King’s Centre for Military Ethics

By Dr David Whetham

I have written here before about why the subject of ethics is so important for professional militaries. Globally, there is a growing acknowledgment that military ethics and a genuine, deep appreciation of human rights issues is a crucial component of the education of every service member, wherever they may serve. There is a clear linkage between ethical behaviour within armed forces and their conduct on operations. Fostering ethical awareness and moral decision-making in military personnel is a proven way of reducing unnecessary harm and suffering in conflict situations. It would seem obvious that there is substantial benefit for everyone in making tools to make this happen available as widely as possible.

We know that there is a proven but largely unsatisfied demand for military ethics education that simply cannot be met by the few existing professional military ethicists worldwide (there is a difference in this context between philosophers with an interest in the normative dimension of the use of force, and someone who actually works with the military to translate concepts into applied ethics across the huge range of subjects that military ethics touches upon (from the values and standards expected of members of professional militaries, the norms, rules and laws that cover the way that profession should carry out its business, through to civil military relations and the limits of what they can be legitimately expected to do). That is why the King’s Centre for Military Ethics was established in 2015, to conduct research into the best ways of delivering effective professional military ethics education, and to develop material and tools to support those seeking to do it.

Online Tools

One of the ways to try and meet that demand is to offer quality distance learning material that can be accessed by anyone. Therefore, the Centre offers an expanding range of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), designed according to research-led findings, run by the Centre for Military Ethics and open to all free of any charge, to deliver this vital area of military education to a global audience. Because it is intended to be a global asset, we have had input and support from many different military institutions, universities and international organization such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the European Chapter of the International Society for Military Ethics (Euro ISME). Our first modules can be found here:

We have employed a version of the creative commons licensing that allows people to use each section for non-commercial purposes as long as they give full credit and do not abridge the material in any way. That way, all of the material can be incorporated into courses and used by universities or military institutions around the world. The first military institution to adopt the online material was the Romanian Staff College in Brasov, who provided valuable feedback for further development. We will continue to refine the material as we go along and learn from our experiences through both institutional and student engagement.

As well as an introduction to the broad subject of military ethics, the first module is Armouring Against Atrocity and is aimed at how to maintain high moral standards while in extreme situations while deployed on military operations. This module is led and delivered by military practitioners who bring alive the research by drawing on their own extensive experience of military operations. The second module is an introduction to the Just War Tradition, where it comes from, what it says today, how it relates to international law and the challenges that the contemporary operating environment pose for it. Other modules we are currently developing include: Conflict Resolution & Jus Post Bellum (Glasgow University), Military Medical Ethics (Leeds, Geneva & ANU), the Cultural and Heritage Property Protection in Conflict (Oxford and the Blue Shield), and Gender & the Military (KCL) with more to follow.

As we secure additional resources, we are translating the course material into different languages to increase the global coverage and make military ethics education available as widely as possible. In 2016, the Centre received a grant from the UK Government to translate two modules into Spanish to support military ethics curricula capacity building in South America. These have been embraced by the Colombian War College and are currently being incorporated into their formal courses.

Military Ethics Education Playing Cards

The Centre is also developing other tools to help promote engagement with ethical issues. Starting with the assumption that playing cards are a ubiquitous, everyday part of life, the idea is to use them as a vehicle for raising ethical awareness. Fifty-two questions from across the broad area of military ethics have been carefully developed, based on professional military ethics education curricula, in conjunction with research and testing on military focus groups, and in consultation with specialist lawyers. The cards are available to military units or private individuals and can be used to prompt informal discussion and debate, normalising the discussion of ethical challenges faced in military environments.

Questions are generally open ended and encourage people to think about key issues that may arise in a military setting. For example:

  • Is it ever acceptable to challenge an order from a superior?
  • Is necessity ever a reason to break the laws of war?
  • Can soldiers refuse to serve if they disagree with their government’s decisions?

One of the dangers of ethics education is that it can reinforce the wrong lesson if it is done badly. To help support the right ‘take away’ from each topic, there is supporting material for each card that can be easily accessed by anyone. Each card has a QR web link to the King’s Centre for Military Ethics webpages where there are additional prompts, questions, appropriate answers and information for each question, along with reading and some suggestions about different ways that the cards can be used. Groups of questions can be thematically linked so impromptu or pre-planned supported discussions can quickly be developed using the open-access material.

The cards, and the supporting website material, are being translated into different languages to support military ethics education initiatives in as many different environments as possible. As feedback continues to come back to the Centre, the material available to support the cards will expand, with a linked book coming out in 2017.

The Future

 The King’s Centre for Military Ethics will continue working with our partners both in the UK and internationally to make military ethics education available as widely as possible. If you would like to know more, have resources that could be directed towards a shared goal, or would like to become part of our growing network, please do contact us.

Image: King’s College London Military Ethics Education Playing Cards.

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