or too great an orientation towards the individual. In this respect the RNLA applies a different set of values, to which new employees are introduced during training and instruction and by following the example set by others. 

d.Limitation. Because legislation relating to working conditions cannot be observed during military operations and personnel are sometimes exposed to life-threatening situations, the RNLA must train its personnel accordingly. This training must take place responsibly and must not lead to situations in which personnel are bullied or in which power and authority are used improperly. In other words, on the one hand RNLA personnel must achieve a certain level of hardness as a result of training, enabling them to survive in difficult circumstances. On the other hand, the bounds of what is permissible must never be exceeded.

e.Action. The organisation is geared towards action. Wherever possible, the consequences of this action must be calculated in advance. Obviously, this isby no means always possible. Therefore the commander at any level, whether he/she be a general, sergeant or corporal, must ultimately be able to make a decision, even in highly problematic situations.

The RNLA’s code of conduct indicates the lowest level of corporate ethics in the RNLA. In other words these are the most important values and standards to which all members of the RNLA must adhere. To a significant extent, the code of conduct derives its right to exist from the characteristics outlined above. The code is as follows:

RNLA Code of Conduct[vii]:

As a serviceman/woman or civilian employee I make an important contribution to the defence of our country and to peace and security in the world. In doing so, I keep to the following code of conduct. 

1.I try to do my best and am prepared to learn from my mistakes.

2.Both my attitude and my behaviour show that I am proud to work for the Royal Netherlands Army. 

3.As a member of a team, I need my colleagues and they need me. For this reason I also feel responsible for their well-being and, if necessary, I call them to account for their actions. 

4.I am responsible for the correct use of the equipment and funds entrusted to me and of the services offered to me. 

5.In all my actions I consider the safety of myself and my surroundings. For this reason, I avoid drugs and limit my alcohol intake. 

6.I respect human rights and keep to the rules laid down by the laws of war. I treat everyone equally and with respect, and wherever possible offer aid to fellow humans in need.

7.I carry out my assigned tasks professionally, albeit in difficult circumstances and even in the event of danger to my own life. 

8.I never abuse the power entrusted to me. I shall use force if ordered to, but never more than is necessary for completing my tasks. Anyone, certainly my opponent, may be sure that I am resolute and persistent.

In addition to the eight rules listed above, there are also international rules - such as those of the law of war (mentioned in article 6 of the RNLA code of conduct) - which military personnel must observe. Clearly, the formulation of rules is in itself no guarantee that they will be observed. It is important that the individual military and civilian member of personnel should actually be able to endorse the rules. As indicated earlier, the policy that is mapped out has no actual point until it can be recognised in the attitude of the person implementing the policy in a concrete practical situation. In order to realise this, the development of personal insights and personal judgements in the sphere of military ethics is thus extremely important. However, these insights and judgements do not appear out of thin air; education and development play a crucial role in this respect. Ethics must be firmly rooted in values practised. This includes values experienced in difficult circumstances, for instance during tours of duty and operational deployment. As pointed out above, one of the special characteristics of the RNLA is that of action. This means, as mentioned, that commanders at all levels have to be able to make decisions in what are sometimes difficult situations. How can one ensure that a responsible decision is taken? This is treated in further detail in the following sections.

4.The operational decision-making process

The new tasks of the RNLA, as discussed in the introduction, have also led to a review of the method of command and control. In view of the increasing flexibility of the RNLA’s operations and the fact that the RNLA is operating in new, unknown areas with tasks such as peacekeeping and peace enforcement, the command and control had to be tailored to the new situation. Contemporary operations under the aegis of the UN or NATO require fast and flexible action on the part of the units. In this respect the commanders at all levels in the organisation must be given the task and authority that belong to such an operation. In other words: decentralisation of management (command and control) and delegation of the necessary authority are of vital importance to the organisation’s effective operation. In operational terms it may be said that the commanders no longer determine the ‘how’ but rather the ‘what’ of an operation. In doing so they leave the ‘how’ to their sub-commanders to establish. In this context we speak of ‘mission-specific command and control’. Whereas previously the commander decided exactly what was to happen and how the operation was to progress, who was to do what, where, when and how, nowadays he/she merely indicates what is to be done and what is the ultimate objective. Consequently, the sub-commanders must take decisions and are thus given more responsibility. 

A significant element of the new method of command and control is the operational decision-making process[viii]. This process is aimed at taking a well-considered, rational decision by following a number of steps. To be able to make sound decisions, commanders must be able to consider situations, underpin their ultimate choice with sound arguments and render account for it later, if necessary. The operational decision-making process is divided into four phases, each consisting of one or more steps. This is expressed in diagram form as follows:
Phases of the Operational Decision-Making Process 


This is by no means a simple matter, as each choice has many different aspects. The delegation of responsibilities and authority thus means that sub-commanders must not only be able to come up with rational arguments, but they must also be capable of making ethical considerations. The ethical decision-making model may be an important aid in this regard. 

5.The ethical decision-making model

The ethical decision-making model [ix] was developed as an educational and training instrument, and is intended to serve as an aid for reaching an ethically sound decision. This involves, among others, the application of the rules from the code of conduct and rules laid down at (inter)national level (laws, treaties, etc.) in situations in which moral dilemmas occur. What are moral dilemmas? These are situations in which there is a conflict of values. Having to make a decision in this type of situation is a complex matter, as both conflicting values are defensible on good grounds. What, then, is the choice to be made? There is no simple answer, certainly if military personnel are unprepared for moral dilemmas. An example of a moral dilemma can be found in the account of Sergeant Major De Wildt, who has been on deployment as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Command specialist in Cambodia, Rwanda, Angola and the former Yugoslavia[x]. He tells the following story: 

“At one point I witnessed a disturbance and saw people literally kicking a woman to death. We’re told not to get involved in local affairs, but what are you supposed to do in a situation like that? You’re only human, after all. Eventually we jumped in and separated them. Well, we actually kicked them away, and we were wearing our blue berets. The soldiers took the woman to another village where her relatives lived. We found out afterwards that they went to that village later to find her, and killed her anyway”. The sergeant major realises that his action was at odds with his military orders. “But as a human being I couldn’t just stand and watch, without doing anything”. 

Did the sergeant major act correctly? In order to answer questions such as this it is important to discuss and consider values and standards that play a role in the military practical situation (in other words, to apply military ethics). An important aid in this regard is the ethical decision-making model. 

The model consists of a number of questions with a view to careful assessment of a morally problematic situation, using the assessment as the basis for a well- considered decision. Furthermore, the ethical decision-making model can also play a significant role when accounting - after the event - for a decision taken; this is expected of military personnel to an increasing extent. 

The ethical decision-making model contains the following steps: 

·1) What is the core problem? (Reformulate the core problem as a statement or question. In cases where there are several problems, list them in order of priority and then establish the core problem).

·  2) Who are the parties to the dilemma and what are their interests?

·3) List the possible solutions and assess them on the basis of the following questions:

- Have I considered all interests of the parties, and what priority have I accorded them?

- Which solution do I think is the most justified, and why? 

- Is the solution legal?

·4) Take a decision.

The first step involves defining the core problem. The importance of this step is that it results in a clear view of what the dilemma is. It is good to discuss the dilemma with others; this can be extremely enlightening. It also helps to prevent your own prejudices from clouding the situation. By following the various steps, a well-considered decision can ultimately be taken. The ethical decision-making model helps you to (re)discover where your moral boundaries lie. In short: the ethical decision-making model helps to teach you to think ethically, and contributes to teaching you to weigh up interests and values and to set priorities. 

Clearly, the soldier in the field, who has to take decisions in a fraction of a second, cannot work through the entire list of questions. However, what should also be clear is that the same soldier must be trained in ethical thinking to such a degree that he/she is also capable of taking a morally responsible decision when under pressure. This is why the ethical decision-making model is extremely important in our opinion, particularly in educational situations. Discussion and dialogue about the application of the ethical decision-making model in moral dilemmas constitute a significant condition for obtaining insight into the dilemmas in question and into one’s own values and standards. Education is vitally important in this regard, as later, when making decisions ‘in the field’, sufficient attention will be paid to ethical aspects and a responsible decision - one that is also morally responsible - can be taken.

6.Integration of the ethical decision-making model into the operational decision-making process

Within the operational decision-making process, there are at least four points at which a commander has the opportunity to draw attention to ethics and ethical principles, and at which he/she can incorporate ethical consideration(s) into the operational decision-making process. These four points are listed below.

PHASE 1, step 2: Analysis of the task. In this part of the operational decision-making process the commander has the opportunity to address ethical aspects of military action when indicating limitations and obligations. In doing so the commander may explicitly state what he/she does and does not want people to do in situations where values and standards play a clear role. Examples might be the treatment of prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, or dealing with child soldiers, or forbidding personnel to accept gifts from the impoverished and crisis-stricken population. 

PHASE 1, step 3: Commander’s directives. The second possibility is the commander’s own objective. Here, too, special attention may be asked for ethical aspects. Furthermore, the commander has the possibility of indicating dominant criteria. He/she is able to clearly state what he/she finds important and areas to which he/she wants to devote particular care and attention. In this regard emphasis may be placed on moral principles that he/she wishes to uphold. In this way, additional criteria may be mentioned that must be adhered to when assessing the deployment options of the unit. For instance, the commander may indicate that he/she wants to spare civilian targets as much as possible when conducting missions. Fire may only be opened on suspicious positions once there is absolute certainty concerning the presence of the adversary in the position or building in question. 

PHASE 3, steps 6 and 7: Development and analysis of own possibilities. When making choices in operational situations, and thus restricting other possible methods of operation, the commander is able to clearly indicate that a number of restrictions have an ethical cause. This makes it clear that ethical choices may involve restrictions for operations. By mentioning them explicitly, the commander illustrates that ethics are taken seriously. Example behaviour in such matters is vitally important to the conceptions of the subordinates. For instance, the commander is able to indicate that confrontations may be sought outside the villages only, or that positions may not be captured on the outskirts of the villages, so as to keep the number of civilian casualties to a minimum. 

Particularly when analysing one’s own possibilities, it is possible to deliberate with a view to drawing a comparison between the various options for operations in respect of ethical/social acceptability of the envisaged method of operation.

PHASE 4, step 8: The commander’s decision. This is the ultimate moment at which the commander is able to assert his/her ethical awareness. In doing so, he/she can, after weighing up all the options, decide on one particular method of operation instead of the other because, from an ethical point of view, this solution takes greater account of the accepted values and standards.

7.How can ethical decision-making be taught?

It will be clear by now that ethics involve thinking, consideration and explicit formulation. This leads to the conclusion that the same processes will be involved when providing education and training in ethics. In education in ethics, thinking and talking about values and norms and about ethical decisions do indeed take centre stage. It is therefore important that education and training take place together with people from the same profession, as a great deal can be learned from one another, and it is no bad thing to learn to formulate thoughts and to learn to account for one’s choices [xi]. For effective education and training, case studies may be used. These are descriptions of practical situations that are in keeping with reality, for instance Sergeant Major De Wildt’s story in section 5. Clearly, there will not be a case study available for all circumstances, but for education and training purposes the reality of the RNLA must be addressed wherever possible. Incidentally, a case study need not only be a situation written on paper; a case study may also be presented on video. There are also other possibilities, such as having actors reconstruct a situation, or giving a role description to a number of people in the group, who then enact the situation. The trainer can also play a role in this way. There are many variations on this theme. One important aspect is that after having read or watched the practical situation, there is sufficient time to subsequently exchange thoughts on the situation and the decision to be taken.

In addition to the example given in section 5, below is a second example of a case study which may be used in an educational situation. 

You entered service as a soldier a few weeks ago, and are currently undergoing drivers’ training. You share a bedroom with a few buddies; it’s great fun. In the daytime you are busy with all kinds of things, and your evenings are also quite active, even though there is still time to spare to do things you enjoy. You often go to the unit bar with your roommates to have a few beers. Together with some people from your platoon, you sometimes go into town for an evening’s “clubbing”.Today you are in town with your friends. The next morning, some of you have a driving lesson. It’s great fun and you go from one closing ceremony to the next, drinking quite a lot of alcoholic drinks. The following morning your buddy, Gerry, has to drive in town. At the end of the evening someone from the platoon has drunk so much that he can’t stand up. Together with a few others you put him in a taxi and accompany him to the barracks. You only get two hours’ sleep before you have to get up for breakfast and roll-call. Your colleague has just surfaced by the time you are leaving the mess. He asks you not to say anything about yesterday’s escapade. After all, driving is very important to him. His skills are not yet up to scratch, and he has to pull out all the stops to pass the exam. If he fails, he will have to look for another post or leave the army altogether. 

You are in a very difficult position. On the one hand, you have such things as a code of conduct, and on the other hand this is a colleague who, after using alcohol, is not functioning as he should, and finally you’re his buddy, his roommate. Moreover, you know what will happen if anyone finds out he’s been drinking so heavily. What do you do? Do you talk to your superiors and tell them that Gerry has been drinking heavily and that it’s probably irresponsible to let him drive, or do you keep your mouth shut? 

The case study described above presents a moral dilemma as discussed earlier in section 5. The characteristics of the dilemma in this case study are as follows:

·This is a choice between two equal alternatives which are both important (tell your superiors that your buddy has been consuming vast quantities of alcohol and is probably incapable of driving, or do what your buddy asks, in other words keep your mouth shut).

·Both alternatives will have both positive and negative consequences, as a result of which you are unable to say in advance which alternative is the best.

·There is no third option (or is there?).

·Personal interests of the involved parties are at stake. 

As mentioned previously, this type of situation is not easy. It is important to be able to take your own position. Rules and regulations cannot always help you to find a good solution. In many cases people in such situations would rather not make a choice and simply ignore the problem, which is also a decision. In order to teach people to take morally responsible decisions, you can provide training. An important aid in this type of training, the ethical decision-making model, was discussed in section 5. This type of training is important. In the practical situation a soldier in a position of leadership will often find him/herself in a situation in which his/her creativity and insight (or lack of these qualities) can be a decisive factor. Education in ethics and training in the application of the ethical decision-making model in all manner of moral dilemmas in various practical situations can contribute to lending a sound ethical basis to the individual’s judgement and creativity. 


[i] Verweij, D. (1999). Waarom is ethiek van belang voor de krijgsmacht. (The importance of ethics in the armed forces). From: Born, H., Moelker, R., Soeters, J. (Ed). Krijgsmacht en samenleving. Klassieke en eigentijdse inzichten (Armed forces and society. Classical and contemporary insights). Chapter 6.
[ii] Royal Netherlands Army (1996). Mission Statement. The Hague: Army Staff.
[iii] Luijk, H.J.L. van (1989). Bedrijfsethiek: ter kennismaking. (Corporate ethics: an introduction). From: Brand, A.F., Kimman, E., Van Luijk, H.J.L., Wempe, J. (Ed). Bedrijfsethiek in Nederland. Onderneming en verantwoordelijkheid. (Corporate ethics in the Netherlands. Concern and responsibility). Utrecht: Spectrum.
[iv] Royal Netherlands Army (1998). Informatiebundel Gedragscode. Een Handleiding voor Leidinggevenden. (Information pack for the Code of Conduct. A Handbook for Leaders). The Hague: Army Staff, page 19. 
[v] Iersel, A.H.M. van (1996). De Krijgsmacht: een voorbeeld voor de maatschappij. (The armed forces: an example to society). Militaire Spectator (military journal). 165, no. 11-1996, pp. 516-524. 
[vi] Netherlands Ministry of Defence (1990). MP 11-50. Militair Strafrecht. (Military Publication on Military Criminal Law). The Hague: Defence Orders Office, article 125 MSr.
[vii] Royal Netherlands Army (1997). Gedragscode KL (RNLA Code of Conduct). The Hague: Army Staff.
[viii] Royal Netherlands Army (1999). Concept-Leidraad Commandovoering. (Draft Command & Control Manual). The Hague: Army Staff, chapter 4.
[ix] Royal Netherlands Army (1998). Het ethisch besluitvormingsmodel (Ethical decision-making model). Breda: Institute for Leadership, Media and Corporate Training.
[x] Gerhards, R. (1999). In zes maanden kun je de wereld niet verbeteren (You can’t change the world in six months). From: Carré, Netherlands Officers' Association monthly magazine. 22, no. 01-99, pp. 20-21.
[xi] Cloïn, G.A.A.M. (1999). Ethiek in de Koninklijke Landmacht (Ethics in the Royal Netherlands Army). From: Opleiding en Training. Opleidingsvakblad voor de Koninklijke Landmacht (Education and Training. Training Journal for the Royal Netherlands Army), no. 3, pp. 17-21.