The Relevance of Virtue Ethics and Application to the Formation of Character Development in Warriors


Chaplain Daniel Oh



The most significant contribution of natural law[1] to the sphere of ethical theory is its application to the formation of virtue ethics, especially in the thoughts of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. In this sense, natural law and virtue ethics are simultaneously complementary and inseparable. Although the theory of ethics of virtues was neglected in the period of modernity, it has seen a significant resurgence in the contemporary ethical terrain.[2] This phenomenon is encouraging because virtue ethics can serve as a viable antidote to disintegrating moralities in the United States military. One clear example of this disintegration is the recent moral debacle in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, where U.S. soldiers grossly mistreated detainees.

My major objectives for this paper are three fold. First, focusing on Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, I will briefly examine virtue ethics from a secular and a Christian perspective in order to sketch what virtue ethics is all about. Second, taking a cue from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, I will examine the relevance of virtue ethics to the contemporary world in general and to the military context in particular. Third, I will apply virtue ethics, specifically a neo-Aristotelian virtue framework to the character development of warriors in a military context, this again in light of the recent prison scandal at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

Virtue Ethics from an Aristotelian-Thomistic Perspective

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), much more sophisticated than the other Greeks, left a perennial legacy in the system of Western thought. Particularly his contribution to the thought of the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, is immeasurable. As a common sense philosopher and as a biologist par excellence, Aristotle, after careful observation of diverse groups of cultures and political organizations, not only developed a moral theory in which an idea of the virtues is intrinsically embedded as the core of human excellence but also characterized the good person in the context of community to be an individual who cultivates his/her virtues and leads a life of excellence (i.e. human flourishing). His masterpiece, Nicomechian Ethics, opens its first chapter in describing the object of life: “Every art and every investigation, and similarly every action and pursuit is considered to aim at some good.”[3] Distinctively teleological (goal or purpose oriented) in its theory, Aristotle, therefore, focuses on a moral agent whose virtuous character would lead him/her to happiness (flourishing). His main question in Necomechean Ethics is to discover what is good. “Are we not more likely to achieve our aim if we have a target? If this is so, we must try to describe at least in outline what the good really is, and by which of the sciences of faculties it is studied.”[4] For Aristotle, this good is a virtuous life that aims for eudaimonia (happiness). But this life of happiness, since it is living and doing well, is not static; rather, it is a life of dynamics that goes after a point of excellent human activity that lies between two extremes: excess and deficiency. The concept of choosing a mean between two vices, therefore, is extremely important in Aristotelian moral theory.

In Book II, Aristotle delves into investigating what virtue really is. Virtue (arête) for Aristotle is, “a purposive disposition, lying in a mean that is relative to us and determined by a rational principle, and by that which a prudent man would use to determine it.”[5] This is a classic definition of Aristotelian virtue and, unlike the Stoics; it is closely kneaded with feelings (or passions) as well as actions. So Aristotle says: “If the virtues are concerned with actions and feelings, and every feeling and every action is always accompanied with pleasures and pain, on this ground too virtue will be concerned with pleasures and pains.”[6] Nevertheless, the fundamental question about Aristotelian virtue is, “how we can acquire virtues?” For Aristotle, the answer is profoundly simple. Whereas intellectual virtue requires some time and experience in its cultivation in one’s character, moral goodness is a result of habituation, not something one is naturally born with.[7] “This fact makes it obvious that none of the moral virtues are engendered in us by nature, since nothing that is what it is by nature can be made to behave differently by habituation.”[8] Though he used the analogy of art in acquiring the virtues through habituation,[9] Aristotle accentuates the notion that acquiring the virtues is much more than a mastering of artistic skill. Focusing on a moral agent himself/herself and how he/she ought to perform a virtuous act as a virtuous person, Aristotle, developed a distinct moral theory called virtue ethics, which is in direct contrast with modern deontological or utilitarian theories of ethics. “Acts, to be sure, are called just and temperate when they are such as a just or temperate man would do; but what makes the agent just or temperate is not merely the fact that he does such things, but the fact that he does them in the way just and temperate men do.”[10] Subsequently, an Aristotelian virtuous person is not satisfied with acquiring a simple knowledge of “know-how;” instead, he/she demonstrates it excellently because it is a distinctively human capacity. Therefore, in dealing with feelings and actions, Aristotle aims for what he calls “the mark of virtue,” that is “a mean condition” between “the two extremes.” 

So, with what sort of virtues is the Aristotelian moral agent concerned? They are revolving around the cardinal virtues that are further divided into intellectual (prudence) and moral virtues (temperance, courage, and justice). Beside the intellectual virtue of prudence or wisdom (because it is precisely concerned with a moral agent), other moral virtues are determined by employing a doctrine of mean between two extremes (vices). Nonetheless, we must note that the prudent person knows how to exercise moral virtues because moral conduct implies choice that employs prudence. In other words, in the Aristotelian scheme of virtue ethics, prudence and other moral virtues are inherently intertwined. Therefore, Aristotle succinctly explains, “The full performance of man’s function depends upon a combination of prudence and moral virtue; virtue ensures the correctness of the end at which we aim, and prudence that of the means towards it.”[11]

For Aristotle, since practical wisdom (or prudence) already presupposes moral virtues, it concerns more than excellence in intellectual activities like coming up with strategic or instrumental thinking. Rather, it is mostly concerned with the genuine actions (i.e. praxis). Considering the fact that Aristotle put so much emphasis on passions, feelings, and emotions, the practically wise person can determine what is an appropriate degree of emotions (or feelings) in a given emotional context in order to determine what are appropriate actions in response to them. This is only possible because he/she possesses the necessary virtues to carry out this particular moral task. On the contrary, it also suggests that those intelligent people who lack moral virtues, despite their cleverness, cannot formulate the proper means of directing at some end (i.e. the good). In Aristotle’s own words, “if that aim is a noble one, the cleverness is praiseworthy; but if the aim is ignoble, the cleverness is unscrupulousness (which is why we call both prudent and unscrupulousness clever).”[12]

This is a striking characteristic of Aristotelian virtue ethics. The practically wise person pursues the virtues (temperance, courage, magnificence, justice, etc) for their own sake because he/she knows that this virtuous activity is, what Aristotle calls, “conducive to the good life generally.” Consequently, it is not surprising that it has a tremendous application for maturing young adults. Aristotle himself suggests that the student of virtue ethics should have some general knowledge and experience of life in order to be trained in his school of Ethics. So, what is the starting point? Aristotle holds that, “Presumably we must start from what is known. So if anyone wants to make a serious study of ethics, or of political science generally, he must have been well trained in his habits.”[13] We also recall that, in the Aristotelian ethical scheme, moral virtue is concerned with feelings and actions and these involve excess, deficiency, and a mean. Young people who are already habituated in moral virtues (courage, justice, temperance, etc.) will most definitely acquire practical wisdom because they are well established in the starting point. By reflecting on the various virtues and their mutual relationship in the big picture of aiming toward the good life, these young people will acquire a practical wisdom of pursuing an even more excellent human life. In short, these virtues (distinctive human excellence) will be internalized in these young people so that they ultimately become the state of their own character. In other words, they aim at the “great-souled” person who chooses actions in accordance with the right mean and they enjoy their noble activities.

What is intriguing about Aristotle’s ethics is that they are chiefly concerned with an excellence of character that is closely related to achieving it through human rationality and voluntary will (choice) as well as associating with other people through developing friendships. This is why Aristotle considered ethics a branch of politics. For Aristotle, human beings are not only social (or rational) beings, but moral beings as well. Nussbaum explains, “In the politics he (Aristotle) insists that only human beings, and not either animals or gods, will have our basic ethical terms and concepts (such as just and unjust, noble and base, good and bad), because the beasts are unable to form the concepts, and gods lack the experiences of limit and finitude to give a concept such as justice its point.”[14] Moreover, what is useful about Aristotle’s virtue ethics is, as Nussbaum reiterates, its retainability of virtue’s moralities immersed attention to actual human experiences across the board of human cultures. So she says again that, “what is given in experience across groups is only the ground of virtuous action, the circumstances of life to which virtuous action is an appropriate response.”[15] Therefore, building from Aristotle’s common experiences, we can also apply the Aristotelian virtues to different cultures and societies. It is true that, “We do not have a bedrock of completely uninterrupted “given” data, but we do have a nuclei of experience around which the construction of different societies proceed.”[16] So long as we view human beings as capable of functioning cognitively and of exercising practical reason, Aristotelian virtue ethics can be applied across the board of differing cultures and societies. This precisely echoes what Aristotle said about human relationships: “One can see also in one’s travels how near and dear a thing every man is to every other.”[17]

          Next, natural law reached its pinnacle in the thought of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.) who synthesized Greek philosophy with Christian theology in order to obtain rapprochement between those two. Considering his prodigious works in theology and philosophy, it is not surprising that this brilliant Dominican monk is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers and theologians in the Western tradition. His understanding of the natural law theory as a form of virtue theory became the standard ethical view of medieval Christianity and his influence continues to the present day. Though heavily indebted to his secular and Christian mentors, Thomas differs from both Aristotle and Augustine in his approach to the virtue theory. First, Thomistic virtue theory is distinguished from Aristotelian virtue theory in that Aquinas synthesizes naturally acquired virtues (i.e. cardinal virtues) with divinely infused virtues (i.e. theological virtues). Second, in contrast to Augustine, what makes Thomistic virtue theory unique is that Aquinas implicitly agrees that even non-believers can have naturally acquired virtues. How does Aquinas deal with this difficulty? He asserts that human beings can acquire moral virtues through human efforts in order to aim at happiness (eudaimonia) in ordinary human society. “It is possible by means of human works to acquire moral virtues, in so far as they produce good works that are directed to an end not surpassing the natural power of man.”[18] Because these virtues are mostly useful in human social/political interactions, Aquinas does not hesitate to name them as political virtues. “Since man by his nature is a political animal, these virtues are called political virtues; since it is by reason of them that man behaves himself well in the conduct of human affairs.”[19]

            Although Aquinas seems to follow an Aristotelian vein, he radically distances himself from Aristotle when he introduces infused virtues. In fact, Aquinas argues that Aristotelian virtue theory is seriously flawed because it does not consider the biblical God. Naturally, acquired moral virtues, in order for them to be rightly positioned as true virtues, must be understood in light of infused virtues (faith, hope, and charity), which are given to humans through God’s grace.[20] It is true that, for Aquinas, both acquired virtues[21] and theological virtues aim independently at different ends: the former for human happiness in this world and the latter for the union with God (thus, supernatural happiness). However, Aquinas suggests that one can acquire moral virtues “truly and perfectly” as long as they are infused by a divinely originated theological virtue of charity.[22] This is possible, because charity being “the architectonic virtue” that has God as its object, supports not only faith and hope but other moral virtues as well. “All the moral virtues are infused together with charity. The reason for this is that God operates no less perfectly in works of grace than in works of nature.”[23] In short, in Thomistic virtue theory, charity perfects all virtues.

            How then was Aquinas able to develop a Christian version of virtue ethics? The short answer is because Aquinas, taking a cue from Aristotle, was able to find a parallel between the telos of Aristotelian virtues and the New Testament’s account of virtues. On this MacIntyre explains:

“The good for man is of course a supernatural and not only a natural good, but super nature redeems and completes nature. Moreover, the relationship of virtues as means to the end which is human incorporation in the divine kingdom of the age to come is internal and not external, just as it is in Aristotle. It is of course this parallelism which allows Aquinas to synthesize Aristotle and the New Testament.”[24]


            But the question still lingers. What made Aquinas’ position differ from that of Augustine? I believe that it was because, embracing the Aristotelian method of philosophy, Thomas’s  theological methodology deviated from that of Augustine. Or put another way, whereas Augustine held on to “the religious a priori,” Aquinas clang to a posteriori of sense experiences. Augustine upheld total depravity as the effects of sin, thus relying on God’s grace for moral guidance. This was not the case for Aquinas. He still believed that, despite the crippling effect of original sin, there remained in human nature some positive elements (i.e. goodness), not enough to have saving power on its own, but enough to pursue virtue (such as Aristotle’s cardinal virtues) according to its reasonable inclination. By basing his theory on overlapping Aristotelian and biblical perspectives, Aquinas created a subtle, but formidable theory of ethics, especially the natural law moral theory. His optimistic view on human nature, however, does not indicate that he categorically denied the effect of original sin. He did believe in a sort of devastating effect of the original sin, but his notion of original sin was not as devastating as that of Augustine.


The Relevance of Virtue Ethics

Alasdair MacIntyre, in his monumental work After Virtue, rightly criticized the contemporary world for having lost the context for moral discourse. Cleverly playing word games with after virtue,[25] MacIntyre delineates how people in an era of the postmodern world live their (moral) lives in an age of “after virtue” as autonomous individuals. He insists that what emerged over time in the realm of ethics in the Western World then gave way to the individual (autonomous) emotivism with no context of community to which that individual belongs. This grossly violates the presupposition of moral philosophy: a sociology.[26] This sort of ethics without community is a purely arbitrary one because it is based on individual choice and it has been no doubt plagued by Nietzsche and his postmodern successors. 

In order to debug postmodern morality, MacIntyre suggests that we should live our lives “after virtue,” pursuing the virtues (arête, excellence of any kind)[27] practiced by premodern communities, but forgotten by postmodern autonomous individuals. Living “after virtue,” for MacIntyre, therefore, means to restore the community to which we belong and from which living traditions flow with live narratives. For instance, classical cultures almost always pictured social structures in which the heroes courageously played their roles. How can one think of Odysseus, Hector, Achilles, and hosts of other Homeric heroes without the communities with which they intermingled? McIntyre holds that “Every individual has a given role and status within a well-defined and highly determinate system of roles and statuses.”[28] Contra radical individualism, in heroic societies, there is no way one can possess the virtues unless he/she is part of his/her tradition. Virtue is inter-related to other virtues and it operates in the context of social structure. As to how courage and other virtues are intertwined in Homeric society, MacIntyre writes:

“To be courageous is to be someone on whom reliance can be placed. Hence courage is an important ingredient in friendship. The bonds of friendship in heroic societies are modeled on those of kinship. Sometimes friendship is formally vowed, so that by the vow the duties of brothers are mutually incurred. Who my friends and who my enemies, is as clearly defined as who my kinsmen are. The other ingredient of friendship is fidelity. My friend’s courage assures me of his power to aid me and my fidelity is the basic guarantee of its unity. So, in women, who constitute the crucial relationships within the household, fidelity is the key virtue. Andromache and Hector, Penelope and Odysseus are friends (philos) as much as are Achilles and Patroclus.”


The legacy of the heroic virtues that accentuate the community continues, with slight variation, with Aristotle. For Aristotle, there is no difference between being a good person and at the same time, being a good Athenian citizen. In the Aristotelian scheme, like in the New Testament, humanity plays a key role in determining virtues. Subsequently, the Aristotelian man aims at “the great-souled man” while the New Testament goes after “the saint.” They are both person-oriented and both the tradition and the narrative play important roles in shaping one’s virtues and values. 

However, postmodern individuals are bewildered in a moral vacuum in which no unity of human life and concept of tradition are found. They are hopelessly entrapped in Nietzsche’s arbitrary and genealogical morality.[29] In this regard, MacIntyre’s advice to go after virtue is both wise and timely.[30] But what is virtue (arête)? It is more than its literal meaning of “manly strength (virility from virtus),” for MacIntyre, it is certainly not a kind of skill that is applicable (even professionally) in an isolated situation, “for a virtue is not a disposition that makes for success only in some one particular type of situation.”[31] A virtuous person is not the one who does good in one specialized area; instead, MacIntyre asserts that it is “someone who genuinely possess a virtue (i.e. a virtuous person) can be expected to manifest it in very different types of situations, many of them situations where the practice of a virtue cannot be expected to be effective in the way that we expect a professional skill to be.”[32] Most importantly, virtue has a close relation with tradition that sustains narrative and practice in the context of households or on a greater political level. MacIntrye elaborates:

“The virtues therefore are to be understood as those dispositions which will not only sustain practices and enables us to achieve the goods internal to practices, but which will also sustain us in the relative kind of quest for the good, by enabling us to overcome the harms, dangers, temptations and distractions which we encounter, and which will furnish us with increasing self-knowledge and increasing knowledge of good. The catalogue of the virtues will therefore include the virtues required to sustain the kind of households and the kind of political communities in which men and women can seek for the good together and the virtues necessary for philosophical enquiry about the character of the good.”[33]


In summary, virtue ethics focuses on an ethical agent, but the agent does not act in a vacuum. Rather, the agent’s actions are played out in two bigger contexts, the social and the historical. It is because, in these contexts, his/her actions are to be recognized intelligibly. Therefore, the importance of historical narrative is paramount; in fact, “narrative history of a certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for the characterization of human actions.”[34]

In this regard, the military milieu is an ideal setting for virtue ethics to flourish. The military inherits a rich history as well as a rich tradition from the past and its members occupy “given roles and statuses within a well-defined and highly determinate system of roles and statuses (i.e. Homeric society).” The military also emphasizes its institutional values. For example, the United States Army cherishes its seven (moral) values exemplified in the acronym of LDRSHIP (loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage) and it indoctrinates its members in internalizing those values in their character. Because of the fact that the Army often achieves its goal through using the means of (horrific) violence, it needs to be deeply rooted in firm moral ground. For this very reason, the United States Army refuses to be a collection of savages; instead, it strives to be a decisively value driven institution that shapes its own identity. Therefore, the Army reminds its members (moral agents) what sort of persons they should become in order to become true warriors. The failure of proper moral training often times anticipates an utter moral fiasco. 

In April 2004, the whole world was shocked when the American news media released the graphic photographs of U.S. Army soldiers caught in the act of torturing and humiliating Iraqi detainees at the U. S. run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.[35] This scandal was a tremendous setback for the United States government because the U.S. has always insisted that its military play the game by the rules (i.e. Geneva Conventions). The subsequent investigation by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights revealed that the situation was even worse. U.S. officials admitted that there were even more serious and wide spread symptoms of mistreatment of prisoners by U. S. personnel who illegally implemented psychologically and physically coercive interrogation methods not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, thus grossly violating human rights of those detainees held at U.S. military prisons.[36] 

Infamous images from Abu Ghraib were seen by millions of people around the globe and they immediately sparked anti-American protests in the Middle East and other countries, severely damaging America’s moral image and her credibility abroad, as well as inadvertently giving an advantageous edge to the insurgents.[37] Soon, people began to question the moral culpability of American soldiers as well as the moral responsibilities of their leaders (both military and political). “What went wrong?” “Did they receive proper ethical training?” “Were these acts preventable?” We must remember that the soldiers of today’s Army reflect the current moral trends of today’s society. It is even more plausible when we consider the fact that those soldiers involved in the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse incident were citizen soldiers from the reserve units. In other words, they more or less reflect the moral crisis of their civilian counterparts. Mennonite virtue ethicist Joseph J. Kotva cogently argued that contemporary Western society is on the verge of moral bankruptcy and our institutions are failing to inculcate good character.[38] Although we admit that the incident at Abu Ghraib involved more than the isolated wrongful actions of lower ranking enlisted soldiers,[39] we certainly sense, in the wake of this infamous incident, an urgency of reforming the way American troops are trained in the sphere of ethics.

Basic trainees entering the military service are, for the most part, first inculcated with rule-based ethics. They are first and foremost trained to obey their superiors and the orders issued by them, any violation of such orders may lead to punishment by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which prescribes all sorts of military regulations pertaining to the members of the United States Armed Forces. However, this rule based ethical training has limitations since it only imposes threats against those who violate those rules. In other words, rule based ethics are interested in how to control actions regardless of the motive of the moral agent. Mere indoctrination in rule-based ethics does not involve the warrior as a whole person.[40] On the contrary, virtue ethics focuses on the whole person, the moral agent, and they are keenly interested in developing the virtues of that agent.

            Cadets entering the Unites States Military Academy at West Point must memorize and habitually practice the Cadet Honor Code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” This code primarily focuses on the moral agent and its purpose, which is to cultivate the character of integrity in each cadet. Considering that these cadets will be the leaders of the Army who will defend the United States from her enemies, the importance of the formation of the right character is enormous. The bottom line is that character defines who a warrior is and how he/she acts according to his/her character, especially in the fog of war. Therefore, virtue ethics not only is a viable option for the formation of a warrior’s character, but they must be vigorously taught at every level as well.

The Formation of a Warrior’s Character

Who are American soldiers? What sort of warrior should they become? The popular slogan calling them “mean-lean-fighting machines” serves to dehumanize them, totally ignoring their human side. They are flesh-and-blood human beings with feelings, emotions, passions, and concerns for their loved ones as well as for their enemies. Additionally, the missions they have to accomplish during both combat and peacekeeping military operations frequently place them in complex environments that pose a great threat to consistent moral behavior. In other words, they are encouraged to be moral individuals who must act responsibly in making ultimate moral judgments. As previously noted, the Abu Ghraib incident totally belied the supposed moral-fortitude of the soldiers involved.[41] In fact, it clearly showed that there was a disconnect between the ethics training and other military skill trainings that these soldiers received. Not surprisingly, everything boils down to the matter of ethics. Despite their superb fighting skills, without a moral force that can back up their behavior, military operations can easily result in a fiasco on a number of different levels. This depicts the degree of urgency needed to reinforce and reform the moral training of our soldiers.

Because American soldiers come from all walks of life with diverse ethnic, social, and religious backgrounds,[42] insisting one distinctive religious tenet in conducting ethics training is considered to be inappropriate.[43] In this pluralistic and multifarious environment, a neo-Aristotelian virtue framework[44] may serve as a most feasible method at every opportunity in inculcating, through proper training and practice, relevant Army values in soldiers. An Aristotelian virtue oriented moral training requires the support of the community to which its members are intrinsically linked. In this sense, the military community precisely fits into a scheme in which the community and its members (i.e. warriors) promote the same telos. Therefore, in adopting virtue theory, a trainer is able to find a common ground from which he/she is then able to play an important role in shaping the moral outlook and character of twenty first century American warriors.

Since we are concerned with the transition from ‘who we are’ to ‘who could we become,’ by looking into the human nature of warriors, our interests are to find what actions, habits, capacities, and inclinations should be encouraged so that excellent warriors are indeed developed.[45] In other words, in order for us to understand the warrior, we must understand what constitutes an excellent warrior specifically in relationship to characteristics concerned with particular function, purpose, and role in a military context.[46] Simply put, a warrior is a fighter in the profession of arms for service of his/her country, with the mission of winning the nation’s wars despite all adversities and oddities. Such service contributes to the common good of the citizenry, but it often requires a warrior to face an ultimate sacrifice for a given cause in war.

            What, however, is war? According to the eminent Prussian soldier and theorist Car Von Clausewitz, “War is … an act of violence to compel our opponents to fulfill our will.”[47] Clausewitz continues to unpack the role of violence in its relation to will. “Violence, that is to say, physical force (for there is no moral force without the conception of States and Law), is therefore the means; the compulsory submission of the enemy to our will is the ultimate object.”[48] Therefore, American warriors are, as Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale said, “in the business of breaking people’s wills and the most important weapon in breaking people’s wills is not the fire power but to hold the moral high ground.”[49] According to Clausewitz, Stockdale was convinced, that “War was not an activity governed by scientific laws, but a clash of wills, of moral forces.”[50] To make the same point in another way, Napoleon’s succinct words are much more vivid: “In war, the moral is to the physical as three to one.”[51]

            In this regard, it goes without saying that warriors, especially their leaders, should be trained to demonstrate a high standard of moral integrity as well as the skill to execute sound moral judgment that is based on the virtues. Split second decisions in combat situations will often decide either life or death for their subordinates. In the training and development of character education for warriors, the best way to conduct this sort of training is to tie the core values of the Army[52] with a “Warrior Ethos” embedded in the Army’s enduring traditions and narratives. This is because they form distinctive warrior virtues that challenge warriors to become certain kinds of people with certain characteristics and attitudes for the Army they serve. Hence, the telos of warriors and virtues they are to pursue are communal in nature. Consequently, an interest in the individual warrior’s pursuit of both human and soldierly excellence is compatible with the common good of the larger community (the Army) he/she serves.

            Field Manual (FM) 22-100, Army Leadership stresses the time-honored concept of “Be, Know, Do” as its heart beating principles of an excellent leader/warrior.[53] The Aristotelian insight for virtue theory is inherently embedded in this manual as “Be” stresses values and attributes, “Know” skills or prudence, and “Do” leadership/warrior actions. Most importantly, this leadership manual accentuates the character of the warrior.

            “Character describes a person’s inner strength, the Be of “Be, Know, Do.” Your  

             character helps you know what is right; more than that, it links that knowledge to    

             action. Character gives you the courage to do what is right regardless of the

             circumstances or the consequences.”[54]


The final payoff for “Be, Know, Do” is to promote both an individual and a collective excellence of the warrior as an individual and the Army as an organization. However, the point of departure for character development is always how to achieve a moral excellence that is shaped by the virtues. As Stephen Ambrose explained, “At the pivotal point in the war, it was always the character of the individuals that made the difference.”[55] “Character – who you are- contributes significantly to how you act. Character helps you know what’s right and do what’s right, all the time and at whatever the cost.”[56] A virtue oriented moral training, therefore, enables each warrior to retain and to reshape his/her character to uphold the Army’s core values in any circumstance, particularly in ambiguous situations like Abu Ghraib, if those (moral) values were to be internalized as part of his/her identity through proper training and constant practice. Truly, the notions of acts and character are closely intertwined in that Agere Sequitur Esse (Action follows being). Consequently, it follows that, to be a competent warrior, being a warrior of character is more important than being a warrior of mere military skill.[57]

            In order to understand how American soldiers should ideally operate in war or other hostile scenarios, we need to know what set of principles they should live with. This is called the “Warrior Ethos,” and it specifies the guiding principles with which each soldier must abide in any given circumstance. The Chief of Staff of the United States Army, General Peter J. Schoomaker stresses the importance of living “the Warrior Ethos:” “We are, have been and will remain a values-based institution. Our values will not change, and they are non-negotiable. Our Soldiers are warriors of character. They exemplify these values every day and are the epitome of our American spirit. They are the heart of the Army.”[58] What General Schoomaker stresses is striking. He understands the warrior as a person of character who should make a right choice even in a most complex arena, thus emphasizing moral virtues. In this sense, warriors should think about the virtues and vices of everyday life because, as Erasmus of Rotterdam warns in his famous Enchiridion Militis Christiani, one vice always brings in another.

            “For always after this wisdom (which is beastly) followeth as a waiting servant or        

            hand maid-mischieveous presumption, after presumption followeth blindness of

            mind, after blindness of mind followeth fervent rage and tyranny of accetions and                

            appetities, after tyranny of affectios followeth the whole heap of all vices.”[59]


            So, what is role of the Warrior Ethos? The Warrior Ethos promotes the ethical behavior of soldiers by training them to follow the Army Values. ‘Soldiers put the mission first, refuse to accept defeat, never quit, and never leave behind a fellow American.’[60] This requires that soldiers put tremendous faith in themselves as well as their comrades. The most fundamental part of a warrior’s character, therefore, can be forged through utilizing the Warrior Ethos, which is linked with the Army Values. Character is “who you are” that will shape “what you should do” and it gives a solid footing on which you can stand, even in the most complex of arenas.

            A warrior is not a robot, but a person who inculcates his/her own character trait that stems from his/her own humanity. In fact, a warrior was a civilian before he/she became a warrior. Turning a civilian into a warrior requires the training of a mindset[61] that should be aligned to both the Warrior Ethos and the Army Values. The inculcation of the warrior belief system, as we noted earlier, is the careful balance between military task proficiency based on interpersonal, conceptual, technical, and tactical skills and moral proficiency rooted in the Army’s core values. In the Warrior Ethos, we immediately notice virtues like selfless service, personal courage, and loyalty to comrades, integrity, honor, and dedication to duty, etc. That is not to say that acquiring the virtues is an easy task; on the contrary, it requires tremendous efforts from a warrior over the course of his/her life. But its end has many benefits as the Enchiridion says, “The way of virtue is hard at the beginning, but after thou hast crept up to the top there remaineth for thee very sure quietness.”[62] In other words, the Enchiridion inculcates “a certain craft of virtuous living and a discipline”[63] in the life of a Christian knight in order that “ignorance must be remedied, the flesh must be tamed, and the weakness must be comforted.”[64] The end for this is again “human excellence and flourishing.”

            A warrior who constantly engages in an inner discipline of improving character displays virtuous behavior. For example, a warrior who puts the mission first by putting his/her life on the line for a cause bigger than himself/herself has developed certain virtues such as dedication to duty, personal courage, and selfless service. A warrior who puts his/her life on the line for the sake of his/her comrades unintentionally finds himself/herself involved in spectacular moral acts stemming not from the deontological sense, but from the excellence of his/her character for caring for loyalty to his/her fellow comrades[65] and even displaying supererogatory virtues like magnanimity. A warrior who stops the maltreatment of prisoners-of-war (POW) knows when justice and/or respect for humanity is violated and thus displays virtues like personal courage, integrity, or duty to protect that basic human dignity. In this case, personal courage involves not only the physical, but moral fortitude as well. In this sense, consistent moral courage among the soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison could have prevented such a scandalous incident.[66]

Sergeant Joseph Darby, a twenty four year old member of the 372nd Military Police Company serving at Abu Ghraib military prison in Iraq, was known to have agonized for some time over the grossly unprofessional and improper conduct of his colleagues at Abu Ghraib, specifically their mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners. He was therefore said to have gone through a (moral) psychological crisis and suffered immense emotional distress while trying to determine what course of action he had to take in this plight. As a prison guard, he was both related to and had an obligation to the detainees he had never known before, as well as to his colleagues with whom he was closely associated as fellow soldiers. On this complex issue involving identity and relations, Jesusit scholar James Kenan adroitly elaborates:

“Our identity is relational in three ways: generally, specifically, and uniquely. Each of these relational ways of being demands a cardinal virtue: as relational beings in general, we are called to justice; as relational beings specifically, we are called to fidelity; and as relationaly beings uniquely, we are called to self-care.”[67]


Utilizing the virtue of prudence, Keenan urges others to consider these three cardinal virtues simultaneously in order to deliniate what “constitutes the just, faithful, and self-caring way of life. However, quoting Stanley Hauerwas, Keenan wisely warns that “we have the task of sorting out “conflicting loyalties” through our lives.”[68]

Sergeant Darby was obviously caught in a dilemma between respect for human dignity[69] and loyalty (or fidelity) to his colleagues as well as taking care of his own needs; consequently, he was thrown into a situation where questions of justice and courage were quagmired in the question of loyalty.

In the Army, the thickening virtue among its seven values is “loyalty.” Without loyalty, the hierarchy of the Army organization cannot function properly. But this loyalty does not mean blind loyalty, for that does not give justice to it. Air Force Colonel Michael O. Wheeler comments on the core of loyalty.

           “Whenever we speak of loyalty, we are speaking of a two-object context: a

            context in which one gives loyalty and another receives loyalty. Now, given this

            rather simple conceptual picture, what we might focus our attention on is neither

            the giving nor the receiving of loyalty, but instead of the inspiring of loyalty.”[70]


And this “inspiring of loyalty,” according to Colonel Wheeler comes from “trust.” As warriors interact both vertically and horizontaly with their superiors and subordinates as well as their peers, the inspiring fact of loyalty must accompany “the theme of trust” that is based on Army values. As a moral individual, the warrior cannot comply mechanically with compelled (or blind) loyalty.[71]  

After days of agony, Sergeant Darby blew the whistle, breaking the silence against his own comrades, and he released the horrific pictures of U.S. soldiers mistreating the prisoners. He later said that “the treatment of prisoners violated everything I personally believed in and all I’d been taught about the rules of war… I was concerned that the abuse might start again."[72] What was at stake in this case was Sergeant Darby himself, a moral agent who acts in accordance with his own character traits. Excersing the discernment of weighing different and conflicting values, in my judgement, this young soldier acted in accordance with his own character traits in choosing “what the right thing is”[73] because he was foremost trained to be a warrior, a man of character. True, the infamous prison scandal at Abu Ghraib could have been hidden from the public arena if Sergeant Darby had cowardly kept the silence. Then, the cancer of vices could have silently spread like a disease through the body of the Army. Sergeant’s Darby’s courageous act stemmed from his own character traits. Despite sensational responses from around the globe, especially from angry Arabs, what ensued was that the U.S. military was forced to look into the possibly of prevalent internal problems in regard to the mistreatment of prisoners and to correct its own mistakes. 

The Warrior Ethos, therefore, is the way of a warrior’s life, and is not an option. The development of the Warrior Ethos is an on-going process throughout the career of a warrior; it needs to be reinforced again and again throughout the duration of his career, regardless of his/her rank. This is because character development based on the virtues requires the process of maturation over time. Therefore, it must be inculcated at every turn, permeating every aspect of his/her life, not only in formal military education, but also in personal professional development, in units of assignment, and in informal gatherings of warriors. When properly trained and habitually practiced through the spirit of the Warrior Ethos, a warrior will witness constant movement, growth, and progress toward excellence. However, his/her goal is neither perfection nor attainment of the highest rank; but rather, that of a person of honor at whatever level he/she reaches so that he/she “builds a climate that encourages prudent risk taking and creativity; exercises command that tolerates honest mistakes; promotes learning, and develops leaders who know how to help individual solders become the best they can be.”[74] Again, in applying the virtue theory to a military context, “who a warrior is (being)” is inherently interlinked to “who a warrior is called to be (doing).” This is a crucial concept because a warrior must display his/her Warrior Ethos at anytime and in any circumstances whether during on or off duty hours.

Finally, the Warrior Ethos has a distinctive communal nature because warriors ought to serve as models or exemplars for one another. A warrior, therefore, must be reminded that, even though the Army is not a perfect institution, he/she is part of an enduring tradition of excellence and valor.[75] A lone ranger cannot survive in a military milieu, especially not in combat situations. One warrior’s survival depends on another’s vigilance. Loyalty to his/her comrades is only one example of a communal moral vision. In this sense, what Kotva calls “moral interdependence” is distinct among warriors in a military context. The notorious incident at Abu Ghraib is again more than the isolated actions of bad apples. Unfortunately, it pictured the whole Army and the nation as bad apples in the eyes of the world. The revelation of the prisoner abuse case from Abu Ghraib was, as Senator Joseph Biden characterized it, “the single most significant blow to U.S. prestige in the Arab world over the past decade.”[76] The Warrior Ethos, therefore, encompasses not only individual warriors but the whole Army (community) as well. It is because the Warrior Ethos is in the very fabric of the Army’s core values. In short, the Warrior Ethos portrays what sort of warrior a soldier is called to be and what kinds of actions a warrior must take. In other words, his/her inner qualities, dispositions, and attitudes that are rooted in his/her being (or character) will eventually come forth through certain kinds of actions. This proper cultivation of “being” and “doing” of each warrior will ultimately bring out the excellence of the institution of the Army as a whole, beyond the isolated excellence of individual warriors.


I have sketched rather briefly virtue ethics from an Aristotelian-Thomistic perspective and tested its applicability in the military milieu. My objective was to highlight two distinctive characteristics: its accentuation on ethical agents as a whole person and its usefulness as a moral antidote to failing moralities in the postmodern world in general and in the United States military in particular. I pointed out that its relevance for our postmodern world is indeed enormous and we demonstrated that it can serve as a viable option for ethics training in the military, which is imperative to the character development of warriors. It inspires a warrior to incorporate Army values as his/her moral ideal so that he/she may become certain kind of individual with certain kind of enduring character traits. It has proven to be the most feasible option that can accommodate a variety of religious, social, and racial backgrounds of individual warriors. By employing practical wisdom and prudence, warriors can assimilate the required Army values by practicing the Warrior Ethos in order to reshape their own character. This kind of ethics training can certainly not only prevent the plight of military operations from falling into the abyss of moral chaos, but also promote the excellence of moral character in individual warriors as well as the excellence of the Army as “a value-based institution.”

From this observation, I conclude that virtue ethics can play a vital role in the current ethical landscape as we perceive a notion of inadequacy of traditional methods in instilling ethics as they focus more on acts rather than the inner state of the ethical agent. 


Chaplain (Major) Daniel S. Oh

U.S. Army Logistics Management College 






[1] Coming from Presbyterian and Reformed background, which holds a high view of Scripture (Sola Scriptura), I dispute with those who believe that natural law is conducive to its own normativity. I hold a view that natural law is subservient to the authority of Scripture. At the same time, I also disagree with those who reject the natural law theory all together (i.e. Karl Barth). Scripture certainly endorses the natural law through God’s common grace. My own view on the close appraisal of natural law from a biblical perspective is beyond the scope of this paper.

[2] See an article by Justin Oakley, Varieties of Virtue Ethics. Oakley says that “the first sign of this revival appeared in 1958, when Elizabeth Anscombe called for the restoration of Aristotelian notions of goodness, character, and virtue as central concerns of moral philosophy. While initial reactions to Anscombe’s call were modest, interest in the virtues gathered momentum during the 1980s, largely due to the work of philosophers such as Philippa Foote, Bernard Williams, and Alasdair MacIntyre.” p.128.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1094a 1-3

[4] Ibid., 1094a 24-27

[5] Ibid., 1107a 1-3

[6] Ibid., 1104b 14-16

[7] Ibid., 1103a 14-18

[8] Ibid., 1103a 18-21

[9] See Ibid., 1103a 32-1103b 7

[10] Ibid.,1105b 6-10, emphasis mine

[11] Ibid., 1144a 6-9

[12] Ibid., 1144b 26-29

[13] Ibid., 1095b 5-7

[14] Nussbaum, Martha, Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XIII (1988), p.37.

[15] Ibid., p.40.

[16] Ibid., p.49.

[17] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1155a21-22

[18] Summa Theologiae, Ia, IIae, Question 65, Article 2

[19] Summa Theologiae, Ia, IIae, Question 61, Article 5

[20] Summa Theologiae, Ia, IIae, Question 62, Article 1

[21] Keenan’s insight is helpful here. Keenan says that “the four cardinal virtues-prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude-perfect four corresponding powers: the practical reason, the will, the concupiscible, and the irascible.” He also further comments that “these virtues inhere in a particular hierarchy. Temperance and fortitude are predominantly at the service of justice. Prudence determines the right choice of means for each of the virtues, but it especially looks to recommend the just action since justice governs all exterior principles. In a manner of speaking, the anthropological identity of the virtuous person is simply the just one.” Virtual Ethics and Sexual Ethics, Keenan, James, p.5.

[22] Summa Theologiae, Ia, IIae, Question 65, Article 2

[23] Summa Theologiae, Ia, IIae, Question 65, Article 3

[24] MacIntyre, Alasdair,  After Virtue, (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1984),  p.184.

[25] I own this analysis to Jesuit scholar James Keenan.

[26] MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue, p.23.

[27] Ibid.,  p.122.

[28] Ibid.

[29] For detailed information about Nietzsche’s idea of morality, see Nietzsche, Friedrich.  The Birth of Tragedy & The Genealogy of Morals, ( New York: Anchor Books, 1956)

[30] This can create a point of contact or a meeting place between believers and non-believers. Christians can use this occasion for apologetic or evangelistic opportunity, accentuating that morality presupposes the absolute personality (God) and the community created by him (the human world, or the church).

[31]MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue, p.205.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.,  p.219.

[34] Ibid.,  p.208.

[35] CBS broadcasted this through 60 minutes on 28 April. An article by Seymour M. Hersch appeared online April 30 and was published in New Yorker Magazine on May 10.

[36],  Report: U.S. is Abusing Captives written by Maggie Farley on February 13, 2006

This article can be found at gitmo13feb 13,0,3215042.story?coll=la-home-headlines

[37] Tony Karon in his article titled “How the Prison Scandal Sabotages the U.S. in Iraq,” May 04, 2004 appeared in Time Online Edition stroke this point by quoting Anthony Cordesman:  “Anthony Cordesman, the widely respected defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies was equally forthright: "Those Americans who mistreated the prisoners may not have realized it, but they acted in the direct interests of al-Qaeda, the insurgents, and the enemies of the U.S.," he said. The reason is that they came at a point when U.S. standing in the Arab world was already at an all-time low. Says Cordesman, "These negative images validate all other negative images and interact with them." In other words, they function as a multiplier by providing photographic "proof" of the demonic picture of the U.S. painted by anti-American propagandists.”  Refer to,8599,632967,00.html

[38] Kotva, Joseph, J., (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996), p.6.  For similar analysis of the sickness of Western civilization, see Kreeft, Peter, Back to Virtue, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), pp.19-37

[39] There are those who blame the leadership and moral culpability of high-level government officers in the Department of Defense and the State Department. 

[40] David L. Norton’s criticism on rule based ethics  is insightful at this point: “… I have termed “rule” ethics, is notable for its relative disregard of the problems pertaining to the development of moral character. This is an important respect in which modern morality is “minimalist” in comparison to classical morality – it makes minimal demands upon the intelligence and developed moral character of moral agents, requiring little or noting of them in the way of wisdom, courage, or integrity.”  Elsewhere, he also says that “modern ethics either disregards, or treats inadequately, “good” or “right” acts that make large demands upon developed moral character in individuals. Norton, David, “Moral Minimalism and the Development of Moral Character,” Midwest Studies, p.183 & p. 189.

[41] It is ironical that society puts them into (morally) most devastating/ambiguous situations, yet expects them to behave morally, if not as moral superstars.

[42] In general, the Army religious pie discloses 50 percent Protestant, 25 percent Roman Catholic, 20 percent No preference, and 5 percent other religions like Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, etc. Though we strongly advocate biblical virtue ethics, we settle with Aristotelian theory in order not to violate the soldier’s constitutional right of exercising religious freedom.

[43] In a setting where Christian soldiers gather for a common purpose, if non Christian soldiers are present, Christian chaplains must not lose the opportunity of inculcating them with solid biblical ethical teachings. It’s because virtue theory without the concept of God’s grace may have a tendency of developing “works righteousness” that may lead to either self-pride or despair, depending how one progresses or regresses in his/her moral growth.

[44] One can certainly modify this to a Christian virtue frame so that it can be more feasible to his training purpose as long as it does not display distinctly one religious overtone.  A key word is a common ground on which all soldiers can stand, that can serve as an evangelistic and apologetic tool for Christian soldiers.

[45] See  Kotva, Joseph,  op. cit., p.17.

[46] For helpful insight, see Ibid., p.18.

[47] Clausewitz, Car Von, On War, (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), p.101.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Stockdale, James, B., “Stockdale on Stoicism I: The Stoic Warrior’s Triad” A lecture to the student body of The Marine Amphibious Warfare School, Quantico, Virginia, Tuesday, 18 April 1995.  (Annapolis: The Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics, 1998), p.1

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., p.2

[52] They are again loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honesty, integrity, and personal courage

[53] Every warrior is in a sense a leader.

[54] Army Field Manual (FM) 22-100, Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., 31 1999, 1-22

[55] Ibid.

[56] FM 22-100, 2-3

[57] We are not downgrading military skills. They are vital, but without character, a person who possesses superb military skills cannot be called a warrior in a true sense. A warrior is a man of character with superb military skills.

[58] TRADOC News Service, February 9, 2004

[59] Erasmus of Rotterdam, The Manual of a Christian Knight (1501): The Online Library of Liberty, p.59.

[60] Ibid. More precisely, warrior ethos is as follows: “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.”

[61] Peter Kreeft takes this point seriously, yet quite simply. He quotes the poet Samuel Smiles: “Sow a thought, reap an act. Sow an act, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.” Kreeft, Peter, op. cit., p.169.

[62] Erasmus of Rotterdam, op. cit., p.71

[63] Ibid., p.85.

[64] Ibid., p.87.

[65] This could be called Aristotelian concept of noble friendship. “But it is also true to say of the man of good character that he performs many actions for the sake of his friends and his country, and if necessary even dies for them.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1169a 18-20

[66] Another notorious incident that stemmed from moral failure was the My Lai incident during the Vietnam War. On March 16, 1968, more than 300 Vietnamese civilians (many of them women and children) were massacred by U.S. soldiers, arousing national controversy and disillusionment with an already unpopular war.   

[67] Harrington, Daniel, J., and Keenan, James, F., op., cit, p.123.

[68] Ibid., pp. 123-125.

[69] James Keenan makes an insightful comment on our relationship to the members of the human race: “Our relationship is generally directed by an ordered appreciation for the common good in which we treat all people equally and we are to treat every human being, regardless of any other way of relating to those human beings (that is, as friends or enemies), with a sense of fairness and impartiality, simply because they are human beings” op., cit, pp. 123-124.

[70] Watkin, Malham, M., War, Morality, and the Military Profession, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1986), p.174.

[71] Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, former chief of U.S. Central Command made an insightful comment during his appearance in April 2, 1996 edition of NBC’s “Meet the Press.”: “You know, integrity and getting on with the mission and doing it right is more important than loyalty. Both are great traits, but integrity, honesty and performance and competence have to outweigh, in this business (i.e. military), loyalty.” Excerpts from Army Times, 17 April, 1996

[72] BBC Internet News, 6 August 2004, Whistleblower feared more abuse. It can seen at

[73] How Sergeant arrived at “what he thought was right,” in Aristotelian term, was the result of weighing the mean between two extremes (excess or deficiency) from practical intelligence. He must have felt strong fear for his ambiguous position, anger toward his comrades, pity toward the abused detainees, and a host of other emotions and passions only known to him. In Aristotelian virtue ethics frame, virtues are found between two vices and they are closely related to our feelings, emotions, passions, and to the acts we perform. In the scale of excess, deficiency, and intermediate (or mean), Aristotle contends that virtue is found in the mean. For example, in NE 1106b 16-23, Aristotle says: “I mean moral virtue; for it is that is concerned with passions and actions, and in these there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. For instance, both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right object, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue.” However, practical intelligence determines how to weigh all these factors and individual circumstances in order to deliver the right actions.

[74] FM 22-100, 1-82, A main character who appears in Anton Myrer’s best selling novel, Once an Eagle, Sam Damon, truly captures this kind of moral leadership rooted in the ethics of virtue. Once again, in Aristotelian term, this leadership can be called “human flourishing.”

[75] FM 22-100, 1-80, It must be noted that the Army has countless narratives of  moral examples from the Revolutionary War to current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

[76] Quoted in Time Online Edition, Article by Karon, Tony, “How the Prison Scandal Sabotages the U.S. in Iraq,” May 04, 2004  It can be read at,8599,632967,00.html





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