Establishing our Professional Ethic


Major Dan Cazier


At present, the American military profession lacks a professional ethic.[1]  Or more accurately, we don’t know what our professional ethic is.  While recent years have witnessed much meaningful discussion about the ethics of the profession,[2] these discussions have directed themselves only to particular aspects of an overarching professional ethic.  There doesn’t seem to be much discussion within our profession as to what a professional ethic itself is, what it does, where it comes from, and what it commits us to.  There is not even universal understanding of the need for a formally recognized expression of the professional military ethic.  This essay undertakes to remedy these shortcomings.  In this paper, I argue the need for a formal expression of the professional military ethic and propose a framework for exploring and expressing our ethic.


Before I attempt to make a case for our needing a formal expression of the professional military ethic, it may be worth establishing that we don’t already have one.  Given the abundant discussion of the ethics of our profession, many suppose that we already have a formal expression of our ethic.  Perhaps I can get away with simply denying that we have any statement of our ethic and then leave it to those who disagree to offer evidence of such a statement.  It really isn’t clear what more one could do to prove the non-existence of something.  But I think I can still provide greater support for my claim.  First, casual discussion with other soldiers suggests that if you were to ask any two soldiers – of any rank or position – what our professional ethic is, they would not likely be able to formulate a coherent response.  But presuming that they did, there would be little similarity in their responses.  This alone implies that we lack any publicly acknowledged ethic.  Second, more insightful members of our profession might offer evidence of a written expression of our professional ethic by alluding to the Constitution, U.S. Code, the UCMJ, various creeds,[3] Army Values, etc.  But while all of these may allude to certain moral commitments of our profession, none of these documents offers a direct account of what those commitments are.  And, arguably, the abundance of sources that could be cited constitutes strong evidence of the lack of any common source document.  Third, I cite the abundance of articles coming out of the Army War College over the past two or three decades lamenting the absence of and calling for the establishment of a formal expression of our professional ethic.[4]  Finally, I note that the newly established Army Center for the Professional Military Ethic has made one of its initial goals the determination of what the profession’s ethic is.  It is hard to imagine that we might really have a functional expression of the professional military ethic but that it somehow has escaped the attention of this center.


One might question whether a written expression of our ethic is really necessary.  After all, there is no single authoritative written account of ethics writ large, and we still manage to get along reasonably well most of the time.  Surely conscience alone is sufficient.  Furthermore, if there is already plenty of intelligent discussion within the profession about our moral commitments, why should we suppose a written expression of our ethic to be essential?  Instead, isn’t this actually a dangerous undertaking?  Doesn’t writing it out risk trivializing our professional ethic, making it into just another piece of professional propaganda?


In response, I acknowledge that there is indeed already an abundance of dialogue within the profession about its ethic.  But an abundance of dialogue is no better than a shortage if that dialogue is not harmonious and well structured.  In place of a clear account of our professional ethic, we presently have an assortment of vague, and possibly even incompatible, accounts of what the soldier should be and/or what he should do in particular situations.  At best, this discussion touches only on particular moral issues affecting our profession, confusing those specific issues for the ethic itself and leaving the ethic itself unaddressed.  At worst, such accounts create a cacophony of voices that leaves the professional just as directionless[5] as if there were no discussion at all.  They risk generating greater confusion and/or eroding confidence that proper direction can ever be found.


As for the argument that perhaps we should not even desire to give written expression to our professional ethic, I suspect there is something right about this argument.  It supposes that giving written expression to the ethic constitutes trying to turn something which is fundamentally principled and abstract into something that is formalistic, concrete, definitive, and legalistic.  It risks implying that the full extent of our moral commitments can be subsumed in a list of prescriptions and proscriptions.  It risks diverting the attention of the professional from reflection on his moral obligations to simply referencing a published list of acceptable behavior.  These dangers are indeed real.  I suspect that many codes of professional ethics do exactly this.  But this is not a necessary consequence of giving expression to our professional ethic.  I will have more to say on this later.  At this point, I simply acknowledge the concern and express my confidence that these dangers can all be avoided.


The Need for a Written Expression of the Professional Military Ethic


Perhaps the first of several drawbacks to our not already having a written expression of our professional ethic is that it permits great confusion as to our ethical obligations.  Indeed, much of the present discussion of the ethics of the military profession is fundamentally flawed, lacking in philosophical richness or even conceptually absurd.  Perhaps the most common example of this in military ethics today is the attempt to subordinate ethical decision making to character development.[6]  This approach presumes that if we just become the right kind of people, then we will make the right kind of judgments.  Francis Lieber, the author of the Lieber Code – our first written account of the rules of war, epitomized this sentiment in an 1846 pamphlet titled “The Character of a Gentleman.”  A gentleman, he argued, never has to think about what to do.  He already knows what to do.  Right action flows naturally from proper character.  But while character development is undoubtedly indispensible to moral judgment, it is far from sufficient on its own.  Men of high character and sound judgment routinely disagree about the moral obligations of the profession.


Another error commonly made in determining our professional ethic is attempting to deduce it from law, heritage or culture, or even oaths and creeds.  These approaches all seem to make the same fundamental error.  They conflate what is with what ought to be.[7]  They attempt to derive professional ethics – a subset of ethics writ large – from somewhere other than ethics writ large, from somewhere independent of ethics writ large.  It seems conceptually confused to attempt to derive a subset of ethics from something other than ethics.  To be fair, these other sources from which they attempt to derive professional ethics are not entirely immune to the influence of ethics writ large.  But my concern is that they are not sufficiently dependent upon it either.  It just doesn’t seem possible that we can derive genuine ethical obligations from some source which is not itself dependent upon ethics.


Second on my list of concerns about our lack of written expression of our professional ethic is that we can’t really even claim status as a profession without such a statement.  Michael Davis, a Senior Fellow at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, argues that one of the hallmarks of a profession is not just that it marshals a unique skill set to advance a particular social good, but that it seeks to do so in a certain way – “beyond what law, market, and morality would otherwise require.”  In other words, its very methodology reflects certain moral commitments.  To ensure proper conduct within its ranks, a profession establishes a number of standards, concerning – for example – the education and skill required to enter the profession.  But a profession is concerned about more than just the competence of each member; it is concerned about the actual practice of the profession – in other words, the conduct of the profession.  For this reason, the standards of a bona fide profession must address the ethical expectations of each member.  A profession which has not yet established such a written statement of such expectations, argues Davis, is not actually a profession at all.  It “is at best a profession in utero.”[8]


To be fair, the Uniform Code of Military Justice probably fulfills our basic requirement for a written code of ethics.  But it falls far short of giving robust expression to our genuine moral commitments.  In fact, while a code of ethics may be a prerequisite to being recognized as a profession, it alone cannot provide the rich moral guidance our profession needs.  Our UCMJ, as with any code of ethics, exemplifies the kinds of shortcomings already alluded to.  A code of ethics is fundamentally a legal document.  So it invites legalistic interpretation.  Nothing is wrong unless it is specifically prohibited in the code; nothing is obligatory unless it is specifically mandated in the code.  A legalistic code invites us to aspire to nothing higher than the minimal requirements of legality.  It doesn’t inspire us to aspire to any supererogatory conduct.  In fact, because it omits discussion of ideals, it doesn’t inspire us at all.  To the extent that Davis is right, our status as a profession is probably not really in jeopardy.  Our UCMJ is surely adequate to secure that status.  But the principle behind this requirement also suggests that our professional status improves as we better identify and promote our genuine moral obligations.  Giving written expression to a more robust ethic than that reflected in the UCMJ would surely make us more professional.  Instead of being slave to a list of mandates and prohibitions, we would become morally autonomous – i.e., capable of rendering appropriate moral judgment on our own.


My third concern over our lack of written ethic is that it is morally irresponsible not to define our ethic.  Whether or not we formally identify our ethic, ethics already applies to our profession.  Morality places demands upon all of us, independent of our recognizing those demands.  As moral agents, each of us individually already has obligations to each other and to mankind in general.  While joining a profession certainly alters those responsibilities, it is not as if those responsibilities only arise once they are specified in writing.  Publishing our understanding of our professional ethic neither increases nor diminishes our genuine moral responsibility.  So inasmuch as we already have moral obligations, we are just being morally irresponsible if we decline to identify those responsibilities.  For a profession, the only way to identify our moral obligations is to give them written expression.  Until we express our professional ethic in writing, we as a profession don’t really know what our ethic is.


Fourth – and perhaps the strongest of all the reasons I offer here – if our profession doesn’t understand its ethic, then the individual soldier surely doesn’t either.  And there is little prospect of our educating him or her on this ethic if we have not yet determined our ethical obligations.  Without a written expression of our ethic, we lack an account of right action within the context of our profession.  Without knowing what constitutes right action, we can’t teach moral decision making.  We can’t even engage in meaningful character development because we won’t know what the man or woman of character should do in our professional environment.  It was noted earlier that many people make it through life adequately well without any focused study of ethics or any written expression of ethics writ large.  So why should we be concerned that military professionals will be unable to do the same without a written expression of our ethic?  Why should we presume that he is in need of extensive additional ethics training?


I think there are many good responses to this challenge.  I’ll offer only one or two of what I presume to be the stronger ones.  It is true that most of us muddle through life adequately well with only a basic understanding of ethics.  But that is because we really did receive extensive conditioning during our formative years in what might be called “common-sense” morality.  This preparation equipped us adequately to deal with the vast majority of routine situations we encounter.  But any reflection upon the kind of hard ethical cases philosophers love to explore demonstrates that our common sense moral training is inadequate to guide us through the exceptional cases.  And our profession deals extensively with exceptional cases.  We are a profession that engages in acts not otherwise generally recognized as morally acceptable.  Our professional practice is to perform some of the most severe acts of harm.  “Muddling” through life “adequately well” is surely insufficient.  The moral consequences of our acts are too high for us to be cavalier about our moral performance.  In order to do morally what is generally taboo, we need much more moral education and conditioning than that afforded the average citizen.[9] 


Finally, the absence of a written version of the professional military ethic hampers further exploration of that ethic.  I have deliberately resisted referring to our ethic as something we develop.  Instead, we simply “give expression” to it or “develop a written statement” of it.  This reflects my presumption that morality in general is not ours to develop, but only to discover.[10]  If this is true, then why should we presume professional ethics – a subset of ethics writ large – to be any different?  Inasmuch as ethics is a study of morality, the claims we make about ethics should be seen as theories, comparable to those espoused in other academic disciplines.  They are subject to scrutiny – to confirmation or refutation – as we seek a better understanding of this discipline called ethics.  But if we don’t publish our understanding of our ethical obligations, then we offer up nothing to be scrutinized.  Thus our correct theories can’t be confirmed and our incorrect ones can’t be refuted.  Without establishing common terms for discourse, the best we can likely hope for is moral stagnation or even moral paralysis.  But it is more likely that we will see moral confusion and corruption of the kind we have witnessed in military campaigns throughout history, perhaps nowhere more infamously today than at Abu Ghraib[11].


What a Professional Ethic is


Having highlighted some of the problems of not having a written expression of our professional military ethic, I now turn to a discussion of what a professional ethic is.  I do this by briefly exploring the nature of morality in general.  Up to this point, I have largely used the terms “ethics” and “morality” interchangeably.  I will now briefly distinguish the terms in order to illuminate the nature of professional ethics.  Morality constitutes a code of ideal conduct.  It comprises the set of ideal principles which should govern human behavior.  Inasmuch as morality is a set of ideals, the specific content of the moral code is relatively unknown to us.  Ethics is the study of morality.  Again, morality is a set of principles of ideal conduct; ethics is an academic discipline devoted to discovering those principles.[12]  Technically speaking, what we seek is an expression of professional morality.  But since the term “professional ethic” is in greater vogue, I will continue to use that term throughout this paper. 


Inasmuch as morality is a set of ideals, the contents of morality are not up to us to decide.  We do not create morality.  Instead, we seek to determine what principles already are the right ones to govern our conduct by.  While our tools of investigation are relatively crude – experience, intuition, reflection, etc. – we presume that we can make progress in discovering the contents of the moral code.  But we cannot simply stipulate the moral code.  Morality does not bend to our will this way.  The ideals upon which morality is based have objective worth.  With this understanding, we should be able to better understand that a traditional code of professional ethics is inadequate.  It is a creation, rather than a discovery.[13]  As I have already pointed out, one of the problems of a traditional code of ethics is that it is inherently legal.  It expresses the minimal ethical conduct the profession requires and intends to enforce with legal sanction.  But morality proper demands much more of us.  And it is clear that there are many moral acts that we should not attempt to compel with legal sanction.  Furthermore, codes of ethics are behavior oriented (versus principle based).  They have to be in order to be enforceable.  Principles are too subject to interpretation (and misinterpretation) to be the form of expression for an enforceable code of ethics.  But morality is principle-based.  Additionally, codes of ethics are specific.  Yet morality remains somewhat obscure to us.  So any attempt to express the content of our professional morality should be principle-based.  We should be wary of any approach to professional ethics that attempts to establish it by definitive prescriptions and proscriptions of specific conduct.


The fundamental function of an expression of a professional ethic is to provide action guidance to the profession.  It should enrich the profession’s understanding of its moral obligations.  It should help the professional determine what is morally required of one in his particular professional role.  It should provide an account of right action within the context of the profession.  But this cannot take the form of a list of prescribed and proscribed behaviors.  The range of possibilities simply defies enumeration.  Instead, an expression of the professional military ethic must enable the soldier to determine adequately on his own what is morally appropriate in any number of diverse situations.  It needs to educate his moral judgment.[14]  To accomplish this, a statement of the professional military ethic must illuminate the moral principles that govern the profession of arms.  And it must help the professional understand how those principles interact, particularly when they periodically seem to come into conflict.


The moral insight necessary to render sound moral judgment requires considerable study.  For an expression of the professional military ethic to foster such insight, it must not merely illuminate the moral principles that govern our profession.  It must also promote reflection upon and dialogue about those principles.  Only in this way can it invite the professional to truly understand and internalize the moral principles governing our profession.  So any functional expression of the professional military ethic should be in terms of dialectic.  It should be open to challenge.  If the expression is flawed, then subjecting it to challenge allows it to be amended.  If it is not flawed, then subjecting it to challenge allows the soldier to become genuinely convinced of its propriety (inasmuch as it proves resistant to challenge).  Beliefs that are not subjected to challenge are mere superstitions.  Only those that are subjected to challenge attain the status of convictions.


Since professional morality constitutes the set of moral principles that should govern the conduct of a profession, any expression of the professional military ethic needs to be presented in a way that will improve the conduct of the profession.  In a profession as diverse as ours (i.e., ranging from young, minimally educated enlisted soldiers to highly educated senior officers),[15] this is no small challenge.  For an expression of our ethic to be accessible to junior soldiers, it will likely have to be simple and concise.  Otherwise, it won’t be understood.  And it won’t be remembered.  And yet a simple, concise expression of our ethic can’t possibly do justice to the richness and complexity of morality.  This is one of the problems we witness with the Army Values today.  Although they are quite simple and concise, it is not really clear to anyone exactly what those values commit us to.[16]  So for an expression of our ethic to be functional, it must also be fairly comprehensive.  It must not stop at simple expression of values or even overarching principles.  It needs to help the professional understand what those values and principles commit him or her to.  And beyond this, it must also be persuasive.  In other words, it must be philosophically defensible.  It must be something that the honest and responsible inquirer can find reason to adopt.


This presents a considerable challenge.  How do you balance concision against completeness?  A concise version is easily remembered, but won’t likely yield sufficient insight to guide soldiers through the tough cases.  How do you balance the need for simplicity against the need to be persuasive (assuming that persuasion requires greater thoroughness)?  A simple version is easily understood, but can’t generate genuine moral conviction.


I suspect that the only way to achieve the balance indicated above is for the expression of the ethic to be layered.  In other words, it should be expressible at various levels, with each level increasingly more detailed than the last.  The most basic level would reflect the simplicity and concision appropriate to junior soldiers.  The deepest level would reflect the rich philosophical dialectic essential to determining whether the expression of the ethic is appropriate.  As soldiers mature, they would progress in their education from a basic understanding of the ethic to a more thorough understanding of it.  The expression of the ethic should also be somewhat topical (or “modular”).  In other words, to the extent possible, it ought to allow the professional to inquire further into individual aspects of the professional ethic.  Not all elements of it will resonate equally with all professionals at the same time.


The Source of the Professional Military Ethic


Having attended already to the question of what a professional ethic is and how it ought to be expressed within our profession, I turn now to the question of where our ethic comes from.  I suggested previously that the common presumption that the professional military ethic derives from our heritage or culture, law, or oaths & creeds is philosophically flawed.  To make clear where our ethic really does come from, it is worth my saying a bit more about this.  First, I take it that our heritage or culture cannot be the primary source of our ethic without our devolving into ethical relativism.  And I trust that the implausibility of ethical relativism is already sufficiently evident that I need not say much about it.  While I accept that our culture can influence our ethic, I presume that it can only do so to roughly the same degree that it affects ethics writ large.  It cannot be the primary source of that ethic.  Only after discovering the primary source of our ethic can we discern what degree of influence culture can have on our ethic.


Law is a little more challenging.  Since the military itself is a product of law (i.e., the Constitution) and since its relationship to the people is a matter of law (again, the Constitution), it would seem inevitable that law governs the ethics of our profession.  And yet I hesitate to assume that it does play such a substantial role.  Why I resist this cannot be fully explained yet.  The best I can do now is to foreshadow some points I have yet to make.  First, it doesn’t seem possible that ethics writ large could derive from law.  On the contrary, it seems certain that law derives from morality.  It reflects those elements of morality which are so indispensable to the existence of a civil society that we are willing to enforce them with severe sanctions.  Despite Martin Luther King Jr.’s assertion (and St. Augustine’s before him) that “an unjust law is no law at all,” all formal law generates obligation.  And yet, if a law is wrong, then our obligation to it remains a legal one only.  The weight of our moral obligation may compel us to refuse it[17].  If the law is right, then our moral obligation to do those acts prescribed by law is supplemented with a legal one.[18]


Determining that morality writ large does not derive from law is not sufficient to demonstrate that professional morality does not derive from law.  After all, if both law and professional morality derive from morality writ large, then perhaps professional morality does so via the medium of specific legal arrangements.  I am quite receptive to this suggestion.  It acknowledges that professional ethics must derive from the same substance as do ethics in general.  But before embracing it wholesale, I caution that the laws through which our professional ethics derive must themselves be ethically permissible.  And I further caution that law is fundamentally a cruder instrument than is ethics.  Law is subject to imperfections which we presume moral principles to be immune to.[19]  When law and ethics come into genuine conflict, I take it that our ultimate obligation is to ethics, not law.  The very definition of ethics makes it impossible for us to interpret ethics as wrong and law as right in such conflicts.


The problem with seeing oaths and creeds as a source of our professional ethic is that they presume to reflect our ethic.  They couldn’t be both the source of and a reflection of our ethic.  Again, as I did with law, I must make some allowances here.  Insofar as promises generate moral obligations and our oaths constitute the most solemn of promises, they surely generate moral obligations.  I am willing to admit this, but I restrict it to the arena of only those acts which were already morally permissible.  In other words, I take it that an oath to do a morally permissible act makes that act now morally obligatory.  Similarly, an oath to refrain from certain morally permissible (but not obligatory) acts would make performance of those acts morally wrong.  But I don’t imagine that an oath to do a morally impermissible act could make it permissible.  Neither can I imagine that an oath to refrain from doing a morally obligatory act could make it acceptable to refrain.[20]


If oaths and creeds cannot form the basis of our professional ethic, we might ask whether ethos can.  We find ethos an increasingly common topic element of discussions of our ethic today, presumably because of the prominence of the Warrior Ethos in the Soldier’s Creed.  Predictably, it can do no more ethical work than can oaths and creeds.  Given the similarity of the term ethos to ethics, I fear that many readily conflate the two.  Aside from a shared etymological heritage, ethos and ethics have little in common.  Ethics is the study of right and wrong.  It derives from immutable characteristics of human nature.  Ethos reflects the spirit of an organization, or the spirit that an organization seeks to inculcate among its members.  It derives from the shared attitude or goals of the organization.  There is no tie between the two terms such that an ethos need be ethical.  And even an ethos that seeks to be ethical is subject to scrutiny to determine whether it is in fact so.  Ethics itself is not subject to such scrutiny.  It would make no sense to ask whether ethics is ethical.  What we seek when we pursue a professional ethic is a better understanding of the principles which should determine our conduct, not the spirit or mentality which does influence our conduct.[21]


The Professional Military Ethic and the Identity of the American Soldier


Conspicuously absent from most discussions of our professional ethic is significant direct attention to the role our profession plays in society.  Morality imposes certain requirements upon each of us.  The exact nature of those requirements is a product of our individual roles and abilities.  Since most humans have many roles and abilities in common, morality imposes similar requirements on all of us.  But to the extent that our individual roles and abilities differ even slightly, we each incur slightly different responsibilities (or maybe degrees of responsibility).[22]  A profession constitutes a group of people unified by their distinctive role and abilities.  Naturally, then, members of a profession will have moral obligations which differ in part from those of the rest of society.  These obligations will reflect the unique role and abilities of that profession.  And since the unique abilities of a profession are generally a product of its unique role, we can likely focus on just the role a profession fills in society to explore its moral obligations.


Without saying a lot more about this here, I take it that a professional role generates moral requirements approximately the same way a promise does.  Acts which are otherwise morally impermissible cannot be made morally right by virtue of one’s professional role any more than immoral acts can be made obligatory by making a promise to do them.[23]  This is a controversial assertion which I do not undertake to defend here.  I simply suggest that adopting a professional role constitutes an implied promise to society that they can expect certain performances from you.[24]  And insofar as professions generally have a monopoly on certain performances, the fact that all others are restricted from those acts makes it even more important that the professional performs those acts he has implicitly professed he would.


The American soldier is commonly taken to carry four unique identities, or roles:  1) a servant of the nation, 2) a warrior, 3) a leader of character, and 4) a member of a profession.[25]  For any of these identities genuinely to spawn any moral commitments requires first that these identities be morally acceptable.  For this reason, I suggest that we revise our identity as a “warrior” to instead be a “just warrior.”  The term “warrior” is roughly equivalent to “fighter.”  It isn’t clear that there are any ethical implications to being a warrior other than to not do it very often, since war seems generally to be a pretty bad thing.  But if we clarify the role as being a “just warrior,” then we can more readily see that the role is morally acceptable and that certain moral principles will govern that identity.


I suggest that this framework – viewing our professional ethic in terms of our professional identity – facilitates our investigation into the moral commitments of our profession.  Reflection on the ethical implications of each component of our composite identity will reveal moral principles which should guide the conduct of our profession.  Further reflection upon those principles will yield secondary moral principles.  Reflection on the points of intersection between the four different elements of our composite identity may well yield further primary moral principles of our profession just as reflection on the points of intersection between primary principles will yield additional secondary principles.  To be clear, the moral principles which govern our profession are not up to us to choose.  They are a product of morality writ large.  They are an application of transcendent moral values to our particular professional role, or identity.


Without attempting to flesh out the fundamental moral principles associated with each identity, I will briefly explore some of those associated with the first identity listed above – servant of the nation – as an example of how this framework facilitates inquiry.  Before doing so, I want to recap the characteristics of a functional expression of the military ethic as explored above, in order to show how this approach satisfies each.  First, an expression of the professional military ethic should espouse professional moral principles, not dictate specific acts.  The range of possible behaviors simply defies codification.  And command of the right principles enables the professional to recognize right action on his own.  Second, an expression of the ethic should be viewed as dialectic, not a final verdict.  As a subset of ethics writ large, the ethic is not ours to create.  Our task is to investigate what morality requires of those in our unique professional position.  Any expression of our ethic should reflect that inquiry and be amenable to reformulation as our understanding grows.[26]  This dialectic is essential both because ethics itself is an inquiry and because this kind of dialectic is an essential part of improving moral judgment.  Finally, an expression of the ethic should accommodate study at varying levels of complexity, to reflect the diverse population encompassed by our profession.


Returning now to our example, we first consider whether the professional identity of “servant of the nation” is morally acceptable.  As long as the nation remains morally legitimate,[27] it doesn’t appear that there should be any problem with being a servant of the nation.  So we next consider the moral obligations of professing oneself a servant.  The most obvious requirement is that one must actually serve.  More specifically, one who professes to serve incurs an obligation to serve effectively.  (At a minimum, one must serve more effectively than those who do not profess to serve or else one can hardly be said to be serving).  Reflecting further on our calling as servants of the nation, we inquire what capacity we have been called to serve in.[28]  Our overarching requirement is to support and defend the Constitution.  So that becomes a second fundamental moral principle associated with this identity.  Additionally, since servants serve on behalf of another (the very nature of service requires this), it appears likely that as servants of the nation we incur some kind of further responsibility to represent those we serve.  In other words, we need to conduct ourselves as representatives of the American people.


These three fundamental moral obligations seem to be readily derivable just from reflecting on what it means to profess oneself a servant of our nation – we must 1) serve effectively, 2) support and defend the Constitution, and 3) represent the American people.  After discerning these fundamental moral principles, we can further reflect on each of these to derive secondary principles of our profession.  For example, by reflecting on what it takes to serve effectively, we will discover such further moral obligations as:  develop competence in our professional skills, develop the character necessary to employ those skills appropriately, promote efficient use of the resources entrusted to us, and prioritize mission accomplishment over personal welfare.  By reflecting on what it takes to support and defend the Constitution, we can readily discern a further requirement that we become familiar with the Constitution – not just the contents of the document itself, but the system of government that document establishes and the moral principles which underpin that arrangement.  Once familiar with that document, we have a moral requirement to sustain – among other things – the civil-military relationship prescribed therein.  By reflecting on what it takes to represent the American people, we can discern some degree of obligation to adopt the values of our nation, at least to the extent that our national values are morally acceptable.  We can further discern a responsibility to speak truth to the American people.



This simple exercise reveals how reflecting on our professional role or identity can help us to discern the fundamental principles associated with our profession and how further reflection reveals secondary principles associated with the profession.[29]  By reflecting on the other three identities – just warrior, leader of character, and member of a profession – and perhaps even the cross-section of these identities, we can further explore the fundamental ethical requirements of our profession.  As I worked through this example, you likely experienced thoughts of “Wait a minute; not so fast there – that doesn’t really follow” or “But there’s still more to be said.”  This reaction reflects the dialectic nature of ethics (i.e., the study of morality, not morality itself).  This reaction marks the starting point for the kind of dialogue necessary both to improve our perception into our ethic and to engrain this ethic in the hearts of our professionals.


Given the complexity and comprehensive scope of ethics, finding a way to organize any discussion of our professional ethic is nearly as big a challenge as is discerning the ethic itself.  And without a meaningful way to organize discussion of what we already presume to know about our ethic, we are handicapped in what further discussion and investigation we can have into our ethic.  I believe that this model – viewing our professional ethic as a product of morality writ large, as determined by our professional role – aptly addresses both problems.  It lends insight into the very nature of our ethic and provides a coherent framework for expressing and exploring that ethic.  But more than just being a handy framework for expressing our ethic, I take it that this genuinely is the nature of our ethic.  Its adequacy as a model for presentation is a product of its accuracy as a description or explanation of our governing ethic.  With this insight into the nature of our professional ethic itself, we can readily see how it is that many of the discussions which purport to be about the professional military ethic are really just discussions of one or more particular elements of that ethic.  They are discussions of which primary or secondary principles derive from our professional identities and/or how those principles ought to be applied.


Expressing the Professional Military Ethic


The exercise above has really only shown how this approach to expressing our professional ethic satisfies the requirement that the ethic be principle-based, rather than action-based.  It reveals the fundamental structure of our ethic, but stops short of indicating how best to organize and present the rich complexity I suggested is inherent in the ethic.  Neither does it demonstrate how the dialectic element I insisted was essential to our study of the ethic is to be incorporated into our presentation of the ethic.  And it doesn’t yet reveal how to capture the varying levels of complexity I suggested any expression of our ethic must reflect in order to be serviceable throughout the depth of our profession.  Since these latter challenges pertain to presentation, organization, marketing, etc., I depart from the field of philosophical ethics to address them.  And rather than argue rigorously for a particular solution, I simply offer a proposal which I suspect will be an intuitively plausible solution to the challenges I have explored above.


I suspect that the need for dialectic and exploration at varying levels of complexity calls for a presentation of the ethic that leverages Web 2.0 technology and features.  I see three obvious advantages of an web-based presentation of our ethic.  First, an internet-based presentation facilitates ready dissemination across the spectrum of our profession.  This is critical if the ethic is really to take hold across the profession.  The profession must be able both to access it and to engage with it in a meaningful way. 


Second, the internet accommodates rich, genuine dialectic better than any other forum I can think of.  Rather than merely promoting an approved “party line,” this forum can readily display arguments both for and against a particular candidate principle being part of our ethic, particular applications of that principle being appropriate, a confluence of principles as being interpreted a certain way, etc.  Users can readily react to the discussion via bulletin board, editorial, etc.   They can submit revision proposals to the ethic as conceived at that time.  And a moderator can manage these submissions to achieve appropriate balance between displaying excessive information on the website and ensuring that the most coherent arguments are given audience.


Finally, hyperlinked media is ideal for managing complex and abundant content at varying levels of complexity.  It can separate discussion of our identity from that of the primary principles which stem from those identities.  It can separate discussion of primary principles from that of secondary principles, discussion of principles themselves from application of those principles.  It can compartmentalize discussion of individual aspects of the ethic so that they can be viewed in isolation or it can invite more holistic discussion across the breadth of the ethic.  Even more useful, users are free to pursue topics (i.e., by clicking additional links) to whatever degree of complexity corresponds to their existing level of understanding and interest.  They need not engage more sophisticated discussion until they discover its relevance and become able to understand it.  But those who are ready for more robust exploration are welcome to either peruse what others have offered before them or to submit their own proposals for how previously unexplored elements of the ethic be understood.


Both the need for dialectic and the complexity of ethics dictate that an expression of our ethic be a community project.  The internet provides a perfect forum for achieving this.  A full vision of the potential of this project cannot be described in narrative alone.  So I instead simply cite the tremendous success and influence of another similar web initiative.  Those familiar with the and/or web sites will recognize in my proposal something of the sense of community those projects entail.  They have truly harnessed the “power of the profession” the way a professional military ethic initiative needs to.  In doing so, they have made an invaluable contribution to the profession.  Rather than prescribing doctrine, these web sites provide means by which the insight and experiences of each Army officer are available to all.  They entertain both pro and con arguments submitted by participants across the Army.  They manage a tremendous load of dialogue from users in the field while still enabling the individual user to explore only that content of immediate concern to him or her (or that level of content he is presently capable of understanding).  Our professional ethic is best presented in similar fashion.  By harnessing the capacity of our profession to explore and present our ethic, we can be certain that our profession will own its ethic.  Again, this is not to say that the profession gets to determine what its ethic is, but it is to say that any expression of the professional military ethic derived this way will reflect the best judgment of the profession today.


As a final thought, I highlight a couple of other benefits of publishing our ethic (or our best understanding of it, accompanied by rich discussion) on the internet.  First, I suggest that the Army has great need of formal ethics education at the institutional (i.e., TRADOC school) and individual unit level.  While arguing this need goes well beyond the scope of my current proposal, I suspect that all who have reflected much upon our ethic and engaged soldiers in such discussion will find a huge gap between what soldiers feel are the ethical implications of service and those which are likely to actually be.  A professional military ethic web site could readily facilitate that education.  It could provide ethics training resources for sponsors of such training and could provide the research environment for them to achieve genuine expertise in this area.  Second, I note that it appears unlikely that any other military in the world has made much more progress than we have in discerning the ethical implications of military service.  If we are careful in presenting and managing discussion of our ethic, the benefits are certain to extend far beyond our own Army, into both military professions abroad and academia in general.  The potential here is truly unlimited.




[1] I will have more to say later about what a professional ethic is.  At this point, it is probably enough to simply state that it constitutes the sum of moral principles applying to a profession.

[2] In this paper, I will use the terms “morality” and “ethics” fairly interchangeably.  This loose usage coincides with society’s general employment of these terms.  When I do nuance the terms, I take morality to be an ideal code of conduct which answers the question “All things considered, what should I do?”  (This should is with respect to some moral ideal, which I don’t undertake to establish in this paper.)  I take ethics to be the academic discipline devoted to investigating the nature and content of the moral code.

[3] Including the Soldier’s Creed, NCO Creed, Ranger Creed, POW Code of Conduct, etc.

[4] A brief sampling of article titles may be sufficient to demonstrate this point:

De George. Richard T. "The Need for a Military Code of Ethics." Army, December 1984, 22-30.

Downey, James E. "Professional Military Ethics: Another Oxymoron?" (Army War College, 1989)

Dyer, Michael A. "A Written Code of Military Ethics: Has Its Time Come?" Marine Corps Gazette 78 (January 1994): 12-15.

Groll-Ya'ari, Yedidiah. "Toward a Normative Code for the Military." Armed Forces & Society 20 (Spring 1994): 457-71.

Matthews, Lloyd J. "The Need for an Officers' Code of Professional Ethics." Army 44 (March 1994): 20-29.

Wenker, Kenneth. "Professional Military Ethics: An Attempt at Definition." USAFA - Journal of Professional Military Ethics 1 (April 1980): 23-28.



[5] I don’t mean to imply that moral progress is only possible for the professional if he or she is provided a formal statement of professional ethics.  I simply suggest that the present discussion may fail to provide the professional any meaningful direction.

[6] Similarly, much discussion of professional ethics today treats ethics as largely being a matter of conscience.  Ethics, it presumes, is a matter of complying with what you already know to do, not figuring out what to do in the first place.  But philosophical ethics readily demonstrates that there are significant shortcomings to how much right we have to be confident that we really already know what to do.

[7] In other words, these approaches assume that because law, culture, oaths, etc. advocate for a certain type of act, that act is what we should do.  They don’t adequately consider the prospect that law, culture, oaths, etc. got it wrong.  Law, culture, oaths, etc. presumably attempt to prescribe (and proscribe) conduct based on what their authors presumed to be appropriate (and inappropriate) conduct.  But if they got it right, then the conduct is prescribed or proscribed because of the propriety (or impropriety) of the conduct itself.  And if they got it wrong, then they can’t very well serve as a basis for deciding what we should do.  I don’t mean to deny the influence of law, culture, oaths, etc.  I simply point out that they are insufficient to be the genuine source of our moral obligations.

[8] Davis, Michael, "What Can We Learn by Looking For The First Code Of Professional Ethics?" Theoretical Medicine, Vol 24, 2003, pp. 433-454.

[9] Furthermore, it is inherent in the nature of a profession that we seek for excellence and expertise.  We cannot rest content with simply getting by.  We should aspire to moral excellence no less than technical and tactical excellence.

[10] I think this remains largely true even without our adopting a strong moral realist position.  Perhaps there is a fair amount of latitude in what values we might appropriately adopt.  Even so, the implications of those values are not ours to decide.  They follow automatically (but not conspicuously) from the values we hold.  Insofar as we construe morality as a set of ideal principles, we still don’t decide these principles as much as we discover them – even if we arbitrarily selected the values upon which they are based.

[11] While a formal expression of our ethic won’t eliminate moral corruption, I take it that many of the high profile cases of moral error we have witnessed recently have been every bit as much a product of moral confusion as of moral corruption.  A formal expression of our ethic can go a long way toward combating the former.

[12] While I deliberately resist siding with any particular moral theory – virtue ethics, deontology, consequentialism, contractarianism, etc. – I must acknowledge that this construal of morality remains biased.  Some moral philosophers deny that morality requires (or even contains) any principles.  But whether they are right (which I suppose they are not), this account seems to be a pretty functional way to give a rough understanding of what morality is.

[13] I don’t mean to suggest that codes of professional ethics are mere creations, as if they were created arbitrarily.  Their formulation surely comes only after the kind of philosophical investigation I am advocating.  But inasmuch as they are codified at all, they mark a shift (at least temporarily, if not semi-permanently) from inquiry to pronouncement.  Their authority comes most conspicuously from their being a code, rather than from their being morally justified.  Furthermore, unless they really have discovered the final word on morality, they are still prone to running afoul of morality.

[14] This approach should not be interpreted as implying that right action is up to the individual judgment of each professional.  Instead, it simply recognizes the essential role that moral judgment must play in professional life.

[15] While some would argue that our junior enlisted soldiers (at least those serving a single, short enlistment) are not properly considered members of the profession, this possibility does not diminish the point I am making here.  Our professional ethic dictates what is required of all engaged in this profession – whether they are full-fledged members of the profession or something more akin to temporary hires.

[16] As a simple example of this, I recently viewed an Army video on dealing with post traumatic stress which encouraged soldiers to have the courage to admit a need for help and to seek help.  The video pitched this as being a matter of courage – one of our basic Army Values.  But one could just as readily say that soldiers in this predicament need to have the courage to deal with their problem stoically.  While this is surely terrible advice, it is unclear that the former advice better represents courage than does the latter advice.  Without much more discussion, it is simply unclear what courage requires here.

[17] In other words, our legal obligation to obey the law may be outweighed by a moral obligation to defy the law. 

[18] This invites the question whether law generates any moral obligation itself.  I take it that law is capable of making morally permissible acts either morally obligatory or impermissible (as well as legally obligatory or legally forbidden), but that it is not capable of making morally permissible acts morally impermissible and/or vice versa.  Similar to this, I am inclined to presume that professional ethics cannot conflict with private ethics.  Professional ethics can only make morally obligatory or impermissible that which was already morally permissible (but not obligatory) by private (or universal) ethics.

[19] I take it that law is a tool for compensating for human imperfections.  If we were all morally perfect, we would not need law.  Given our imperfections, law must be made relatively specific, in order that it can be enforced; but morality is nuanced and complex.  Whereas law delineates only the minimal requirements of human conduct, morality outlines ideals for us to aspire to.  Finally, as a product of imperfect society, law may be imperfectly conceived.

[20] I’m not sure whether I need say more about this.  It just seems so intuitive to me that I hope people will accept it.  But if further argument is needed, I’d offer something like the following:

Presume that someone asked you to do something morally wrong.  You naturally respond, “I can’t do that.  It is wrong.”  He then argues that if you swear him an oath to do it, the act will then become not only permissible, but actually obligatory.  While the swearing of the oath might itself be wrong, the act would no longer be wrong.  This just seems counterintuitive to me.  Imagine now that you were the victim of this wrongdoing.  As I commit this foul deed and you ask me to justify my conduct, I respond that I swore an oath to do it.  If you could examine my conduct objectively, surely you would not find yourself saying “Well the oath was wrong, to be sure, but I guess this act is appropriate after all, given that he did swear an oath.”

[21] Having just argued that ethos and ethics are independent, I hasten to add that our goal should be to deliberately cultivate an ethos that mirrors our ethic.  We could wish nothing more than that the genuine spirit of our organization align itself with the moral obligations of our profession.

[22] As an example of this, the non-swimmer (i.e., one who doesn’t know how to swim) surely doesn’t have the same moral obligation to rescue a person drowning as does the Olympic swimmer.  But perhaps the obligation is identical for everyone adequately capable of rescuing the drowning.  And the on-duty lifeguard surely has greater moral responsibility to aid the drowning than do other capable swimmers in the pool.  If this doesn’t seem certain, then perhaps a better example of roles spawning obligations is seen within the family.  Others don’t have the same responsibility to provide for my adopted children as I do.  My responsibility to my adopted children is a product of the role I deliberately assumed with respect to them.

[23] Perhaps the most obvious challenge to my claim is found in the legal profession, wherein defense lawyers presume an obligation to advocate for their clients regardless of whether they believe (or even know) the client to be innocent.  While we generally share the lawyers’ presumption that this really is their moral obligation, given the way courts work, I am not at all certain it really is.  See also footnote 20.

[24] As others have noted, the etymology of “profession” clearly implies that one is “professing” certain things.  I take it that among other things professed is one’s commitment (stronger than just “intent”) to performing certain types of acts.

[25] I don’t undertake here to demonstrate that this really is the right description of our professional identity.  I simply acknowledge that this is the prevalent description.  While I don’t argue for this perspective, my presenting it here implies my acceptance of it.

[26] This isn’t to say that an expression of the ethic cannot make definitive pronouncements.  It is simply to say that those pronouncements are descriptive of ethics, not prescriptive of what ethics should be.

[27] By “morally legitimate,” I mean to say that it meets a minimum threshold of justice.  But if we concede that a servant has a right to defy his master any time the master issues an immoral order, then we may not even need this requirement – that the nation be minimally just – in order to proceed.  Perhaps it becomes morally obligatory to break a good-faith promise (i.e., one made with fair expectation that we would only be called upon to perform just acts) to serve the nation if the nation requests that we do immoral acts.

[28] It is important at this point to remember that we are morally constrained in what we may do for the master we serve.  We answer to morality first, our master second.  So the appropriate question to ask is not “What does my master desire of me?” but “What is ethically acceptable to do for my master, given his wishes?”  To adopt the former stance alone would be to surrender our moral autonomy.  We would cease to be moral agents.

[29] Although even further implications can surely be discerned with further reflection, but it wouldn’t do much good to continue to assign generational labels (i.e., primary, secondary, tertiary, etc.) to each new round of discoveries.