By CPT CHARLES A. PFAFF, 126C Biddle Loop West Point, NY 10996 914-938-4363


I. Introduction

Leaders make choices that affect the lives of other people. When making these choices, leaders must make normative assessments regarding human ends and the means to those ends. As such, the decisions that result enter the realm of the ethical. Thus in order to understand them we need to construct a theory to help us distinguish what ends and means are ethically good from those that are bad. To help us see which is the best ethical approach I would like to take a look at three ethical theories that, when taken together, seem to capture most people’s intuitions regarding the ways people think when making ethical decisions. They are rule-centered ethics, utilitarian ethics, and virtue ethics.

My aim is to show that the first two approaches are inadequate to describe what an ethically good leader is like. Nevertheless, even though they are inadequate to describing what a leader is, they are essential for describing, in conjunction with virtue ethics, how one is developed.


To begin, I would like to tell a story. A PLATOON is on a rescue mission. Two members

of the platoon are trapped on a hill and under fire. Both soldiers are seriously wounded; within a few hours, they will be dead.  Between the platoon and the two soldiers is a minefield, which the platoon must breach or go around if they are to get to the trapped soldiers in time.  As the platoon leader ponders his options, he notices a civilian picking his way through the minefield.  Obviously, he knows where the mines are.  The lieutenant detains the civilian, but the man refuses to lead the platoon through the minefield. The lieutenant offers several enticements to get the man to cooperate, but the man continues to refuse.  There is no way he is going back through that minefield. The lieutenant must make a decision that he had hoped to avoid.  There are rules for situations like this, but if he follows them, good men will die.[1]

II. Utilitarianism:

Utilitarians define the morally right action as that action that maximizes some non-moral good such as pleasure or happiness and minimizes some non-moral evil such as pain or misery. In military situations these are usually equated with victory. If the lieutenant were a utilitarian, he might reason that he makes his platoon happy, the two men on the hill very happy, and accomplishes his mission if he gets the civilian to cooperate, even though that might involve violating the laws of war. He weighs this against the unhappiness the civilian will experience and the unhappiness he may experience if he is ever tried for violating the law and concludes he must do what it takes to get the civilian to cooperate. In fact, he reasons, failure to do so would invite a mutiny by the platoon who would no longer have any interest in following someone who values their lives less than the welfare of someone who is, if not actually the enemy, certainly not a friend.

Unfortunately, utilitarian reasoning does not stop there. If he is to be a good and consistent utilitarian, the lieutenant must also consider the implications of sending the message to his men that whenever they are in a similarly sticky situation, they are free to disregard the rules. What if, some time later, they are in a village looking for a sniper and some of his men conclude that threatening to shoot a civilian until they turn over the sniper is a good idea? What if they conclude that it would be OK to shoot one or two to give incentive to other villagers to turn the sniper over to them? As far as they are concerned the happiness of the platoon (forty or so people) outweighs the unhappiness of a few civilians.

Even though it is clear to the lieutenant that this is faulty reasoning, even from a utilitarian point of view, he must still take this into account when deciding his own course of action. If it is his decision to torture this civilian that would open up these kinds of possibilities, he must consider it as weighing against the happiness his platoon would experience. Now he is not so sure it is a good thing. The problem he has is that both possible outcomes, as far as the lieutenant can tell, are just as likely. It seems he is in a dilemma. If we construe ethical dilemmas as a disagreement about the application of the principle of maximizing happiness or pleasure, we run into three kinds of problems.

The first concerns what kind of happiness we are maximizing, the second concerns knowing whether a particular action will indeed maximize happiness, and the third involves the practical application of maximization principles that lead to counter-intuitive conclusions about moral behavior. With regard to the first problem we can distinguish between objective and subjective employment of the maximization principle. What you feel is in your interest may indeed not be in your interest. If we take what is to be maximized in the subjective sense, from the point of view of the people affected, we run into the difficulty that we might be placed in the situation of doing things for others that one believes or even knows to be harmful to them. If, on the other hand, we take the objective sense, then we run into two kinds of epistemological problems. First, we have to be able to determine, objectively, what would make people happy. In the situation in which the lieutenant is placed it is likely that he will be able to do this. The soldiers will be objectively happier if they save their friends. However, in many other situations where happiness is culturally determined or where it is impossible to establish a single objective account of happiness, utility theory will fail.

Second, how can we know we have accounted for all the possible consequences of a particular action? In such a case, we might do something we believe will maximize happiness, but in fact does not. This was certainly the situation the lieutenant was in. He could not be sure which course of action would actually promote happiness. This leads to our second objection, how do we know a particular action will indeed maximize happiness? For utilitarianism to work, it must rely on some form of ‘calculus’ to determine which actions will maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utility theory, defines happiness as the amount of pleasure someone feels as the consequence of a particular action.[2] If happiness is equal to pleasure and pleasure is the means by which we determine right and wrong, then there must be a way of quantifying this pleasure so that we can tell which actions will provide a net gain in happiness for the most people.

The means by which we do this is called the hedonic calculus. It was Bentham’s hope that employing such a tool would provide guidance to individuals and groups which would enable them to determine what actions to pursue and which to avoid without appealing to any abstract notions, such as motive, religion or ideology for guidance.[3] In arriving at a pleasure’s value, Bentham considered the following factors: intensity (how strong the pleasure is), duration (how long it lasts), certainty (the degree of probability that it will occur), propinquity (how soon it will be fulfilled), fecundity (its ability to lead to other pleasures), purity (the likelihood that it will not be mixed with or followed by pain) and extent (the number of people who will experience it). One utilizes the first four of these factors when considering the value of a particular pleasure or pain by itself. If, however, this person wants to estimate the tendency of a particular act to produce pleasure or pain, he then must consider the next two factors, fecundity and purity. So for each alternative, one would add up the sum of pleasure that would likely be experienced, subtract from it the amount of pain likely to result from such an experience and then, when choosing among alternative pleasures, choose the one that produces the most happiness (or the least misery, if that be the case) in relation to the other alternatives.

If a particular action affects more than one person, then those making the decision must factor the number of people affected (the extent), to come up with a total value of the pleasure or pain, and thus the good or evil, that is gained by acting in such a way. If these values could be quantified and then compared by means of a mathematical formula, then we would have a "hedonic calculus’ capable of providing an individual or a group guidance on the value of pursuing a particular act. In this type of moral arithmetic, all individuals would be treated equally; no individual’s pleasure or pain would carry more weight than any other’s. Bentham saw this as tool for leaders, as well as individuals, to utilize when seeking guidance on which actions to do and which to avoid.

There are however, several objections to this calculus that make its employment problematic. The first of these objections is that in order to obtain reliable guidance, fairly accurate values must be derived for each pleasure and pain and these values must be comparable among people. We can divide this objection into two parts, the intra-personal and the inter-personal. The intra-personal objection is that an individual is not capable of determining, to a sufficient degree, the value of one pleasure or pain versus another. In fact, it may well be the case that pleasures and pains are incommensurate and cannot be compared to each other. For example, how do you compare the pleasure obtained from graduating college with the pleasure one might get from drinking a good bottle of wine? Let us say I assign drinking the bottle of wine a pleasure value of one and graduating college a pleasure value of ten. If it is possible to do this, then (given the hedonic calculus), drinking ten bottles of wine would be just as good as graduating college. This seems intuitively odd. But if they are not commensurate, then they are not comparable. If they are not comparable, then we cannot assign values to each which then enables us to make a decision between the two.

The interpersonal objection is that it is not possible, or at least it is very difficult, to compare the values of pleasure and pain between people. For example, how do I compare the pain of my having been diagnosed as having a terminal disease and my friend losing her child in an automobile accident? More to the point, how would a third individual or a government agency determine between the two? We again run into the same problems as before, and end up with intuitively odd statements such as ‘two people’s children dying produce just as much misery as one person getting AIDS.’ Depending on whether or not you are a parent or an AIDS victim, this might not be true. But, as before, if we cannot make statements such as this, then the hedonic calculus cannot apply.

Bentham’s response to this might be that while there are different sources of pleasure and pain they, "differ not ultimately in kind...the only difference there is among them lies in the circumstances that accompany their production."[4] Bentham says that pleasure and pain issue from four sources; physical, political, moral, and religious. Pain, for example, is experienced from each of these sources as a sanction. In the examples he cites concerning the man to whom a catastrophe falls, it is either the result of a divine judgment, or as a result of some error in judgment such as not putting your candle out at night and then having your house burn down. The first would be an example of a religious sanction and the second the result of a physical sanction. But even though the sources are different, the pain felt is the same. Since pleasure and pain are of the same kind, they are just different points on the same continuum. As such, we should, in Bentham’s mind, be able to pinpoint a value with some accuracy. Also, since pleasure and pain derive from the same sources for all people, it seems that Bentham believed that we would be able to compare them among individuals.

A second objection to utilitarianism is that some of the conclusions we derive from using it are counter-intuitive. The reason for this counter-intuitiveness lies primarily in the calculus used. One problem with it is that it does not distinguish between qualities of pleasure. This can have two consequences. First, it can lead us to claim that the moral worth derived from drinking a bottle of wine is the same as producing a great work of art as long as the pleasure derived from each of these acts is the same. This, however, does not seem to conform to our intuitions concerning the value of human acts. Bentham’s refusal to establish a hierarchy of pleasures according to their quality as well as quantity led many of his critics to describe hedonistic utilitarianism as a ‘philosophy fit only for pigs.’[5] While it is clear that Bentham accepts that there is no difference in the quality of a pleasure, he would add that what others might consider ‘higher’ pleasures are indeed better than ‘lower’ pleasures in that these higher pleasures are more "complex."

A complex pleasure is one that "determines alot of pleasure."[6] Because acts such as going to college, creating a great work of art, etc, create many more opportunities for pleasure than having a nice meal, they are of a higher value. The second consequence is that pleasure from any source is considered equally as good. Thus, getting pleasure from someone else’s pain is just as valid a route to happiness as any other. For example, if a bunch of sadists get a great deal of pleasure from tormenting an unwilling subject, their act could be said to be good, or at least not wrong. Conversely if a bunch of people get the same amount of pleasure from benefiting someone their act counts as good in the same way as the sadist’s. There is no way to tell the moral difference between the two. This seems to conflict with our intuitions concerning the nature of good. Bentham would probably argue that every pleasure is indeed a good but he would be concerned that if we introduced moral judgments outside the framework of pleasure and pain we will be left with only subjective means for determining right and wrong.

According to Bentham, the various systems of moral philosophy that do not take pleasure and pain into account when deciding right and wrong all fall under the principle of "sympathy and antipathy." These philosophies claim that the moral worth of an action depends on how one feels about it, that is, "holding up that approbation or disapprobation as a sufficient reason for itself, and disclaiming the necessity of looking out for any extrinsic ground."[7] Since the determining factor in what is right or wrong is decided internally, debates about right and wrong become complex and unresolvable as each proponent has his own ideas that cannot be subjected to any objective or external evaluation. "They consist all of them in so many contrivances for avoiding the obligation of appealing to any external standard, and for prevailing upon the reader to accept the author’s sentiment or opinion as a reason for itself."[8] This leads us to another, and I think the most potent, objection to the hedonic calculus in specific and utilitarianism in general. As I stated before, there is nothing intrinsic to the theory that prohibits inflicting pain on others as long as the happiness generated by the act exceeds the misery created by the act. One needs only to determine the value for each person of the pleasure or pain caused by an act and sum the values for pleasure and sum the values for pain. If the value for pleasure is greater than the value for pain, the act is a good one. As Bentham states,

Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on one side, and those of all the pains on the other... Take the balance; which, if on the side of pleasure, will give the general good tendency of the act , with respect to the total number or community of individuals concerned; if on the side of pain, the general evil tendency, with respect to the same community.[9]

Nowhere, though, is there any requirement for distributive justice. If more people are made happy by enslaving a minority of people, then oppressing a minority can be justified. In fact, this argument has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks in justifying slavery. As a result, setting limits on any actions such as murder, theft, rape, etc, becomes impossible. In her short story They Walked Away from Omelas, Ursula K. LeGuin tells of a utopic society whose happiness is based on the misery of a single individual. This individual from birth is locked away in a basement, and except for occasionally being fed, is completely neglected. If utilitarian theory is correct, then this is a morally obligatory act. By the same logic, if the pleasure a racial majority in a particular community experienced by taking advantage of a racial minority exceeded the pain felt by that minority, the exploitation of the minority would be a morally good thing to do. If a larger nation wanted to colonize and exploit a smaller nation, as long as the net pleasure exceeded the net pain, this, too, would be a good thing to do.

Similarly, if a large community derived pleasure from benefiting a smaller one, this would be just as good as if they oppressed them, as long as the net pleasure and pains were the same. There is simply no way to tell the difference between these acts, because there is no limit set on the amount of pain individuals and groups can inflict on other individuals and groups. One might object by saying that if the effects of these actions were properly understood, it would always be the case that they would cause more pain than pleasure. One could argue that exploiting a smaller nation or group of people is always bad because in addition to the pain the oppressed might feel, the ill will created between the two groups and other smaller groups, who might not be oppressed now, will eventually lead to conflict, more difficult access to other resources, or some other such negative consequence for the larger nation. Therefore acts that seem intuitively bad, such as the examples given above, are indeed bad according to the hedonic calculus. We just have to understand all the consequences of such an act to see this. We only have to look at what happened to the European colonial powers after World War II to at least see that such actions do indeed come at a cost. But not only is this objection unsatisfying as a defense of the hedonic calculus, it is also problematic as we are confronted with the fact that determining the long term effects of an act is quite difficult, if not impossible.

But even if we grant that this, in theory, could be done, we are still left with the issue that we cannot tell, using the calculus, the moral difference between an act that benefits everyone in a smaller community versus an act that gives happiness to some and misery to others in a larger community. In other words, the theory leaves unresolved issues of distributive justice. Without limits to the amount of pain you can inflict on someone, no requirements of distributive justice can be instituted. We have to wonder if this indeed is a theory we should use to guide our actions. Do we want to live in a society where distributive justice, if it occurs, is incidental? More to the point, do we want an ethic of leadership that does not require our leaders to work to ensure that justice is done, but instead requires them to work to ensure the maximization of aggregate happiness?

Some might object that Bentham and the hedonic calculus are not the best representatives of utilitarianism. Many believe that rule utilitarianism gets around many of the objections listed above. Rule utilitarianism is where we choose the set of rules which maximizes happiness and then follow those rules regardless of their outcomes. This would certainly help the lieutenant. The military (as well as society at large) has already recognized that society is, in general, better served by following the war convention when it conflicts with other rule systems. He simply needs to recognize this and behave accordingly. However, since the choice of which rule system maximizes happiness is determined by some form of happiness maximizing calculus it is still plagued by the same criticisms. Even if this were not the case, rule systems themselves are plagued by another set of problems which we will turn to later. This is not to say that utilitarianism does not offer certain advantages. It does provide a method of establishing moral guidance that does not rely on abstract, metaphysical or religious concepts. In fact, it may have been a reaction to the muddle this kind of reasoning results in that inspired Bentham in the first place.

When we base our idea of right and wrong on abstract notions such as Hume’s moral sentiments or Kant’s metaphysics, we end up relying on subjective means to decide what is right and wrong. Furthermore, we open the door for other abstract theories or religions to lay equal claim to be the source for moral guidance. By appealing to subjective claims about how one feels toward an action, or how one reasons one should feel toward an action as a guiding principle, we are left with theories that are difficult to understand and that are practically, if not conceptually, impossible for a large community to generally accept. The apparent benefit gained by adopting the hedonic calculus is that we can get around this inherent subjectivity and construct a system everyone can understand. However, the price for accepting this advantage is a certain amount of uncertainty that the goals of securing the most happiness can be achieved. In addition we also must sacrifice a sense of distributive justice. The question then remains, "Is this the price we want to pay?"

III. Rule-based Systems:

If the lieutenant in our example were following a rule or duty-based ethical theory further difficulties await him. Which rule does he follow? One set of rules makes it clear that he may do nothing to hurt the man in his custody, whether he is a civilian or a guerrilla. By being in his custody this man is a non-combatant and is protected by the war convention. But another set of rules, the ones he learned in his officer basic course, tell him he must always take care of his men and that he must always accomplish the mission. Which rules take precedence here? We might say that the war convention, at least as it has taken the form of international treaty, takes precedence over any rules or duties imposed by the military, specified or implied. In fact, our story might just end here because the military has done something much like this. The obligation to uphold the tenets of the war convention does take precedence over any order or rule imposed solely by the military. According to the war convention, soldiers take risks that non-combatants do not, so when there is a choice like the one our lieutenant is facing, he must decide in favor of the non-combatant, even if that means his soldiers will likely die.

But this really a legal answer to a moral problem and begs the question: in the face of competing obligations, which do I choose? There are problems with forming and implementing rule based ethical systems that leave our lieutenant in much the same quandary he would be in if he were an utilitarian. In a rule or duty-based theory doing as required is good in itself. We cannot know the moral status of any state of affairs without some account of how it came to be. Was it achieved by intentionally complying with the rules or by violating them? For example, while the pain a thief causes is bad, the pain the society imposes on him as part of a just punishment is good.[10] In the zero-sum game of combat, we can consider the enemy in the same way. The pain the enemy causes is bad, the pain we cause the enemy is good. In this theory the act itself is right or wrong regardless of the consequences and it is often referred to as the ethics of "duty."

I think many theories of leadership fall under this category. For the most part this makes a great deal of sense. In combat there is little time for reflection and rules provide something solid and easily accessible in the confusion and chaos of battle. Also, where there is a great deal of incentive to do the wrong thing, a well developed sense of duty can provide the motivation to do the right thing. Rules give leaders something to fall back on when the idea of "right" might not seem clear. They provide boundaries and a framework within which to perform the functions of leadership. However, sometimes these boundaries overlap and rules conflict, resulting in ethical dilemmas that cannot be resolved without appealing to something outside the rule system. Furthermore, when building an ethical framework, rule systems tend to be either too specific or too general to be useful. In an effort to provide clear guidance, rules get constructed to account for every possible circumstance. The result is more opportunities for conflicts arise and the rule system itself becomes so complex, no one could possibly know them all. The response then is to make the rules vague, to cover a variety of different situations. The problem here is that they often become too vague to provide any real guidance in real-life situations. Finally, rules seem to do a better job in preventing us from doing wrong than they do in motivating us to do right.

A good example that will help us further illustrate some of the problems with rule based theories is the City of Chicago’s code of conduct. This thirty-page legal document was an attempt by the city’s Department of Ethics to prescribe for its forty-two department heads an exhaustive list of requirements for acting ethically. It was, in effect, an effort by the city to establish a way for leaders, in whom the public reposed some level of trust, to do good things and avoid bad things. This approach, however, had a few shortcomings. First, it was too specific and rigid to help them resolve many of the dilemmas they routinely faced. In addition to the thirty pages of legalese, the document was "followed by ten more pages of amendments, some only a few weeks old (with more expected). Many terms had technical definitions. Many provisions were also poorly drafted, a rat’s nest of subordinate clauses. Reading the code left a blur rather than a clear impression."[11]

This can lead to many problems for the leader who tries to enforce such a code. In the example of the city of Chicago, as Davies notes, we can imagine a situation where an administrator risks alienating those he does business with by refusing to accept small tokens of appreciation. I personally had this trouble while working in Saudi Arabia. As a purchasing officer, regulations prohibited me from accepting any gift, even food or drink, from anyone with whom I conducted business. In the Muslim culture, where hospitality is an imperative, this did not go over too well and I did indeed, at first, alienate many people. So, I faced the situation of either alienating these people or not accomplishing my mission of purchasing the best products at the lowest price, or accepting the gifts and violating the rule. This provides us with a good example of how rule-based theories can leave us short. By strictly adhering to the rules and principles, in these cases, one is not able to effectively accomplish the mission, whether it is building an overpass, or purchasing needed supplies.

One response to this kind of problem would be to make the rules more general in order to apply to a variety of situations. For example, in the Chicago situation, we might abandon the thirty-page document for a set of principles such as ‘serve the people,’ ‘remain impartial,’ and ‘make sound and timely decisions.’ These sound wonderful, but what about when serving one group happens at the expense of another? Or in trying to make sound and timely decisions, one makes unsound and untimely ones instead? If one takes this approach, the rules become too vague and abstract to provide any real guidance to provide helpful guidance in the complicated situations met in everyday dilemmas.

Finally, rule based systems, while they may be good at motivating us not to do wrong, usually are not very good at motivating us to do right. Rules and duties often come with sanctions. If one fails to follow the rule or do one’s duty, one experiences the sanction, whether that be a jail term, letter of reprimand, community service, etc. This, however, does not motivate us to do good. The city of Chicago’s code, for instance, had many provisions for fair and impartial administration of city funds and resources, but no provisions for doing real good in the community. So while an official might learn how to be fair by following such a code, he or she probably would not learn how to articulate the kind of vision that motivates people to work together to create a nice place to live. For instance, if a shady developer wanted a project approved that was not in the interest of the community, but only in their interest, they might try to bribe an official to approve it. A strict follower of the code would of course not accept this bribe, and this bad project would not happen. This, is good as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. It avoids an obvious harm, but the code does not tell the civic leader how to define, direct and inspire people. To realize this larger end, such a code would have to prescribe the proactive behavior that would lead to good things happening. One might say we could write ‘proactive’ provisions in the code, and in fact many rule-based approaches do. But again, the strength of the code will still be limited by how well these provisions were written. For instance, one prominent military leadership educator for the military claimed that one can demonstrate integrity by:

"Telling the truth, to both your superiors and your soldiers. Using your power to work for mission accomplishment or for your soldiers-not for your own personal and private gain. Encouraging honest and open communication in your unit."[12]

These provisions are both reactive and proactive. But are they complete? Is this everything one needs to know to have integrity? These provisions discuss what it means to have integrity in relation to accomplishing specific missions. But what about the notion that to have integrity one must do "the right thing," even when no one is looking and the consequences are minimal? This is certainly not ruled out, but neither is it included. Thus, the strength of this approach is limited by the rules designed to instantiate this particular trait.

One response to this objection might be to say that ‘proactive leadership’ is not required at all levels. We elect leaders to do these ‘proactive good acts.’ If they fail either to initiate any themselves, or see that public officials in their charge do so, we just do not reappoint or reelect them. This is a simple matter of competence, not of ethics. Clearly, in some sense this is true, but the point is that an ethical code or rule book is not going to help the leader in question always figure out what the right thing to do is. And yet, figuring out what is the right thing to do is at the very heart of good leadership. A good leader leads people to do good things. Thus the approach to leadership we want is one such that, if leaders follow it, they will not only gain an understanding of how to lead people to do good things, but also for what those good things look like.

Consider the following example: On my way to town I turn on the car radio. On a talk-show a woman is phoning in. She is poor, sick, and without friends or relatives. She cannot pay for her medicine, and at times goes ten to fourteen days without talking to anyone. This radio-show is one of her few links with the outside world. Having parked my car in the parking lot of a large shopping center, I pass by a large department store. They have a fur sale. I see people rushing in and out. They spend thousands of dollars on expensive furs-to be worn to parties or the theater. They are preoccupied with their pleasure in acquiring luxury items and thus possession of goods that will gain them prestige in the community.[13] This situation poses some serious problems for rule-based theories. If the woman buying the fur knows of shut-ins (which she, of course, does) is she acting unethically?

Ethics concerns itself with how we affect other human beings. In a rule-based approach, she would only be acting unethically if she broke some sort of rule. Ethical rules, though, can only regulate actions. However, we affect others not only through what we do but also by what we feel and what attitudes we adopt toward them. But feelings and attitudes (which are, in a large part, functions of our personality) cannot be exclusively regulated by rules. For example, we might make the rule "Do not neglect lonely people!" or "Do not buy luxury items as long as you could use your time and energy to help those who are shut-ins!" But this gives us limited guidance as to what constitutes neglecting the lonely. Furthermore, these are not really rules but exhortations? We all agree in general that one ought not to neglect the lonely; but there are serious disagreements about what constitutes, in any given context, neglect of the lonely. Again, nobody would accept the second candidate (above) as a rule of ethics without qualifications.[14]

Part of the problem lies in the fact that a rule is something you can follow, choose, adopt, reject, or formulate. Feelings, attitudes, and personality traits, however, are not. We can make rules that govern specific actions or situations, but whether or not we can decide what to feel or what personality traits to have is less clear. We can, of course, decide to adopt a rule according to which we should do everything in our power so that we will become such and such a person, e.g. a courageous individual. Or we can try to do everything in our power so that we will develop into kind persons. But one cannot decide to be kind, or to become kind; and one cannot decide to be courageous or to become courageous. What we feel and what we are is not a matter of decisions, or mere actions; and if rules govern solely actions, then there can be no rule governing feelings or character traits.[15] It makes no sense to say that someone is in a state in accordance with a rule, or that someone is in a state by following a rule, though it does make sense to say that someone got himself to be in a state by following a rule. For example, can you make a rule to be healthy? If you do, what can you say to someone who gets sick? If you say: "Do not be unhealthy!" you are not really forming a rule, but rather making an exhortation.

So even if we create rules and duties requiring people to act with integrity, or to be generous, or to lead, we do not really give the potential leader a coherent system on which he or she can base decisions. This is because rules cannot cover states and feelings. Nonetheless these states and feelings do affect our attitudes toward other human beings. Since our attitudes affect how we treat other human beings, then they also affect these others’ welfare. Since our attitudes affect the welfare of others, they are within the sphere of the ethical. But since they cannot be governed by rules, ethical theories that rely on rules are going to be inadequate to describing and prescribing ethical behavior. The strength then of a rule-based approach rests on how it can perform a number of balancing acts, for example, the balancing act between being too rigid and too general and between avoiding wrong and doing right. If it tries to do both, it becomes unwieldy, and ends up being a source of dilemmas rather than a method for resolving dilemmas. But even if it does manage to achieve some sort of balance, it still cannot give us a complete account of everything that lies within the sphere of the ethical.

IV. Virtue Ethics

Neither utilitarian nor rule-based theories provide the lieutenant with adequate guidance on what he should do. Even if they did there is nothing inherent in them, as moral approaches, that will motivate him to choose the course of action they prescribe, especially when it conflicts with his desires. What the lieutenant will do will ultimately depend on the kind of person the lieutenant is. For this reason it becomes important to develop leaders of character who understand what it means to be a good leader, not just what it means to follow rules, perform duties or even just reason well. If we are going to provide leaders with the resources necessary to make ethically good decisions, especially in tough situations, as well as develop good leaders among subordinates, it becomes important to construct a theory of ethics that will tell us what good character is and how it can be developed. Since virtue ethics primarily deals with issues of character, it is a good place to start.

The major difficulties with the rule-based and utilitarian approaches is that they lead to dilemmas that we can not resolve within the context of the theory and they can sometimes yield results that do not conform with our intuitions of right and wrong. Virtue ethics gets around this by focusing not on the act but on the agent. A virtuous person is more concerned with being the kind of person that does the right thing at the right time and in the right way and not as much on the act itself. Virtue ethics avoids most dilemmas because the focus is no longer on deciding between two unfortunate outcomes, but on being a certain kind of person. A virtuous leader does not assign values to outcomes or preferences to duties. The virtuous agent has habituated dispositions that make her the kind of person who does the right thing. One can think of virtue ethics utilizing a ‘medicinal analogy.’ Take for example the exhortation "Be healthy!" As I stated earlier, we can encourage people to become healthy, but we cannot legislate that they become healthy. You can legislate an action, but not a state. Similarly, we can exhort people to "Be kind!" but we cannot legislate that they be kind because being kind is a state, and you cannot legislate states.

In the section describing the shortcomings of rule-based systems I described the areas that it does not cover as ‘feelings’ and ‘sensitivities.’ Let’s now take a closer look at this area. While I discussed how approaches to leadership that rely exclusively on rules and duties are incomplete, it is nevertheless true that no notion of leadership can be complete unless it accounts for rules and duties. Duties for the leader establish a framework within which to employ virtue. A leader must know what duties he or she has toward his or her organization, as well as which duties the organization has toward the greater organization or society to which it belongs, before he or she can begin to instantiate the virtues required to successfully lead it. For example, judges must know the law before they can apply virtue in enforcing it. This is because a certain kind of sensitivity is needed in applying rules of conduct or laws. A good judge, whether he ranks individuals on a scale, or delivers judgments in accordance with the law, must be sensitive. He must be aware of special circumstances that might surround a case, special interpretations placed on certain kinds of conduct by people from certain socio-economic groups, etc. Though this kind of sensitivity is not a matter of following rules, it is not a matter of feelings either.[16]

Virtue provides a way to avoid the shortcomings of rule-based ethics by encouraging sensitivity to local conditions in the enforcing of any rule. Virtues involve a delicate balancing between general rules and an awareness of particulars. In this process, as Aristotle stresses, the perception of the particular takes priority. It takes priority in the sense that a good rule is a good summary of wise particular choices, and not a court of last resort. Employing our health analogy again, the rules of ethics, like rules of medicine, should be held open to modification in the light of new circumstances. The good leader must therefore cultivate the ability to perceive and correctly and accurately describe his situation and include in this perceptual grasp even those features of the situation that are not covered under the existing rule. James Wallace describes virtue as conscientiousness toward obligations. According to Wallace, "[t]raits of character that focus in a certain way upon the observance of forms of behavior I call conscientiousness...[a]ctions fully characteristic of virtues that are forms of conscientiousness are the sort that moral philosophers regard as manifesting a sense of duty or obligation."[17] A person who is conscientious about behaving in a certain way can be said to be intrinsically motivated to behave in that way.

Thus someone who follows a rule because they believe it is the right thing to do is motivated intrinsically. This is different from someone who is motivated to follow a certain rule because of some externally imposed sanction for failing to follow the rule. Such a person would be said to be extrinsically motivated. One problem with extrinsically motivated people is that it is unlikely they will adhere to a certain rule or meet a certain obligation if they feel the possibility of sanction is remote. Thus, in regard to a virtue, an agent must be conscientious toward instantiating that virtue. For example, you have to want to become trustworthy because you want to pursue this ideal in order to become truly trustworthy. You want to pursue this ideal because, as a leader, you want to create an environment where your subordinates trust you unquestioningly. However, the only way to become this is to pursue it uncompromisingly, regardless of the consequences to yourself. To do otherwise would make you less than trustworthy. Take for example the officer that lies on a readiness report. It could be a small lie, one that has little consequence and almost certainly does not hurt anyone. However, if such a person would lie when consequences are minimal, how can he be trusted when consequences are severe?

Only by consistently instantiating a virtue can one habituate oneself to it. This is not to say, however, that virtue ethics takes no account of consequences. But the way it does demonstrates its strength. If what you value is a strong community or organization, only an uncompromising commitment to virtue will yield that community. You behave courageously in all situations, because to not do so would mean, in times of crisis, you would consistently fail to do so. Failure to do so in a time of crisis would result in catastrophic failure of the organization. In this way it may seem that virtue ethics is in fact a clever version of consequentialism, but this is not the case. Consequentialist and utilitarian ethics are predicated on some sort of calculus in which it is necessary to account for the happiness and misery each act creates.

Virtue ethics appeals to no such calculus. It is more the case that it is predicated on the assumption that to live well you must live in a community where everyone values and instantiates certain virtues. In terms of leadership, we might say that in order to lead well, you must instantiate certain virtues that facilitate good leadership. An ethically good leader, when confronted with a choice, acts to instantiate the appropriate virtue. He does not calculate the affect instantiating this virtue will have. Being virtuous, in and of itself, is good. Being uncompromisingly committed to being trustworthy, courageous, etc is then the only way to be sure that, as a leader, you are doing the right thing. Furthermore, if you behave only out of a sense of role specific obligations, then you are a moral robot, responding to situations only when duty calls.

But since ethics involves considering how what we do and feel affects others, to be truly virtuous, we must put ourselves in others’ place and be concerned about how what we do affects them. Thus, the instantiation of any particular virtue also requires benevolence. Benevolence, according to Wallace, is "a genus or family of virtues of which kindness, generosity, humanness, and compassion are (overlapping) species or forms."[18] It involves a direct concern for the happiness and well-being of others which manifests itself in both feelings and action. This is critical for a leader. Subordinates must believe that the leader has their interests at heart, at least to the extent that their interest and the organization’s interests coincide. Trustworthiness habituated only out of a duty toward it can get un-virtuously applied when subordinates’ interests are not taken into account.

For example, in battle soldiers may trust that an officer will be true to his word and in fact can be trusted to do the right thing, especially in tight situations. However, soldiers also need to trust that the leader cares about them and getting them out alive. If this trust does not exist, a soldier’s concern for self preservation may replace his commitment to accomplishing the mission. He needs to feel that someone is genuinely looking out for him. So without this notion of benevolence, the virtue of trustworthiness seems incomplete. So when acting in strict accordance with a given duty does not provide clear guidance as to what we should do, benevolence can carry us the rest of the way.

Unlike a rule based approach to leadership and leadership development which emphasizes "doing," a virtue ethics approach focuses on developing character traits which lead to "being" a good leader. To become a good leader, you must acquire and exercise those virtues or character traits that make you so. Here I would like to introduce the idea of special virtues to illustrate how a virtue ethics approach to leadership might work. If we decide that something is itself a good end, we can adopt special virtues that will help us realize that end. Special virtues then become the means by which we instantiate this good end. Becoming a good leader does not consist merely in learning and keeping principles, but in developing one’s character by practicing certain sorts of behavior until they become habitual, that is, part of one’s character. This is echoed in ADM James Stockdale in Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot,

Crystall continued. ‘what’s important is not a person’s current views on transient issues, but his character. Thinking back, I have seldom been surprised at a position held or action taken by a political figure. Once his true character has been grasped, his policies and actions are almost always predictable fallouts.’ To test this idea, I went back and studied the Lincoln-Douglas debates in detail. And let me tell you, Douglas was all issues. He pandered to the mob on every little issue of 1858-and had our current style of television coverage prevailed in those pre-Civil War years, we would have made him the darling of America...Abraham Lincoln on the other hand was weak on some issues and indifferent about quite a few others. But you can’t read the speeches he wrote and not get the message that he was all character.[19]

To see why the development of a virtuous character is important to a leader, I will return to Davies’ example of the City of Chicago’s guidelines for public officials. According to Davies, what these administrators wanted was a checklist so that they would be alert to problems and have some way of thinking about them in order to be better able to resolve them. "They wanted to understand a code they knew they could neither learn by heart nor leave to the lawyers." Now if these officials followed a virtuous approach, they would concentrate on what it means to be a good leader, not on which rules apply to a given situation. So, in situations where the rules do not provide effective guidance, the leader can resort to the instantiation of a special virtue or virtues, to resolve the dilemma. Taking the purchasing officer example, instead of alienating many people just to uphold a rule, I might try to instantiate public virtue. We’ll define public virtue as the willingness of those who govern to place the value of their organization above personal interest.[20] Thus instead of going home empty handed, I might accept the gift, conduct the business, and report the gift to higher officials. In this way I act in the benefit of those of whom I am in charge, but also, by reporting and turning in the gift, still maintain the impartiality and integrity required by someone who is responsible for public resources. My personal interests, either in getting the job done or in receiving the gift never comes into conflict with any public responsibilities.

In this approach, the ‘moral correctness’ of a leader’s decisions are dependent on the virtues chosen to be instantiated. Since good leadership is the end, and since we defined a good leader as someone who leads others to do good things, the ‘moral correctness’ of the virtue ethics approach then depends on how well the habituation of the special virtues result in the acquisition of good leadership. If we accept this approach, we are then free to add, subtract and modify special virtues as they contribute to the success of the end which we are seeking to realize. As we experience and react to new situations, levels of organization, etc., we learn which special virtues work, which do not work, and more specifically, how they work. So as we move up through an organization, or take on new tasks, we increase our knowledge of how to exercise these virtues, and by so doing, become a more virtuous leader.

Taking parents (who I take to be leaders of a special kind) as an example, early in child’s life, special virtues such as caring may be more important than, say, wisdom. This priority will generate a specific set of techniques that enable the parent to lead the child into his/her next stage of development. For instance, timely feedings and diaper changes are more important than choosing the proper rules to enforce or books to read. But by the time the child gets to be a teenager, the parents will have had to reprioritize the special virtues and generate a set of new techniques to lead their children to the final goal of adulthood. Now wisdom may take priority over caring. Knowing which rules to enforce may now take precedence over feeding (who knows what they eat anyway?).

This is not to say caring will no longer be important, but it will take on a new characteristic and possibly a new priority in relation to the other special virtues. The point is, as the child develops, as you take on larger organizations, or as you take on different kinds of tasks, your techniques may change, but the virtues you are trying to instantiate do not. In fact, they provide us with a comprehensive framework for generating and developing these techniques. So as we gain in experience, our approach gains in strength. We can see how a virtue ethics approach to leadership can resolve certain dilemmas that rule-based theories cannot. Instead of doing good things, the virtuous person focuses on being good. How you become good is by acquiring certain virtues or character traits that lead to doing virtuous things. This is, however, where rule based approaches can play a key role. Virtues are not developed overnight. You cannot wake up one day and decide to be courageous, for example, and actually expect to immediately be so. Being virtuous would mean knowing the right time, place, circumstance and manner to be courageous. You acquire these traits by habituation. According to Aristotle, whose writings have influenced much of modern virtue theory, you become virtuous only by performing virtuous actions until doing so becomes habitual. In other words, experience is necessary. He makes his point by contrasting virtues and natural capacities:

Of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts (Book II, 1103a27-1103b1).

But how does one who has no experience in such matters develop that experience? This is where rules play a vital role. Consider Colonel Malone’s formulation for the character trait integrity. These provisions certainly come across as rules. When in a situation where one has the option of lying or telling the truth, the rule says, tell the truth. When working on an assignment, the rule says work as hard as you can. When your interests and the interests of the organization or those that follow you come into conflict, the rule says decide in favor of the organization and your followers. But these provisions, like most rules, are reactive, not proactive. Integrity only comes into play when you are working on an assignment or when interests come into conflict. Therefore, I think this needs to be distinguished from the virtue integrity which describes a way to be, even when others are not looking. I will discuss this in more detail later, but the point I want to make is that these rules are a necessary starting place for habituation.

When we try to describe a virtue, as in the example above, we tend to list the things we must do in order to instantiate this virtue. Listing these things is just like listing rules and principles to follow. This is, in fact, one of the major problems with a virtue approach. When we try to put it into practice, we end up with what appears to be essentially a rule-based system. Nevertheless, forming these rules in the context of a virtue is a necessary first step in the habituation of virtue. Take, for example, the virtue of caring. In the training of military leaders, cadets and lieutenants are often told that one of the rules of caring is that the officer’s place is at the front of the mess line, ensuring that everyone gets fed.

In fact, Brigadier General (retired) Ray Miller tells of a time when he found a lieutenant under his command at the end of the line, a situation he quickly corrected. The lieutenant did not make that mistake again. Now, initially, as the lieutenant stands at the head of a line, he is simply following a rule. But he knows this rule is supposed to make him a more caring person. So, as he stands there, he begins to notice things. For example, the cooks may be giving out unusually small portions, the food is not cooked as well as it should or could be, or there is a lack of variety from day to day. Now there is nothing in the rule that requires him to do anything about these things. His only requirement is to make sure everyone gets fed before he does. Nonetheless, since he knows that these rules are supposed to make him a more caring person toward his soldiers, he is motivated to take action to correct these things.[21]

This may seem like a simple and inconsequential example, but I think this same dynamic works in a great many situations. At first, the junior officer is following rules, but later, after doing it long enough with a properly critical and creative attitude, he makes a transition to where he is actually disposed to be caring. Once this happens, this person is no longer simply following rules. If rules are going to have a role in habituating virtue, it is critical that the person making the rules must possess the virtue. In this way the rules are not arbitrary but instead become a sort of "path" the junior leader follows to become a good leader. This then leads us to the notion of mentorship. Aristotle likened the acquiring of virtues to playing an instrument. It requires both practice and a teacher. One does not pick up a guitar and by fooling around with it, figure out how to play it. One might, after a fashion, be able to make pleasant sounds with it. But without someone to provide an example, getting to that point will be long and arduous, fraught with mistakes, and at the very least, certainly not efficient.

To acquire the virtues necessary to be a good leader, we must introduce the notion of the ‘role model.’ Junior, or would-be leaders need to see how the required special virtues are instantiated by those who are effective at leadership. Only then will they learn how to effectively habituate these virtues into their own lives. Role models, however, are not just found among the people we know. To this end, I would like to distinguish between two kinds of role model, namely the living and the dead. I will discuss the latter first. I think it is imperative that any leader of any type be well versed in history. By studying the great leaders of the past, leaders of the present can learn what worked and what did not work in a variety of situations. By analyzing their actions from a virtue ethics approach, one can learn what behaviors, thought patterns, expectations, etc. lead to the habituation of certain virtues and which ones did not. Additionally, even if the past leaders themselves did not follow such an approach, the study of their actions will allow us to construct ways to develop virtues we already have as leader’s special virtues, or to add ones we don’t have.

Junior leaders must also see senior leaders exercise these virtues in their own lives. In the same way children learn by watching what their parents do, junior leaders learn by watching what senior leaders do. Just as the teenager does not take seriously the admonition not to drink from the alcoholic parent, admonitions to maintain specific virtues will go unheeded if junior leaders see senior leaders being promoted or excelling while violating the virtues they extol. Junior leaders who are only exposed to weak and ineffective leadership styles are extremely unlikely to ever overcome this and develop good ones on their own. "Do as I say and not as I do" simply does not cut it in raising children or developing leaders. As Aristotle says,

We must attend, then, to the undemonstrated remarks and beliefs of experienced and older people or of intelligent people, no less than to demonstrations. For these people see correctly because experience has given them their eye (NicEth 1143b11-14).

Role modeling also allows the junior leader, or child for that matter, to learn first hand the ‘why’ behind these virtues. This is important, because when these virtues and actions come into question, only by understanding why they are important will the leader understand how to effectively habituate them. By consistently seeing how certain actions are tied to the instantiation of certain virtues, one learns then not only why this virtue might be important, but also why these actions are important. The virtue becomes important because it leads us to do good things and the actions become important because they lead us to realize the virtue in our lives. For example, in trying to develop the habit of good leadership, I will try to organize others to do good things. Why is it good to organize others to do good things? Because I have specified leadership as an intrinsic virtue. This works for the special virtues too. For example, to develop the habit of courage, I will act courageously whenever the situation demands. Why do I do this? Because courage is a good thing to acquire and exercise. Why is courage good to acquire? Because it leads one to becoming a good leader.

V. Conclusion:

I have made the claim that, as an ethical theory, virtue ethics better accounts for good leadership than either utilitarianism or rule-based systems. It does so because when a leader is faced with the kind of situation I described in the beginning of the paper it is the virtues that the leader has habituated that are going to guide his or her actions. When the calculations of utilitarianism fail to yield a good course of action and when adhering to duty becomes unclear or conflicts with our intuitions of what is right, it is the leader of good character who stands the best chance to determine the most ethical course of action. This is not to say that leaders may not find themselves in situations where any course of action results in a morally impermissible result. Nor is it to say that a virtuous leader does not appeal to utility or rules to determine what the right answer is. The point is that the virtuous leader has developed the disposition to know how and when to do that in the best way possible.

For example, the lieutenant might decide that it is better to maximize the happiness of his men at the expense of fulfilling his duty to obey lawful orders. But he will also understand that people who do that must take responsibility for their actions and the bad consequences those actions might have. So to prevent or mitigate the bad consequences he might turn himself over to his superiors as soon as possible and take responsibility for his action. This would send the message to his subordinates that what he did may have been necessary, but it was not good. One of the consequences of utilitarianism is that the lieutenant would actually be able to conclude that torturing the civilian was a morally obligated act if he concluded that rescuing his men maximized happiness. Virtue ethics allows him to conclude that this may be the best course of action, but not that it is necessarily a morally good one. Conversely, he might decide that his duty to obey lawful orders is more important than the duty to his men. But again he would not conclude that it was necessarily right. How he would handle that is open to speculation. I hesitate to offer a definitive ‘virtuous’ solution because there really is not one, at least not on the same sense that utilitarianism or rule-based systems offer one.

These theories attempt to determine what the ‘right thing’ to do is in a particular situation. As we have shown, however, they are not always up to the challenge. Virtue ethics determines that the right thing to do is become a virtuous person. What the virtuous lieutenant will understand is that he cannot instantiate one virtue, such as caring, by failing to instantiate another virtue, such as integrity. In any particular situation, the virtuous person acts in such a way that these virtues are instantiated. This is the strength of virtue ethics as a theoretical ethical framework for leadership. Virtue ethics recognizes that good people can be put into difficult situations where any outcome has bad (in the ethical sense) consequences. Acting in such a situation, however, would not necessarily make someone a bad person, though repeatedly doing so almost certainly would. Rightness or wrongness is determined by the kind of person one is, not simply by the consequences of the acts one commits. Actions may be evidence of virtue (or a lack of virtue), but they are not in themselves virtues. As such, virtue ethics recognizes, in ways the other theories do not, that while real-life situations are messier than we would like, this does not preclude acting ethically.

Using virtue ethics to analyze and inculcate leadership also allows us to distinguish between the vicious, bad, poor, fair, good, excellent, outstanding, and/or inspirational leader in ways the other theories do not. Utilitarian and rule based systems do not as easily lend themselves to such distinctions and seem wholly incapable of capturing conceptions like an "insensitive" or "inspirational" leader. When we describe the good leader it is not enough to say that he or she always does his or her duty. That is something we can say of most followers as well. It also seems inadequate to say someone is a good leader simply because he or she is able to maximize happiness and minimize misery better than others. There is much more to being a good leader than duty and consequences and the virtue approach allows us to explore and articulate this in ways other approaches do not.

We are still left, however, with some unresolved issues. While I think that a virtue ethics approach is superior to the rule based one, I have not discussed in enough detail what the virtues of good leadership are nor have I discussed in sufficient detail the difficult and complex task of acquiring these virtues. Does a good leader need to be caring, or is it sufficient to simply instantiate the other virtues with an attitude of benevolence? I have discussed that they come from habituation and role modeling, but in the practical matter of teaching it, I have not described a compelling account of how to ensure that we do not slip back into rule-based methods. In other words, in order to teach public virtue, do we issue a thirty page document (as the city of Chicago did) spelling out in detail what that means and tell people that if they adhere to these rules long enough and often enough they will become habits? This will put us right back where we started from. Similar problems exist for the other virtues as well. How do we teach someone to be virtuous? It is not enough to say that it takes experience. We have to understand what kind of experience it takes, and then devise means for those who would lead to obtain it. Perhaps in addition to working on better methods to teach leadership we must never lose sight of the need to inspire it.



[1]This scenario is based on an actual event that occurred during the Vietnam war.

See Anthony E. Hartle, Moral Issues in Military Decision Making (Lawrence: University

of Kansas Press, 1989), 2-3.


[2]Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 7.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p.26

[5] Victor Grassian, Moral Reasoning (Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1981) p. 57

[6] Bentham p. 33

[7] Ibid. p. 16

[8] Ibid. p. 18

[9] Ibid. p. 31

[10] Michael Davies, “Civic Virtue, Corruption and the Structure of Moral Theories,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy XIII, 1988. p. 350.

[11] Ibid. p. 354.

[12] Dandridge M. Malone Small Unit Leadership: A Commonsense Approach (California: Presidio Press, 1983) p. 39.

[13] Julius Moravcsik, “On What We Aim At and How We Live,” in The Greeks and the Good Life, Depew, David, ed. (Fullerton, CA: California State University, 1980). P. 199

[14] Ibid., p. 201.

[15] Ibid., p. 209.

[16] Ibid., p. 212.

[17] James Wallace, Virtue and Vices (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1978) p. 90.

[18] Ibid., p. 128

[19] James M. Stockdale, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (Stanford, CA: Hoover University Press, 1995) p. 31

[20] Ibid., p. 75.

[21] Personal conversation with BG Ray Miller, U.S. Army, Retired, Palo Alto, CA, 1

November 1996.