#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.


Published by shankskaurin

Philosopher and military ethicist. Author of two books, including "On Obedience" (USNI Press, 2020) I also teach war college students for the Navy. (Views here are personal only.) Mother to two energetic young lads. Foodie, gardener and Diva with a shoe obsession.

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