Why Does Ethics Matter for the Military?


The military profession, as with all professions, is defined and governed in large part by its ethic; the rules and behaviours by which its members conduct themselves. Any professional military force, anywhere in the world, sees itself as distinct from a ‘mere’ group of mercenaries or long-term contractors, and that self-identity is based on more than simply being a recognised servant of the state, authorised to employ violence as and when required. A degree of autonomy over how that violence is employed and the structured adherence to laws, codes and accepted norms is part of that identity. A breach of those rules may be legally wrong and therefore make the perpetrator liable to legal sanction, but it is also likely to be seen as institutionally wrong in the sense that it will be considered unprofessional.

It is hardly surprising that this ethic is so well founded. Ethical failures by the military can have terrible consequences for a huge range of people, including the local civilian populations and the combatants on both sides of a conflict, for the internal health of the military organisation itself, for the relationship between the military and society, and for the strategic utility of forces engaged on behalf of their political community.

The type of ‘discretionary conflict’ that currently appears to be the norm, where vital national interests are not obviously at stake, can pose different ethical and legal challenges for democracies when compared to wars of national survival, where the issues appear more black and white (as far as this is ever possible in war). The potential range of issues that must be addressed is also widening due to the varied types of activity the military can become involved with. Peacekeeping or peace enforcement and humanitarian relief operations pose very different types of challenges to those found in ‘traditional’ high-intensity, state-on-state warfare. Counter-insurgency and irregular wars introduce a whole raft of ethical and legal dilemmas that need to be explored and resolved if campaigns are to be conducted appropriately and ultimately judged as successful.

One of the questions that often arises is why is this an ethics issue rather than simply a legal one? Every professional military around the world is supposed to fulfil its international obligations and ensure that the Law of Armed Conflict is taught and refreshed each year to all serving military personnel, both in peacetime and in wartime. If this is done properly, doesn’t this make military ethics education redundant? Clearly there is a great deal of overlap between the two areas of ethics and law. However, sometimes the contemporary operating environment presents situations in which it might not be clear what the legal position actually is. For example, the 1990 edition of the US Small Wars Manual makes clear:

[s]mall wars demand the highest type of leadership directed by intelligence, resourcefulness, and ingenuity. Small wars are conceived in uncertainty, are conducted often with precarious responsibility and doubtful authority, under indeterminate orders lacking specific instructions.

Even where the framework of the law is absolutely clear, and the range of legally permissible options can be clearly identified, the law is still not enough on its own to provide the actual answers. A decision still needs to be made as to which course of action one should take. Military decision-making requires the ability to answer questions such ‘Would such an action be lawful in this situation?’ but it also needs people who will also ask ‘This course of action is legal but is it actually the right thing to do?’ The best decision-making will therefore be informed by both ethical and legal considerations if the appropriate and most desirable outcome is to be achieved.

The type of issues that come up in military ethics sometimes do not have straightforward answers, thus it can appear that there is a huge amount of disagreement on fundamental issues, leading to the perception that “it’s all relative”. However, it is important to note that the disagreements that arise are actually very narrow in focus. Philosophers and ethicists are drawn to the complicated examples where it is not straightforward to see how to apply the rules in that specific situation. However, that is very different from saying that there is no agreement on the 99.9% of other situations. Discussing the really complicated examples allows us to explore which principle is best applied in which circumstance, and the strengths and weaknesses of different tools.

This is exactly why there is a need for education rather than training in this important area. Training, done well, teaches what to do in a specific situation. Education, done well, is about equipping individuals with the tools and skills to be able to make sense of and do the correct thing in any situation, regardless of whether it has been trained for. It is precisely the questions for which there are not black and white responses that need to be engaged with, thought about and discussed by the people for whom they are most pertinent – military practitioners – before those people are put into situations where they need to actually make those decisions.

Dr Whetham is the Director of the Centre for Military Ethics at King’s College, London (www.militaryethics.uk).

This blog entry is adapted from D. Whetham, ‘Challenges to the Professional Military Ethics Education Landscape’, in Carrick, Connelly & Whetham, Making the Military Moral (Ashgate, 2016 forthcoming). 

Image: Irish Naval Service rescuing migrants from an overcrowded boat as part of Operation Triton, June 2015, via wikimedia commons.

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