The Washington Post Test:  Integrity’s Last Stand

Capt Marc Hedhal


“A man can be … in every way corrupt and be a brilliant mathematician, or a great painter, but there’s one thing he can’t be and that is a good soldier”

-- Gen Sir John Hackett, British Army (Retired)[1]


General Hackett’s remarks were echoed when General Fogelman, former Chief of Staff of the Air Force, stated in 1995 that integrity was one of the “prices of admission” to the Air Force.  In fact, many Americans believe that integrity is required for the Profession of Arms, and furthermore, that military professionals are bound by a higher moral standard than the citizens they protect.  Within the military profession itself, these beliefs are regarded as so obviously true that the propositions are considered trivial. Regardless of the opinions of those of us within the military profession, however, there are many people who believe these claims are debatable or even unreasonable.  Gwen Dyer went so far as to call General Hackett’s comment “almost embarrassing”. [2]

Now, it certainly seems true that military professionals are subject to unique moral situations. For example, military members can be called on to use lethal force when most of their civilian counter-parts are not.  The question, however, is whether military members should be held to a stricter moral standard.  Is it worse for a military member to lie than his civilian counterpart?  Is it worse for a military member to cheat on her spouse than her civilian counter-part?  Why is it not possible that a corrupt man could still be a good soldier?

Maybe it is because they hold the proposition to be self-evident, but when military members are asked to defend the claim that they are held to a higher moral standard or that integrity is required for military service, their answers are often unsatisfying. In this paper, I will investigate the most common defense of a higher moral obligation for the military professional and demonstrate why it is inadequate.  This traditional functional defense involves two steps.  First, an argument is made which highlights the unique situations military members encounter.  This argument is then combined with a denial that a soldier has the ability to “compartmentalize” his life.  This defense leads to several problems.  One problem stems from the military’s changing function as well as the different roles that men and women both in and out of uniform play in fulfilling that function.  Another problem stems fact that the traditional functional defense seems to require that the immorality of many acts lie not in the acts themselves, but in their relationship to the military mission.   A final problem lies in the fact that the traditional functional defense involves descriptive and not merely prescriptive claims.

            After investigating the problems with the traditional defense of a requirement for integrity and a higher moral standard, I will attempt to provide a new defense for these claims by investigating the “Washington Post Test”.  Most military members have used the “Washington Post Test” at some point in their careers. If you are facing an ethical dilemma, then you simply ask yourself what you would do if you knew that your actions would make the front page of tomorrow’s Washington Post.  Although the Washington Post Test initially appears to be simply a helpful tool to make decisions and not the type of robust ethical device that cannot help shed light upon the foundations of morality, it is my contention that an investigation of it can help uncover a new defense for integrity and a higher moral standard for members of the military.  I will attempt to demonstrate how the Washington Post test has something very useful to reveal about a public servant’s obligation to maintain the public trust, and how this obligation can be the foundation for a new defense for integrity and a higher moral standard.

The Traditional Functional Defense[3]

A functional defense of a higher military obligation is often made within the military itself.[4]  This defense begins with the uncontroversial claim that military members are placed in unique ethical situations.  Now while this is true that nearly every profession places unique demands upon its members, what make the unique situations in the military, well unique, is that the consequences of moral failings while performing military’s mission or function are much more dramatic than the consequences of moral failings while performing the functions of other professions. This argument points out why it is worse for an officer to lie to his superiors about some work-related item than it would be for the normal citizen to lie to her boss about a similar item.  This argument does not, however, make the case for integrity:  it does not demonstrate why it is worse for an officer to bounce a check at local restaurant, for example. 

In order to make an argument for a higher moral standard for military members personal lives, you have to combine the functional argument above with a claim that military members cannot compartmentalize their lives:  they cannot lead a virtuous life when in uniform and live a less than virtuous life in civilian clothes. These two claims together constitute the traditional functional defense.   Now, we can claim that it is worse for the officer to bounce checks at local business because this fact demonstrates his lack of ethical character, which will have devastating impacts due to the military’s unique mission. 

Problems for the Traditional Defense: 

            The first problem with a traditional functional defense specially addresses the claim that we cannot compartmentalize our lives.  The problem lies in the fact that this claim is a descriptive and not prescriptive claim.  Because of this fact we can notice that the traditional defense is not really an argument that we should have integrity; it merely begs the question.  Whether we take the term ‘integrity’ to mean “consistent adherence to a code or standard of values” or the modern name we use to describe the actions of those persons who consistently act from a firmly established character pattern”[5] or any similar definition, we can see that consistency is a major aspect of integrity.  When we tell someone that she should possess integrity we are telling her that ahe should do the right thing, and do so consistently.  While the functional argument makes a good case for the importance that soldiers should do the right thing, it does not make the case that should do the right thing consistently, it merely states that whatever you do, you will do it consistently.

The fact that this claim is descriptive can lead to the realization that the claim may not be true.  Some people argue that one can live up to high standards of conduct in one's professional role as a military officer, but live an entirely different kind of moral life outside the professional context in one's private life.  I will not focus on this particular discussion in this paper because it is a behavioral argument and not a philosophical one, but let me say that at the very least, it appears as if we have this ability. [6]

Of course, we could modify the claim to say that although it may be possible that we can compartmentalize our live, we should not do so.  This modified claim, however, would clearly be a circular argument.  We would be saying in effect that we should be consistent in our moral decisions because we should not be inconsistent in our moral judgments.  This fact, however, points to the heart of the problem with the traditional functional argument: it either assumes or argues for the descriptive claim that we as professional servicemen and women cannot compartmentalize our lives, when it should be attempting to argue that we as professional servicemen and women should not compartmentalize our lives, regardless of whether or not we have that ability.

The biggest problem with the functional defense, however, is that it does not argue for a higher professional standard at all, but merely a higher functional standard.  This fact gives rise to several problems.  First of all, we would be forced to have different standards for the different roles within the function of the profession.  Perhaps we can look at this problem from two different examples.  First, let us examine a defense contractor who is directly involved with building tanks or bombers.  It seems that the traditional functional defense is forced to conclude that this person has a higher moral standard than a military officer in acquisitions or finance.  In fact, if our only defense of a higher professional standard is a traditional functional one, then if a military member and a civilian contractor have the similar roles within the function of the profession, then they should be held to the same high standard.  The fact that someone is in the military or takes an oath makes no difference in this defense; the function is all that matters.  Furthermore, with the traditional functional defense we cannot differentiate between a retired Colonel shoplifting at the Base Exchange and a civilian shoplifting at the mall.  After all, the Colonel no longer has any active role in the military function.

This problem is closely linked to a final dilemma, namely that with a traditional functional defense the problem with the personal actions of professions does not lie in the actions themselves, but in the correlation to professional actions.  It is not intrinsically any worse that a military member cheats on his spouse than his civilian counterpart; it is just more likely or unavoidable that he will perform some sort of immoral act while on duty, and it is because of the military member’s unique function that his infidelity is worse.  This raises the possibility that our punishments for off-duty actions are unjust.  For example, if it was discovered that those citizens who occasionally bounce checks frequently cheat on their taxes, it would still seem immoral to punish anyone who we catch occasionally bouncing checks as if we had caught them cheating on their taxes even if the relationship between the two acts was one-to-one.  Likewise, it seems that with the traditional functional defense, our reaction to those who commit personal immoral acts should be radically different than they are currently.   If the traditional functional defense of a higher professional obligation is accurate, then when we find someone committing a immoral act I their personal life, we should then investigate his professional actions.  If they have committed professional indiscretions, then prosecute them for those actions.  If they have not, then they should be treated the same as a civilian counter-part, with one exception, they should be forced to leave the military.[7]  The reason is because with a traditional functional defense there is nothing inherently worse about the personal actions of military members. The problem is only discovered in how those actions are related to their professional activity.

The Washington Post Test and a trust-based Defense

Most military members have used the “Washington Post Test” at some point in their careers. If you are facing an ethical dilemma, then you simply ask yourself what you would do if you knew that your actions would make the front page of tomorrow’s Washington Post.  The test is easier to remember and employ than Kant’s Categorical Imperative procedure and even Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle, yet it is rarely given extensive consideration in military ethics courses.  Upon an initial reflection, however, this may not seem surprising.  The Washington Post test seems similar to the “Mommy Test”, if you are facing an ethical dilemma, then you simply ask yourself what you would do if your mother would know all of your actions.  The “mommy test”, although a helpful tool that can remind us of the importance of integrity, does not tell us anything about the nature of morality. 

            In order to see how the Washington Post Test can tell us something interesting about the nature of a higher obligation for military professionals, let us consider the Washington Post test again a little more closely.  One key feature of the Washington Post test is a complete lack of the opportunity for an actor to defend his actions.  We do not ask ourselves if we would be able to explain our actions to our subordinates, peers, supervisors, or even the American public.  We merely ask ourselves if we would still choose this action if it was on the front page of tomorrow’s paper.  It is interesting to note that because of this feature of the Washington Post Test some actions that merely appear immoral or inappropriate will fail the test.[8]

Military service carries with it the public trust and violations of that trust are breaches of our integrity. Our higher moral obligation stems from the obligation to maintain the public trust.  As Benjamin Franklin said at the Constitutional Convention, “much of the strength and efficiency of any government, in procuring and securing happiness to the people depends on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of that government, as well as of the wisdom and integrity of [those in its service].”  [9]  Franklin is pointing to the secondary responsibility servicemen and women possess.  First and foremost is our responsibility to do the right thing, which is shared by all men and women regardless of their role in society.  But we and other professionals carry an additional responsibility to maintain the public trust, to do whatever we can to keep that trust, short of breaking the primary responsibility that we all share.[10]

My examples of this obligation to maintain the public’s trust may seem trivial and pedestrian, but I think that they help to demonstrate this type of obligation.  The other reason they were chosen, I must confess, is because they were self-evident.  (They come form my own Air Force career.)  First, let us examine the practice outlined in the Joint Ethics Regulation regarding meals received from contractors.  When I was in an acquisitions officer, it was common practice that if we had a working lunch at a contractor’s facility, we would leave five dollars to cover the expense of the meal.   Now certainly this obligation was not required by mere morality alone.  It seems hard to believe that TRW’s roast beef or Lockheed Martin’s clam chowder would negatively influence our objectivity at the next source selection.  These rules and actions, however, can be regarded as extra steps that help us maintain a public opinion that is beyond reproach. 

Secondly, let me discuss a practice at the US Air Force Academy Philosophy Department.  As an instructor of ethics, I require my students to write their Social Security numbers on major graded events.  Since I grade each question individually, however, this practice appears to have no impact on my objectivity.  I can, however, live up to the standard to maintain the trust of my students by ensuring that in addition to being impartial, I take every step possible to appear impartial as well.[11]

Objections against a trust-based defense:

The first objection against this trust-based defense of a higher professional standard is probably self-evident.  After all, by saying that professionals have an obligation to maintain the public trust by maintaining a positive public opinion, we are saying, in effect, that the professional has an obligation to appear ethical; and, focusing on the appearance of ethical behavior rather than ethical behavior itself leads to unethical behavior.   Furthermore, the stoics warn us that other people’s opinion of us is beyond our control, and if we attempt to control it, we become slaves to our reputation: we will do whatever it takes to maintain our reputation, including vicious acts.

There are three important things to note in response to this objection:  Most importantly, we need to remember that the obligation to maintain the public’s trust is an obligation that servicemen and women have in addition to their obligation to being moral.  Servicemen and women maintain their obligation to do the right thing, and that is always their primary obligation.  Their obligation to maintain the public’s trust is additional and secondary.[12]  In addition, it is important to note that their obligation to appear ethical is an obligation whose focus is on the profession itself not individuals within that profession.  The obligation, therefore, is for the profession to be beyond reproach.[13]  I would contend that many of the instances of immorality occur when individuals place themselves above the profession. Finally, the last response to this objection is to point out that many people take a far too interim view of the public’s opinion.  They may believe that the best thing do when discovering an inappropriate action is to cover it up. When we cover-up the mistakes of their colleagues rather than expose these colleagues, however, we fall short of their responsibilities of the profession.  We have violated the public trust and have fallen short of the sort of integrity we ought to possess.  As our personal relationships have revealed, we have much greater respect for those who take responsibility and own up to their mistakes. 

The second objection against this trust-based defense of a higher professional standard may be equally as obvious.  After all, as others have realized, this type of higher moral obligation is entirely contextually dependant.[14]  After all, if we were in a different society, military officers or other officials cheating on their spouses may not have any negative influence on the public trust. The objection appeals to the belief that what is required is not a contextually dependent higher obligation, but a firm and unchanging higher obligation.

Upon some reflection, however, it seems that this desire for a rigid, unyielding higher standard is unsubstantiated.  First, let me point out that we can not conclude that there is nothing wrong with adultery, even if we claim that there would be nothing worse about a military member cheating on his or her spouse in a society such as the one outlines above.[15]  One could attempt make an argument against cheating on your spouse using a Utilitarian, a Kantian, or an Aristotelian argument. It is important to remember that any higher obligation for professionals will always be in addition to the moral obligations we all share.   Furthermore, if the public’s trust in their public servants is not diminished in any way, it seems hard to make an argument that this person’s unethical behavior is any worse than a normal citizens.  One could attempt to argue that the public servant’s indiscretions are more likely to cause future unethical acts, but this appears to be a hard argument to make if one grants the premise that we are talking about a society whose trust is not diminished in any way by such unethical behavior.

Another important fact to keep in mind is that we are talking only about personal behavior.  Obviously if we were to live in a society where women were regarded as significantly inferior to men, it would be worse if a public servants professional actions were aligned with this view, because they would have a greater impact than similar actions undertaken by normal citizens.  It seems strange to claim, however, that a public servant’s personal actions, towards his wife for instance, would have a greater impact on the future than a normal citizen in such a community.  After all, in order for this unethical behavior to have a non-existent effect on the public trust, we must already live in a society where such future behavior is not only possible, but highly likely as well.

In order to help counter the objection that we are seeking a rigid, unchanging higher standard, it may be helpful to investigate another example.  Using similar reasoning as stated in an example stated earlier, it has been a long-standing policy that government employees cannot except any benefits from official government travel.  The reasons should seem obvious: we, as government servants, often determine when and where we should travel, which meetings can be accomplished via teleconference, and which require taxpayer funds to meet face to face.  While any minimal benefits would never sway our decisions as people of integrity, we as a community decide not to accept them in order to appear beyond reproach, that is, to help maintain the public trust.  Until recently, this prohibition meant that government employees, including service members, could not keep their frequent-flyer miles.  I contend that at the time this provision was originated, it fell in line with this type of higher professional obligation.  Recently, however, this policy has not only failed to maintain the public trust, it has been detrimental to it as well.  Occasionally, when people cannot see the reason for a certain rule or regulation, it undermines the trust in the system of rules and regulations.  If the only reason that we have a certain rule or regulation is to help foster public trust and that rule instead is degrading that trust, then obviously it should be revoked, as the rule on frequent flyer miles recently has been revoked.[16]  As the frequent flyer example helps illustrate, the higher professional obligation is, and should be contextually dependant.  Now, some could argue that the obligations that do change are always minimal (like the frequent flyer example), and do not indicate that these obligations are contextually dependent.  I would contend, however, that this fact is realized precisely because the type of behavior a society finds trust-worthy is not likely to radically change over a small period of time.

            Perhaps the least obvious objection that one could raise against this defense of a higher professional obligation would come from the Stoics.  The Stoics also warn that we will become miserable in attempting to control what, ultimately is beyond our control, namely the opinions of others.  While I concede that focusing on the opinion of the public at large will be frustrating at times, and may even lead to misery at others, I contend that this frustration or even misery does not demonstrate that this obligation does not exist, it merely demonstrates what many already know:  service to this profession is never easy. 



[1] From Gwen Dyer’s film A Profession of Arms

[2] Ibid.

[3] I have termed this type of defense the traditional functional defense, because my defense of a higher professional obligation, although a distinct argument, involves the military’s function as well.  Although I focus on the trust placed on us by society and the importance of doing everything we can to maintain that trust, I concede the fundamental importance of maintaining that trust is obviously interdependent with the military function itself.  Unlike with a traditional functional defense, however, the importance of military function is not foundational in my defense.  The importance of the trust of society stems from our function; however, our function could not be achieved without that trust.

[4] Hacket and Wakin seem to be advancing this line of reasoning; it’s also evident in Snyder.  In reality it may be not be advanced in exactly this form by any of these men, but it or something like it is what you are most likely to hear from some members of the military.

[5] Wakin “On Integrity”, Dictionary

[6] Another reason I choose not engage in the debate about whether or not it is possible to be virtuous in our professional lives and vicious in our personal lives is because I see this discussion as part of the problem. This paper can be viewed, in part, as an attempt to shift the discussion from why we cannot be hypocritical to why we should not be hypocritical.

[7] The reason that they would be forced to leave is because they will eventually commit professional intercessions.  It seems difficult to justify harsher punishment for personal intercessions like adultery and drug use using the traditional functional defense.

[8] This defense is not merely a descriptive claim.  Not only is trust of the public fundamentally important, that’s the way it should be as well.

[9] Smyth, Writings of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 9, pp. 608-9.

[10] Of course the relationship, unfortunately is not this simple.  Melville’s “Billy Bud” and the Gospel’s Pilot both point to the tough decisions that people sometimes face when what they are required to do as private individuals (and what they would like to do) appears to conflict with what they are required to do as state actors.  Unfortunately, I cannot go farther into that relationship here, perhaps I will attempt it in the future. The main point of this paper is to provide an answer to the question of, ‘from where does our higher obligation as servicemen and women originate” more satisfying than simply ‘our function’.  A system designed to attempt to help us in weighing those obligations, however, must wait for another day.

[11] This effort seems particularly important in a literate, as opposed to numerate, course

[12] See Note #10.  There may be times where our obligation to maintain the public trust overrides our normal obligation to do the right thing.  One example:  a subordinate of mine appears to have broken some rule.  After an in-house investigation, it is clear that no violation has occurred.  If, however, Congress and the public is calling for an independent investigation, and if I can assume that such an investigation will be quick, accurate, and fair, then it seems that I’m obligated to yield to such a independent investigation in order to maintain the public trust, even though I know that such an investigation will cost money and only determine what I already know.  Once again I grant that the relationship between doing the right thing and marinating public trust is a complicated one. However, at this point, it seems to me that it will be the exception rather than the rule that the obligation to appear moral will override the obligation to be moral.  The type of person this objection has in mind, however, is the type of person who acts as if it will be the rule rather than the exception that the obligation to appear moral will override the obligation to be moral. 

[13] Although one of the ways for the profession to be beyond reproach is for its members be beyond reproach, the focus is always on the profession, not individuals.

[14] See Ficarrotta, Carl “Are Military Professionals Bound to a Higher Moral Standard?”

[15] I feel it important to point out that I am not arguing or even trying to insinuate that we presently live or have ever lived in such a society as Americans.  While there has been extensive recent debate about how serious an effect actions such as these have on the public trust, the mere existence of the debate appears to indicate that these acts do have some degree of negative impact on the public’s trust as a whole.

[16] See note #10. I will not discuss here the more difficult case where the rule is degrading public trust, but that rule’s main purpose is more significant that simply fostering that trust.