Supreme Political Emergency: A #CivMil Hypothetical

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The views expressed here are those of the author alone. And its a crazy hypothetical that analytic philosophers love. So there is that.

In his seminal Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer proposes the “Supreme Emergency” argument wherein a nation or other political community suspends its observance of the War Convention (the rules of war/jus in bello roughly speaking) when the future survival of the political community faces a truly existential threat. (Just and Unjust Wars, 1977 Chapter 16) This suspension must come with the proviso that those who break the War Convention are doing so on behalf of the political community (Dirty Hands theory style) and must also be punished for their actions afterwards. Rather than the standard utilitarian approach of saying that the suspension of the War Convention is morally justified on the grounds that the survival of the political community is a greater good, this argument acknowledges the wrongness, the immorality of the act while also acknowledging the necessity of the acts to the survival of the political community – which for Walzer is the beginning point of all the arguments about Just War. Without the political community, there is nothing to discuss or debate in a real sense.

Is there an analogous argument with in the #CivMil community for suspending the non-partisan norms within the military (especially for commissioned officers) in a political Supreme Emergency? The standard view is that members of the military ought to stay neutral on partisan political matters to preserve the Huntingdon-esque notion of objective control (the military is given autonomy to use its expertise to win wars, provided they leave political policy matters to the civilian political leaders), a bedrock principle and norm of civilian/military relations over the last half century.

However, a colleague (who I will not throw under the bus here!) has raised (on several occasions) the very valid question about whether neutrality by senior military leaders in certain circumstances is viewed not as non-partisan, but as complicity and tactic agreement with certain civilian political authorities. The salient point here is not that this is the intention of these senior military leaders, but rather how their actions are interpreted by the public, whose trust they need to perform effectively in their Profession.

Ought members of the military, in the event of an existential threat to the political community they are sworn to serve, consider a suspension of this civ/mil norm along the lines of Walzer’s Supreme Emergency? Are they to be viewed as the option of Last Resort here? What are the long term impacts of a suspension of this norm, even if those who suspend it are punished for it?

And what about the civilian role in this Supreme Emergency? Why is the military on the hook here?

DISCUSS. Hate mail and marriage proposals to Mac, my agent, please.

Why Military Honor?

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When I moved from the West Coast to the East Coast, I discovered a four chapter manuscript that I had at some point written on the topic of military honor. (Old school hard copy and I cannot find the disks or files now…) Reading through it, it was not really that bad! So I started thinking that this might provide the core for a book project that I could use to procrastinate on my Broicism, Stoicism and Emotion book project.

But why? Why would one want to write about or think about military honor in the context of military ethics? This topic was quite a popular way to approach military ethics post Vietnam in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, especially by military authors. In 2004, my colleague and friend Dr. Shannon French published her influential Code of the Warrior https://www.amazon.com/Code-Warrior-Exploring-Values-Present/dp/0847697576 which examined warrior codes across time and cultures and argued that the code was essential to the moral identity and function of the warrior and also could provide protection against moral injury. This is still an excellent book and it was also ahead of its time in focusing on the links between morality, ethics and moral injury in military ethics. So the whole military honor thing seems to have been done and done well in Dr. French’s case!

Since 2004 there has been much more work on military ethics, especially focusing on debates in Just War Thinking and energetic arguments about the moral and ethical concerns with the idea of the warrior, not to mention a large and emerging literature on moral injury. The literature on military ethics, in my reading, falls out along some familiar (at least to ethicists) lines: virtue ethics (within which discussions of the warrior, the Profession and my ‘Guardian’ archetype could fit), universal rule or principle based conceptions and various utilitarian approaches, with treatments of Just War Thinking (including Revisionist critiques of the standard views) often figuring prominently.

But one might wonder if something is missing? In my view, the warrior versus Profession debate and the Revisionist versus Walzerian Just War Thinking discussions are a reflective of a larger issue that ethicists are trying to work out about identity in military ethics and then how those questions might relate (or not) to different accounts of moral agency – individual, collective and/or hybrid. In addition, the terrorism, counter-insurgency, humanitarian intervention and jus ad vim discussions and geopolitical events since 2004 have raised the question about the role of violence in military ethics and whether it ought to be the sole or primary focus of moral and ethical questions. During this time, a focus on civil/military relations, politicization and polarization in political philosophies and orientations as a part of military culture has emerged and is now raising ethical questions about nature of the military, the Profession, and its function and identity.

In my own work, I started more in the warrior discourse camp (following French), shifted to discussions of the Profession, made an argument that a ‘Guardian’ view is a better frame for thinking about military ethics generally and specifically with reference to jus in bello questions in asymmetric conflicts. More recently, I argued that Alasdair MacIntyre’s community of practice notion could be helpful in adding depth to my arguments about the Profession and military ethics if paired with some concepts from Just War Thinking. I also continued to get pulled (more by events than my own will) into discussions of civilian/military relations and events really pushed me to think about the link of ethics to CMR.

All of these scholarly meanderings also intersected with trying to bring Care Ethics into Professional Military Education as a fourth perspective to the standard three in military ethics discussed above. This also got me rethinking my ‘Guardian’ arguments from my first book to make more explicit what I think I had in the back of my mind – that Care Ethics could help us with identity and nature of the military discussions. However, Care Ethics also brings relationality and moral emotion into the discussion (part of the inheritance from the Stoics via David Hume, I have argued.) The move to thinking more seriously about Care Ethics and military ethics oddly enough brought me back to thinking about what the role of military honor might be in military ethics. In particular, I now wonder how military honor fits (or fails to fit) in the military ethics landscape sketched (in a vastly oversimplified way) here.

Is it possible that military honor, or some revised notion of military honor, might help bridge some of the gaps and tensions, or a least provide light to, in the current discussions within military ethics as both an academic discipline and ethical practice? I am tempted to say yes.

What do you think? What is military honor for you? What place does it have in military ethics? I really want to know.

#MEF Moral and Ethical Failure – Defining Terms 2/x

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After putting together the course and getting students to enroll (discussed in last week’s post), the first order of business was to set up some definitional structure to bring some semblance of order to our discussions. David Hume famously notes that morality provides a common language for us to discuss, make sense of and assign meaning to our moral experiences, sentiments and perspectives. I have found over the years that this is a key part of teaching ethics – giving people a common lectionary with which to engage one another. This is NOT to say that we never disagree about terms, but definitions can be a shared starting point and if we disagree with the definitions, re-defining and providing our own definitions and articulations for those definitions is an important part of the discussions.

Two of the key terms for the course are Moral Failure and Ethical Failure. These terms are often ill-defined and used interchangeably, but my philosophical intuition was that they were different and that exploring the definitions would be interesting. In teaching a course on Military Ethics and International Law for Case Western Reserve University last spring, I used Lisa Tessman’s book on Moral Failure https://www.amazon.com/Moral-Failure-Impossible-Demands-Morality/dp/0199396140 which while a dense and sophisticated read had a clear definition of Moral Failure and also was asking important questions about to what degree morality is even possible in certain contexts. The second piece seemed to match well with the discourse about Moral Injury in military ethics, although she does not make that link nor mention the MI literature even though I think (her topics are the Holocaust/Shoah and communities experiencing systemic oppression, racism, sexism and marginalization) she is describing that very phenomenon at a more communal level.

Tessman argues that moral failure is experienced by a moral agent when they are faced with a ‘choice’ between two non-negotiable moral obligations; that is, no matter which moral obligation they fulfill, they will be violating another one and as such, violating morality and acting immorally. There is no choice which is moral. Sophie’s choice kinds of decisions in the context of the Shoah are the paradigm that she has in mind here; there is no way to do the right thing. In fact, we also might see these situations as ones where the person acting does not have any meaningful moral agency, but still feels responsible and as if they have done something immoral because of the strength of the moral obligations (which often are about care and relationship, rather than rule or virtue oriented.)

Working through her account gave us a good definition to use later and also gave the students an experience of reading some difficult and dense philosophical argumentation (a good thing to experience!) and trying to make sense of it in community. The students did a great job with this and Tessman’s definition was something referenced each week. I also stressed that they need not to agree with her definition, but that we would need an alternative definition of Moral Failure with articulation as to why that definition and how that definition is different from Ethical Failure. Working through this account also surfaced race, gender, oppression, violence, individual and collective moral agency, Ethics of Care and Moral Injury early in the course; these are all themes that we came back to in the various cases so it was important to develop some practice at engaging with these issues together.

As it turns out, there are not very many things that are Moral Failure according to this definition, but some of our cases did seem to fit this definition. These cases of Moral Failure are also important to think about the implications of morality and what we can expect from people in these kinds of situations, in particular the narratives that we (others) place on these situations for our own moral comfort (evasive listening and meaning making.) This last issue has implications for military ethics and civilian military relations especially as we think about the moral and ethical gravity of warfighting.

The second major term is Ethical Failure. In this case, I provided the definition with 8-10 criteria (I kept adding as we went on) that are loosely based on Aristotelian and Humean virtue ethics; again I stressed that students were free to disagree with this definition, but we would need that alternative account with articulation. The elements of Ethical Failure that I posted at the beginning of the term: 1) Inexperienced or bad prudence (judgment and discretion) including problematic assumptions, beliefs, inferences; 2) akrasia (weakness of will); 3) Lacking character or having bad character; 4) Ignorance; 5) Vice – willful and intentional immorality; 6) apathy relative to morality (including delusion and denial); 7) moral disengagement (which includes a whole host of specific identifiable bias like statements); intemperance (bad desire); 9) failure to act; 10) failure of articulation especially of reasons and motives.

This is quite a list, so in many cases there were some elements and not others. In addition, this is quite different from Moral Failure. Here there is something that goes wrong in the process of ethics and ethical reflection (that is, the process of moral deliberation, decision, action and assessment of the action afterwards that I put into a slide called Moral Deliberation process.) There are certainly more ways that things can go wrong and also, the students thought and I agree, more ways that things can be corrected or one’s moral agency can be improved. There is much you can do about Ethical Failure, much less about Moral Failure, as a moral agent.

One question that I was interested in is this: what is the relationship (if any) between Moral Failure and Ethical Failure? At first, it seemed like they were really separate phenomena. This was helpful as we looked at each case and asked whether it was a case of Moral Failure or Ethical Failure, both, neither? Over the course of the term, especially as we moved away from the individually focused case, it seemed that Ethical Failure (especially multiple Ethical Failures over time) could produce Moral Failure AND if one could address Ethical Failures early enough one might avert Moral Failure and the attendant Moral Injury. The students kept coming back to this idea (which was theirs, it had not actually occurred to me!) late in the term with the Fat Leonard, Ft. Hood report, the Afghanistan withdrawal and even Eddie Gallagher (which is on the cusp between the individual and collective agency portions of the course.)

So these were the provisional working definitions that we would use in the course. They actually worked quite well because the MF definition is very binary and allowed identification of moral obligation, while the EF definition gave us lots of elements to think about in detail. That said, students did eventually start pushing back (yay!) about whether the definitions matched what they thought MF and EF were in their own minds. (We did a brainstorming activity on the first day to try and get at what their intuitional definitions for each were so we could track how those ideas played out in the course. I SHOULD have come back to that at the end of the term, but we ran out of time because their Final Project presentations and discussion were SO SO fabulous!)

Next week, I will tackle the Narrative Case study approach that I used in the course. In a word, the messier the better.

#MEF Moral and Ethical Failure: Origin Story 1/?

(Since this is a blog, I am more interested in getting material out and less with editing. If that bothers you, please apply mind altering substances before continuing.)

It started, as things do, on Twitter. I was musing about the fact that we do not teach the Fat Leonard scandal. As a military ethicist, this seems incomprehensible to me, but it seemed to come down to two (mostly unstated or only stated in whispers) issues: 1) why focus on the negative stories? We should focus on stories and narratives of people acting in an ethical manner, or it will encourage bad behavior and 2) we know people involved and they were ‘good guys.’

Both of these reasons actually get right at the issue: we want very clear bad stories (My Lai, we would NEVER do that, “don’t commit war crimes” although you should see what happened when we actually DID teach My Lai as a case…), happy stories that do not challenge us and make us feel good because we want to think of ourselves as morally and ethically good. The problem here is that you cannot address or fix what you are unwilling to name, face and examine and most of us would prefer NOT dwell on the unethical behavior, especially if it involves looking in the mirror for any length of time or in any deep, sustained and analytical way. But that is not fun or comfortable because it requires a deep dive into the muck, moving around in it, digging deep and asking hard questions that challenge assumptions, values (both moral and non-moral), identity – both individual and collective, including organizational – and culture. Happy stories and shared delusion are much more comfortable and do ask us to change anything. We want to appear to be moral, to be seen to be moral, but doing the work to actually BE moral? Yeah no.

As usual, I decided to take it all on and that I was going to teach Fat Leonard. I had done some thinking about it and media interviews, and its seemed a nice messy case. But there are also other nice, messy cases and I have some scholarship and teaching practice using my narrative case study method (based upon Tim O’Brien’s “How To Tell A True War Story” and detailed in my first book https://www.amazon.com/Warrior-Military-Ethics-Contemporary-Warfare/dp/1409465365. So I pondered, why not teach a course on Moral and Ethical Failure? We could explore definitions (as a philosopher I LOVE this!) since those are terms used without much intellectual care and lots of emotive punch, look at cases, think about the role of individual and collective agency (as well as hybrid ideas of agency) and have the students reflect upon their own moral and ethical failures.

One of my colleagues and co-conspirators was encouraging (he always is when I have loopy ideas) and I mapped the whole thing out on a couple sheets of old paper in the truck while I waited for my son to get done with karate. It still seemed really loopy though. I did have some conceptual readings, structure for the course, too many cases and ideas for some assignments, but would any one sign up to be depressed, shocked and horrified for 10 weeks? There are so many lovely electives from wonderful scholars and I was pretty skeptical about student response, but I do love constructing courses and syllabi (my favorite part of teaching except for engaging with students) so what the heck! Let’s do it.

The course would start with some conceptual material on moral failure (Lisa Tessman) and ethical failure (using mostly Aristotelian and Humean ideas, as well as some current moral psychology) because I wanted this to be a philosophy centric course. This is not a course designed to give purely descriptive accounts of failure from a social science perspective (while that is important, that is not my lane nor my scholarship), but rather to think through these issues from a philosophical and ethical standpoint. We would then apply those concepts to nine cases to see if they were moral failure, ethical failure, both or neither. I also wanted cases from a variety of contexts, historical periods and to explicitly engage cases people did not want to talk about that engaged moral injury, race and gender. We started with Enron, read Antigone and Things Fall Apart, discussed Eddie Gallagher, the Ft. Hood report, the Afghanistan withdrawal, First Peoples/Nations genocide in the US and of course, Fat Leonard. We would look first at the individual level, then individuals acting collaboratively and then at collective action or action within communities of practice.

The assignments would be a mix of philosophical analysis, my Emotive Analysis process that I have used teaching difficult issues for years, personal reflection on a specific personal narrative students would start the course with and revisit each week in light of the course material and a Final Project where they would choose their own topic to present on. And of course, lots of seminar discussion with messy mapping of things on the white board, working with assumptions and being willing to ‘go there’ every week and keep it as real as possible.

That was the plan. Would anyone show up? Would it work? How many people might get pissed off in the process? (This is why academic freedom matters!)

In Part 2 of this series, I will share some of what happened, what we did and why and my conclusions about teaching ethics.

Thucydides does Tragic Ethics

Warning: I am not a classicist. I am not a specialist in IR ( though I have studied it.) These are my reflections from reading and teaching Thucydides at the undergraduate and senior PME levels as a philosopher and ethicist. If you are a realist, you likely want to stop NOW. Also I repent of any missed grammatical etc sins.

In a former life, I taught an undergraduate honors course called Experience of War where the second book (after our friend Uncle Carl vC) was Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War. This was an interdisciplinary class that included ethics of war, art (including paintings, music, film, poetry) and literature, Sun Tzu and Uncle Carl, journalistic accounts of My Lai, a philosophical reflection on the nature of war and warriors, and of course, historical accounts of specific conflicts. What always struck me about Thucydides was the attention to speeches rooted in the role of rhetoric and, not surprisingly as an ethicist, the moral erosion and tragedy of war. In particular, the ways in which Athens failed to live up the values one might have expected always struck me and resonated with my students – both military and civilians.

Right about now my realist friends are observing, “Thank goodness she went to teach at the War College so she can be disabused of such sloppy, emotional thinking!” Well, sort of. (And we need to talk about the role of proper, moral emotion but I digress.) I did teach Strategy and Policy (properly supervised by a very good Navy helicopter pilot) where Thucydides is taught as a core theorist and in properly realist fashion. Despite their best efforts, I cannot get down. In good academic fashion, I wanted to think about why. So here are three options I thought about in terms of reading Thucydides – and my realist friends may well want to stop reading and go have a nice Scotch or Rye.

Option A: ‘Classical’ realism – Thucydides is describing how Athens and Sparta (and their cheeky allies and other actors) behaved. The characters here followed Fear, Honor, Interest, which then can that be extrapolated to a more general claim about how states and other related actors behave. This is how states just DO operate and so if you are going to be successful you need to understand this descriptive fact. Just how it is. This seems the most common way of reading our friend, and certainly the one that was threaded through the course. Now I think the real blame for this view is to be laid at the feet of Machiavelli and especially Hobbes, but that is another blog post.

Option B: With apologies to the field of realism in international relations for making up my own definition here and likely misusing a term, I will label this normative realism: Thucydides is arguing how based on Athens’ and Sparta’s experiences, states ought to act to be successful; so Fear, Honor and Interest are norms to be observed in international relations. My students seemed to slide between this view and Option A quite a bit and I would be interested to see if this view is, in fact, held by any scholars in IR. (I am guessing it is, but I am philosopher….) This seems really weird to me since many of the outcomes were arguably bad, unless you are Persia or one of the cheeky allies. But I think even that is a stretch. Like, where is the happy ending?

But what about a counter-argument? (In true S and P/philosophy form, I must.) Maybe the relevant norm is interest, not so much the other two? States ought to follow their interests. This seems plausible since as we shall see in a minute, Fear and Honor really seem to be the trouble makers in this trinity.

Option C: At the end of the day, I kept coming back to another option: Thucydides is an ‘ethicist’ (one who reflections upon moral claims and ideas) in the tradition of Greek tragedy arguing that if states follow Fear, Honor and Interest as Athens and Sparta did, what follows is the fall thanks to hubris. This may well mean that Athens and Sparta are the analogues to the tragic hero/heroine who suffer from hubris and their downfall is a result of this. The Melian Dialogue would then be seen as a condemnation of Athenian hubris (with the Melians as the chorus), followed by moral erosion, war crimes, loss of empire and their own identity as a result (not mention all the deaths, property destruction and political and social chaos.) Arguably (and I am not a scholar on ancient Greece here – which I suppose I ought to have qualified earlier!) Sparta didn’t do so well either.

So where does this leave us? It might seem that this above reading is consistent with the realist who wants to argue that one ought to follow interest. But its more complicated that than. First, the problem here is that Fear (as Thucydides makes clear) tends to cause miscalculations about interests, what they really are and to what degree one can achieve them. It may cause over or under estimations about risk, it may cause one to take allies’ problems as more or less serious than they are or ought to be and it can cause your own people to freak out in ways that obscure true interest and make (or pressure you as the leader to make) bad decisions. This seems a really obvious point, but its also important for Just War Thinking because neither fear nor interest on their own necessarily constitute a Just Cause (and there are other criteria to fulfill for good reason!)

Second, Honor is really problematic – how problematic depends on how you see what honor is and to what extent moral values and/or identity/reputation/prestige are part of it. With honor, it seems we have a much more existential virtue (or trait for those who persist in arguing that morality has no place in international affairs – y’all know where I sit on that…) where it is very hard negotiate with or come to terms on; it creates impasses rooted in reputation, emotion, prestige, vanity, moral commitments and hubris….see Antigone. Interests seem like the kind of things that one could compromise or negotiate on without trading away who you are or what you are morally committed to; honor seems like a different kind of beast. (A point that Shakespeare seems to keep coming back to…)

The above two points and the ways in which Fear and Honor seem to play out (against Interest and sometimes against good phronesis/prudence) keep pushing me toward Thucydides and the lesson for the ages of his book being thus: DON’T act this way! Or you will end up like Athens and Sparta! The message of tragedy is not to go beyond the bounds of human reason, not to usurp the place and power of the gods – to avoid hubris.

In conclusion, I still do find Thucydides interesting (particularly so for my War College students) for the attention he pays to moral questions and the role of morality in war, especially relative to how it erodes over time and how we can turn brutal to other human beings. And to ourselves. DON’T act this way!

Reading Ethics: Professional Development

Ethical Development Reading List


Aim of this list –  

            First, organization of the list according to rank/training and is very much a work in progress.

            Second, the idea is not that you would read everything at each level, rather that you might select a couple things that interest you.

            Third, mix of genres, time periods and authors with attention to inclusivity of a variety of kinds.

Junior Enlisted/Cadets

 Antonia Fraser: Warrior Queens  (historical treatment of women leading in war)

Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried  (short stories on Vietnam conflict)

Epictetus: Enchiridion/Handbook (Stoicism, short aphorisms)  

Basic moral theory selections from Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, J.S. Mill

Christian Miller: Character Gap: How Good Are We?

Christopher Browning: Ordinary Men (Holocaust studies on German soldiers’ participation in atrocities)

Sophocles: Antigone (classical Greek play on obedience to the State)

Bilton and Sim: Four Hours at My Lai  (journalistic account of My Lai massacre in Vietnam conflict)

Shannon French: The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present (discussion and analysis of historic and contemporary warrior cultures)

Brian Orend, On War  (philosophical dialogue on ethics and war)

James B. Stockdale, The Warrior’s Triad

Nancy Sherman, Stoic Wisdom (accessible introduction to Stoic thought with good historical and philosophical context.)

Junior Officer/Mid-level Enlisted

J. Glenn Gray:  The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle (WWII memoir and philosophical reflection on war)

Christopher Coker: The Warrior Ethos (philosophical and political reflection on contemporary warfare)

Basic moral theory (see above), David Hume (empathy), Ethics of Care (moral theory focusing on moral obligation rooted in relationship)

Michael Walzer: Just and Unjust Wars (20th century classic in secular Just War Thinking)

Sophocles: Ajax (classic Greek play on moral injury)

Brian Orend, Morality of War (2nd generation contemporary Just War Thinking, after Walzer)

Johnathan Shay: Achilles in Vietnam and/or Odysseus in America (psychology work on moral injury and its moral implications)

Nancy Sherman: After War (philosophical treatment of moral injury)

William Shakespeare: Henry V  (classic play including Holy War and Just War themes)

Immanuel Kant: Perpetual Peace

Chris Walsh: Cowardice (philosophical and historical analysis of courage and cowardice) 

Phillip Hallie: Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed (Holocaust studies and ethical reflection upon ethics of care and religious/moral obligation in war)

August Wilson, Contribution (play on justice and revenge in 1960’s civil rights movement)

N. Finney and T. Mayfield eds: Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of Profession and Ethics (anthology of essays by academics and military practioner on ethics and professionalism)

Martin Cook: The Moral Warrior (contemporary examination of moral and professional issues the modern military)

Jim Frederick: Blackhearts (case study of Iraq, war crimes, leadership)

Pauline Shanks Kaurin, On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for Military, Citizenry and Community (Focuses on obedience, discipline and loyalty within the context of Just War Thinking and contemporary military ethics.)

Mid Officer/Senior NCO

Walter Wink ed.: Peace is the Way (anthology of contemporary and historical readings on peace and reconciliation)

Sebastian Junger: The Tribe (essay on belonging and homecoming for veterans, US civilian/military relations)

George Lucas, Ethics of Cyberwarfare

Deane-Peter Baker: Morality and Ethics at War: Bridging the Gap between Soldier and State. (starting with moral injury, argues that the warrior and profession are both problematic ways to think about the modern military.)

Franz Fanon: The Wretched of the Earth (post-colonial thought and takes up the question of the meaning of violence for the oppressed and marginalized.

Christine de Pizan: The Book of the City of Ladies (writing on gender, virtue, war and Just War Thinking)

Senior Officer/Flag/General Officer/SES

 George Lucas, Ethics and Strategy in the 21st Century: Moving Beyond Clausewit

James Dubik: Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics and Theory. (Just War Theory considered in the context of strategy and civilian/military relations)

Valerie Morkevicius (apologies for missing accent marks, technical difficulties!): Realist Ethics (considering the intersections between Just War Thinking and realism)

Teaching Ethics in Silence

The highlighted quotes are from my former colleague, Dr. Sergia Hay (Kierkegaard scholar, teacher of ethics, discerner of vocation, and lovely human being that I had the honor to mentor for several years as Philosophy Department Chair) in her new book, Ethical Silence: Kierkegaard, Communication, Education and Humility (Lexington Books, 2020.) As we say on the Twitter, I’ve been saying this to the military for 25 years and she just summarized it beautifully in ONE page!

But then there is this too. “The student of ethics is also required to venture into actuality, a venture that is not without effort and the potential for failure.” (92) This is the quote that I will use to start my Contemporary version of the Stockdale (Foundations of Moral Obligation) course in a few weeks because it captures his vision as well as mine, as I articulate in this Ethics primer. While discussion and conversation, especially articulation is key to ethics and Ethical (as opposed to Moral) Leadership, action matters. Practice matters. Learning from failure matters. Reflection matters. And reflection requires silence.

When asked to ‘teach’ ethics. I am often asked for short, easy hacks that can be distilled into one power point slide or into a one page executive summary, a rubric or easy road map that can be used without much knowledge, background or reflection. To which I usually respond (with some gentle snark), if I had that I would be the wealthiest philosopher ever! Philosophers have been thinking about these things for thousands of years, if it were about a hack I think some enterprising young guru would have churned that out and be making tons of bank.

We all know its not that easy, even as we want it to be.

Its not. And these passages are a good reminder that in order to be able to act (which is the essence of the ethical life) we have to take time and space to reflect and be silent. To go into the self, to quiet the noise, to hear other voices, to discern which voices (including our own) we ought to listen to. To discern what we ought to do and WHY. This discernment is not final however. It is provisional, based upon our best knowledge of a complex world at that moment.

We will act, and the reflect some more as we ask ourselves: how did that go? what did we learn? What went well? What did not go well? What might we think about for next time?

My students (and other senior leaders) often say to me: I do not have time to reflect and be silent. I have too much to do.

I say: You have too much to do NOT to reflect and be silent. Unless you are silent, how will you know what to say? Unless you reflect deeply, how will you know what to do? More importantly, how will you know the right thing to do?

How do you reflect? How do you take time for silence?

Please share!

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Help for the Confused: Resources for Challenging Conversations


“If you can’t handle the tough conversations, you can’t handle the tough decisions.”

Greetings friends and leaders! I am not sure about you, but the last week or so has been quite taxing and stressful in my house. Many of you have expressed interest in having some tools for conversation, so I am including some tools here. There are suggestions for mostly short readings, movies and possible scripts to follow in discussing a host of different issues. These are only to get you started and you will no doubt find your own as you develop a way of conversation and engagement that makes sense for you. Most of what you find here is based on my experience in undergraduate, graduate, religious and military educational contexts with a wide variety of ages, structures and topics. As an ethicist, I teach all the hot button issues (war, race, politics, ethics, business) so I likely have a higher threshold of comfort for discomfort. To lead discussion well comfort with discomfort is very helpful.

Please feel free to reach out for more personal or tailored ideas that fit your context.

Starting Discussions 

The most important thing is to start. But that will take courage and vulnerability, as well as empathy and humility. So start small. Somethings to consider:

  1. Start small with your topic: What do you want to talk about? Why?
  2. Start small with your group: smaller groups tend to produce better discussion, as people are more willing to be vulnerable and share with a smaller group. You also have a better shot at more people and ideas getting heard and engaged in depth.
  3. What do you want to accomplish? Do you want to give people a chance to vent? Do you want to allow people to be heard? Do you want to solve a problem or come up with an action plan? Do you want to explore arguments or alternative perspectives? Do you want to build community?
  4. What preparation will you do for the discussion? What preparation do you want the participants to do? Read or view something? Ponder a question or two in advance that they come prepared to discuss?
  5. What will the ground rules be? The fewer and simpler the better. And if you can get your group to generate them, that’s even better since you will have buy in.
  6. What is your role? Will you facilitate and not participate otherwise? Will you have a note taker or someone to help with the process? (Whatever you decide, communicate this to the group, especially if you hold a leadership role.)
  7. What are the power dynamics at play and how can you address those?
  8. What are the group and personality dynamics at play? How can you keep those in mind? (A room full of introverts requires a slightly different approach than a room of most extroverts.)
  9. When you begin the discussion, it is okay, and even good, to acknowledge the discomfort and awkwardness.

I know this seems like a long list (it is), but the more you prepare and communicate to your people how the discussion will proceed and what it is for, the better your odds of a good conversation. It will also help if you model the attitudes that you want to see: humility, vulnerability, curiosity, empathy, connection, engagement. If you are asking for these things, you should be prepared to do them, at least a little.

Emotions and Analysis

Since I talk about challenging and controversial issues in my classes, I find a structured process is helpful. This process is one way to engage emotions, but in a way that is more conducive to critical thinking and deeper engagement.

But you might say, “I think we should leave emotions out of this!” Bad news: you can’t. Even if you could, you shouldn’t. Why? Because it is there under the surface influencing arguments, positions and perspectives and the sooner you get it out there, the sooner you can examine it for what it is. Emotions are part of our humanity and an important part of leadering.

  1. What is your emotional response to x? (I keep track on the board, flip chart etc where they can be seen by all.) Just brainstorm with no comment. If people see what they say visible to others, they feel seen and heard. That matters.
  2.  Then either as a writing, pair and share or larger group exercise, ask them to identify specific ideas, commitments, moral or other values, experiences, beliefs that they think produced that reaction. (Where is this emotive reaction coming from?) Again, mapping visually can help.
  3. What do they think the answer to #2 shows, especially about themselves? This is a place where these things could be examined (is this a valid, good belief) or just acknowledged (in terms of how it is influencing them.) The point is to bring them to the surface so examination and conversation around what is really going on can happen.

I have left #3 somewhat vague, because you can do different things there depending upon your group, your aim and the context. In an academic setting, we might connect #3 to our readings or class material, engage in debate or argumentation or engage in narrative to share experiences that further the discussion. Its open to you. I find having this structure makes the venting more productive and takes it deeper.


While most of what is listed here are books, I would encourage you to explore videos especially TED talks and similar kinds of shorter formats. It can be helpful to have something concrete to gather around or ground discussion in.


A first person account of the black experience of the author which is a good way to get discussion going.  Ta-Nehsi Coates, Between the World and Me.

Critical Race Theory is an academic field which looks at questions of race, white supremacy and privilege. The work of Robin di Angelo is fairly accessible to lay audiences, especially White Fragility. Her videos may also be helpful in getting some discussion going, especially on Black Lives Matter and other movements that take CTR as their starting point.

Don’t think you have privilege? Take this quiz and discuss!


Martin Luther King Jr. A Letter from Birmingham Jail is a good read and discussion starter on race, injustice and related issues. https://swap.stanford.edu/20141218230016/http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/popular_requests/frequentdocs/birmingham.pdf

Military Profession

A good introduction and overview to the topic. Mick Ryan, https://warontherocks.com/2017/02/mastering-the-profession-of-arms-part-i-the-enduring-nature/

More in-depth discussions from current scholars, including perspectives from the different services as well as civilians. Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of the Profession and Ethics. https://www.usni.org/press/books/redefining-modern-military

Military Ethics 

My book on obedience in both military and civilian contexts that includes a discussion question guide. https://www.usni.org/press/books/obedience 

My blog (which you are reading on) also has short reads on lots of military ethics topics including obedience, Just War, empathy, strategy and moral injury

Both Strategy Bridge and War on the Rocks have regular and short articles on matters of interest to military and other leaders. A few of mine that might be useful.

6 Questions on Leadership and Ethics





Moral Injury


Civility and Politics

Why civility matters, with a bit of history of the topic.


Movies/Popular Culture

Consider a movie night! The movie does not have to be current or good in the least to spark discussion and gathering around a common experience can be helpful. (The same applies to any pop culture artifact – television show, song, meme….)

You can work through the emotive analysis process above or have 2-3 core questions about the movie you want to discuss. Just two examples….

The Seige has great civ/mil topics, as well as questions about terrorism and whether our moral principles give way under crisis.

Tears of the Sun is good to look at race, military humanitarian intervention, obedience and Mission Command.

Scripts for possible conversations


For this topic here are a few questions to tackle and some basic points to get started:

1- What is wrong with saying All Lives Matter?

2- Don’t we want a color blind society? Why does race matter? (I don’t see color.)

3- Enslavement was a long time ago, that has nothing to do with today or me.

4- I grew up poor, I can’t have white privilege.

5- This is all PC BS. Why should I care about diversity and inclusion?

The core issue here is really the definition of racism. Racism is prejudice (prejudging on the basis of face) PLUS institutional power to enforce that prejudice. Racism is about systems of oppression and discrimination that still persist today, as well as the legacy of enslavement both on the black community and for whites. Oppression impacts both the victim and those that below to the power structure that oppresses, whether you consent to the oppression or are aware of it.  Racism isn’t just being mean, wearing a white hood or saying the N word. It involves an entire system, not a few mean people.

All Lives Matter and the color blind issue are attempts (well-meaning perhaps) to erase the acknowledgment of racism both in history and today, its impacts and also the role that race plays in a person’s identity. To say that I do not see my black son’s color, is to say that I do not see part of who he is and how he experiences the world.

Diversity and inclusion matter for organizational effectiveness, team belonging and identity as well as for other leadering qualities like humility, empathy, innovation and critical thinking. We only know what we know. We only have the experiences that we have. Broadening our horizons is a strategic and moral imperative.

What Can I Say on Social Media?

First, there are legal issues here especially for the military community (even civilians who work within that structure, like myself.)

Second, there are issues of the Profession, which involves the military being non-partisan (not apolitical as there is no such thing) because of the ideal of civilian control of the military. Why is that important? What are the dangers if the military is partisan? What has happened in other countries with a partisan military?

All that said, members of the military are also citizens and have moral obligations in that regard too. How should we think about our social media interactions given our personal and professional obligations?


Why should you obey? When should you obey? What should we do with people are being disobedient? Is it ever morally acceptable to engage in disobedience?

Where are your lines that you would not cross?

For members of the military, it might be worth thinking about how responses to the protesters, rioters and looters (who are likely different groups) are similar or different from how we think about combatants (who can be targeted and harmed) and non-combatants (who cannot, though collateral damage is permitted under limited circumstances) in warfare.  With civil unrest, who are the combatants? Are they enemy combatants when they are citizens like yourself? What are your obligations to members of your own society?

Ok! I have just dumped a ton on you. Think of this as a small plates menu that you will pick and choose a few things (or one) to try with your community. Talk to your colleagues and share the burden. Experiment to see what works for you. The most important thing is to get the conversation going and keep it going. Conversation builds connection and it should be a regular habit.

What else? What should we talk about? What do you need help with in getting your tough conversations started? 

Gladiators: New Metaphors and Old Problems


For years there has been an on and off debate of the value of the term ‘warrior’ in the US military (see https://shankskaurin.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/warrior-citizen-solider-or-guardian-thoughts-after-a-kerfuffle/), but recently the image of the gladiator has become more popular. For a recent example, see the following social media post https://twitter.com/USNavyEurope/status/1230465905177563136  and the discussion of the trend by @cdrsalamander on his blog  (http://cdrsalamander.blogspot.com/2020/02/spartans-warriors-gladiators-lend-me.html)

As a philosopher and ethicist who wrote on the warrior archetype in my first book, now immersed in the Navy’s term, ‘warfighter,’ this caught my attention. What are we to make of the use of ‘gladiator’ as an image for the American military? (Please note that I am not trained as a classicist and am happy to be corrected on any assumptions in this post by my colleagues in that discipline!)

Note what we normally associate with this image: a slave or other person (captured in war, sentenced to punishment) who has not given what we might consider informed consent to participation, or someone who began that way and then becomes a ‘professional’ gladiator.  This person participates in highly structured ‘games’ with various scripts, characters and plots designed for performance (battle as performance, if I may) for an audience.  The audience participates in and watches the games as entertainment that provided a communal experience, but also often served as historical and cultural reinforcement of patriotic themes like the greatness, military prowess and exceptional nature of Rome.  These performances involved death and other forms of physical (and likely other) harms to the gladiators and others (including animals); the audience was consuming and being entertained by a form of collective and political violence on a regular basis and a communal and social ritual seen as part of being a citizen of part of the political community.

What does all this convey as an image appealed to by military members (mostly male, it ought to be noted at least in social media) of the Profession of Arms in a contemporary military? While the warrior discussion is well trod, the gladiator angle is less so. While there are elements that seem incongruous as an image for members of a contemporary, professional military (as well noted by @cdrsalamader), there are some ways in which this image is apt, perhaps unintentionally so.  Arguably we are in a period of American history where (especially relative to the military) there seem to be some marks of empire and the kinds of wars involved in being or being seen to be imperial. Consider the GWOT, Long War and/or the Forever Wars where members of the military went to fight on behalf of the political community with perhaps varying motives and degrees of consent (knowledge, belief, economic and educational pressures, family tradition can all be said to impact/influence the nature and degree of consent), although not literally as slaves or captured peoples.

Ok, but surely these are citizens fighting for State and political interests and protection of those interests, not for entertainment!  While it is true that State and political interests are the focus of the Profession of Arms (acting as an agent to enact those interests for the American people), it is really hard to avoid the conclusion that entertainment also enters into the equation. The performative nature of war is not a new idea, and even if that is not the intention of war, its hard to ignore its role in a 24/7 news cycle with social media, military and political blogs/media/personalities who frame and influence narratives about events and also shape or undermine public support (approval and disapproval.)

Consider what happens when the audience (the American people and their political representatives) lose interest and do not like the performance, the season or the show?


Consider also the harms involved: death, of course, and bodily injuries of all kinds; PTSD and moral injury, as well as domestic and family violence, pain, grief and loss; and community impacts of all kinds that have consequences for the very fabric and cohesion of society.

And towards what ends? Certainly the protection and defense of the State, the political community and its interests matters, but its hard to ignore the reality of war as a performative way to reinforce and transmit certain kinds of patriotic narratives (and reject/marginalize others;) reflect historical pride and understandings that provide the identity and meaning for the political community (as a community of practice, to borrow Alasdair MacIntryre’s term;) and finally to underline American exceptionalism – particularly with respect to military power.

The parallels are striking. I suspect that, as with the terms warrior and warfighter, the allure of gladiator (in addition to the cool flick with Russell Crowe and a lovely, ill-fated tiger) is in the masculine, the fighting and battle imagery. This imagery is of tough, duel-like violence. This violence is personal, intimate, involves skill and endurance and ultimately happens within a context where it provides meaning and reinforcement of shared narratives and identity.  This is an image of war with meaning, war where the individual matters. So perhaps, given the character of some contemporary warfare (technological, asymmetric, morally complex) its understandable that images like the gladiator have resonance.

Finally, it might be worth considering the Stoic connection, and given the current popularity of certain Stoics (notably Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius) whether the appeal of gladiators has a philosophical dimension. The connection is quite explicit in the film with Russell Crow and the tiger, which might be an interesting starting point for reflection and analysis of our own moment and the place of gladiators in it.





Disgraceful Pardons: Dishonoring Our Honorable

flag of u s a standing near tomb
Photo by Sharefaith on Pexels.com

This post is co-authored with my ethics colleague at NPS, Dr. Bradley J. Strawser. It is based on a potential op-ed we authored in May 2019. 

Disgraceful Pardons: Dishonoring Our Honorable

Six months ago, there were reports that President Trump was planning to pardon several military members who are charged with war crimes and others who have been convicted of war crimes. It was said he was going to do this on, of all days, Memorial Day – the solemn day we honor all members of the military who have given their lives in defense of our Nation. Thankfully, or so we thought, such a disgraceful and previously unfathomable act did not come to pass last May.

But now it has. President Trump has pardoned several military members who have been convicted of war crimes by the military’s own justice system. Serving as professors of Professional Military Education (PME) at various institutions across several decades, we have dedicated our careers to the ethics education of our nation’s military professionals. We are deeply troubled by the negative impacts such pardons will engender. We must ask ourselves what precedent these pardons will set and what message this conveys both to our own military and society, and to the world. We are particularly concerned because the actions were announced on all three cases at the same time, even though the cases involved different issues, raising questions about what message is being sent about war crimes and military professionalism in general.

The pardons involve three different cases. One is the Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher who was charged with indiscriminately shooting unarmed civilians and stabbing a captive ISIS fighter in 2017, and ultimately convicted of the desecration of a corpse. Another pardon involved the shooting of an unarmed Afghan by Army Major Mathew Golsteyn, who faced an upcoming murder trial – which now won’t happen. Perhaps worst of all, Trump also pardoned Army 1st Lieutenant Clint Lorance – who was tried and convicted of murdering unarmed civilians who posed no threat. Lorance ordered his men to fire on these unarmed Afghan villagers, and then falsified reports to cover up his misdeeds. His own men – rightfully – turned him in immediately. The US military’s own justice system tried and convicted Lorance of this war crime. President Trump decided to intervene in these cases and pardon all three men.

Our military is a profession, a community of practice given unique permissions to act on behalf of the common good in defense of the nation. When they act, they do so in our name, representing our nation and our values. This profession has moral norms that members pledge to uphold when they take the oath, including a commitment to the Constitution, good order and discipline, and self-sacrifice. These values give meaning and identity in difficult times, allowing for group cohesion and combat effectiveness under pressure. These values are also essential to waging war in ways that are broadly morally justified and that the public can support. And these values allow individuals to wage war while preserving their dignity and moral identity so that they can serve honorably, return home, and reintegrate with society.

Classically, professions are self-regulating; we see this in the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) governing military actions and accountability. These pardons could do lasting damage to both the Profession and to our civil-military relations, including the ideal of civilian control of the military. That sacred trust is predicated on those professional values and the understanding that the military is willing and able to hold themselves accountable.

Consider how these pardons could impact the decisions of a soldier on the ground. Perhaps the soldier had a friend die in combat and is flooded with the understandable human emotions of anger and revenge, and yet must now make difficult, risky decisions discerning between combatants and civilians. One can imagine that soldier, generally restrained and disciplined, now tossed into the horrors of war, wondering if he too will simply be pardoned if he were to violate his Rules of Engagement.

Further, such pardons will almost certainly soil our reciprocity with other nations who share a commitment to International Humanitarian Law and the Law of Armed Conflict (including the Geneva and Hague Conventions). These accords maintain a level of trust and cooperation within the international system and aim to minimize the suffering inflicted in war. These agreements represent the hard-won lessons of past conflicts; they are not mere diplomatic pleasantries. These pardons undermine the commitment of the United States to these norms and send a clear message that we refuse to hold our own military members accountable. The damage to our soft power and moral authority in the international context will be profound. Will our allies want to fight with us? Will our adversaries be slower to surrender if they fear maltreatment, thus extending conflicts and increasing suffering on all sides? One can only imagine the propaganda boom these pardons will now be to the likes of ISIS and Al Qaeda in their recruiting efforts. We are not being hyperbolic when we say that this move by the President forever stains any claims we may stake of the moral high ground in war.

                 We do not have to go far into the past to see these kinds of harms in effect. Part of the legacy of Vietnam was a need for a moral reckoning and recalibration after the images and actions of that conflict – such as the My Lai massacre in 1968 – were seared into our national consciousness. We are justifiably proud of the effective, honorable, and professional force that our military has since worked to become. They today enjoy exceedingly high levels of public trust and positive international respect – a Pew Research Center study from 2018 found that 80% of Americans trust the military and have high confidence in them to act in the best interests of the public. The willingness of our system, through the Profession of Arms, to hold our own military accountable to moral and legal standards is one central reason for this trust.

These pardons of our war criminals by President Trump and the interfering with and disrespecting of our own military justice system is unprecedented. They are shameful and a national disgrace.

We make a plea to our fellow citizens and political leaders across both sides of the aisle, on behalf of that proud military community we serve as educators: stand up and speak out against these pardons. Show our service men and women what we as a nation actually believe about their honorable service. Speak loudly to our allies around the world that this is not who we are. There are no political ‘sides’ here to rally around or to be used to score political points over. Rather, we should rally around justice and the rule of law.

The President’s pardoning of these war criminals dishonors the noble service and sacrifice of so many others who have waged war on our behalf the right way. On this, none of us can remain silent.

Dr. Pauline M. Shanks Kaurin

Dr. Bradley J. Strawser

The views expressed here are those of the authors alone and do not represent the Department of the Navy or their respective institutions, nor are they written in any official capacity related to positions held with the DON.