“Just War and other lies we tell ourselves”: A Riff


My friend @_MikeDenny was riffing this morning on possible titles for inconvenient (read controversial and potentially unpopular) think pieces related to foreign policy and military matters and the one quoted in the title naturally struck a nerve and caught my attention. Mike kindly gave me permission to riff, and so riff I shall. (And I hope he will do the same at some point!)

First, lets talk about Just War. I think for many people, hearing the phrase ‘Just War’ means that war is moral. But, of course, what exactly does that mean? When I say that War X is Just, I am using Just in the sense of Just War Thinking which includes thinkers from St. Augustine to Michael Walzer and Jean Bethke Elshtain. In this way of thinking, ‘Just’ means morally permissible or allowed (not immoral) under certain limited circumstances, usually in pursuit of Justice (hence the term) or avoiding some serious moral wrong. This does NOT mean that we think war is a moral good, intrinsically morally or that is something that ought to be universalized as an unconditional good (to paraphrase Immanuel Kant.)  Most scholars who advocate for a Just War view argue that there is a presumption against violence and war, therefore the case for permissions, or exceptions (which is the language Michael Walzer, the dean of 20th century Just War Thinking uses) must be publicly made and debated – with a healthy amount of skepticism.

So, is Just War a lie that we tell ourselves? Since I reject Realism (read Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars Chapter 1 for a start on why,) I do not think so – assuming that we are talking about Just in the sense that I have outlined above. I share the assumption of Just War Thinking that there is and ought to be a heavy presumption against war, but that we might make exceptions to the that presumption on the grounds of Justice or the Common Good.  Making such exceptions is very dangerous business, ethically speaking, and so should be done with skepticism, resistance and angst.  Too many moral harms come from war not to take this process seriously; war is not, in my view, a moral good in itself.

Second, and what in my view is the more interesting part of the riff: is the idea of ethics in war (whether in the resort to force, the conduct of war or justice after the war) a self-delusion, a lie that we tell ourselves? As an ethicist, I take this question seriously and think that very often the answer is yes. It breaks my heart to say that, but I am a pragmatist as well an ethicist. Human beings are prone to epistemological optimism and conservatism.  We believe what we want to/prefer to believe and tend to believe things that fit into the web of things we already believe; having to reassess everything you think is true is a real pain – just ask Rene Descartes. So we believe what makes life easier, what makes us feel better about ourselves and others, and what allows us to go on as we have before and not be uncomfortable.

We would prefer to think we are good people. We prefer to think that we would not inflict needless harm on others or even members of our own society. We prefer to think that there is a moral order and that war is an effective and necessary way to enforce that order and also to show others our moral commitment to Justice. We prefer to think we can fight in ways that would only kill and harm the ‘guilty/baddies’ and would spare and never harm the ‘innocent/good people.’ We prefer to think that war will be easy and that recovery after war will be easy; that the other side will surrender and see the moral errors of their ways with due contribution and be willing to rebuild and behave.  We prefer to that if we have a Just Cause and fight a war Justly that our soldiers will come home alive, whole and as heroes/heroines. We prefer to believe that war is an interruption in civil life, after which we can all go back to Normal.

I trust you see the point of the riff. These things have the potential to be lies we tell ourselves about war, using ethics and morality as a cover for other motives and to insulate ourselves from the harm and reality that is war. As an ethicist, I cannot overemphasize the danger in this. I do believe that there is a moral order, that things are objectively right or wrong. But that does not mean that humans are good at judging those things, discovering those things or more importantly, acting in accordance with that order. Add to this the problems of relativism and moral disagreement, and combine with a human tendency to self-delusion (or at least epistemological optimism) and you have a dangerous cocktail.

So these may be lies we tell ourselves. Or they may not be. But we should at least ask ourselves whether they are, and take that process of reflection and examination seriously. Its too easy to invoke ethical categories to do all kinds of horrid things, and then not feel guilty about them. Rationalization is a powerful drug. Just say no.

On Liberty, Free Speech and Civility: It’s Complicated


In his book On Liberty, second generation utilitarian J.S. Mill famously argues for completely free speech – save to prevent imminent harm to another person.  He understands this in terms of imminent physical harm. not because (as my students sometimes posit) that he did not understand psychology and the impact of verbal, emotional and other non-physical forms of harm; rather those are difficult to quantify and thus are much more complicated and subjective in terms of the utilitarian calculus. Mill is not arguing from a natural or human rights view here. Instead he is arguing that this level of free speech (despite the harms that it will cause) is and has been in history more conducive to progress and some version of Truth over the long run of human history (Chapter 2.)

This view, of course, is interesting to talk about with students as they think they agree with Mill, until we start to get into the nitty gritty of what this view actually means.  Then the ‘…but what about…’ starts.  What about sexual harassment? What about hate speech? What about…? It gets complicated pretty fast as contemporary Americans in practice often reject Mill’s radical argument. We have moved to qualify his argument and tend to disagree with his claim that this radical free speech is best for society in the long run.

As interesting as the overall argument is, I am always struck by his argument at the very end of this chapter, which seems even more apt and complicated for our own time. “Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take some notice of those who say that free expression of all opinions should be permitted on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion.”  So free discussion ought to be civil and fair.  Who can disagree with that, especially in our own time when it seems to many that traditional norms of civil discourse are under attack or have disappeared altogether? A quick look at social media platforms seem to bear out the ways in which insults, bad arguments, name calling and bullying have come to dominate public ‘discussion.’

But, of course, its complicated. Mill’s notes that these calls for civility occur when the dominant side in a discussion is being bested by the minority view and they do not have other arguments to offer. In short, civility is used as a move of political silencing again the vulnerable and minority viewpoint by those in power. This seems born out by history as well: persons of color, women and many other minority groups trying to express their views and critique power have been told they are not being civil, that they must play by the ‘rules of the game.’  The charge of ‘respectability politics’ is one that is often heard in our public discourse when charges of incivility or coarsening of speech are leveled by dominant perspectives or groups.

In terms of Mill’s text, he is playing by the ‘rules of the game’ in constructing a philosophical argument rooted in rationality, argument and evidence, designed to appeal to the audience who presumably shares his philosophical starting point of classical liberalism (especially individual rights and free conscience.)  But what about a work like F. Fannon’s “The Fact of Blackness” Fannon which is a highly personal, emotional and literary reflection on his experience of Blackness and its implications for philosophical and other debates about race and ethnicity. One could argue (I am not!) that is not part of civil philosophical discourse and he is violating the rules of civil philosophical discussion (as the discipline of philosophy might understand it.) I expect similar arguments could be made against Nietzsche, feminist, critical race theorists and many others who use non-traditional formats and approaches to critique a dominant view.

This issue is one that I think is important to discuss with my students, since the syllabus includes MY ground rules for civil discourse in the classroom and gives them a chance to reflect on what makes for good discussion and what helps us seek after knowledge and Truth.  (IS this how we ought to run our class?) Mill himself finally comes down on the side of civility, with the acknowledgement of how ‘civility’ can be misused and asking us to be cognizant of that fact, while still arguing that fair and civil discussion has the best prospect for advancing Truth and progress in terms of knowledge.

While there are clear and systemic problems with who gets to define ‘fair and civil’ discussion and how we understand this requirement in different contexts, at the end of the day I think Mill is right on this. This is not to ignore the social, institutional and social power dynamics and privilege at work here, and we need to take seriously the question about what kinds of public discourse are most productive and allow for truly critical thought and challenging of power in our own context. We cannot ignore history or the ways in which the powerful use ‘civility’ to reinforce the status quo and prevent the very kinds of discussion that Mill thinks is so necessary.

On the other hand, we have a democratic republic. Those who are wrong (so we think) have one vote and free speech. Those who are right (or think they are) also have the same. Change requires the ability of one side or perspective to persuade the other side, or at least some part of that group, to change their minds and endorse another political course of action. It might be tempting to think that the ‘wrong’ side will just die out like dinosaurs and the ‘right’ side can just wait. It also might be tempting to engage in the fantasy that the ‘wrong’ side will be defeated, eliminated or marginalized. But in the words of the meme, That’s Not How This Works, That’s Not How Any of This Works.  At long as we *are* a democratic republic, we need public discourse and the ability to persuade our compatriots and fellow citizens (whether one likes them or not, whether one agrees with them or sees them as an existential threat) to another course of action.

And if this is right (which it might NOT be as Mill would remind us!) then I think ‘civil and fair’ discussion is the most effective in the long term. Political violence might be easier and more efficient, but that is not our system. (I suppose another system is possible…) Insults, bullying and screaming might be cathartic and satisfying (especially in a reality show, drama and attention craving culture), but its not clear what it accomplishes in terms of changing minds – except to likely ossify one’s opponents to hold to their views more strongly and make the situation worse! Compromise may be a dirty word in our political discourse, and certainly many argue that no compromise is possible with ‘evil’ and ‘wrong,’ but we should remember Mill’s point that the assertion that a position is beyond reproach, obviously correct is itself, is a political power move designed to avoid or circumvent free discussion, as much as the ‘civility’ move is.

However, this is hard to remember in the heat of fear, frustration and genuine social/political issues that need addressing and have not been addressed by those in power. So I am sympathetic to the objection Mill discusses. At the end of the day, however, I am a pragmatist. What will work? Not today, not tomorrow, but over the long term and in coherence with our generally shared moral and political values. It’s gonna be messy. I am not going to tell anyone to be quiet or not speak. I am going to speak, in ac civil and fair manner I hope, but with the understanding that it is complicated. And that I could be wrong. (Do not tell my kids…)

The Problem of Unnecessary Suffering in War


(Photo, Afghanistan, ITN News.)

Several people have asked me what I think of the issue of civilian casualties in war. (How long do you have? PS Go take my Experience of War or Military Ethics class!) On a fairly regular basis, there are stories about civilians being killed airstrikes or other military actions. The location may vary (Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen are the most popular,) but the narrative is pretty much the same: pictures and reports appear, condemnation, surprise and horror, justifications, caveats and questions followed sometimes by investigations and rare follow up. Until the next one happens. Then rise and repeat.

I do, as a military ethicist, have some thoughts. First, the reactions to these events reveal two important moral insights/commitments. One is that the suffering of civilians in war is wrong and should not happen. Another is a frustration that ‘precision weapons’ are not as precise as we (the public) might think and how is this possible? Surely we have the technological ability to target and destroy with precision so that we can avoid the problem of civilian casualties in war?

Second, both of these ideas are highly problematic. Let me say before beginning that technology is a tool in the hands of those who use it and must engage in judgements (often with imperfect information, a difficulty in anticipating with 100% accuracy what will happen and sometimes with clouded, wrong or incomplete moral judgement)  Let me also say that I think that the US (and many other nations as well) is committed to the Principle of Discrimination and Principle of Proportionality and their relatives in International Humanitarian Law as means to wage war as justly as possible, with as little unnecessary suffering as possible.

Please notice the phrase: Unnecessary Suffering. This is the phrasing in much international law, in Just War Thinking and in various military discussions. Please notice that the phrase is NOT: No Suffering.  This reflects a long history of the idea that there will be suffering – both combatant and non-combatant (commonly ‘civilian’) – in war and furthermore that some suffering is morally and legally justified.  Wait? What? How can any suffering in war be moral?

Well, it depends what you mean by moral. If you mean intrinsically good and we should all strive for it, then neither war, not any suffering in war can be moral in this sense.  But generally when discussing the ethics of war, we are using moral in another sense, in the sense that war and some of the suffering in war is morally justified or permitted. This means that we are allowing or saying things normally prohibited (killing) have a moral justification or reason in certain limited kinds of cases. We say that the resort to war is morally justified under the conditions of Just War Thinking or that killing another human is morally justified when done by the State as punishment for certain crimes after the requisite legal process.

In this case, necessary suffering (whether of combatants or non-combatants) is morally justified insofar as it militarily necessary, which generally means is necessary to the military aims of the war. Note this is, NOT, anything the military decides is necessary (like my 9 year old deems more Legos as necessary,) but rather those things deemed militarily necessary to the (justified) war aims. In our system, the military certainly has input into this judgement, but so does the civilian leadership (especially at the strategic level.)  So this means that ANY suffering which is not necessary to the military aims (that is above and beyond that is required to achieve these military aims) is morally unjustified.

Third, the military is tasked with avoiding the infliction of intentional and unnecessary suffering (and with intentionally targeting non-combatants while we are on the topic.)  This is also related to the idea that proportionality considerations ought to be observed, much like police officers ought not use ‘excessive force.’ It is unavoidable that there will unintentional unnecessary suffering in war. It sucks in every possible way that one can imagine. But humans, epistemological uncertainty, fog of war, difficult moral judgements under pressure and changing circumstances and things that blow up are a challenging and messy combination. (Which is, of course, why we ought only to engage in war as a Last Resort. )

Last, technology changes none of this. It makes it tempting to think we can be precise and only target and harm the ‘enemy’ and spare anyone who does not deserve to be treated as an object of war (as Michael Walzer phrases it), but that is not the reality. This in no way lessens the morality and legal obligation not to inflict (intentional) unnecessary suffering, but that obligation isn’t just related to non-combatants as it applies to combatants as well. As we reflect upon the carnage of war, we need serious attention to what is truly necessary and unnecessary to the achievement of the military aims (which are presumably morally justified if it is a Just War.)  It may be tempting to think in terms of convenience and therefore, misjudge what is ‘necessary.’ That is a moral temptation that must be resisted and requires good, critical strategic, tactical and moral judgment.

Why Diva Doesn’t Have It All, but Thanks For the Fantasy….


A few weeks ago, I posted a poll asking what I should blog about next, with the third choice being the sarcastic, “How Diva Does It All” and guess what won? (Y’all are cheeky monkeys so….)

I recall Maria Shriver being interviewed once on Oprah, and she said something to the effect of the Having It All myth is BS; she said you can have it all, but not all at the same time. This has stuck with me as profound and liberating.

I do not have it all. I have a good career that I enjoy with tenure and a solid paycheck. I have kind and largely amenable colleagues. My students are wonderful, kind and interesting people who work hard and struggle. I have people outside my academic community who are willing to read my work and seriously engage it, and many of these people are not academics and this pleases and surprises me everyday.

I have a small, but loyal circle of friends and fam IRL and a larger and just as loyal one through social media who are willing to listen to my ramblings and be my support. I have romantic, quasi-romantic and who knows what kind of relationships and interactions with gents since my divorce which have ebbed and flowed (and spun in occasionally) as these things do, and I have learned that online dating is just not my thing.

I have two beautiful children who are healthy and strong willed. We recently changed custody agreements and now I am a full time parent to one and the other lives with his father; to say I miss my Monkey is an understatement. But I called him my Buddha Baby and he was always an old soul, so I knew I would be letting go much earlier than most parents.

On the other side, I am a divorced philosopher and Diva who little tolerance for BS and games. I struggle financially and scream at my children. I get frustrated with my students and colleagues and have days when I really hate writing and just do not want to submit my work and ego to any more judgment. I swear. Alot. I buy too many shoes and watch too much TV (especially football!)  I forget to call my mother and tell my father I love him, even though they are and have been an unfailing source of support. I should be closer to my brothers and other friends, but I also know they have their own lives.  I struggle with mild. chronic depression in a male dominated field, in a place and time when misogyny seems resurgent and I have less and less patience to deal with it.

At times, it feels divorce is a kind of leprosy in that people do not quite know what to do with you.  What category do you fit in now? And of course, my marriage and divorce taught me that I am constitutionally allergic to conventional categorization; I tried it and it nearly killed me. (Literally. Knives. Vodka. One bad day.) So now I am trying to carve my own path, which is also greeted as a form of leprosy and I get why. And I have two Barbarians to raise, a largely civil, if weird,  relationship with my ex and a shrinking circle of ‘friends’ as I try to figure out what relationships mean and which ones are worth the time and energy.

I will never be the Dean of Military Ethics. And conversely, he will never be me and have the outside perspective and experiences that I do. (And one of us looks great in heels. #jussayin’)  I think I have things to contribute to my field, but that too now has to take an unconventional path. You will notice a theme here?

So I do not have it all. It is interesting that some of you think that I do, and that is flattering in a way.  I have some things together on some days, and on rare days more than one thing comes together. I also have days when nothing seems right – I cannot teach, I am a terrible parent, and a worse writer/thinker, I will die alone and I have a failed marriage. Even the cats are mad at me. (Ergo, time to get a dog!)  One hopes that when I look back at some point, I can say I was authentic, caring and did my best. More importantly, that I was a kind, gracious person my sons could look up to and admire. Not as perfect, but as good.

Looking for a Few Good Men: Military Ethics in the Internet Age


Its been, as we say in my family, a ‘festive’ week to be a military ethicist with the breaking and then worsening and widening of the Marines United nude photo scandal detailed here. Scandal

Even describing it as a scandal about the sharing of nude photos fails to capture the multiplicity of ethical violations and problems detailed in the story about the Marines, and now more broadly, members of the other services, veterans and others. It is not clear what we should call these actions – there was sharing of photos but other actions, words and threats to the women, their defenders and now investigators have been detailed. In the words of my students, “I literally can’t even.” But as a philosopher and ethicist, I am called by my profession to try and make sense of this and bring what little perspective is possible at this point.  (As a philosopher, I reserve the right for continued reflection and I invite civil and serious discussion. Please direct all death threats to my agent.)

The first issue is to be clear on what exactly we are dealing with here. The first suggestion is this is indicative of the state of the larger sexual culture in our society that we cannot expect our military members and  veterans to be exempt from.  I see this as a variation on Socrates’ argument about the lack of morals in the youth and the general moral decay of society; this is hardly a new argument. Sexual mores change yes. Does that explain this? It may be part of the picture, but it is not sufficient.

Second, the suggestion has been made that this a variation on hazing. This is an interesting idea, but hazing (whether in the military or larger civilian society) usually involves humiliation, subjugation and exploitation as a means to test and challenge those looking to enter a group or who are new to a group. It is a rite of passage imposed by those who are already members and presumably went through some kind of rite themselves. The details in the accounts do not match this kind of scenario. Again, part of the picture but not sufficient.

Third, one might argue that is an expression of the objectification and degradation of women that is part of our larger civilian society and  related to the ‘Warrior’ idea of masculinity central to the military self conception (at least for some.) I won’t go into detail here but see  https://angrystaffofficer.com/2016/12/14/stop-calling-us-warriors/  as well as Chapter 7 of my book. https://www.amazon.com/Warrior-Military-Ethics-Contemporary-Warfare/dp/1409465365

One thing to note about the Warrior idea that may be helpful is that there are special permissions given to the Warrior (which is also an idea that may be seen in some ideas of military professionalism) by society and those have included the idea of exerting lethal and other forms of power over ‘enemy’ or subgroups that threaten the Warrior is his society. In addition, sexual permissions have historically been seen (either explicitly or implicitly) as one of the permissions that one is entitled to as a Warrior. This has been part of military life and is part of the reason for the resistance to integration of ‘feminine’ (or less than ‘Warrior Masculine’) groups like women, homosexual and transgendered or non-binary persons.

However, such ‘traditional’ ideas run afoul of contemporary understandings of military professionalism in all the military branches in the US. The actions and especially the responses by Marines United and their allies are a direct challenge to the ideas of respect, trust, good order and self regulation of the moral community of the profession. The responses from USMC leadership, especially the Commandant, make clear that these actions and responses represent a failure to embody and direct violations of the Core Values and moral standards of the professional community. They are additionally a direct threat to discipline and good order so central to unit cohesion and combat effectiveness because it is a betrayal of one’s own teammates.

So what is going on?  One avenue of reflection takes us back to Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe Tribe where he discussed the difficulty that veterans have in coming home, especially the problem with re-entry. He thinks the problem is the lack of community that vets experience when they come home to an individualistic and consumer driven society that is so markedly different from the world they inhabited in the military.

I would add another issue to this.  Historically, warrior cultures returned and through some kind of ritual were expected to make atonement for or to acknowledge the violence they had participated in, and the society then shared in this responsibility and allowed them to re-enter normal society.  In our contemporary society, there is no ritual  atonement for violence, which breeds a sense of guilt on one hand (contributing to phenomena like moral injury) and on the other hand, arrogant entitlement and a sense that civilians are not fit to judge military warriors. Jack Nicholson’s USMC character in the film A Few Good Men is only one such representation of this. (The Entitled Warrior Complex let’s call it.)

I would argue that some of what is going on in this case is the idea of sexual permissions combined with the Entitled Warrior complex.  In this case the manifestation is through shared nude pictures, humiliating, degrading and even persecuting of women who are supposed to have their respect and be part of their team. When challenged, the response reflects this sense of entitlement and justification in terms of this dynamic and a refusal to admit that there is any unethical or unprofessional behavior here, deflecting the blame to the women and to others who are clearly not real ‘Warriors’ and therefore, do not ‘get it’ and therefore are not real ‘Men’ and not entitled to membership in the brotherhood.

There have been calls for firm and clear leadership on this issue, which is right and understandable, but this is not just a leadership issue nor an issue of failed personal morality.  This is an issue of military culture (as it clearly cuts across the service branches) and ethics problem and must be dealt with as such. This requires strong words (which we have seen some of in the aftermath of the scandal), but it also requires strong actions to deal with the perpetrators as well. Beyond that, we must deal with the severe breaches of and challenges to the Core Value and military professionalism (the ethical framework of the moral community that is the military) that this scandal represents only one fracture point.

Respect and trust are basic foundations to the military and failures with respect to those in one area are risking those behaviors in another.  While many will not like the comparison (and there are some differences), I cannot get the photos of Abu Gharib out of my mind. Humiliation, degradation, mocking and persecution of those that one deems as a subgroup or lesser in relation to oneself, which reflected larger cultural and ethical problems. Not a case of a few bad apples. If we are honest with ourselves, its is rarely a case of a few bad apples.

I was reminded of a few lines from my favorite Shakespeare Henry V  amidst all these reflections.  In his St Crispin’s Day speech the King responds to the concern that they are outnumbered and facing a difficult battle – a situation that may resonate with those in the military community and elsewhere disgusted and appalled by the revelations this week.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day

And further, and most importantly for this reflection:

For the best hope I have. Oh, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart. His passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse.
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.

Why Y’all Are Wrong on Leadership and Ethics: #sorrynotsorry


Every time there is a scandal in business or ethics we hear the same script: It’s a Leadership issue! (Person in question failed a Leadership test….) It’s an issue of Personal Morality ! (Person in question has moral flaws and/or failed to demonstrate Personal Morality i.e. Moral Purity….)

This is usually followed by hand-wringing of two types:

A – society is failing to develop Moral Character and Purity (Kids today! Socrates lament…) B- there are always a few bad apples, but the barrel is fine so we can all relax.

Several experiences in recent months have highlighted something that I think about often. Since I teach both military ethics (working with civilian and Army ROTC students) and business ethics (who are business majors in a required philosophy class for the School of Business) –  and that is the relationship between Leadership and Ethics.

Here is the conventional narrative: We need to (using Leadership Theory, Management Theory, Organizational Theory or some other theoretical construct from the Social Sciences – especially psychology and sociology and/or Business) develop curriculum or training on good Leadership, on Strategic Thought and related areas and practices and if we do so, ethics kinda takes care of itself.  This is not to say that these fields and these approaches do not recognize the possibility that one can be a ‘good’ (effective) leader and be also unethical  (note I did not use the term immoral here…I will return to that point in a few moments), but they tend to think it is not very likely, or the exception to the rule.  But why?

These approaches tend to view ‘ethics’ really as a matter of the personal morality of the character of the individual leader, or maybe how they carry out their role of leader within some idea of best leadership practices for their community.  So the ‘unethical’ leader will really be an immoral individual and this cannot be accounted for or addressed by leadership or management theories – you have to try your best to chose and hope for moral people who will then become ethical leaders.

[A word about moral and ethical and their use here. The first day of any of my courses involves making an important distinction between moral – what individuals, groups or societies think of as right and wrong – and ethical, which is higher order reflection upon these or analysis about what it means to say something is moral, what moral claims or language means or are used and how moral systems or claims are given justification.  These terms are often used interchangeably and this contributes to the general confusion and problems that I am highlighting in this discussion. Words matter.]

What is the problem with this view?  One take is Dale Wilson’s good piece in The Strategy Bridge about ethical fading and decay Wilson; this viewpoint seems to be supported by studies about the ethical cultures of companies in business and reports in the military like Lying to Ourselves Lying.  Many of these reports locate the problem as either one of personal morality (and responsibility) or a failure of leadership.  We see a similar dynamic around the round of examination in the military post Vietnam and Abu Gharib.

I think there is some merit in these analyses; they certainly are part of the story, because something important is missing here.  In professional ethics, ethics is not about personal morality alone, and in fact personal morality as the only ethical guide can be highly problematic because the ethical problems faced are faced in the context of systems and structures that go beyond the individual and on which the individual has limited impact upon and control over.  Being ethical in this frame is about understanding actions and policies within the context of ethical systems and communities – in the social context and within a context of service or obligation to society.

If this is going to be successful it requires tools of ethical reflection, analysis which has to include thinking about ethics and ethical questions and problems in a systematic and critical way. It is not enough to  know My Lai and Enron where wrong – but why?  They were not solely the result of bad choices by Lt Calley and Ken Lay, which is one conventional way of dealing with these case studies.  What could they have done, and made everything turn out differently? Except that Calley and Lay were not the only ones making individual choices in those contexts, and those actions would not have happened without certain assumptions, choices and systematic ways of thinking on the part of many other individuals and groups involved.

It takes a village to be ethical, and it takes a village to produce ethical failures. But so much of our discussion is focused on personal morality, individual responsibility and then we wonder why ethical failures are a regular feature of military and business endeavors?  Because we are ignoring really important parts of the picture and the way in which individuals are part of ethical and unethical communities, systems and thinking and the ways in which that impacts their actions.  Joanne Cuilla (author of The Ethics of Leadership Book) has done some important and pioneering work here and it merits sustained and important attention by leadership theorists, practioners, military and business ethicists. She fuses ethical theory and ethical traditions of discourse (include Aristotle, Kant, Mill and others) with many of the traditional questions, theories and frameworks of thinking about and practice of leadership.

To this end, I will be devoting the last couple of weeks (where my students present and lead class based upon their research and reading) to this topic of Leadership and Ethics. Because one ought to practice what one preaches.

Military Ethics – PHIL 224 Reading List and Schedule

Since some of you asked,

Required Texts:

Plato: Laches  via Internet Classics Archives classics.mit.edu/Plato/laches.html

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics (any edition with side pagination)

Epictetus: The Handbook  via Internet Classics Archives classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html

Immanuel Kant: Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals  (any edition with side pagination)

John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism (any edition)

Stephen Coleman: Military Ethics: An Introduction with Case Studies (ISBN 9780199846290)

George Lucas Jr., : Ethics and Cyber Warfare (ISBN 9780190276522)

Other readings via Sakai ‘Resources’

 Recommended Texts:

            Jostein Gaarder: Sophie’s World. (NY: Berkeley Books, 1994)

Frederick Copleston: A History of Philosophy. (This comes in several volumes arranged chronologically and generally available in the library)

Julian Baggini: The Pig that Wants to be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher ISBN 0452287448  (Some fun topics to think about for papers!)

While there are various resources available online that might be helpful please heed the following caveats (which also apply to non-online secondary sources):

1) Just because it is on the internet (or in a text) does not mean that the content is accurate – check your sources and trust your critical capacities,

2) Any sources you might find are someone else’s interpretation of the text which you should never substitute for your own reading and interpretation since they might very well be WRONG, and

3) Relying on other sources will not help YOU develop your own reading, critical thinking and analysis skills (which you will need to successfully write your papers), nor will it tell you what your own perspective is (which you will also need to write your papers and participate in class.)

4) You are graded in this class on your own ideas, philosophical skills, and output.  In so far as reading other people may help with this, fine.  In so far as reading other people and sources becomes a crutch preventing you from doing this on your own, not cool.


Class Schedule:  (readings maybe subject to change, but I will consult the class)  All assignments are due at the beginning of class on the day in question, all written assignments to be handed in are in bold italics and must be typed, double spaced with word count turned in via the indicated location.


January 3: Intro; What is Ethics?  Why Military Ethics?

Virtue  and the Warrior

January 4: Quiz on syllabus; Prelude Paper (follow instructions on the prompt on Sakai under Assignments); read Plato’s Laches

Reading Question: (These are questions to help you direct your own reading and indicate issues that we will discuss in class)

What is ethics? What ethical views do you bring to this class?  How did you arrive at them? What is courage?  Is there only one definition of courage? Why is this question an important one in this book?

January 5: CRP #1 due; read Aristotle Book I – III (to 1114b15) and Coleman Chapter 3

Reading Question:  Why is Aristotle writing this book?   What is Aristotle’s conception of virtue? What are the connections between these 2 sections?  What is virtue for the warrior/soldier?

January 6: read Aristotle Books VI-X;  Case (handout), TBA on Core Values in the Military (Sakai)

Reading Question: How does Aristotle’s view of reasoning (prudence) compare to Plato’s?  What does friendship have to do with ethics? Why is pleasure not the same as happiness? What might Aristotle say?  Why?  What do you think? Why?


January 9: CRP #2 due; read  Epictetus The Enchiridion (The Handbook) , Stoicism readings including Nancy Sherman selections (Sakai) and Coleman Chapter 6.

Reading Question: What is the Stoic approach to morality?  How do they view emotion? What is your view of the Stoic approach?  How would you make your case?

Reason and Principles

January 10: read Kant Section I and Tim O’Brien “How to Tell a True War Story” (on Sakai)

Reading Question: What is ‘good will”? Why is it important? Why is duty so important to Kant?

January 11: CRP #3 due; read Kant Section II and Kant’s “Essay on Perpetual Peace” (Sakai)

Reading Question: Why must Reason be the source of ethics? What does Kant mean by “Reason”? Why is there only one categorical imperative?   Does killing in war pass the CI?

January 12: read Mill Chapters 1 and 2 + “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (on Sakai)

Reading Question: How does Mill define Utilitarianism?

January 13: CRP #4 due; read Mill Chapters 3-5

Reading Question: What is Mill’s positive argument for utilitarianism? What is the connection between utility and justice?

January 16: No class (holiday)

Just War Tradition and Challenges

January 17:  read Coleman Chapter 4 and 5,  Aquinas, “Is it always sinful to wage war?” (on Sakai), Bush Doctrine “President Bush’s Graduation Speech at West Point” (on Sakai)

Reading Question: Under what circumstances, if any, is war moral?  What does it mean to say that war is ‘moral’?  Using the JW Principles, would you argue that the intervention against ISIL is just[1]?  How would you make your case?  Does it really matter? Why/Why not?   What is your view of the morality of pre-emptive war?  What about military intervention on Humanitarian Grounds?

Rules and Conduct of War, Conventional and Otherwise

January 18: read Coleman Chapter 7 -9, Shannon French “Why Warriors Need a Code” (on Sakai)

Reading Question: What do you think of the notion of having rules in war? Should the Principle of Discrimination be maintained in current warfare?  How? What should happen if soldiers violate the rules of war?  Is it really fair to punish them?  How do asymmetric contexts change these considerations.

Asymmetric War, Insurgency and Terrorism

January 19: CRP #5 read Coleman Chapter 10 and 11,  Michael Baur, “What is Distinctive about Terrorism…?” (Sakai)

Reading Question: What is terrorism?  How is it different than other phenomenon?  Is it war? Or something different? Are there times when terrorism can be morally justified? How should attacked groups or nations respond to terrorism?  Should terrorism be viewed as an act of war or a crime?

Draft Process and Writing Philosophy Papers

January 20: FIRST DRAFTS POLICY PAPER DUE – Please bring 1 hard copy to turn in and 1 copy for your PC partner!

January 23: PEER CRITIQUE DUE, Class Discussion Leader Groups as assigned ; read Lucas Chapters 1-3

War by Other Means

January 24: CRP #6 due; Class Discussion Leader Groups as assigned; read Lucas Chapters 4-7.

Reading Question:   What are the ethical issues involved with these technologies and their uses in war?  Do we have an ethical obligation to use them if they reduce risk to our combatants?  Is there a minimum level of risk that should be expected in war?

January 25, 26, 27:  No class; writing and meeting with Case Narrative Groups; I am available via email.

January 30:  film in class “Battle of Algiers”

January 31: Case Study Narratives due in class (Topic:  TBA); Postlude Paper due NLT 5pm via Sakai, FINAL POLICY paper due NLT 11:30 am via Sakai, Course Evaluations in class.

Reading Question: What might each of the philosophers have to say about this case?   Why?  How would they make their case?


Acute or Chronic: Moral Dilemmas in War


Recently I was writing a book review on a new book or moral injury and, as is my practice while writing, I posted the following quote for discussion,

“They learn to kill, but nothing here or in their formal training prepares them for the acute moral dilemmas they will face in war.” (David Woods, What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars. p. 55)

As usual,  an energetic and at times, heated discussion ensued. There were lots of diverse views and interesting questions representing concerns ranging from masculinity, mindfulness, whether ethics and ethical reflection has any place in war and sharing of a variety of war experiences. It was all fascinating, but one question caught me up short, “…acute or chronic moral dilemmas?”  This is an incredibly smart question and I think gets to a critical piece of the moral injury discussion that does not get enough attention and warrants further sustained discussion and reflection. (Hint!)

Most of the moral injury discourse and research focuses around the idea of an acute injury or trauma that is experienced in the process of warfare: the solider kills a child soldier, non-combatants are collateral damage and/or killed accidentally, there is a betrayal in the chain of command, one is sexually assaulted by a comrade, one of your own people is killed in action or seriously injured.  It all of these cases there is guilt, a sense of responsibility and that the action or event is at odds with one’s own morals or the moral code of the community. One does something that ‘isn’t right’ even if it was ordered or necessary in the larger context of the ROE and strategy of the war.

As a teacher and scholar of military ethics, I tend to focus on cases or examples of these kinds of acute moral problems (My Lai, targeting child soldiers etc) that I think my cadets will encounter in warfare and therefore, need to ‘rehearse’ (see the Stoics for more on this concept)  or think through the ethical implications of before hand. For my civilian students, these acute dilemmas push in important ways against our moral intuitions and ethical theories and are critical to thinking through the ethical justification for war and how it ought to be conducted. This is the paradigm of military ethics (and I would argue philosophical ethics more generally) and also informs education and training, as well as our thinking about things like moral injury.

I do not wish to downplay the importance of these kinds of events, cases and their impacts on individuals, especially those to whom they happen and are impacted by them. But I do wonder if there is a piece that we are missing: the chronic and ongoing moral dilemmas that happen day in and day out, and which may have cumulative impacts in the same way that chronic pain does.  Taken alone, none of these dilemmas alone would cause an injury or trauma in the moment but over time, might they take a toll as serious, if not more so, than acute moral dilemmas?

Think about the cycle of mostly boredom, with moments of sheer terror – those moments not being predictable nor scheduled. Being keyed up to go into action, to potentially kill and try to avoid being killed, but that action not materializing. The constant tension of not knowing for certain who is friend or foe, who is a threat and who can be trusted. Wanting to help, contribute and see progress, only to see whatever gains erased either soon after or on your next tour through.The cycle of injury, deprivation, illness, heat and cold while few civilians at home seem to have any knowledge or interest in what is happening?  The bureaucracy and rules that may seem at odds with the strategic ends and aims of the war or with the tactical reality on the ground.

All of these things have moral implications for the individual and the military community; what is the cumulative impact of these sustained and chronic moral dilemmas? How do we educate and train, how do we ‘rehearse’ for the kinds of moral injury that result from these on-going dilemmas?  Does the paradigm of moral injury even fit these kinds of dilemmas? Of do need another concept like ‘moral erosion’ ‘moral exhaustion’? And how do you deal with that before, during and after warfare?

Warrior, Citizen Solider or Guardian: Thoughts after a kerfuffle


So as I was traveling last week, my friend and fellow gin imbiber wrote this https://angrystaffofficer.com/2016/12/14/stop-calling-us-warriors/

And as he warned, it created quite the stir, a regular Diva sized kerfuffle.  There was some fabulous and mostly civil discussion, there were good points and questions raised and also some (ahem!) name calling and other types of discourse that would have resulted in a failing grade in my philosophy classes. The point is this piece raised hackles, which tells you the Angry Staff Officer is onto something. The discussion about the warrior ethos in the military goes to the heart of how military and veteran think of themselves, how society looks at them and how we are to honor service in an authentic way in an age when many civilians have no idea what they are honoring, a fact which angers and frustrates many in the military community.

It was awesome. As a philosopher I wanted to wade it, but I had a plane to catch and a Thing to do which required energy and focus. So I come late to this, but I have thoughts.  And some of you won’t be happy, but that makes for good discussion.

In my book (which is crazy expensive, but e-book on sale!) https://www.routledge.com/The-Warrior-Military-Ethics-and-Contemporary-Warfare-Achilles-Goes-Asymmetrical/Kaurin/p/book/9781409465362 I take up the issue of the warrior ethos in the military and ask to what degree it still fits the kinds of asymmetric missions that the military is increasingly tasked with. One commenter in the discussion last week asked an important question: If the warrior mindset helps someone do what they need to do in Fallujah, why do you care?

I do care. I am a philosopher and an ethicist, and how we talk, what terms we use matter. Which I why I liked what my Friend in Gin was doing, even if I don’t necessary agree with everything he said (though FTR he is mostly right!).  This discussion is important because the terms we use circumscribe the ethical parameters of what we do. Some decry “its just semantics” as if words don’t matter; for philosophers definitions are the foundations of action, knowledge, reality and Truth. If we think the military is made up of warriors, that is one set of ethical choices; if we think they are citizen soldiers, another set of choices and if we think (as I argued in Chapter 7 we should) in terms of a Guardian ethos, we get a different ethical focus.

So I ask you to think about these three terms: Warrior, Citizen-Soldier, Guardian.  How do you define these terms? Ask some hard questions and think about what the Mission is. What it really is, not what you want it to be, but the lived experience and reality of contemporary warfare.

I’ll start. Here are my thoughts on these 3 terms. There is more in my book and we will discuss I am sure!

Warrior. I think in the archetype of Achilles here, for whom being a warrior isn’t just something he does, but rather is existential – Achilles is a warrior. He cannot be other. I would argue the same is true of Patton. A warrior is a member of a specially set aside (with rituals that attend this) class or caste who is trained in killing and combat, usually in the defense of their society and who will engage against other warriors. They are trained, consecrated religiously often, send out to kill, destroy and win and then return to some kind of atonement and re-integration process so that they can be once again a member of their society. (See Joseph Campbell’s Hero cycle in Hero With a Thousand Faces)  There is a clear separation and dedicated task for this group, oriented towards combat and killing as primary. This generates, in my view, the following order of ethical priority: 1) victory in physical terms, 2) obligations to ones brothers and sisters in arms and 3) to protection of the society.   Individual and group prowess, courage and honors against the enemy are often prized and to be rewarded, should the warrior be successful. (See Achilles beef with Agamemnon over his war prize.)  We can ask too, what role glory plays here….I am not sure it is central, but seems connected to honor so Angry Staff Officer may have a point.

Citizen Soldier. In contrast to Achilles, I think Hector fills this role. The Citizen Soldier serves as a integrated member of society, not as a member of a class apart. There is often a professed reluctance (looked down upon by the warrior) to use violence, but who will use it as a last resort. The soldier views this as a role, job or task to be taken up out of obligation to his/her fellow citizens, not as an existential mode. Hector fights as he must, but he would rather be home with his wife and son, as a citizen. Because of this framing, the ethical demands here are different; there are ethical rules and limits proscribed by the society and the soldier is always tethered to this; the warrior is more autonomous and accountable to his brothers and sisters in arms, only to the society upon return.

Guardian. In contrast to these two categories, my book prefers (and I think I still agree with this) the idea of the Guardian, which I am borrowing to a certain extent (though not completely) from Plato’s Republic.  The Guardian could still be viewed as a separate class with specific training and a specific vocation or role within society, but they are servants of society and subject to its constraints in certain ways that relate to their role as protector and upholder of the Common Good. For Guardians, violence is merely one of many means that might be used to achieve their ends, and does not define them as a group or class; violence is not integral to their existential identity in the same way it is for warriors. (Which by the way in part explains the kerfuffle and ensuing feels, to question the basis of an identity is tricky and dangerous business!) In addition, the idea of Guardian brings with it the ethical frame of protecting the vulnerable (non-combatants, victims of injustice) and the ethical limit of protection in the name of Justice.

So I think the question is: What is the ethical priority? How does professionalism (especially Military Professionalism) play into these priorities and help us think about what the Mission of the military is and ought to be? In general, while I see the intuitive, historic and existential appeal of the Warrior ethos, I think it is too limiting for contemporary warfare. But y’all will tell me how and why I am wrong! 🙂




Hacksaw Ridge – Thoughts from one of my very sharp students!

Below are some thoughts that one of my students in my class sent me (unsolicited by the way! Aren’t those the best?!) on Hacksaw Ridge.  They were so interesting, I thought you should read them!


November 26, 2016


Hacksaw Ridge thoughts


Last night we went to Hacksaw Ridge, a movie about a combat medic who was a conscientious objector in WWII.

My main issue with the film is the aggressive “Othering” of the Japanese. I understand that, for the story line of the noble hero overcoming evil, the other side must personify evil… but I’m not convinced that that is entirely helpful.

Part of the importance of going to see the film was working to close the military-civilian gap. The soldiers in the film clearly hated the “Japs;” but in what seems like a vain effort to balance out the hate the film-makers included a scene where our hero gives a Japanese soldier a bandage, who in return does not give away their position. However, two scenes ultimately other the Japanese irrevocably: the hero’s nightmare when they sneak up on and kill he and his Battle; the other right before the Japanese surrender. The music alone sounds as if the battle is as inconsequential as a high school football game. It is victorious and triumphant, lacking any dissonant notes to highlight the actual horror of the battle. No longer a desperate few on an impossible ridge, the American soldiers are now a righteous force on a crusade against Evil—squashing the Evil (Japanese soldiers) right and left with ease.

The only reason for this turnaround being that God has sided with the Americans for the Sabbath-day prayers and heroic/miraculous actions of the medic. To reinforce the spirituality of the defeat, the Japanese commander is shown committing ritual suicide—having failed his ancestors (or did his spirituality lose to the American god?).

But if the point of going to see this film was to close the military-civilian gap, then I think we failed. On the one hand, maybe it is just helpful to go see blood and gore and machine gun fire; to be made to hate the enemy as the soldiers might—to have our own switches flipped.

On the other, is it ever helpful to learn to hate an enemy? I would argue no, on the “appeal to authority” Star Wars argument: fear leads to anger, anger to hate, and hate to suffering. The cycle is apparent in our history which is punctuated by times of fear, Othering, hate, and finally war. This film unabashedly depicts a battle between Good and Evil with countless subversive messages (“Japs” and rats both use tunnels and are sneaky. Rats also feed on the dead and are the objects of blatant disgust.)

Perhaps learning to hate and fear an enemy—to flip a switch—can narrow the gap. I don’t know. However, I hope that the answer to healing for our soldiers and our society is closer to acknowledgment and forgiveness than that.