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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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.

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

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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.



Moral Injury in War: Is Prevention Possible?

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In prior posts, I have considered various popular conceptions of moral character, and given a thumbnail sketch of character as narrative that I think will serve us better than other views of character. Now we are in a position to ask: what might these understandings of character mean for the phenomenon of moral injury, especially on the front end as a possible inculcation or prevention role?  (Recall that moral injury as defined by Jonathan Shay who coined the term in his book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character as a betrayal of something of moral significance by someone in a position of authority. Ed Barnett of the Stockdale Center, USNA has argued that moral injury is not simply guilt or regret, but involves damage to one’s moral capacity such that one is hampered from acting effectively as a moral agent. Moral injury has a distinct list of presentation that is distinct from PTSD, even if there is some overlap.)

Part of the trauma is moral injury is that is not anticipated (unlike the possibility of physical injury or death), except in a very abstract and distant way. If moral injury is the undoing of (or severe harm to) character or one’s moral capacities, virtue and agency, what then? What are we to do? Can you prepare or rehearse for moral injury as we do for other possible harms and traumas in war? If this is not possible, then what does the immediate First Aid/Triage (that has the greatest chance to impact recovery) on the spot look like?

Ethics of Care as a leadership approach may make some sense here, since it is about the moral obligations that we have in virtue of specific, embodied relationships in community. As long as leaders think about character and moral identity as about toughness (strength that does not allow for genuine moral dilemmas where its not clear what the right thing is) or moral compass (as long as you know the right direction) then it seems that they are setting people up for moral injury.  My argument has been that character is both narrative and relational, so we need to think about given that, what does moral development look like? Henry V in Shakespeare’s play famously notes, “Besides there is no king…can try it out with all unspotted soldiers…” (Act IV.1)

Is there a role for veterans here? One Vietnam veteran noted in Nancy Sherman’s, The Untold War, “He had felt betrayed by World War II veterans did not really tell him the truth about going to war – what it feels like, what it requires of soldiers and what is does to them.” (50)  I think we might think about this in explicitly moral terms, what will it be like morally, what will it do to you morally?

There are, of course, a host of objections to this idea:

  • You can’t tell or show someone what it is like, you have to experience it yourself.
  • Even if people try and tell you what it will be like, you won’t believe them
  • You might think, “That’s you. It won’t happen to me. I’m tough. I’m ready.”
  • What aspects of this discussion should happen at which points of training and preparation, deployment, post action/AAR, re-integration on returning home?

We might wonder how might this be done? I think literature, film, pop culture have great potential to generate discussion and engagement through moral imagination and engagement with veterans and others who have *reflected* on their experiences, having the experience is not enough for this work.  It is important to consider both for those going to war and those who have been, as well as civilians how is their idea of what it will be/is/was like habituated and formed from their experiences in society? A very common refrain from veterans is that people expected it to be like whatever the popular culture of their generation (literature, art, television, war movies, action films) mythologized about the use and experience of violence.

Additionally, there are a few other considerations that should be part of this discussion:

  • Social aspect of the problem – “I bear the burden so the others don’t have to” What does this mean in terms of the moral burden? Does this amount to the kind of moral exploitation that many like philosopher Michael Robillard are worried about?  (see http://michaelrobillard.com/moral-exploitation-of-soliders/) Can members of the military consent to undertake a burden that they do not fully understand? Can you consent to sacrifice your soul, your moral identity, self and agency, humanity for society? (Is that really part of the Unlimited Liability Doctrine? Should it be?) What about the impact of your moral injury on your friends, family and community? Can you consent to the harms that come to them on your behalf?
  • Civilian Responsibility – isn’t it the responsibility of the civilians who oversee the military, and in whose name the military acts to ensure that military members will not be put in a position where they are likely to incur moral injury? What moral burdens ought civilians take on in the name of moral burdening sharing, and how might this happen.

These are all issues and questions that must be considered if we are going to seriously think about whether preparation and rehearsal (in a Stoic vein) for moral injury is possible or whether it is only a phenomenon that can be dealt with reactively after it has happened.


Character as Narrative (Part III)

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       In the last several posts, I have leveled critiques at two dominant analogies of moral character (especially in the military): Moral Strength (Strength of Character) and the Moral Compass. My concerns with these views are rooted in the ways that they view character as highly individual, effectively fixed, rooted in rationality and notions of perfection/purity (ignoring emotion and sentiment) and not subject to growth and evolution. In this post, I want to sketch out (very roughly) a possible alternative rooted in the thought of pragmatist philosopher John Dewey and feminist writer Margaret Urban Walker (with some of my own influences from Scottish philosopher David Hume): Moral Character as rooted in the idea of Narrative.

                What is the narrative approach? What does this mean? Roughly the idea of narrative is rooted in the telling and sharing of stories (narratives) designed to convey meaning to an audience by connecting through characters, plots, descriptions of events in ways that allow the audience to enter into a world, from the point of view of that world. A good narrative does that, and narratives that are not so good may only tell us a story from an outside perspective, not asking or allowing us inside the world through appeal to and exercise of moral imagination. Narratives may take many forms (short story, play, film, art, memoir, case study etc.) but go beyond simply a recitation of facts or events. In my view, using narrative as a way to think about morality and ethics opens up a richer, more holistic approach that takes seriously lived, embodied experience of moral selves in community.  In what follows, I am sketching out some of the basic elements in what an account of character in terms of narrative might look like. This is only a start. 

                 First, character is a growing, evolving process, and frequently not in linear, rationalistic ways that are individualistic. There are plot twists, character developments, upsets, crises and learning from events, and most importantly from the interaction with and influence of other characters.  Imagine Luke Skywalker without Ben Kenobi or Achilles without the death of Patroclus.              

                Second, from the philosophy of John Dewey (Ethics) there is a strong sense of the social nature of character and ethics more generally.  Our character makes us aware of and able to anticipate, respond to consequences of our actions, some more than others.  Character also provides a certain moral continuity connecting future actions to the past actions (learning from our mistakes, changing future behavior based upon a recognition of harms of past to others and ourselves.)

                Third, related to this idea is the notion from Alasdair MacIntrye that while we do write our own stories, others also write on our stories as we on the stories of others in our communities of practice. Like Dewey, MacIntyre recognizes the social and interconnected nature of our moral lives together; my moral life is mine, but it is not mine in splendid autonomous isolation from others. 

                Fourth, feminist ethicist Margaret Urban Walker points out that our moral actions are shaped by the narrative of our moral identity, in Dewey’s words, character is a‘persistent history of valuation’ is a history  of moral value and priorities; we try to act in ways that are consistent with this narrative. If we think about this, the idea of integration and consistency become important.

             There is a similar idea about precedent (stare decisis) in philosophy of law. Ronald Dworkin invokes the idea of the Chain Novel to make the case that there must be some integrity in the law; decisions of a judge must make sense in light of what has come before in the ‘story’, even if a judge is rejecting prior precedent. She must give an account, weave a narrative to make the departure from precedent make sense.  Just as we can tell the character of the law from the actions and decisions of judges (what they actually do), we can tell the character of the person from their actions, not just what they say they character is.  Does the story make sense? It won’t be like every other story, but we will recognize the logic (or lack thereof.) 

                Fifth, the meaning of the narrative is important, and not just what  it means to you. What does it mean to the audience, who is also a participant in the process? We are constantly judging and reacting to the narratives (moral character) of others in our moral sphere as we calibrate and justify our own actions.  Meaning is a significant part of that process in constructing and maintaining moral worlds and integrity.  

                Sixth, character as narrative must be responsive to context, and yet general enough to have appeal. The Star Wars series is arguably context specific (outer space adventure), but also has elements of mythology, narrative, humor and human experience that we can all relate to, even if we are not in that context. The brother/sister relationship, adventure, parent/child relationship, romance and attraction, warfare, political struggle are all a part of this narrative. From the narrative and observing the actions of the characters, we can say accurately what the moral character of Han Solo is like. Leia: “I knew there was more to you than money!” or what Luke might do as he searches for identity and connection to a series of father figures. 

                Finally, moral failure, challenge and plot twists are not only expected, but required to move things forward. The main character is important, but so are other characters and the journey – the process of growth and evolution – that make for a fully developed character, as opposed to a flat facsimile of a character which does not inspire interest or connection. One of the marks of a compelling narrative is the way in which it invokes empathy and moral imagination to connect us with the world of the narrative, and how that world then becomes a part of that world. Star Wars and the Iliad are now a part of the moral worlds of many people, their characters, plots and insights now part of moral deliberation, assessment and actions of other characters in other narratives.  To be ethical is not simply about our own moral narrative of character, but about being embodied, socially situated moral characters in larger and more complex narratives that bring questions, obligations, concerns, cares and a need for articulation of why. 

Why your Moral Compass is Off…


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Another common analogy for moral character is the idea of the Moral Compass. The idea here is that each individual has (or ought to have) an internal sense of right and wrong that guides her navigation through moral dilemmas and problems. People are immoral or experience moral failure to the degree that they fail to follow or consult their moral compass, or when their moral compass is not properly calibrated (on a regular basis) towards the one ‘True North.’   In addition, in the analogy the Moral Compass is viewed as more objective and reliable that other things like your own observations, experience, the context or surrounding landscape of other ideas. And that doesn’t even get the Sea Monsters that inhabit these dangerous waters, which the Moral Compass is designed to tell you how to navigate through.

Ok, What’s wrong with this? It sounds right! You need a compass for navigation, to tell you where to go. 

Before getting into my issues, we should consider how a compass really works. At its most basic, it is a piece of magnetized metal (remember that the core of the earth is a big magnet/magnetized field – see https://gisgeography.com/magnetic-north-vs-geographic-true-pole/ ) which is suspended and if properly floating will point North; this is really just the needle aligning itself with the Earth’s magnetic field, that is, it will orient to Magnetic North. (This is, of course, a massive over simplification but still helpful in thinking about the analogy.)

Further, there is a difference between True North and Magnetic North – these are not exactly the same thing. Depending upon where you are on the planet, the difference between the two can bit significant, so you may need to calibrate or adjust your compass. Of course, you have to know what the difference is in order to do this. Evidently observation and math are involved in this (or a good map which has this information, calculated by others.) At geographic or True North the difference is about 500 km, and this is actually changing over time.

Wait what?

I have several problems with the Moral Compass analogy, some of which overlap with my prior post. First, this idea of the Moral Compass is highly individual, and internal to each person. Second, it also suggests one direction or way that is moral and the context and environment doesn’t matters and isn’t to be trusted as a source of navigational knowledge. (Trust the Compass!) Further, how do you calibrate your personal compass to True North (morally speaking) , which is viewed as an objective, static thing (otherwise it wouldn’t be trust worthy)?  How do you know when you have calibrated right? (Are there moral calibration calculations or maps that you consult? If there are, this is rarely part of the analogy.)

If the Moral Compass is calibrated correctly, it will guide you, help navigate so you do not need to develop other capacities like prudence/practical reasoning based upon experience, empathy, moral imagination, virtues. Moral failure then is a technological problem! The Moral Compass was either not properly calibrated or you failed to follow or use it in your navigation. All of this reinforces the idea that there is one direction, path for moral character, virtue and being Good and that it is a matter for individuals in relative isolation.

My major issue with this analogy is that it fails to take into account social context or impact. What about the ships?  What about the other people on your ship? There is no possibility for integration or character development over time, Just Follow the Compass! As with the Moral Strength analogy there is no emphasis or acknowledgement of moral growth and especially learning from experience and what you ‘see’. Only the directions on the Compass matter, you do not need prudence and moral judgement and discretion. As an argument, this is the Appeal to Authority: My Moral Compass says x! But why? How do you know that is it correct. (Recall all the stories of drivers lost, injured and killed by blindly and uncritically following their GPS directions….)

To effectively navigate you still need to know the landscape and understand the context, the compass only tells you which way North is. This is not an objective moral guide, there is still context, wind, storms, rough seas. The compass alone does not make you a navigator, it is a tool (along with other tools that you might use) along with prudence, experience, empathy (your maps) to help plot out a route. But you also have to move, to act and then articulate why you did what you did once you arrive (or get lost.) You can still get lost!

In addition, there are multiple routes you might take once you know where North is, and it is experience and knowledge of context, and the collective history and experience of those who have come before that will assist you (along with the compass) in plotting out a route and adjusting as you go.  Others have had a hand in plotting the landscape, doing calculations (on the difference between True and Magnetic North at different places) and conveying that information. There is a place for narrative, sharing and experience, not just a compass and a map. Even then, this process of navigation takes practice, trial and error; you will make mistakes, get lost, discover things you did not anticipate and perhaps run into wild animals and even sea monsters. (I will say more on the narrative piece in Part III next week.)

Another major problem is how this analogy leaves little room for  emotion and moral imagination, I suspect quite intentionally. We might think of this as the Lake Wobegon view of moral character, we are all above average and good looking character-wise, but Christian Miller in The Character Gap (and many others working in moral psychology) notes that this is not that case. Most of us are neither virtuous nor vicious, but in some borderland between and it will matter and vary a great deal based upon context and circumstance. Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning makes a similar point, buttressed by things like the Milgram studies, around why and when people will engage in immoral or vicious behavior.

In order to expand moral imagination and empathy, Miller notes several things that we can do to increase the odds or likelihood of virtuous behavior (or moving in that direction.) We can 1) cultivate moral role models; 2)we can acknowledge (which requires honest and realistic self-awareness) and compensate/adjust for our tendencies; and 3) we can select or at least rehearse (in good Stoic fashion) for likely moral situations. All of these ideas make sense in the context of the military, especially the last one. We need to consider how we bridge the character gap, but moral failure or challenge is not simply a matter of weakness or a miscalibrated compass, but a gap between the aspirational ideal and human reality.

Next time: Narrative and Character 




Rethinking Character (Part I of III)*


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I have been thinking about moral injury of late in lots of different contexts, but especially related to 1) war crimes and atrocities and 2) who bears the moral weight of warfare in contemporary conflicts, as well as more broadly related to moral education in the military.  Jonathan Shay famously coined the term ‘moral injury’ which he defines as a betrayal of something of moral significance by someone in a position of authority, which typically results in rage and other responses that lead to the undoing of moral character and the moral life of the agent. Moral injury compromises the moral identity and agency of the person who is subject to it.

This idea of the undoing of character is central to many of the discussions of moral injury, which then begs the question of what character is exactly. What do we mean by character and how is it important to moral life and identity? Before getting into more depth about my take on character in a subsequent post, I need to take issue with a couple of the standard analogies that are used, especially in the military, to understand character. These analogies of Strength of Character and the Moral Compass are quite common and have a certain intuitive appeal, but generate ideas and assumptions about character and the moral life that may actually contribute to or make worse moral injury. (I saw this acknowledging that friends and colleagues who are smart, incredibly thoughtful and genuinely concerned scholars hold the views I am going to take issue with. #sorrynotsorry)  Conventionally, we think of character as a collection of traits, dispositions or habits (following Aristotle) that manifest in certain kinds of actions in regular ways. If we say that Bill has an honest character, we mean that he has traits, dispositions and habits that produce honest actions more often than not. (It’s important to note that character is not about moral purity or perfection.)

First, it is tempting, especially in the military to see character as armor, protection or strength, in ways that are analogous to physical protections and strengths that are useful and even lifesaving in combat. “Good character eliminates complexity” we might be tempted to think, or that moral character is about a toughness to endure, as the inspirational Admiral James Stockdale and his beloved Stoics were wont to think. The idea here is that one needs to strength of moral character to withstand temptation and immoral situations and influences, and other challenges that might be a threat to or undermine good character. In the same way we need physical strength, will power and fortitude, this view holds we also need moral strength and fortitude to resist the assaults and traps of immorality. (Notice the link one could make to sin and other similar concepts in various religious/spiritual traditions.)

So what is the problem? This sounds right!

One problem I see is that this view assumes the pre-existence of a stable, unchanging character that is largely formed and simply needs to be defended and applied, as opposed to an idea of character as evolving, changing and growing over time.  Character, on this view, is fully or mostly formed by a certain age and is really not able to be changed, except to be more of what it already is.

Another issue with this approach is that it means character is just a matter of having enough fortitude to resist and not succumb to immorality; that makes virtue not being immoral, as opposed to needing to cultivate positive moral character.  Rather, I think virtue requires the intentional choosing and constant cultivation of the good (guided by prudence, rooted in learning from experience and exemplars), not just the avoidance of vice and immorality. I ask my son, “Were you good in school?” to which he responds, “Well I didn’t get into trouble!” Funny response, but not quite the question I was asking – perhaps he was not bad, but it does not follow from that that he was good.

Finally, the first problem does not allow for habit, practice, growth and development except in one direction – to become stronger, as in the physical analogy.  Moral failure or falling short of a moral ideal then can only be weakness, which creates problems for something like moral injury and other contexts where our moral agency is impacted by actions outside ourselves. (The Stoics were well known for highlighting this point!) If we like this analogy, then we need a more robust account of what moral training or conditioning looks like, in ways that are more than just superficially analogous to the physical model.

This analogy tends to be rooted in an implicit idea of moral character as moral perfectionism or moral purity, where the character is or should already be set, needing no development, evolution or even constant conditioning and adjustment as is the case with the physical strength model. In physical training, one must modify workouts to work on different areas and address plateaus or lack of progress, there are injuries and disease issues that must be addressed and the conditioning must be appropriate to the person, body type, health and age and their specific priorities and limitations.

Instead, this model stresses “Do the Right Thing!” as if that were sufficient or helpful to being a moral person in a complex world. It assumes you either have moral character and can act on it, or you don’t, and you are in trouble? How do we know who ‘has it’? How did they ‘get’ it? Can they lose it? What role is there for emotion (like empathy), communal practices of morality  and moral imagination? The Strength analogy is highly individual, tends of to avoid emotion (or see it as a temptation, challenge to being morally strong) and resists ideas of morality that involve community and interdependence. It often connects mental and moral toughness, and sees these as related to physical toughness; failure is either due to weakness or lack of conditioning.

For my friends who like this model, I might suggest that we really look at the idea of moral conditioning and training, and pursue an idea that this must be just as intense and regular as physical conditioning. I would submit that moral conditioning simply is not currently viewed in that way; that is not to say there is not an account that can and should be made.  What is your moral conditioning routine? Why? What does it mean to build moral ‘strength’? What happens to that strength when the moral failure is not simply due to things within the individual’s control? How do you recover your moral conditioning, how do you approach re-training, when injury or other trauma occurs that compromises moral integrity and agency? What does moral healing look like?

Next time: Your Moral Compass is off…


*Any typos or lack of editorial precision may be attributed to the informal nature of the blog genre, as an intermediate draft, not the final version. 

The Ethics Specialist: To Jedi or No

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Picture this, if you will: a highly trained soldier/warrior (take your pick depending upon where you fall in that debate), who in addition to the expected military skills has also,

“…demonstrated excellence in a range of capacities necessary for success in today’s complex operating environments, but most centrally they will have demonstrated excellence of character and the capability to make clear, sound and well-reasoned ethical judgements under highly challenging conditions.”[1]

This is Dean-Peter Baker’s vision of the JEDI warrior, an ethics specialist (if you will) in the same vein as the Ranger tab holder relative to small unit leadership and combat tactics.  This person would be both a Subject Matter Expert (SME) in ethics, but in addition they would be a moral exemplar who had demonstrated moral and ethical excellence in practice. A provocative and interesting proposal this is!

Surely, you might say, we have JAGs and Chaplains to cover this same territory (or at least most of it)? JAG’s are legal officers that give advice on a range of legal matters (including the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Laws of Armed Conflict and other laws relevant to waging war), but despite the military’s frequent use of ‘ethics’ to refer to rules and other legal matters, this is not what Baker (or I) have in mind when we use the term ethics. (More on that below.) Chaplains, on the other hand, are generally members of a religious/faith community of practice whose role is to provide comfort and pastoral care to the military. The appeal to chaplains also assumes that all moral and ethical matters are necessarily religious or spiritual in nature, a point that is hotly debated and would be resisted by some.  One’s moral choices and ethical practices may be rooted in one’s faith tradition, but they may not be.

What is ethics then? First, it is important to distinguish between ethics and morals/morality. Morals or morality consists in moral claims about what is right or wrong made by individuals, groups, institutions, societies or other communities of practice; this can include individual moral claims or ideas, but it may also include systems of morality (like those found in moral philosophy or in religious and spirituals traditions and communities of practice.) Ethics is the study and examination of these moral claims and systems including reflection, questioning, challenging, justification of and other forms of deep examination of morals and morality from a critical perspective. Ethics might ask why one holds a particular moral view or system, whether such a claim is true, how we would evaluate that claim or how such claims would be in fact justified and valid. Ethics asks questions about the grounds for moral beliefs and systems (Rationality? Emotion? Tradition? Relationship?) and what the response to moral disagreement is to be. So ethics (at least in many philosophical circles) has a meaning beyond the kinds of things that Chaplains and JAG’s (whose work is critical on its own terms) are engaged in.

Why Ethics Specialists?

What is the argument for Ethics Specialists?

First, ethics (as opposed to morality) does seem to be a Subject Matter Area requiring certain content mastery, skills and expertise that most persons do not have. Second, there seems to be an institutional and social need for individuals and groups to reflect upon morality, in the case of the military upon Core Values, oaths and promises that are part of the Profession of Arms, other norms and values that are part of the Profession of Arms and Just War Thinking. (We could note the role of Ethics Officers in business and Ethics Boards in research and medicine as examples of this need in other areas.) Third, SME in ethics can provide expertise and leadership in this area, but that is different from being the kind of moral exemplar Baker thinks is required. Finally, and related we need qualified people to teach and guide those who will teach and guide others, especially their subordinates whose ethical development may be part of their responsibilities. This requires the development of ethical capacities like reflection, critical thinking, empathy and moral imagination; the SME expert may not be the kind of moral exemplar that can demonstrate these capacities in practice.

As this point, we might circle back to Chaplains. Some might argue that with some advanced training and education that they could take up this role. Again, consider their central role: rendering pastoral care and support. While chaplains might provide some moral advice, especially to commanders, this is within their pastoral role and arguable a secondary role to the primary concern of spiritual care for all members of the military community. Ethics necessarily involves a critical stance, often imposing or creating discomfort by asking hard questions, challenging or requiring one to step outside of one’s world view to give accurate and thorough analysis of a moral claim or system. While I agree that chaplains could (and some probably already) do this work, I think it places an unfair burden on them which may be at odds with their primary role.  Further, there is the issue of whether in want to do this, we are conflating faith and ethical practices or capacities. For persons within a faith tradition or community of practice, one may inform the other, but this is not necessarily the case and there can be dangers to doing so.

There are various other suggestions in addition to the enhancing of the chaplain office. One suggestion is to require an MA in Military Ethics of all military leaders in command positions, another idea is requiring a PME certification in some area of ethics (emerging technologies, Just War Thinking etc.) or further ethics education required at the Flag/General Officer (or equivalent) level.  These suggestions seem to orient around the idea that the critical decisions and greatest need is higher up the chain of command. IS that true, one might wonder?


Needed Addition?

There is a reasonable argument in favor Ethics Specialists in the military, both as SME and also as moral exemplars. The expertise would help with a critical and more independent stance, and the focus on specialization (as with the Ranger tab) communicates the import and value of the pursuit to others within and outside the community of practice. In addition, the idea of Ethics Specialist as moral exemplar would bring some ‘street cred’ to the position that might be missing in current discussions.

The regular drumbeat of scandals, firings and other moral problems seems to reflect a deeper need to address ethics and ethical capacities beyond Core Values and ‘do the right thing’; the proliferation of ethics training and education as a part of Professional Military Education (both formal and informal) would also seem to demonstrate the need. However, at present, it is assumed (rightly. I think) that ethical development and education is for everyone – albeit with a sliding scale based upon rank, responsibility and place in the Profession (enlisted v. officer for example.)

 Or Outsourcing?

To me, the real issue is whether the Ethics Specialist/JEDI idea would effectively mean that we are outsourcing ethical development (including the critical idea of moral and professional judgment and discretion) to these specialists; would members of the military end up in practice deferring their own judgments to the experts?  Each member of the Profession of Arms has a moral and professional obligation to develop, enhance and practice their capacity for Professional Judgement and Discretion (which often includes moral and value matters) as a part of one’s professional expertise and obligation to the other members of the community of practice (since professions are by definition self-regulating.)

It is also important for the full and integrated development of each individual person as a moral agent regardless of military role, to be responsible for their own moral conduct and that of the profession. (Consider the nature of the oaths of office, commissioning, enlistment that mark the entry into the Profession and its community of practice, which one takes in one’s own individual name.)

Things to Consider

With this caveat in mind, that Ethics Specialists are not a substitute for/outsourcing of moral judgment and responsibility of each individual, we can explore some options what the place for such a person might be in the military.

  • As Teachers/Mentors/Coaches to first and foremost, support others in their own ethical development and responsibilities.
  • Educating for the Profession (a resource on the Profession)
  • Educating to help others educate and develop others and guide subordinates, which is an important element in setting the moral culture of a unit or other organizational structure – especially for those with command responsibilities.

In all of these areas, it is likely an Ethics Specialist can be a source of expertise, provide training and educational resources, can provide input, questioning, challenge especially about one’s reasoning, assumptions and the grounds of these commitments. In this way, they could mirror the roles of the JAG’s and chaplains whose role is presumably to provide advice and guidance, but not necessarily make the decision itself (not be responsible for its consequences.)

Ethical development is a critical part of the professional development for each member of the military, so Ethics Specialists may be helpful to develop and sustain moral exemplar in a rigorous and systematic way, something one could argue is missing from current models and practice. They may also serve as a recognition that is this an area of distinct need for in depth attention and development as one moves through the profession with the need increasing as one has increased responsibilities and members of the profession as operating increasingly complex and unpredictable environments. If initiative and innovation are critical to the battlefield, ethical development must be able to keep up with those. The focus on emerging technologies, cyber and different models and approaches to leadership and leader develop also suggest a recognition that different kinds of expertise are needed; it makes sense that ethical expertise and capacities are part of these things.

Finally, we can consider the objection that this amounts to a certain kind of ethical elitism, that we are creating a class or group within the military who will be viewed (both in terms of expertise and their own practice) as morally superior to the rest of the military. There are two concerns here: first, that it will increase and magnify the tendency to outsourcing or deferring moral judgments to the experts, and second, that there would be few checks on the members of this group. What if corruption creeps in or they are simply wrong/blind in certain cases?  This seems a similar problem to the elitism concerns that might be raised with other elite groups within the military and would likely need to be addressed alongside of those concerns. Is elitism necessarily problematic? Or is it that elitism has certain kinds of collateral effects that we want to guard against?

[1] Deane-Peter Baker, “Commentary Article: Enhancing Ethical Performance in Military Forces Through Embedded Excellence” Scientia Militaria, South African Journal of Military Studies. Volume 24,Number 2, 2014. Pp. 177-187.