Puritanism in Ethics:

Or Some Speculations on How Not to Teach Ethics to the Military



There is streak of puritanism among teachers of ethics. The streak probably runs longer and wider for those who teach ethics in the military than it does for those, for example who teach ethics to health-care professionals.

But the streak is there not only in the military and medical professions but in all the other professions and even in the nonprofessional areas of practical ethics such as those dealing with women’s and environmental issues.

In this paper I’d like to speculate as to why puritanism flourishes among teachers of ethics, but especially why it flourishes in the military field. I will argue that there are several reasons for this flourishing and that, together, they bring about an unfortunate consequences for the military.

So why does puritanism flourish? The first reason is general in that it applies to all the fields of practical ethics, not just to military ethics. As a field of concern or study, ethics has a special status that is expressed differently by different thinkers. Some say ethics has an overriding feature, that is, ethical reasons count more than or even cancel non-ethical reasons in our moral reasoning. Others express it in terms of ethics being categorical, more important, more basic, more fundamental than other areas of concern or values. Given its special status, it is not surprising that ethical injunctions are said to make heavy demands on us. If any one such injunction is overridden it will be so only by another, more important, ethical injunction. Otherwise the ethical injunction will demand our compliance in an unforgiving, that is, puritanical, way.

This demand that ethics makes on all of us in all aspects of ethics does not necessarily lead to puritanism. The reason is that puritanism is more than just an ideology that demands we follow the moral path. Utilitarians are famous for telling us to follow that path but no one accuses them of being puritanical. What more is needed is: a) a strain of absolutism where the ethical rules and principles are strict in having few if any exceptions to them and, b) a policy of "zero-tolerance" when it come to following them.

Puritanism tells us to follow not only the ethical path then; but to follow strictly a path that is straight and narrow. Thus our first reason why many ethicists develop a streak of puritanism is that the very nature of ethics encourages a tendency toward that way of thinking. More often than not those who become puritanical will have additional reasons or causes working on them before they succumb to this way of thinking. But for some, this reason is enough to lead them down the path of puritanism.

The second reason leading to puritanism is more specific to the military but it is also shared by the other professions and some of the nonprofessional areas of practical ethics at least to some extent. The military sees itself as doing important work. Its job is the defense of the nation. Indeed, that is important work. Other professions similarly view themselves as doing important work. The health-care workers protect our health, lawyers protect our rights and educators educate us out our ignorance. Those who concern themselves with practical ethics outside the professions also see themselves as doing important work. Feminists and those who work in race relations see themselves as helping to protect victimized groups; and environmentalists act to protect the biosphere. Each group argues that its concerns are important, and at times each group argues that its ethical concerns are the most important. Given this perceived importance, it is understandable that each group can, and often does, argue and then demand that ethical rules, principles and virtue claims governing our behavior with respect to its special area of interest must be followed strictly—that is, puritanically.

But the military has additional reasons that lead it down the path of puritanism. It can and does argue, thirdly, that unlike the work done in the other professions, it carries out its duties in a dangerous environment. To be sure, health care workers, if they are careless or unlucky, risk their own health in doing their work. Others risk the loss of their jobs in doing theirs. But only military personnel put their lives at risk systematically in doing their work. Military work is dangerous by its very nature. A closely related fourth reason or cause is at work here. The dangerous work military people do needs to be done by groups. Teams of military types are needed to face the enemy. To be effective in defending the nation, military personnel need to know each other well, how each person works, and need as well to foster trust. A team is built on trust. If, then, the work military people do is important, dangerous and team oriented it won’t do to have those doing that work not follow ethical (and other) rules strictly. More than in other areas of work and concern, the special conditions of military work will encourage the preaching of an ethic that tends to be puritanical.

A fifth reason that leans the military in the direction of puritanism is its public status. The other professions serve the public as does the military, but the military, we might say, serves the public publicly. In this sense military work can be contrasted to work done in the spheres of law and health care. Most of these professionals work for themselves or for "private" groups and also serve individuals privately at least to some extent. In this sense the teaching profession comes closest to the military. Many teachers work for the public publicly. But the military works wholly in the public realm. The whole institution is owned and administered by the society. And its work is public in that battles, as it were, are fought out in the open for all to see; and not in the confines of the operating room or the lawyers office. The military is thus publicly accountable to the society. Especially in these days of the prying mass media, it cannot easily hide its sins. There is thus a strong pull toward towing the puritanical line if the military hopes to avoid embarrassing and potentially damaging public criticism.

This brings us to a related reason or cause. As a matter of fact some in the military have not towed the line and, as a result, have embarrassed and damaged the military. We all know about the big public examples in the past and recent past. Viet Nam gave us numerous disgraces. After that we heard about Ollie North in the Iran Contra scandal,

Tailhook and other such incidents. More recently there are the rape charges at Aberdeen Proving Grounds,

the scandal concerning Sergeant Major Gene McKinney,

the First Lieutenant Kelly Flinn affair,

and on and on. Each service, it seems, contributes dutifully to getting the military establishment into trouble. But for my purposes what is interesting is the reaction some teachers of ethics have to these untoward events. They, naturally enough, want enforce the rules already in place in the military more stringently. When this happens, terms like "zero tolerance" suddenly come to the fore. Some want to go a step farther and demand that the rules themselves be tightened so that now there are fewer exceptions to them or that new rules be instituted. In other words, errors within the military that become public encourage those in charge of the military to move even more in the direction of puritanism.

I have left the next reason or cause of the move to puritanical thinking last since it is the most difficult to understand and perhaps is the most controversial. It has to do with the virtues. It is said that during this century philosophers have tended to neglect considering the role of the virtues in ethics.

Instead, philosophers became, and still are, more concerned with rules to such an extent that they are involved in what is called rule worship. But the military, it is I think fair to say, never has neglected the virtues. If anything those who teach ethics in the military might be accused of suffering from virtue worship. The core values programs in the military and the emphasis on lists of virtues starting with integrity but including of course courage, and also honesty, loyalty, dedication, obedience are symptoms of the mystique concerning the virtues. At times this worship or mystique manifests itself in the competition among teachers of ethics to develop a better list of virtues than others have. We might call this the virtue race. At other times you can see the mystique at work in the eyes of dedicated military officers. You mention in discussion one of the virtues and their eyes glaze over. When these same officers hear reference to the virtues as you might in the Air Force when the commander intones "Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all we do" at some formal military ceremony, they go into a trance. (I must confess I have never seen this glow in the eyes of enlisted personnel, but perhaps I have been consorting with officers too much.) The glow is, if you will forgive me for carrying on a bit more with my caricature, often accompanied by deep breathing.

There is also an accompanying intellectual response here that probably has its source in ancient Greek philosophy. Plato,


and the Stoics

are taken by many of their readers as holding to an holistic view of the virtues, that is, the view that the virtuous person must possess all of the virtues together. The military version of a similar form of holism is supported by the capstone virtue of integrity. To have integrity is to have it all together -- to be brave, honest, dedicated and so on. What I am suggesting here is that many ethical thinkers in the military have bought into this holistic picture of the virtues and, as a result, into a holistic picture of ethics. This picture, I want to further suggest, leads to a certain form of puritanism.. If we think of the virtues as habits of good behavior, what the holist is telling us is that we must develop habits of good behavior that will pervade our whole life. If we are in the military we must, for example, be unfailingly honest at work, in the home and everywhere else, otherwise we lack that particular virtue. But beyond that to have that virtue requires that we have the virtue of courage which, like honesty, must be exhibited across the board in all our human undertakings. Each virtue, then, applies in all the situations we find ourselves in; and each virtue is exhibited only if we are able to exhibit the other ones. We can see why this holistic way of looking at the virtues represents a form of puritanism. What it demands of each of us is something close to perfection. We must be virtuous every day, and in every way.

Now if this is the ideology that the military teaches/preaches to its personnel, or if it is major part of what it teaches/preaches, we can easily see why it is not likely to be effective. It will sound, and in fact will be, too demanding. It can be said in response that the purpose behind establishing the model of perfection is just to identify the ideal; but not to actually realize it. But from the view of the students who are being told about the wonders of the virtuous life, the ideal will sound like so much eye wash. As something unreachable, it will be easy for them to reject it as just so much chain-of-command "goody-goody" talk.

Three related points can be made as to why teaching and preaching the virtues is not likely going to work in the military. The first has to do with teaching the virtues specifically in the perfectionist mode. Lower level officers and enlisted personnel are not stupid. They see that the perfectionism being promulgated in their direction is not being practiced in any systematic way by their superiors.

So they will see that the virtue perfectionism they are supposed to exhibit is for angels not military types; but see, as well, that the role models above them do not represent paradigms of virtue. Even if they could become perfect officers, they will not be inspired to achieve perfection by their leaders’ imperfections.

The second point applies to the virtues more generally and not just to the perfectionist version. Teaching the virtues to young people in their teens may already be too late. Ideally if our military had a draft and we wanted to teach the virtues to our draftees, we would draft them when they are two or three years old. Philosophers as far back as Confucius realized that the earlier you start, the more likely you are to be successful in teaching the virtues.

That is why he thought it was so important to have good parents. Good parents can start the teaching process early before the kids get into bad habits that need undoing later in life. Unfortunately our military work with citizens only after many of them have picked up more than the minimum number of bad habits. Demanding of them that they be virtuous, and what is worse, demanding that they be virtuous to a near perfectionist level, may be close to demanding that the proverbial sows ear be turned into a purse.

Now for the third point. It too, like the second, applies to teaching the virtues in a general way. The point is simply that the key virtue concepts are not, by their very nature, easy to teach.. One can appreciate the problem when one reads article after article in military magazines and journals about the virtues. Most of these articles are written by military people who, we hope are virtuous, but who seem to have problems saying anything clear about the virtues. It is not that they are stupid, although many of them are ill trained to engage in careful linguistic (conceptual) analysis. Rather, it has more to do with the very general or abstract nature of the virtue concepts the military and the society as a whole seem to favor. These concepts are so general, so abstract, that it isn’t always clear just what kind of behavior falls under this or that virtue. Virtue talk after all has to do with the character of the person (i.e., what kind of life he/she should live). Character talk is notoriously difficult to translate into guidelines that tell people what they ought or ought not do in specific situations. So those listening to a lecture, presentation or recitation of the military virtues probably will not have a clear idea what is expected of them. If I am right about this, it might very well be easy to fool yourself into thinking that your students are learning something when in fact they are learning very little, or learning something other than what you think you they are.

So far there have been two major themes in this paper. The first is that if we try to teach our military people an ethics with a strong puritanical streak, we are not likely to be very successful—mainly because of the unreasonable demands of puritanism. The second is that by featuring the virtues in teaching ethics, whether in a puritanical mode or not, we also invite failure. The virtues are not easy to teach and they are especially not easy to teach to adults who have already have a large collection of bad habits to their credit.

So how should ethics be taught to the military. That is, how can it be taught in such a way as to make a difference in the behavior of military personnel. I’ll tell you. Remember I am speculating so don’t hold me to presenting any strong proofs or justification to back the recommendations I am making. All I am doing in this paper is pointing in a somewhat different direction from the one the military seems to be taking in teaching its people about ethics; and then asking you to seriously consider moving off in that direction.

There are four steps to what I consider a more reasonable approach to teaching ethics to the military; or to any group of adults for that matter. The first involves de-emphasizing the virtues and putting more stress on rules. Rules are easier to teach to adults than are the virtues. This is in large part because they are less abstract and vague than are virtue claims. When an officer is told that no sexual fraternization will be permitted within the chain of command to which he or she belongs, little philosophical discussion is required to bring about comprehension.

Again, when a non-commissioned officer or enlisted person is told that no military property is to be transported to one’s private housing area, little philosophical discussion is required to bring about comprehension. The practice of citing rules, even if the rules contain some vagueness and ambiguity as they inevitably do, is a simpler way to start when one is teaching the basics of ethics. Initially the citing may not even be backed by explanations although, in time, it is surely useful to explain why the rule in question is in place. Of course, the education and training of all military personnel is already filled with rules and regulations. So in a sense there is nothing new in this proposal. But I am arguing for putting more emphasis on rules and regulations than has been in the past specifically in ethics where the discussion in the military is dominated, more often than not, by talk of core values and the virtues.

Second, the rules cited should focus mainly on controlling behavior in the work place. This recommendation is aimed at avoiding one aspect of the puritanism which demands perfection in all aspects of one’s life. What this means is that military personnel are allowed to have a private life which is out of bounds for assessment by their superiors. This private realm would include such behavior as non-chain of command adultery as was the case with General Joseph Ralston.

It would even include spousal abuse—which of course needs to be dealt with by someone but not officially, I am suggesting, by the military line of authority to which the abuser belongs. In addition to rules of the work place, the rules invoked should apply to any behavior exhibited in public that might not reflect well upon the military.

Third, puritanical strictness should be avoided in applying many rules. Here it is useful to make a distinction roughly along the lines of the old church distinction between mortal and venial sins. About the venial, or lesser, sins, those in authority must learn to be somewhat forgiving. The idea here is that since people will make mistakes, it is unrealistic to adopt a "zero-tolerance" attitude toward the lesser sins. These sins or errors should be recorded, and the sinner should be warned, counseled and perhaps punished mildly. But he/she should neither be punished severely nor banished from the military community. A "live and learn" attitude should be the overall rule of the day.

Indeed those in command should be rewarded for dealing in this tolerant way with those who work under them. Only after repeated violations of the venial sins should severe punishment be in order.

The zero-tolerance attitude would be in order only for the mortal sins. One convicted of murder, rape or some other violent crime the violator would obviously not be given a second chance. The harm done to the victim is far too great to take a chance of making someone else a victim as well.

Fourth, shifting over to talk about the virtues (in the military) should take place largely after the program of rule following is well under way. The analogy is to learning some sport such as tennis. When first learning the game, rules are cited and recited until one’s forehand, backhand, serve and net game are habitually effective. When that happens, the rules gradually fade away, as do famous generals. Rules can be cited from time to time when there is a lapse in one’s game; but most of the talk can now be in terms of the virtues (of a good tennis player). It is the same in ethics when teaching adults. Virtue talk makes a lot of sense only after one has lived by the rules for a while. And, if as it is the case with many new members of the military, their ethics forehand isn’t in very good shape, it is premature to launch into talking about the virtues first and foremost in their training program. Instead they need the discipline of rule following to get them underway.

Some closing comments are in order. Assuming my rules-first-and-foremost proposal makes more sense than does the virtues-first (or core-values-first)-and-foremost approach, one should not be overly sanguine about how much success will result from adopting my proposal. In the military we are, as was noted earlier, dealing with humans who have already had a history of learning and not learning about ethics before they come into our gentle grasp. The analogy to tennis is useful once again. If Susie has picked up a bunch of bad habits by learning the game on her own, her tennis coach will tell you that he has more work to do than he would with a tennis novitiate who is equally talented. Even better, if the coach works with Janice, who already has good habits because she has been well coached since she was a six-year old, the task of coaching her will likely go well. In the military there will be Janice-like people. They will not rely on the rules too much, except in areas where there are specialized rules that apply only to military situations. They might in fact thrive on lessons in virtue ethics right from the beginning. But Susie-like characters probably cannot thrive on a diet of virtue talk not only because of their bad habits but because they do not care. For them core values and virtue talk is just so much hot air. Although they need it the most, they see the need for it the least. But rules talk will get the attention of Susie-like characters if for no other reason than that rules can be backed by threats. My claim is that it is more likely these characters will respond to rules favorably than they will to the mysteries of the virtues and core values. Their response may not be wonderful but I bet it will be more effective than the preachy virtue approach.

So in the end the contrast between less puritanical rules based approach that I am recommending and a more puritanical virtue based approach that most institutions within the military seem to have adopted is a matter of degree. No matter which approach one favors the other approach will also have to be tried either concurrently, or sooner or later. But I am arguing that a rules based approach will reach those that would have responded just as favorably to the virtue based approach. The Janice-like converted will be converted no matter what. But I am also arguing that an approach that stresses rules even more than the military does already is more likely to reach the Susie-like unconverted—the ones causing the most trouble for the military. It is a matter of emphasis and the military, my argument has been, has been emphasizing the wrong things.


Nick Fotion

Department of Philosophy

Emory University

Atlanta, GA 30322

Office Phone: (404) 727-7672

Fax: (404) 329-9386

e-mail: philnf@emory.edu




1. This tendency toward puritanism is reflected in the tendency of many in the military to agree with and admire Sir John Winthrop Hackett when he says in his "The Military in the Service of the State," (reprinted in War, Morality and the Military Profession, 2nd edition, edited by Malham M. Wakin, Boulder CO. Westview Press, 1986) "He [a man] can be a superb creative artist, for example, or a scientist in the very top flight, and still be very bad man. What the bad man cannot be is a good soldier, or sailor, or airman. Military institutions thus form a repository of moral resource that should always be a source of strength within the state." p. 119. The implication is that those in the military are held to higher standards.

2. Classically Puritans also led a simple life and wore simple clothes. The modern sense of puritanism has dispensed with that part of the concept.

3. Sciolino, Elaine, "A Rigidly Flexible Notion of Truth," The New York Times, July 26, 1997,

p. E 5.

4. Sciolino, Elaine, "Army Rape Trial Witnesses Tell of a Base Out of Control," The New York Times, April 15, 1997, p. A8.

5. Burns, Robert, "Army Officer Adds Charges to Scandal," The Atlanta Journal/The Atlanta Constitution, July 19, 1997, A11.

6. Gibbs, Nancy, "Wings of Desire," Time, June 2, 1997, pp. 26-34. See also in same issue "The Rules of Engagement," by David Van Biema, pp. 36-37 which describes several other "scandals."

7. Taylor, Richard, Ethics, Faith and Reason, Prentice Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1985. See also G.E.M. Anscombe, "Modern Moral Philosophy," Philosophy, 33, 1958, pp. 1-19 and Phillipa Foot Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1978. Foot specifically compains about the neglect of the virtues on page xi.

8. Plato, The Republic, translated by B. Jowett, The Modern Library, New York, Book IV, Greek pages 441-442. It is true that earlier in Book IV Plato tells us that the soldier class his ideal republic is courageous; but does not appear to be particularly wise. This would suggest that he does not believe the holistic view of the virtues. The point is, however, Plato is often taken as believing that doctrine. See also Plato’s "Laches" and "Protagoras" for more on Plato’s unity thesis.

9. Aristotle, "Nicomachean Ethics," The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon, Random House, New York, Book VI, Chapters 12 and 13.

10. See A. A. Long and David Sedley The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, passages 61 d, e and f.

11. Jones, Capt. Matthew, "Why Aren’t We Buying Core Values?" Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1997, pp. 51-52. Jones answers his own question by saying that leaders in the military have not been good role models. That is certainly, in part, the right answer.

12. Ibid., p. 52.

13. Confucius, The Analects, translated by D.C. Lau, Penguin Books, London and New York.

14. A good example of this rules approach can be found in Lesson 4 of Fundamentals of Navel Leadership I:Class of 2000, United States Naval Academy, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, Dubuque, Iowa, 1996. In this lesson the midshipmen are given a whole set of rules concerning hazing, sexual conduct, etc.

15. See endnote #3 above. See also Elaine Scoliono’s "Courtship Leads to Marriage and Maybe Officer’s Ouster," The New York Times, July 3, 1997, pp. A1 and A9.

16. To some extent, surely, the military is already practicing such a toleration policy. I am arguing that it needs to be extended and that banishment from the academies, for example, should not be the punishment of choice so often as it is.