Gertian Morality and

Moral Considerations in Military Decision Making

Jason Gatliff
Department of Philosophy
Texas A & M University

In the course of her military career a professional soldier will face many difficult decisions. She may encounter anything from deciding whether or not to “pencil whip” training records in order to promote a deserving Airman, to deciding whether or not military sites in heavily populated areas should be targeted for bombing. If she is to be able to make the right decision, and make the right decision consistently she must have the proper tools to analyze and judge the morality of her choices. She must have at hand some criteria, some moral system, on which to base her decisions.


The question that I am concerned with in this paper is what moral system should the professional soldier use as a basis for making her decisions? The United States military in an attempt to supply a moral grounding for military decision making has turned to a form of virtue ethics. In virtue ethics one does not focus on the conditions under which an action is moral or immoral, but rather on the character of the actor. The question turns from is this action good, to what would a good person do under these circumstances? To help answer this question each service has provided its members with a set of Core Values. The Air Force, for example, identifies “Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all we do” as their Core Values.[1]

Essentially, what these Core Values represent is the kind of character that the services want its members to emulate. The reasoning is straightforward. If a person is of good character, then, it is believed that, when they are presented with a moral dilemma they will make the proper choice. And this certainly seems true; at least with the easy cases. A person of good character certainly would not sexual harass a subordinate or co-worker, nor would they steal office supplies. What of the more difficult cases, though, cases where it is not obviously apparent what the right action is? The Air Force defines its first Core value, integrity, as:

…the willingness to do what is right even when no one is looking. It is the “moral compass” the inner voice; the voice of self-control; the basis for the trust imperative in today’s military.[2]


And they incorporate into integrity other important character traits such as: courage, honesty, responsibility, accountability, and justice. Knowing, though, that one should behave justly, or courageously, or that they should do the right thing does not tell them what the right thing is.A person of integrity, as defined by the Air Force, would truly be a good person, but even good people need guidelines. Simply being of good character is not sufficient to tell one how to act. It is not enough to have the disposition to do the right thing; one must also know what the right thing to do is. It is necessary, therefore, even within the scope of virtue ethics, to have a system by which one can judge the morality of an action.

So, the set of Core Values helps develop good character, and establish a pattern of behavior, but it does not necessarily identify the proper course of action. For that we are going to need some other moral system, but which one? In modern times there are two moral systems that have come to dominate the field of ethics: Kantianism and Utilitarianism, and philosophers have been applying both these systems to military ethics. I believe, however, that this is a mistake. It seems that whatever system is chosen must at a minimum have as a characteristic the capacity to be held consistently by the professional soldier. That is, there should be no time when the requirements of the moral system conflict with the duties and responsibilities of the professional soldier. I do not believe that either Kantian or Utilitarian ethics can meet this requirement.

There is a moral system, though, proffered by Bernard Gert in his book Morality: Its Nature and Justification, that I believe cannot only be held consistently by professional soldier, but that is very well suited to meet the needs of the modern military. Before I explicate Gert’s system, though, I want to first briefly give my justifications for claiming that Kantianism and Utilitarianism are inconsistent with the duties of the professional solider.

While, it is true that on a day to day basis the professional soldier has many duties and responsibilities, there is one duty, one responsibility that supercedes all others. There is one reason why the professional soldier puts on a uniform—to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. It is this duty that I am concerned with. It is this duty that I believe can come into conflict with a Kantian or Utilitarian ethical system.

The claim that a Kantian ethic, or a Respect for Persons (RP) view as it is sometimes called, is inconsistent with the duties of a professional soldier is not a very controversial one. A cornerstone to the RP view is that all people have certain rights that cannot be morally violated unless they act in some way as to forfeit those rights. In the realm of military ethics one area of concern is the loss of life. That is, when and under what circumstances is one justified in taking a life?

According to RP theorists everyone has the right to life, unless they forfeit that right by taking a life, or participating in an activity that would lead to someone losing their life. Being a military combatant, for example, would cause you to forfeit your right to life, as would working in a munitions plant. Being a patient in a hospital adjacent to a munitions plant would not, however, cause you to forfeit your right to life. If it was believed that destroying the munitions plant would necessarily cause the lose of a life in the hospital, then a person holding to a RP view would have to maintain that destroying the munitions plant was morally wrong. This is true regardless of the threat that the plant poses. Imagine that the plant was developing a biological agent that had the capability of destroying all life on earth, and that those in charge intended to release the agent upon its completion. If destroying the plant caused the death of one innocent person, then the RP theorist must maintain that doing so is immoral, regardless of the positive consequences of the action. Even the fact that the person would have died anyway as the result of the biological agent does not effect the position of the RP theorist. He must maintain that it is better for everyone to die, rather than cause the death of an innocent. Such a view is obviously inconsistent with the duties of a professional soldier. A person of integrity, according to the Air Force, always does what is right. A Kantian when faced with the choice between sacrificing the constitution or taking an innocent life would hold that the right thing to do would be to sacrifice the constitution. The professional soldier, on the other hand, while she would certainly attempt to avoid and minimize the loss of innocent life, would not allow, could not allow the constitution and all it stands for to perish. She could not consistently be a Kantian.

Similarly, I do not believe that a professional soldier could be a Utilitarian, although, I do recognize that this is far more controversial position than the previous one. One of the primary reasons that RP theories do not meet the needs of a professional soldier is that they fail to take into account the consequences of the actions involved. Utilitarianism does not suffer this from this deficiency. It does, however, have a serious flaw. The Utilitarian would be willing to pay any price as long as the desired consequences, the maximization of happiness for the greatest number of people, were brought about. Even if by doing do he where to violate or destroy the Constitution of the United States.

Let us consider whether or not the duties of a professional soldier are compatible with the duties generated by act-utilitarianism. While, it is true that on a day to day basis the professional soldier has many duties and responsibilities, there is one duty, one responsibility that overrides all others. According to the Nuremberg Principle all soldiers have a duty to humanity first and the foremost. While, there remains some dispute over the exact nature of a soldier’s duty to humanity at least this much is agreed upon—asoldier has a duty not to perpetrate crimes against humanity regardless of any orders. Again, what constitutes a crimes against humanity is a matter of some debate. There are certain actions, though, such as ethnic cleansing, that everyone agrees is a crime against humanity. So a professional soldier has a duty not to engage in ethnic cleansing.

The question, then, is, can act-utilitarianism require one to engage in ethnic cleansing? If the answer is “yes,” then the duties of professional soldier are incompatible with those of act-utilitarianism. So, what absolute duties are generated by act-utilitarianism? C. E. Harris tells that:

Act utilitarianism judges the morality of an action by whether the action itself produces the most utility [for the greatest number of people], or at least as much utility as any other action.[3]


One’s duty, then, as an act-utilitarian is to perform whatever action is going to maximize the utility of the greatest number of people—what I call “the maximal group.” This duty is absolute in the sense that as an act-utilitarian it supercedes any other duty one may have.In fact it can be argued that the only duty an act-utilitarian has is to perform whatever action is going to maximize the utility of the maximal group. If, then, the act of ethnic cleaning maximizes the utility of the maximal group, then the act-utilitarian would have to say that performing the action—i.e. engaging in ethnic cleansing—is required. The answer is “yes,” act-utilitarianism can require one to engage in ethnic cleansing if it maximizes utility for the maximal group. So, we have a straight forward case where there is a conflict between the duties of professional soldier and those of act-utilitarianism. 

Arguing that act-utilitarianism can require actions, such as ethnic cleansing, is a standard objection to the theory, and utilitarians have a standard response. While it might be true that ethnic cleansing is not forbidden by act-utilitarianism, it is forbidden by rule-utilitarianism.

Rule utilitarianism judges the morality of an action by whether the moral rule presupposed by the action, if generally followed, would produce the most utility [for the greatest number of people], or at least as much utility as any other action.[4]


One’s duty as a rule-utilitarian, then, is to perform the action that presupposes the moral rule that if generally followed would result in maximizing utility for the maximal group. A rule-utilitarian is going to claim that if the rule, “Do not engage in ethnic cleansing,” is generally followed, then overall utility is going to be maximized. Rule-utilitarianism requires, then, one not to engage in ethnic cleansing. There is, therefore, on this account, no inconsistencies between the duties of a professional soldier and those of a rule-utilitarian.

General rules, such as those presupposed by the Rule Utilitarian, as a matter of fact will at some point conflict with one another. Consider the following two rules:

(i)I shall always keep my promises, and

(ii)I shall not knowingly put myself in a situation where I am likely to be killed.


Now, consider a variation of an example Plato gave in the Republic. Suppose that a friend has entrusted Bill, a stanch Rule Utilitarian, with a pistol, and Bill has promised to return the pistol to her whenever she asked him to. Now, imagine that Bill and his friend are in the midst of fight and she demands her gun. When Bill ask her why she wants her pistol she tells him that she is going to shoot him. What would Bill, as a good Rule Utilitarian, do? It seems that he has competing maxims. Well, what I suspect a Rule Utilitarian would have to do is generate a new maxim to deal with that specific situation. Perhaps it would be:

(iii)I shall always keep my promises, unless by doing so I shall knowingly put myself in a situation where there is a strong possibility that I may be killed.


But then suppose that Bill become a police officer, or firefighter, or a professional soldier. By doing so Bill will be making a promise that he, as part of the duties to his office, will knowingly put himself in situations where there is a strong possibility that he may be killed. So, as a good Kantian Bill would have to come up with a new rule:

(iv)I shall always keep my promises, unless by doing so I shall knowingly put myself in a situation where there is a strong possibility that I may be killed, unless a police officer, or firefighter, or a professional soldier or hold some other position that is essential to the well-being of society.


And one can imagine other rules conflicting with (iv), and so a new rule would have to be made. What would happen, just as it did with the rule-utilitarian, is that eventually the rule will become so specific that Bill is no longer dealing with a generality, he is only dealing with a particular action.

Ultimately, where I believe both the Kantian and Utilitarian systems fail is that they do not allow for exceptions.The Kantian would rather see America fall than allow the taking of an innocent life. Likewise, the Utilitarian would destroy the country if it maximized happiness for the greatest number of people. Of course, the professional soldier may go her entire career as a Kantian or Utilitarian and never face a conflict between her duties and her moral system.The possibility of a conflict by itself, though, is sufficient, I think, to warrant advocating a new moral system.

The system that I believe is best suited for the needs of the military and the professional soldier is what I call “Gertian Morality.” Gert defines morality as:

…an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and includes what are commonly known as the moral rules, ideals, and virtues and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal.[5]


There are three terms in this definition that need to be defined if one is to understand Gert's moral system. They are: “rational person,” “public system,” and “moral rule.”

By a “rational person” Gert means a person who has: “neither irrational beliefs, desires, nor motives, and [is] not acting irrationally.”[6] By “irrational beliefs” Gert means any belief that would seem irrational to a person with sufficient knowledge and intelligence to be a moral agent.[7] For Gert “moral agent” is going to be synonymous with “rational person.” Gert states that: “a desire is irrational if it is always irrational to act on it without an adequate reason.”[8] An adequate reason being a reason that would make an otherwise irrational act, rational. Motives are conscious beliefs that an agent has at the time of action or deliberation that play an explanatory role for his doing the action. If this belief is irrational then the motive will be irrational. An act is irrational just in case all fully informed rational persons would advocate that no one that they were concerned about, including themselves, do that act. 

Morality is a public system. That means that it is intended to guide a person’s conduct as it relates to others. If there were only one person on the planet they would be incapable of doing anything morally wrong. There would be no moral system, and therefore no moral judgments. There is, however, a multitude of people on the planet, so there is a moral system and hence moral judgments. The question then is who falls within the scope of moral judgements; that is, who constitutes a moral agent? As I stated above Gert equates “moral agent” with “rational person.” 

Gert does identify certain required features a public system must have. They are:

(1) All persons to whom it applies, all those whose behavior is to be guided and judged by that system, understand it, and know what behavior the system prohibits, requires, encourages, and allows. (2) It is not irrational for any of these persons to accept being guided and judged by the system.[9]


In the case of Gert’s moral system all rational persons must know and understand what is morally required, prohibited and encouraged. They are going to gain this knowledge through understanding what is a moral rule and what is a moral ideal. Moral rules identify what is morally required and prohibited, while moral ideals identify what is morally encouraged. 

Of particular importance are general moral rules. These are going to be the basic guidelines that will aid the professional soldier in her decision making process. According to Gert a moral rule governs what is morally required and prohibited. A general moral rule is a moral rule that applies to rational persons in all societies and at all times. No action, then, that could not be performed in every society and at every time can be the basis of a general moral rule. You could not have, for example, a general moral rule that governed the use of firearms because there have been societies that had no knowledge of firearms. Because general moral rules apply to all societies and to all times they are unchanging and unchangeable. That is not to say that they could not have been otherwise. If it had been the case that moral agents could not die, for example, then there would be no general moral rule-governing killing. 

Gert identifies ten general moral rules: 

(1) Do not kill,(2) Do not cause pain, 

(3) Do not disable,(4) Do not deprive of freedom, 

(5) Do not deprive pleasure, (6) Do not deceive, 

(7) Keep your promises, (8) Do not cheat, 

(9) Obey the law, (10) Do your duty.


These rules, which apply to all rational people, act as a basic standard for human conduct and interaction. They are, however, not absolute. Gertian Morality allows for justified violations of moral rules. According to Gert, moral rules should be formulated in the following manner:

Everyone (including myself) is always to obey the rule “Do not…,” except when a fully informed, impartial rational person can publicly allow violating it. Anyone (including myself) who violates the rule when a fully informed rational person cannot publicly allow such a violation may be punished.[10]


So, if a fully informed, impartial, rational person can publicly allow the sacrificing of an innocent life in order to protect the constitution, then to do so would be morally permissible. Fully informed simply means that one has all the information needed to make a decision. Rational we have already discussed. To act impartially with respect to moral rules, simply means that one cannot allow the rule to be violated so that some members will benefit, when you would not allow the rule to be violated so that other members of the group can benefit. So, one could not justify allowing adultery in the officer ranks, and condemn it among the enlisted Likewise, you cannot violate the rule in relation to one group (i.e. race, gender, nationality, rank) when you would not allow the rule to be violate towards another group under the same circumstance. Take the munitions plant that is developing the biological agent as an example. If you were impartial than you would advocate bombing the plant, and to some extent the hospital next to it, regardless of what nation the plant was in. 

One of things that I think makes Gert’s system so useful for the military is that it includes in its list of general moral rules: Obey the law, and Do your duty. After all, it is the ultimate goal of every service’s Core Value program, I believe, to get their members to follow these two rules: obey the law, and do their duty. More importantly, though, the duty of the professional soldier to protect and defend the Constitution of the United State is finally recognized for what it is—a moral obligation. 

So, Gert’s system is in keeping with the goals of the Core Value program, but in order for it to be effective, one has to be able to use it to determine what the right thing to do is. Gert sets out a two step process to determining the morality of an action. Step one is determining the kind of violation that the action causes. Gert has designed ten questions that are intended to do this. They are:

1.What moral rule is being violated?

2.What harms are being cause, avoided, and/or prevented by the violation?

3.What are the relevant desires and beliefs of the person toward whom the rule is being violated?

4.Is the relationship between the person violating the rule and the persons towards whom the rule is being violated is such that the former has a duty to violate moral rules with regard to the later independent of their consent?

5.What goods (including kind, degree, probability, duration, and distribution) are being promoted by the violation?

6.Is the rule being violated towards a person in order to prevent her from violating a moral rule when the violation would be (1) unjustified?

7.Is the rule being violated towards a person because he has violated a moral rule (1) unjustifiably?

8.Are there any alternative actions or policies that would be preferable?

9.Is the violation being done intentionally or only knowingly?

10.Is the situation an emergency such that no person is likely to be in that kind of situation?[11]

Once these questions have been answered, and the kind of violation that you are dealing with has been specified you move on to step two; determining the consequences of the violation being publicly allowed. So, you do not consider merely the consequences of your actions, as you do in some Utilitarian systems, you consider the effects of publicly allowing the violation.

Consider the case of falsifying training records in order to promote a deserving Airman. If falsifying the training records were publicly allowed, it would not only undermine the position of the Airman being promoted, but it would undermine the entire training process. Mission essential training would not get accomplished, and training that was preformed would be suspect. Once the action is considered in these lights it can be seen how damaging it would be. The Gertian would conclude that falsifying the training records is the wrong thing to do. Of course, Kantian and Utilitarian systems would conclude the same thing, but we have already discussed the problems with those systems.

Gertian Morality in conjunction with the preexisting Core Values, I believe, can be a tremendous tool to aid the professional soldier when considering moral issues in her decision making process.

[1] United States Air Force, The Little Blue Book, p. 1. 
[2] Ibid. p. 2.
[3] C. E. Harris Jr., Applying Moral Theories, (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1997), 132
[4] Harris, Applying Moral Theories, 132
[5] Bernard Gert, Morality: Its Nature and Justification (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 13.
[6] Gert, Morality, p. 30.
[7] Gert, Morality, p. 35.
[8] Gert, Morality, p. 45.
[9] Gert, Morality, p. 10.
[10] Gert, Morality, p. 223.
[11] Gert, Morality, pp. 227-235. Some of the questions have been shortened or modified slightly, I, however, have attempted to avoid any change in meaning.