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 ) 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.

Ethics and Football: Has the Ethical Ship Sailed?




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It is almost that time of year. My favorite time of year. No. Not the Barbarians going back to school. No, not PSL season. Although I LOVE both of those.

No. It is time for Seahawks (Yes, Seattle, I am not changing team loyalties…) training camp, which means that football season is right around the corner. During the last season, I listened to much debate about the Anthem protests with players kneeing to protest police brutality and the treatment of minority communities more generally. The President weighed in and famously condemned the protests, using them as a constant point of tweet storms, a habit which promises to continue into this season. There were concerns about the mostly white ownership and exploitation of mostly minority players especially as stories about concussions and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and concussion related issues were highlighted. It seems that the NFL is profiting off the pain and suffering of its employees and as fans we are supporting that dynamic.

Add to that long standing issues with how the NFL treats (or ignores) highly problematic behavior like drinking (and driving) drug use, gambling, and especially domestic violence and sexual assault. Looking at the list of problematic stories and issues, it is entirely understandable why many friends have opted to boycott NFL football.

As an ethicist, I am not insensitive to these issues; they are important. My question to myself is constantly the ethical one: how can I support such exploitation, violence and complicity with racism and white supremacy?

A couple of things that I have been thinking about. First, we have the classical argument that boycotting will serve to change the behavior of a business, in this case the NFL. Having taught business ethics for 15 years, I am not convinced that anything sort of a massive scale boycott (which would need to include most of the NFL fan base) would be effective in this regard. I understand and support those who boycott based upon principle, but I am not convinced this will change behavior. Former customers and fans have much less leverage witch a company than current ones do.

Second, while there is much discussion of the ethical problems with the NFL (which are serious and I take them seriously), there is much less discussion of the same problems with college football, especially with the large Pac 10 schools. This is what I call (technical philosophical term, y’all!) the So’s Your Momma Argument. Nearly every ethical problem that has been raised against the NFL can also be raised against college football; arguably the ethical severity is even worse as these are college students, not professional athletes under employment contracts.  So why the outrage and ethical boycotts in one place and not another? It is, in my view, the exact same (if not worse) ethical dilemma.

Third, football is hardly the only sport which trades on violence and a male dominated, warrior, aggressive dynamic. It is hardly the only sport where we see reprehensible behavior from players and also from management. This is not to say that these issues are not important, but rather is to say that the problem may well be more professional (and college) sports and that culture, as opposed to football per se. Let me be clear, I am not arguing for letting football off the hook, but rather to broaden the ethical discussion.

So where does this leave things? Will I watch football? Will I buy NFL and college gear?  Will I support with my money and time what look like manifestly unethical practices? Yes. And I will also use my voice and leverage as a fan and customer to put pressure on NFL ownership to address the issues I highlighted. I will make clear that I support the right of players to protest, if they see that as indicated. If there are fines and consequences to those players, I will contribute towards paying fines and making clear my position as a long time fan. I will also ask the football community to take seriously TBI and other health related issues that players face. Some of these issues are part of the game, but it also seems that there are steps that can be taken to mitigate them and make the sport safer, while still maintaining the integrity of the sport.

In my classes, I talk about football as the contemporary incarnation of Greek phalanx warfare. If that analogy is right (and you might not think it is), that bring with it certain ethical problems, just as war brings with it ethical problems. One position (held by many friends and colleagues I respect) is to say that we should not engage in ,or in any way support, this unethical activity. Another is to say that given that we will engage in this activity, we should try and reduce unnecessary suffering and limit harms to both combatants (players, owners and the sport) and non-combatants (fans, family, community.) That is my position, but I recognize that it is increasingly difficult position to hold. Therefore, I reserve the right to change my mind. #GoHawks #pleasehaveanOffensiveLine

“Get out your phones”: Diversity, moral courage and teaching moments


By now you will have seen the video from the United States Air Force Academy of Lt. General Jay Silveria addressing an all too common event at institutions of higher learning, the scrawling of racist epithets in public places directed towards fellow students or other members of the community. My own institution Pacific Lutheran University in the Pacific Northwest faced this moment in 2000 when homophobic graffiti graced our Administration Building. These are difficult and traumatic ‘teaching moments.”

Lt. Gen. Silveria provided one of those moments and much of what is documented in the video are what we would hope and expect that educators say in these moments: 1) this is not okay; 2) our community rejects these messages and the bigotry and institutional and systematic racism and privilege that generated them and 3) we are stronger for our diversity.  His righteous and appropriate anger was clear, but so was his resolve on behalf of his community.

But there were two points that struck me as different and powerfully important. First, while he rejects the ideas represented by the graffiti as bad ideas, he also exhorts and asks his audience what their better ideas are. This is not just rejection of certain actions and speech but an invitation to and a demand for better. In a society where there is constant and easy criticism of everything on a daily basis (and seemingly by everyone, regardless of knowledge, expertise or experience), it is important to point out that criticism alone is not helpful. We need better ideas.

This reminds me of John Stuart Mill’s arguments about free speech in On Liberty (Chapter 2 for your homework!) where he argues that debate and understanding of all ideas (especially those that are wrong) are necessary to generate correct ideas and to know they are correct, with continual testing and examination.  The act of claiming an idea is true and beyond examination is itself as claim that should be subject to debate and examination and very often a political shortcut to avoid discussing the idea or having difficult questions raised about it. (If an idea is obviously false, it should have no trouble being refuted in the process of rigorous discussion and examination, Mill notes, and such examination is essential to understanding exactly how and why it is false so that it does not become a ‘dead dogma’.)

We need better ideas, not just criticisms of those that are wrong. How do we know they are wrong if we don’t have better ideas to weigh them against? And of course, new, interesting ideas emerge all the time. We should be open to that and always looking for better ways. This is at the heart of many an education process and hopefully, in the political project that we call democracy.

Second, Lt Gen. Silveria asked the members of the audience to take out their cell phones (a command?) and to record his statement of ‘Get out.’  This is interesting, but even more interesting is the reason why.  He acknowledged the need for corporate and communal moral courage, and that having such a recording to use and appeal to in various situations was a resources and back up. It is not often that we even acknowledge that there is such a thing as communal moral courage, focusing most often on individual moral courage against a group or authorities. However, it IS important, and even more important is the idea that we need support and resources for and education in, this kind of moral courage.

This is clearly a consummate and reflective educator and leader at work. He is not just laying out the standard and the expectations, but equipping, preparing and providing the necessary rehearsal and performance resources so that the members of his community can develop and demonstrate the moral courage to uphold this standard. It does no good to set a standard and then just expect your people to do it, as if by magic or luck. They need practice, resources and support. Those cell phone recordings may be the critical thing in a difficult moment that gives someone a tool they need to be morally courageous – knowing they are not alone in their commitment to the standard.

That is some impressive pedagogical practice, Sir. Well done.

Dunkirk: Not a War Movie


I went to see Dunkirk this weekend with an economist friend who is into German and Russian World War II everything – you know an average girls afternoon out! I was interested to see the film (despite all the hype,) since I teach Christopher Nolan’s film Momento in my Early Modern Philosophy class and I have had a huge crushers on Kenneth Branaugh since Dead Again and Henry V.  (He did not disappoint!) And then there is the war movie angle, especially since I regularly teach courses on ethics, violence and war.

Before going, I ran across Matt Gault’s review on War is Boring.

Ouchie! It was, I thought, a harsh review whose point seemed to be that the film was boring, lacking the traditional blood and grit of a war movie. I respect Gault, so I was intrigued by this reaction which seemed decidedly a minority view, even among the military and national security crowd I follow on social media. Having now seen the film, I can see his point. If you expect a conventional war film, this ain’t it. This is not a war movie at all.

Bear with me. Yes, I know that Dunkirk was part of World War II. Yes, I know there are soldiers, sailors and airmen and things exploding. Yes, there is some combat in the film which results in death and harm. That said, this is not a conventional war movie, at least not as Americans would expect, because it is not really about war as Americans see war. This film does a great job of conveying the experience of the historical event which takes place after a major defeat, and is the prelude to the next phase of the war. So Dunkirk is an intermission of sorts. And an intermission is a time for pause, for reflection and for preparing for the next act. And that is precisely what this film is: an existential reflection on survival, defeat and moral and existential meaning amidst all that.  It is a reflection upon the pain of war when it does not go well, when there is no decisive winning battle, when there seems no place for individual heroism, when courage seems to be about enduring and surviving.

So what do I mean: This is not a war movie? This film is about the scale and horizon of the event, with little (except intermittently) focus on characters or the enemy.  We do not have a chance to really get emotionally involved with any one character, and the enemy is only referred to in the beginning as The Enemy. The Germans are not named, they are not seen and are only felt in the harm they are inflicting upon the Dunkirk survivors. I expect that this is quite intentional. Why? I don’t actually think the Germans are The Enemy.  If this is a film about survival and endurance, then the true enemy at Dunkirk is Time; this is a race against time, against losses that will compromise the next battle. They must survive to fight another day and every minute is a life lost.

When I think of a war movie, I think of Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, Patton, Enemy at the Gates, The Longest Day. The classical formula is that it is largely army especially infantry centric (though not always) with the focus on a small group of characters (the band of brothers) that we get to know and follow through the film.  There is often gritty, intense combat portrayed showing the harm and carnage of war (blood and other war porn elements) and we are invited to identify with the heroes/protagonists and feel enmity towards the enemy who are portrayed as evil, wrong, mean, cruel and all things to be despised. War movies are often intimate in this way – it is the duel or clash of two sided writ large. Good versus evil with a decisive battle or event as part of a clear narrative arch that results in redemption, victory and resolution.  Sometimes this arch is about the band of brothers, sometimes about the warring leaders (Patton and Rommel for instance) or about warring nations, but the essential conflict is the same regardless of scale.

This film has none of that. Oh there is combat, but there is little blood – although still a great deal of grit, messiness and destruction. The major scenes are the scale of the evacuation on the beaches, naval sequences and classic style air battles. There are a few moments of heroism, but they come mostly at the hands of civilians rescuing soldier, which of course upends the traditional war movie trope of civilians as victims. There are also nods to British heroism, with a bit of Shakespearean sensibility brought by Branagh as he remains behind to help evacuate the French.  There is also the matter of heroic homecoming for the soldiers of Dunkirk (who really are perplexed and so not feeling it), which is fascinating in terms of the military/civilian culture gap and the problem of defeat and military failure – for the society and their warriors.

This is not a war movie. At least not in any kind of conventional sense and so Gault is right. And his review is really interesting in that it highlights this really interesting question about what a war movie is and what it is supposed to do.  Clearly he had a particular vision of this, which he thinks the film fails spectacularly at.  However, I wonder if we need to think more deeply about what a war movie ought to be and what it ought to do?  Should it follow the standard hero/action film formula with a clear and unambiguous moral message and arc?  What level of blood and carnage (and of what kind – individual versus collective) should be present and seen? And what do these expectations say about how we want to think about war? How do these expectations then shape how we think about and experience (for those who fight) actual wars?

Dunkirk reminded me of a particular sensibility about war. It reminded me of Tim O’Brien’s writings on Vietnam, but also the great World War I poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen. It reminds me of J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors in which he uses philosophical reflection to try and make sense of his World War II experience decades later. It reminds me of Sebastian Junger’s writing on war and its impacts on those who fight and those for whom they fight. This film is a search for meaning when the standard meanings and narrative frames have utterly failed.  How do we find meaning when we are one speck on a beach just trying to get out alive, when our rescuers are attacked for trying to help us and there seems little that any individual can do to change the course of events? Even Branagh as a high ranking naval officer seems bound and stuck, just as much as the grunt.

The reading (by one of the returning soldiers) at the end of the film of Churchill’s famous speech feels mocking and stirring at the same time.  It offers up a kind of hope of the final decisive battle (or battles) in which they will prevail, but also makes clear that it will not be easy or pretty. The soldier who reads the speech has just escaped with his life and returned home to acclaim, dirty, perhaps traumatized and exhausted.  Normally that is the victorious end. But here it is only the beginning. Sisyphus must roll the rock back up the hill. Again.

Special Forces, Special Rules of Engagement? – A Thought Experiment


As often happens, a former student asked my view on the following story about British Special Forces (SAS) accused of illegal killings of civilians in Afghanistan in 2011. BBC Story Daily Mail story  The original story appeared in the Daily Mail, and then was picked up in shorter (and less salacious versions) in the BBC and Guardian. Here is what is clear: British Special Forces are accused, and an investigation is on-going, of illegally killing non-combatants in Afghanistan.  It seems that the particular incident in these stories may be a part of a larger trend or concern, as there have been some other investigations; it is also noted in the stories that many of the accusations/cases have been found without cause or evidence for prosecution.

These kinds of stories are not unusual. Nor are the claims by those investigating that they are being stonewalled in their investigations (note comments by Scott Green in multiple outlets attesting to this), that evidence was fabricated and that there are varying degrees of complicity and/or cover up. There are the usual pronouncements by political leaders attesting to the decency and virtue of their armed forces and that a thorough investigation would be pursued.  At this stage, it is not clear what actually happened, what the evidence is and whether there will be prosecutions or further charges.

If the charges are born out, then there is also the usual legal route to deal with killings that would seem (without knowing the details, I am completely speculating) to violate IHL and possibly the rules of engagement (ROE).  Aside from the legal issues, intentionally targeting of non-combatants is immoral and it is also counter-productive in counter-insurgency operations. So if the facts are born out as reported, things seem fairly clear; another unfortunate case study to add to the list of My Lai, Haditha….

But. And there is always a but! One comment that arose from the stories as presented in the press, was the idea that SAS might operate with their own and distinct rules of engagement, within which the actions alleged were permissible. In other words, what looks like a war crime with the ROE framework of the conventional (non-elite units) of the military, might not be if (and only if) Special Forces operate according to their own rules.

This is really interesting. There is, of course, the empirical question of whether there are distinct ROE for elite forces in this (or any case) or whether there is more flexibility and nuance in how those rules are interpreted.  Does context and the kind of mission matter here? Is it possible that Special Forces has their own ROE? Or failing that, could they have their own JAG’s (legal officers, Judge Advocate General) or others who provide contextual interpretations of ROE given their missions? Floating this online to military members, and also looking at some discussion from the British side on this issue, raised more questions than it answered and revealed a wide variety of incompatible views!

So its an interesting empirical question, presumably with a correct answer. One option could be that formally there is one set of ROE, but that there are informal and formal interpretations and practices following from those interpretations that may differ and seem like different ROE.  From my work on Vietnam, one could argue this was the case there. That official policy and guidance was one thing, but what actually happened and was tolerated in the field was a different matter. Laws and norms are not always the same. (See Bilton and Sim, Four Hours in My Lai for a good discussion of this relative to My Lai.)

As an ethicist, I also wonder about the philosophical question – aside from what current practice and policy actually is – what should be the case? Is there an argument to be made for the idea that Special Forces (or other elite units) ought to have special ROE? Surely the level of training, expertise and therefore of professional judgment and discretion possessed by individuals in these units and roles exceeds the conventional military grunt? Surely this would justify another ROE standard, or at the very least substantial leeway in terms of the interpretations and permissions that would be given in executing missions?

I can imagine a plausible line of argument here, rooted in expertise, training and the development of professional judgment and discretion.  I can also imagine a whole host of problems that might arise from such a formal two (or multiple tiered) system, as well as from any kind of more informal system that instantiated different standards for treatment of POWs, targeting of non-combatants (discrimination)  or acceptable levels force (proportionality).

On one hand, if there is one set of standards or ROE, it makes things simple. These are the rules and they must be followed. But if the ROE seem problematic or impractical given a particular mission, situation or context, what happens then? Will they be abandoned and ignored completely? Tweaked but still maintained in the spirit of the moral principles?  And who will be deciding on the alterations or suspension? On what grounds? If there are multiple standards, do we not end up with the same problem?

Let the discussion begin….

Empathy, Strategy and Moral Injury


In his book Strategy: A History Lawrence Freedman argues that empathy is an important component of strategy, “Empathy involves at least emotional sensitivity to others and at most an ability to understand another’s point of view.” (p. 5) This struck me for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the reputation of military strategy in the 19th and 20th centuries as highly rationalistic and empirical in nature. So one wonders if this is, in fact, true.  When I posted this as a discussion point, the reactions were intense and diverse, much more than I expected.

First off, we need to define some terms. Empathy, following Scottish philosopher David Hume (as I do!), is the ability to enter into the sentiments of other persons.  (He calls this the sympathy principle, and sees this as the key to the moral life; one must counter-act natural self-interest and other preferences for those closer to the agent by learning to take up the General Point of View and be moral. Empathy is key to this.)  While this sounds like emotional work, Hume’s view of sentiments includes an emotion component, but also a cognitive component. (See Book III, The Treatise on Human Nature) On this view, one needs to use what we might think of as moral imagination (he does not use this term) to see the sentiments and commitments of others from their point of view, as they would see, think and feel.

This is, I think, fundamentally different from what we think of as sympathy. We typically have sympathy FOR someone and their emotions; if I have sympathy, I have feelings that are similar to those of the person I have sympathy for. My son comes home having seen a dead cat on the road and I have sympathy, in that I have been in that situation and also love cats so I am literally feeling along side him. I am sharing his emotional world as my own. Sympathy is very difficult if there is not already a shared moral world or commitment involved, and is more emotive than cognitive. It also seems to carry a certain kind of approval or endorsement of the feeling involved.

If empathy is important to strategy, I think it must be in the way that Hume suggests. Can I enter into or imagine the sentiments of the other? In the case of my son, I might be able to empathize understanding how much he loves animals, his difficulty with death and his lack of exposure to these kinds of things even if I do not share this emotion. When I punish my son for violating the rules in my house, I can enter into his sentiment of anger or sadness, I can imagine and understand why he might feel that way, even as I do not share that emotion because I think the punishment was entirely fair and just. I can imagine and understand the sentiment (emotion plus belief), but I do not feel it and do not have sympathy.

It seems that an important part of strategic work is being able to enter into the world of the party whose behavior you are trying to influence or respond to.  You must be able into enter into that world from their point of view in order to figure out how to respond and act. If you cannot imagine or enter into their world from their point of view, there is a great danger of importing and impressing your assumptions, commitments and sentiments on the other party. ISIS does not operate with the same assumptions, moral world view or experiences as a US Army Major and it would be a mistake to think so.

In the strategy literature there is an emphasis on self-interest and the idea that humans are rational actors. I tend to be skeptical of this claim, but even if it is true, that does not mean ISIS (or whomever) has the same conceptual framework of what counts as rational.  What one considers rational depends upon many assumptions, ideas and the context and if one fails to understand the starting point, a course of action can seem utterly irrational and so not to be taken seriously. So if one could understand these things from the point of view of the person who holds these views, it seems that it is easier to anticipate how the other party will act and counter-act in response to our actions. (The 2016 Presidential election seems a good case study in this, but I shall not tangent here.)

But empathy, especially for an adversary, is hard and also hard work. It requires emotional and cognitive skills, critical thinking, moral imagination and a willingness to step outside of one’s own world – at least temporarily. But there is also danger. Can empathy shift into sympathy? If it does shift, can that impair one’s ability to engage in strategies and tactics against the party in question. Or even if it does not impair this in the moment, can it produce guilt and moral injury later?

The problem of child soldiers seems a clear case. I can enter into the world of the child soldier, I can imagine the difficult situation they find themselves in and see why they are fighting.  I also have children. If I target this child with lethal force, will I feel like I am targeting my own child? Will I feel guilt because in my worldview, children are not to be combatants, they are to be protected as innocent? Will I be able to kill if it is called for? How will I feel afterwards?

One helpful consideration is that empathy is more relevant at the strategic level, and less so at the tactical level. Another consideration is that the distinction between empathy and sympathy may matter a great deal; empathy may be necessarily and productive, sympathy may be bad and counter-productive, especially in relation to the question of moral injury. How does one engage in empathy and not in sympathy? Does one slide naturally into the other or is it possible to maintain some clear distinction between the two? What does the work of empathy look like in current strategic contexts with high levels of bureaucracy and the dominance of a rational actor model?

Obedience and Loyalty: Dogs and Cats


Hackiko the Loyal Dog

The story of Hackiko the Loyal Dog, who waited in the same place every day for 10 years to his master (who had died) to return, seems to embody the virtue of loyalty. But is this also a story about obedience? What is the intersection and/or overlap between loyalty and obedience?

We often think of dogs as both loyal and obedient.  Dogs (well trained of course) obey our commands and do what we ask.  (Cats, not so much!) They seem to want to please us, to protect us and show a certain kind of preference and partiality towards their owners that we could think of as loyalty.  There are many stories about dogs facing grave risks to save or protect their owners, and the story of Hachiko seems an extreme version of this.

Lets start with a definition of loyalty. In my book Warrior, Military ethics and Contemporary Warfare I argue that loyalty ‘involves privileging the moral claims of some people, groups or ideas over others on the grounds of relationship, membership or other particularity.’ (28) In addition, loyalty is not just simple habits of attachment, but involve obligations and duties. Obedience does seem important to ideas of loyalty in the military, but trust also seems bound up in it too, as we can see in discussions of moral injury that involve as sense of betrayal and breaking of trust as a violation of the virtue and expectation of loyalty.

Of course, loyalty is not that simple, as we often have conflicting loyalties. In the military context, one has obligations of loyalty to peers, to commanders/leaders, to the Constitution, to the institution of the military or the community of practice, to the Core Values or other normative structures of military professionalism, to friends and family, and to fellow citizens – to name only a few.  Given these complexities, and the desire to avoid what is termed as ‘blind obedience,’ we need to go into more depth to try and sort out the relationship between loyalty and obedience.

Can one be obedient without being loyal?  It seems that this is possible; there is a certain kind of obedience that comes from fear or self-interest. My students obey (mostly) the commands that I give in class and outlined in the course syllabus because they have to in order to be successful in the course. This is obedience in a transactional sense which may involve fear, self-interest or a judgement of the costs and benefits. Outside of the class, it is not clear that there is a relationship which would command preferential treatment or prioritizing my moral concerns above others. So we have obedience, but not necessarily loyalty.

Does it work the other way? Can one be loyal without being obedient? Can cats (as an example of non-obedient creatures) be loyal even though one might not think of them as obedient? Or selectively obedient at the very best? Can disobedience actually be seen as an expression of loyalty?

This is a tougher, less intuitive case to make. At first, it would seem that if I am loyal to my mother, then I would obey her. But on closer examination, I could argue I am disobeying her because she is giving a bad order (to harm my father, lets say only for the sake of argument!) or is asking me to do something that sacrifices shared moral commitments.  The order may be bad because its not possible to carry it out or because it violates the moral commitments of our relationship or even more likely, broader moral commitments of our family, community.  Here disobedience will involve making choices among competing loyalties and also using my own judgement and discretion about which ones take priority.  Is it possible that I have to be disobedient in order to be loyal?

Back to my cats. I would say that they are, in fact, loyal to me. From my perspective, they seem to exhibit partiality to me based upon a relationship (that I feed them and care for them more than likely.)  Do they have partiality to my moral claims ? That is a more complicated question, since they are cats and one might argue they are not capable of moral judgments.  But that brings us to an important distinction to consider. Loyalty is about relationship and the moral claims of the person or thing I am in relationship with. Obedience seems to be about actions and not about relationship per se. Obedience involves a command to DO something; loyalty seems more about being and valuing moral claims.