How “Ethics” has become boring

boredom The text of this essay appears in the current edition of the NSW Ethos Magazine, an only slightly edited version of what appears below. For the link to the full issue of Ethos, go to NSW Ethos:
We see a lot of chatter in the media about the deterioration of ethics and character in business, the military, and society in general. In response, we are (naturally) seeing a proliferation of “ethics training” sessions in which we are told to follow rules, be a good person, and “just do the right thing.” And in the process, the subject of “ethics” has lost a lot of its impact.

The newspapers, the evening news, indeed the Navy Times are full of stories of successful, intelligent people who certainly had heard many times, “just do the right thing,” but who did the wrong thing anyway. Would these people have done better had they attended another class or lecture on ethics, reminding them to choose the “hard right, instead of the easy wrong,” or not to do anything they wouldn’t want to read about in the Washington Post?

I somehow don’t think so. Most moral failures are made by people who “knew” that they were not doing “the right thing.” It is uninteresting to discuss the morality of violating the rules of our organization, our culture, or the laws of our community for personal advantage. More interesting are cases in which one might put oneself at risk and break the rules in obedience to a higher law, or to benefit others who deserve special consideration. Then “doing the right thing” becomes indeed a more challenging proposition.

In fact, doing “the right thing” becomes more and more difficult the more responsibility one has. In many difficult situations, the right thing is unclear, and the best possible decision under the circumstances requires experience, judgment, and anguish. Simple bromides such as “just do the right thing” are not very helpful.

My good friend retired Army Colonel and leadership professor Dr. George Reed, was recently invited to lead a discussion with newly selected Army Brigadier Generals, with the intent of getting them to think about the complex world of ethics as a general officer. However, the course planners who invited him suggested that “ethics” not be in the title of his session. He was encouraged instead to focus on the corrupting influence of power. With that as a title, George was able to lead a very engaged and at times energetic discussion, essentially about ethical trade-offs that often confront general officers.

It would seem that generals, admirals, senior officers, senior enlisted – people who have made the military a career and profession – don’t need to be told the rules and threatened with the consequences of not following them. That said, we continue to read about cases where senior leaders either commit spontaneous acts of stupidity, or pursue a personal agenda in violation of institutional and cultural values.

What to do about it? There is no easy answer, but I am concerned that more uninteresting ethics training may well create more resentment and cynicism toward ethics. Traditional carrot-and-stick approaches to ethics training tend to speak to those on the bottom end of the moral development hierarchy – those for whom nearly every “ethical” decision is a simple risk-reward calculation. While this approach might be appropriate for some at every level in the chain of command, most professionals feel insulted when treated like children.

Perhaps ethics training should be recast as simply “learning the rules.” We all need to know them. And for the risk-reward calculators, the training needs to include the costs to themselves and others of breaking them. Ethics education on the other hand, goes deeper and seeks to understand the rules, their origins, intent, and limitations. Ethics education focuses more on values and context than on rules, and teaches how to reason through situations and circumstances that rule makers may not have envisioned.

Values are the “commander’s intent” behind rules. Indeed sometimes it is more ethical to break rules than to follow them, since rules cannot anticipate every circumstance. Ethics education discusses dilemmas where rules don’t provide clear guidance, but clarity in values and seasoned judgment are required to make the best decision. Good ethics education forces you to struggle with dilemmas in situations where, after having made your best call, you’re still struggling, because tough decisions have costs and downsides that are hard to measure and anticipate. Tough ethical decisions are usually between two (or more) competing ‘goods’ – or even tougher, between a number of bad options.

Admiral Stockdale spent seven years as a prisoner of war having his values tested to the limit, and found that his education in ethics in graduate school gave him tools that helped him survive and lead in the most demanding of conditions. Accordingly, when he later became the president of the Naval War College, he initiated and taught a course entitled The Foundations of Moral Obligation, which after over 30 years, remains one of the most popular electives at the Naval War College. At the Naval Academy, Shannon French initiated a course entitled Code of the Warrior (based on her book of the same name) that explores warrior values and ethics through the ages and in many cultures. After ten years the course is over-subscribed every semester, and the Naval Academy has been unable to meet demand. Notice that “ethics” is in neither of these titles. Ethics education CAN be inspiring, and have a valuable and values-reinforcing impact on professional warriors, if it is done well.

“Ethics” is such a broad and fascinating subject; it is a shame that it has been trivialized to mean mere compliance with regulations and rule-following. Perhaps “ethics training” should instead be called “Know the rules and follow them.” “Ethics education” on the other hand, should examine personal, organizational, and societal values, and explore potential tensions between them. Combat ethics education should seek to understand the intent and ‘why’ behind ROE, and why warriors are expected to assume risk (how much?) in the interest of values beyond tactical victory. Combat ethics education should prepare warriors for the challenges of balancing obligations to troops and mission, against obligations to non-combatants, to societal values, and even to our enemies who, after all are human, and will remain so, after the fighting is done. That is not boring, but it can be controversial.

Typical Ethics Training  Let's 'Do the Right Thing' and liven it up a bit....

Typical Ethics Training
Let’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ and liven it up a bit….

6 thoughts on “How “Ethics” has become boring

  1. Bob, I have always been torn when someone offers ethics and warfare in the same breath. I am speaking specifically combat, and the ugliness of it all. I have been of two minds, one you dig into the absolute brutality of warfare essentially using a scorched earth policy.

    The other side of that is if you truly want to “win” the war as the politician sees it, then you are ladled with “winning the hearts and minds” of a country you just invaded.. pretty hard to do.

    I bounce back and forth, and realize one thing is for sure, there is no clear answer, it seems to be from what point of view you have. Be that ground troop, commander, politician. each with a different point of view on the situation… But ethics should be discussed at all levels, not just the executive level…


    • There is an amazing body of literature on Ethics in warfare and the tradition goes back to before history – in fact some argue that the Iliad is very much about ethics in warfare – Achilles did things on the battlefield that upset the even coarse sensibilities of the ancient Greeks, whereas Hector was an icon of virtue – in battle and in life. The Geneva conventions are actually a codification of what had been called the Traditional Laws of Armed Conflict, to which St Augustine and St Thomas contributed a lot. Not a lot of military guys and damn few civilians know that! Bob


  2. As always, great article! You’re spot on with the feeling most of us have when forced into yet another “ethics” training session. The DoD and the Navy continually miss the mark on how to engage people and guide them in the difficult decisions that we make in a combat environment and day-to-day life.


  3. I often feel that as a non-military reader of your always thought-provoking articles, I really shouldn’t comment but the subject of “ethics” is one which ought to concern us all as it affect us all from time to time – whether it’s medical ethics and the way you are treated by health care professionals, or military matters and the way those who defend our freedom and safety carry out their duties, or even the methods used in advertising to persuade us to buy certain products. I agree that ethics should not be confused with rules and regulations as it’s when these rules and regulations can’r give us the right kind of guidance to help us make choices in a moral dilemma that a code of ethics is required and I am pretty sure that your “ethics training” is as interesting as your essays. Thanks again, Bob, for a good read!


  4. One interesting thing to me about ethics is how different generations and cultures view right and wrong. Burning suspected witches at the stake was the right thing to do in the 17th century in civilized countries,that has fizzled off (pun intended) but in PapuaNew Guinea a women was just recently was burned at the stake for witchcraft. Was it ethical HMMMMM. Thanks Bob for giving me more things to think about in my back swing. 🙂


  5. Bob,
    I agree with you (as usual). Not only is ethics instruction often boring, it is sometimes punitive. Some people in the ethics education business have become way too sure of their ability and their right to make moral judgments, rushing in where angels fear to tread. The troops see this and conclude that ethics is just another stick for the command to best them with. “Point that thing somewhere else.” Ethics education should be dialogic, pursued in an atmosphere of comradeship and “we’re all in this together.” Stories help, whether from experience, literature, or film, along with some grounding in basic ethical ideas.

    Even in an open discussion, there sometimes still has to the “bad cop” in the room to say when something is just wrong. To illustrate, I will go out on a limb and say, in reply to Frank, that tying people to stakes and setting them on fire is wrong, absolutely, even if a noisy majority or warped judicial process condones and goes so far as to insist on it.



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