The Foundations of the Core Values in Western Ethical Theories
Eric Wingrove-Haugland
Asst Prof of Morals and Ethics
US Coast Guard Academy
15 Mohegan Avenue
New London CT 06320
(860) 444-8368
44 Norman Dr, Gales Ferry CT 06335


I. Introduction

In the past few decades, the U.S. military services have initiated fundamental changes in their approaches to ethics, and the service academies have changed the way in which they teach ethics to future officers. The military services in general have developed "core values" which they require all members of the service to uphold. The service academies have developed academic courses in ethics which are required for all students. In this paper, I will argue that these two developments are complementary, in that the classical ethical theories which form the basis of academic courses in ethics support the specific core values of the military services.

Academic courses on ethical theory often focus on the disagreements and contrasts between various theories, in order to show students how these theories begin with different assumptions and result in different conclusions. A utilitarian and a Kantian, for example, would disagree regarding whether it is acceptable to use someone as a means to an end if doing so will result in benefits that outweigh the harm done to the individual who is used as a means. It is important for students to understand these contrasts in order to gain a clear appreciation of the ethical theories in question.

This approach, however, can easily lead students to overlook the very important fact that all of the major ethical theories agree to a very large extent regarding what actions are morally acceptable and what actions are not. As a result, students may emerge from such courses believing that ethics is all about competing theories and arguments, and that virtually any conduct can be justified by one theory or another. This, of course, is completely false; all of these theories agree on the morality of almost every action. The few instances of genuine disagreement which are sometimes highlighted for the sake of contrasting the various theories amount only to a small number of borderline cases. These cases are genuine ethical dilemmas with good arguments on both sides. Fortunately, however, they are quite rare; the vast majority of the ethical decisions which students of ethics will make do not represent genuine ethical dilemmas, in which different approaches to ethics provide different advice. Instead, they represent ethical temptations, in which all of the various theories provide the same advice and the challenge is not figuring out what the right thing to do is, but actually doing it.

As I will show, all of the traditional ethical theories agree regarding the core values of the various military services. Various ethical theories disagree regarding why the conduct which is prescribed by these core values is morally right, but they all agree that it is morally right. Similarly, different ethical theories offer different reasons as to why the conduct forbidden by these core values is morally wrong, but they all agree that it is morally wrong. The disagreements among various ethical theories concern only borderline cases in which it is unclear exactly how a core value applies to a specific situation.

The fact that all major ethical theories agree regarding that the core values are correct is important for several reasons. First, it establishes a strong moral basis for the core values themselves. These values were not simply established arbitrarily, by administrative edict; they represent a consensus, not only of the leadership of the military service, but also of the entire history of Western ethics. Second, it clarifies the role of the academic courses in ethical theories that are taught at U.S. military academies; these courses are designed to encourage students to think about why these core values are correct, and to provide students with various ways of resolving ethical dilemmas or borderline cases in which it is not clear how the core values apply. Third, it institutes a pluralistic pedagogical approach in these courses. Since all of the major ethical theories support the core values, students should be exposed to the full range of these theories. Instructors should not insist that all students accept one particular ethical theory, but should encourage students to adopt whichever of these ethical theories they find most convincing, or to create their own moral view which combines elements of the various theories. Either way, students will have developed a moral framework which provides them with a clear, convincing answer as to why the core values of their service are morally correct.


II. The Core Values

While the list of Core Values varies somewhat between the services, all of the services have adopted Core Values which are very similar to each other and which share certain fundamental elements. The specific lists of Core Values are as follows:

Army: Duty, Honor, Country

Navy/Marine Corps: Honor, Commitment, Courage

Air Force: Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence in All We Do

Coast Guard: Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty

Two elements are common to these lists of Core Values. First, each one in some way mentions Honor (the Air Force uses the term "Integrity," which means very much the same thing; indeed, in the explication of the Core Value of Honor, the Coast Guard says that "Honor is virtually synonymous with integrity.") Second, each one mentions duty, commitment, or service; these are essentially the same thing, in that each has to do with being dedicated to fulfilling a task one is obligated to perform. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to these two common elements by their Army names, Honor and Duty. I believe that Honor and Duty form the basis for a professional ethic that is shared to some extent by all military services.

There are also some interesting differences among these lists of Core Values; the Army includes "country," the Navy/Marine Corps includes "courage," the Air Force includes "excellence," and the Coast Guard includes "respect." In part, these difference reflect tradition, and in part they reflect the differences between the services. For example, the fact that the Coast Guard includes "respect" and the Navy/Marine Corps includes "courage" seems to reflect an actual difference in the missions of these services. The value of respect is clearly more important for the humanitarian mission of the Coast Guard. In this paper, I will focus on the core values of my own service, the Coast Guard. Since the values of Honor and Duty are shared by all the services, my remarks on these values will apply to the other services as well.

We can further clarify these core values by examining how they are put into practice within the services. Each service academy, for example, has an Honor Code or Honor Concept which clearly spells out what is forbidden by the core value of "honor": lying, cheating, and stealing. Practically speaking, therefore, the core value of "honor" is equivalent to a prohibition on these three behaviors. I will thus focus on five ethical principles which are embodies in the core values: don't lie, don't cheat, don't steal, respect others, and do your duty.


III. Deriving the Core Values from Ethical Theories

All of these five principles which are embodied in the core values of the U.S. Coast Guard can be derived from any one of the major Western approaches to ethics. Specifically, the core values can be derived from kantian ethics, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, stoicism, natural law theory, or social contract theory. Importantly, these core values cannot be derived from moral relativism, subjectivism or emotivism, egoism, or the divine command theory. I regard these approaches as varieties of moral skepticism, rather than as legitimate ethical theories. The moral theories mentioned above can be regarded as approaches to ethical inquiry, as sets of basic assumptions with which one might begin examining an ethical issue. The varieties of moral skepticism that I just mentioned, on the other hand, make ethical inquiry pointless or impossible.

Kantian, deontological, or rule-based ethics is concerned with what makes a principle right or wrong. To evaluate principles, Kantian ethics uses the famous categorical imperative. Kant gives us two main formulations of the categorical imperative; the first says "act only according to a maxim which you can at the same time will should become a universal law for all rational beings." The second says "always act such that you treat every rational being, including yourself, as an end in itself and never merely as a means to an end." Any actions whose maxims (or principles) violate the categorical imperative are simply wrong--they are absolutely prohibited morally.

The Kantian approach to lying supports a strong prohibition against any kind of lying, since lying cannot become a universal law for all rational beings (if everyone lied, no one would believe what anyone said, which would make lying impossible, since a lie depends upon someone believing you) and it treats the person who is being lied to as a means to an end. According to Kant, the duty to avoid lying holds absolutely, in every situation. The same can be said of cheating and stealing. Cheating involves breaking the rules; if everyone broke the rules all the time, then there would be no rules and thus no cheating. Stealing involves taking someone else's property; if everyone stole all the time, there would be no such thing as private property and thus no such thing as stealing. Furthermore, both cheating and stealing involve treating people purely as a means to an end. In cheating, that end is a higher grade or a victory; in stealing it is the acquisition of something someone else owns. In both cases, as with lying, the person whom you are dealing with is given no opportunity to consent to your actions, and is thus being used merely as a means to an end.

Kantian ethics calls upon us to do our duty in two senses. First, it says that when we have agreed to do something we have taken on a perfect duty to do as we said, and that violating this duty is never right. When members of the military take their oath of office, they are thus assuming an absolute duty to do nothing that is contrary to that oath. Second, Kantian ethics calls upon us to follow a second kind of duty: meritorious (or "imperfect") duties. These are duties which we are obligated to do in general, although not in every case. We have a duty, for example, to give to charity--but we are not obligated to give to each and every charity we come across. These duties are thus different from the absolute (or "perfect") duties not to lie, cheat, or steal. Kant himself says that these imperfect duties include helping other people and developing our talents; since these duties are "imperfect," we can choose which specific people to help and which talents to develop, but we have a duty to help and develop some. This reveals a new dimension of the core value of devotion to duty: it shows that doing your duty is not simply a matter of doing what you are told to do or doing what you have agreed to do. Devotion to duty goes well beyond this to include developing your talents as a member of your service and helping others to do the same.

By far the most profound aspect of Kantian ethics, however, has to do with the value of respect; indeed, I do not think that anyone can fully understand the value of respect without at least some background in Kantian ethics. The second formulation of the categorical imperative is essentially a principle that demands that we respect other rational beings; it has become the most widely accepted basis for the assertion that all human beings have certain fundamental rights and that all human beings deserve respect, simply because they are human. This is not necessarily inconsistent with the Aristotelian view that some people may deserve more respect than others, but it is an extremely important addendum to that view: everyone deserves respect. Furthermore, this Kantian principle clearly spells out what respect entails: treating people as an end in themselves, rather than merely as a means to your own ends. Treating people with respect involves treating them as rational beings, who are capable of reasoning about their own conduct and making their own decisions about what to do, and who are responsible for the results of those decisions. It involves respecting them and their decisions, and acknowledging that they have as much right to pursue their goals as I do to pursue mine.1 The Kantian principle of respect for persons shows why, for example, we should not be concerned with the question of whom we are rescuing in a search and rescue operation, and why we should not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, or ethnic background. All human beings, simply in virtue of the fact that they are human, deserve to be treated as beings that have dignity.

Utilitarianism asserts that the morally right thing to do is to maximize the overall amount of happiness. The most influential variety, hedonistic utilitarianism, defines happiness as pleasure and the absence of displeasure. There are two basic kinds of utilitarianism: act-utilitarianism, according to which each of our acts should maximize happiness, and rule-utilitarianism, according to which we should each follow a set of rules which would maximize happiness if universally adopted. The basic difference is whether we should view each of our acts as individual events each of which should maximize happiness, or as precedent-setting examples such that happiness should be maximized by the precedents that our acts set, though not necessarily by each act itself. All kinds of utilitarianism assert that everyone's happiness counts equally, including that of the person who is acting; your own happiness counts as much as anyone else's, but no more so.

Much has been made of the fact that utilitarianism does not support an absolute ban on lying, cheating, or stealing; indeed, utilitarianism may call upon us to lie, cheat, or steal when doing so maximizes happiness. At first glance, this may seem to make utilitarianism incompatible with the core values of the military, which appear to include absolute bans on such behavior. A closer look, however, reveals that utilitarianism, and especially rule-utilitarianism, support much stronger bans on these activities than it may first appear, and that the core values do not absolutely ban such behavior.

Act-utilitarianism says that we should weigh the consequences of each of our actions, and do whatever promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This seems to imply that lying, cheating, and stealing is not only permitted but may actually be the morally right thing to do whenever such actions maximize everyone's happiness. In fact, however, act-utilitarianism really implies that such actions are almost always morally wrong. If someone weighs the consequences of their actions and determines that lying will create more overall happiness than telling the truth, their evaluation is almost always faulty; usually they are looking only at some of the consequences and are ignoring others. First, they are usually only considering the consequences of lying without getting caught. Obviously, lying and getting caught is always worse than telling the truth, since it results in whatever negative consequences would have resulted from telling the truth and also in the negative consequences of having been caught at a lie. Second, they are usually only considering the short-term consequences of the action on themselves and those immediately around them, and are ignoring the less obvious long-term consequences on society as a whole. Society literally could not function unless the vast majority of the people told the truth the vast majority of the time; we rely on the word of others for our very lives. By undermining the trust which is at the heart of human society, every lie results in a major negative consequence. Finally, they are ignoring the consequences on their own character. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but a stab at the heart and the health of human society." If we take into account the consequences of being caught, the long-term consequences to society, and the consequences on our own character, we will almost always conclude that lying, cheating, and stealing are wrong from an act-utilitarian perspective. The rare cases in which lying, cheating, or stealing might actually maximize happiness generally correspond to cases in which the core values do not actually prohibit them. For example, the core value of honor and the injunction against lying in no way prohibit Coast Guard officers from lying to suspected drug smugglers in the course of their investigation, nor do they prohibit combat troops from lying to or stealing from the enemy.

Rule utilitarianism supports an even stronger injunction against lying, cheating, and stealing. Any rule which permits lying in any except the most unusual circumstances will obviously not maximize utility if it is universally adopted; the same can be said of stealing. Rule utilitarianism even more clearly rules out cheating; since the essence of cheating is the violation of a rule, cheating is incompatible with the very nature of rule utilitarianism, which states that we ought to follow rules that would maximize utility if universally adopted.

To a utilitarian, we have one and only one absolute duty: to perform actions which benefit society as a whole. While utilitarians (and ethicists in general) may question the validity of a specific use of military force, they can hardly deny that, given the state that the world is in, society is better off for having a military force; this is especially true regarding the humanitarian mission of the Coast Guard, which even die-hard pacifists would support. Utilitarians assert that if the only way to increase the happiness of society as a whole is to sacrifice our own happiness, we are morally required to do so. This, of course, is the essence of a commitment to military service: the willingness to sacrifice your own happiness--and even your life--in order to defend the society of which you are a part.

Utilitarianism also has something profound to say about the idea of respecting others. To a utilitarian, respecting someone else is a matter of treating that person as though their happiness counts exactly as much as everyone else's happiness, including your own. This explains how it is sometimes possible to respect someone and still to harm or even kill them; while their happiness counts the same as everyone else's, it may of course be outweighed by the happiness of many other people. In general, however, the utilitarian view that everyone's happiness counts equally establishes a firm foundation for respecting people.

Aristotelian or virtue ethics is experience a resurgence of popularity within academic circles in general, and in the military in particular. Indeed, some have suggested that the core values are simply a restatement of some version of virtue ethics. I disagree with this claim--as I have said, I believe that the core values can be supported by any of the major Western approaches to ethics, and do not specifically rely on any one ethical theory--but it is not hard to see how some people have been led to think that the core values are especially consistent with virtue ethics. This approach to ethics evaluates people according to their virtues; it begins with the assertion that achieving the human good requires virtuous actions, which enable us to become as good as possible. According to Aristotle's famous doctrine of the mean, each virtue is a mean between two extremes; both extremes are vices. Virtues are acquired through habits and exercised through practical reason; a virtue is thus a habitual tendency to seek the mean and use reason to find the mean.

From the standpoint of virtue ethics, the core values are virtues; they specify the characteristics that any member of a military service must have in order to be an excellent member of that service. From one standpoint, therefore, each is a mean between two extremes; however, Aristotle warns us that not all actions admit of a mean, since some actions are simply bad; he names adultery, theft, and murder as examples of such actions, and says "we can never be right in doing such things." Right away, then, we can see that virtue ethics supports the prohibitions on stealing and cheating, since such actions prevent those who do them from becoming excellent people. Interestingly, virtue ethics considers such actions wrong not primarily because of their impact on others, but because of their impact on the character of the individual who does them. This impact is always negative--even if those who lie, cheat, or steal is not caught; indeed, especially if they are not caught. As Thomas Jefferson said, "He who permits himself to tell a lie once finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual. He tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world believing him. His falsehood of the tongue becomes a falsehood of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions." This perfectly expresses the perspective of virtue ethics on lying; the same remarks could be made regarding cheating and stealing.

Aristotle's remarks on truthfulness reveal a new dimension to the principle of not lying which underlies the core value of honor. Aristotle distinguishes between truthfulness regarding yourself and truthfulness regarding others. He says that truthfulness regarding yourself is a mean between boastfulness and self-deprecation. This allows us to understand the Honor Concept's demand for honesty. This is not simply a matter of not lying, of making factually accurate statements and answers. Instead, it involves giving an accurate, frank assessment of your own abilities, and never representing yourself as either more or less capable than you actually are. To do this, cadets need to know themselves, and develop an honest self-assessment and self-image. Aristotle says that truthfulness regarding others is a mean between flattery and tactlessness. This allows us to see that the Honor Concept's prohibition on lying also calls on cadets to give candid assessments of the skills of others. In short, the Aristotelean version of virtue ethics not only supports the three elements that make up the core value of honor,2 but show how this core value not only entails the negative principles of not lying, cheating, and stealing, but the positive principles of truthfulness.

Virtue ethics establishes a strong connection between doing your duty and developing as an individual. For Aristotle and for all the Greeks, doing your duty--fulfilling the responsibilities that you have as a result of your specific role within the city-state--amounted to the same thing as developing your potential fully. To Aristotle, a good human being and a good citizen of the city-state were one and the same thing; doing your duty as a citizen and developing yourself as a human being were thus also the same thing.

Virtue ethics also has some profound things to say regarding the core value of respect. While everyone deserves some respect, virtue ethics asserts that some people--namely, good people, who have more virtues and fewer vices--deserve more respect than others. Again, if respect is a virtue it must be a mean; this implies that we can go overboard with respect to the point where we are indiscriminately respecting everyone equally. Virtue ethics thus points out that we should avoid simply respecting everyone as much as possible; doing this would, in effect, devalue respect to the point where it would mean little or nothing. Instead, we must respect everyone as much as they deserve--which means that we should respect good people much more than we respect bad people, although we should accord some respect to everyone.

Stoicism is an ancient ethical theory that was dominant during the Roman Empire and has recently been revived, particularly within the field of military ethics, thanks largely to the writings of Admiral Stockdale. According to stoicism, we can only control our internals--our attitudes and emotions; we cannot control external things such as our bodies, possessions, jobs, or reputations. We should, therefore, seek to extend our control over our attitudes and emotions, and should not try to control externals. In this way, we will never desire anything that we cannot get, and will reach a state of tranquillity.

According to stoicism, whatever I hope to gain by lying, cheating, or stealing is not something that is actually in my power to gain, and thus should not matter to me. I am in control over whether or not I lie, cheat, or steal, and I should realize this; the excuse that "I had to lie" is never accurate. While this is not an absolute prohibition against lying, cheating, or stealing, it does refute all of the rationales which are used to justify lying. If people did not care about possessions, they would not steal; if they did not care about winning, they would not cheat; if they did not care about whatever it is that they are seeking to gain by lying, they would not lie.

According to stoicism, we have duties and responsibilities to others based on our relations with them. Military officers thus have one set of duties towards superiors, another set towards subordinates, another set towards members of the public, another set towards enemy soldiers, and so forth. These duties are externals that we cannot change; they come with the roles we take on, and impose obligations upon us. We are in control, however, over the effort we expend in doing our duty, and we should expend whatever it takes. No matter what, according to stoicism, we are fully responsible for our actions and choices; we must do our duty regardless of the consequences.

Stoicism adds yet another dimension to the core value of respect: it shows us that respecting others involves acknowledging that we cannot control their attitudes and emotions, that they themselves are in control of their internals. Respect thus precludes any attempts at manipulating others or seeking to control their attitudes and emotions.

Natural Law Theory was the dominant ethical approach of the middle ages, and continues to be the basis for Catholic ethics. According to natural law theory, everything that exists has a purpose; in the theological versions of this theory, this purpose amounts to the reason God created that thing, and what God wants that thing to do. Furthering God's purpose is morally good, and thwarting it is morally bad. We can discover God's purposes through reason, which enables us to understand what God wants us to do, although we can only understand this in general principles and not in specific actions.

Natural Law Theory supports a strong injunction against lying, cheating, and stealing. According to Natural Law theory, the purpose of human speech is the communication of information; lying thus involves using language in a way that contradicts the natural purpose of language itself. This is unnatural, and thus morally wrong. The purpose of rules is clearly to be followed; cheating violates this natural purpose. The purpose of private property is to be respected by others; stealing violates this natural purpose. Thus, according to Natural Law Theory, these things are always morally wrong.

Natural Law Theory asserts that our primary duty is a duty to God, that there is a higher law which we must obey regardless of whether or not doing so also involves obeying human laws. In the context of military duty, this is an extremely important clarification: it means that military duties can never supersede moral obligations. This is the foundation for insisting that soldiers disobey illegal or obviously immoral orders, and for holding them responsible if they fail to do so.

Natural Law Theory establishes a strong basis for respecting others. Since God created us as both rational beings and social beings, God clearly intends us to use reason and to form societies. Respecting others involves acknowledging that they, too, are creatures of God who have been given the ability to reason and to form social bonds. Any other treatment goes against the will of God and is thus morally wrong.

Social Contract and Natural Rights Theory originated in the enlightenment, and continues to be very influential today. According to this theory, each of us is born with certain natural rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and property, and to punish those who infringe on our rights. When we join together into a society under a government, we give up some of these rights to the government by accepting a social contract that is binding on all members of our society. Different social contract theorists have different views as to exactly how many rights we give up, and thus how strong the government should be; Hobbes says that we give up nearly all of our rights to a strong central government, while Locke says that we give up far fewer rights to a more limited government. The common point, however, is that membership in a society is a free and voluntary choice, and that accepting the legal and ethical principles that govern that society is in essence the price of membership.

Social Contract Theory does not concern itself with the specific content of the core values, but rather with the oath of office through which members of the military agree to uphold them. This is a voluntary agreement which is freely made, and which is thus absolutely binding on those who choose to make it. According to social contract theory, those who join a military service are required to adopt the core values of that service. If they do not want to do so, they are free to refuse to join; if at some point they experience significant conflicts with those core values, they can resign. But as long as one is a member of a military service, one has agreed to abide by the core values of that service.


IV. Conclusion

The fact that the core values of the Coast Guard (and, I believe, of each of the military services) can be derived from any of the major Western ethical traditions is extremely important. It shows that these core values are not simply arbitrary concoctions of senior military leaders. Instead, they represent part of an ethical consensus that has persisted throughout our civilization. Teaching students about these ethical theories, and about how each ethical theory supports the core values, is very valuable. All too often in military services, people are told what is right without being told why this is right. All too often, the core values are presented in a vacuum, with no explanation of the foundation of these values. By teaching ethical theories to our students, we can help them understand why their service has these core values--and this, we hope, will make them more likely to manifest those core values in their behavior.




1. This principle may initially seem to be inconsistent with military values, since it is hard to see how one could possibly conduct a military operation while regarding the enemy soldiers (as well as one's own soldiers) as human beings who deserve respect. The Kantian principle of respect for persons, however, actually sheds a great deal of light upon the justification for the use of military force. In essence, Kant says, when people act they thereby will that their conduct should become a universal law for all rational beings--that is to say, their own actions require that they be willing to submit to having others treat them the same way. When enemy soldiers participate in an act of military aggression, they are thus declaring that it is acceptable for others to use military force against them; if we respond with military force, we are simply treating those soldiers as they have decided people should be treated. The principle of protecting non-combatants, therefore, far from being an addendum to the use of military force, is an essential aspect of the very justification for the use of military force, since non-combatants have not acted in a way that legitimizes the use of force against them. As Colonel Hartle has shown, the Kantian principle of respect for persons is the primary principle which underlies modern rules of war--particularly those that relate to non-combatants. This principle, however, does not forbid the use of military force on combatants.


2. We must not be misled by Aristotle's own discussion of how virtue is superior to honor; the "honor" that he is talking about here is the kind of honor that relies on other people, which is more akin to having a good reputation than to what the military services mean by "honor."