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Saint Augustine
The Moral Crisis of Just War: Beyond Deontology toward a Professional Military Ethic - Beyond Values and Rules: Character, Virtue and a Professional Military Ethic
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Article Index
The Moral Crisis of Just War: Beyond Deontology toward a Professional Military Ethic
The Crisis of Just War
The Crisis of the Deontological Vision of Just War
Beyond Values and Rules: Character, Virtue and a Professional Military Ethic
Just War, Character and Virtue
Character Amidst the Ruins: Virtue Across the Civilian-Miiltary Divide
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Beyond Values and Rules: Character, Virtue and a Professional Military Ethic


It is abundantly clear that those charged with the moral leadership of the military recognize that the contemporary crisis of the ethics of war is not simply a matter of a just war tradition suddenly rendered obsolete by novel circumstances. The push for reconsideration of the military as a profession instead of an occupation39 and for the development of a professional military ethic is proof of this. It is clear that among those charged with moral leadership the crisis is understood to be one of moral vision. Although it is just as clear that there is as yet no consensus on what the “fix” is. The suggestions, for example, that what is needed is simply a clearer articulation of the norms of behavior in a new code40 or more reflective rational autonomy41 suggests that the deontological vision remains intact. Nevertheless, as the work of Snider, Oh, and Toner, among others, suggests, there is growing recognition that what is needed is a move “from values to virtues.” What is needed is a shift from ethics education by means of values clarification in the form of memorized codes and fostering obedience to commands to a renewed emphasis on the character and virtues that are acquired by immersion in a community of professionals, whose commitment to the excellences of their vocation is internalized and not merely instrumental. Thus there is more talk not of leadership but of ethical or moral leadership and not merely of command but of the command climate – both crucial to the mentoring/formation/habituation of professionals in the excellences internal to their craft.

This renewed emphasis on character, virtue, and the excellences intrinsic to the profession of arms is appropriate insofar as a profession rightly understood is not merely the abode of certain skills and degrees of skillfulness that qualify one as an “expert.” Rather, a professional “professes” a commitment to certain standards of conduct. A profession is a matter of “role-differentiated behavior” in the words of Anthony Hartle,42 which means that it is subject to internal norms of behavior that are reducible neither to rules nor to a calculus of efficiency. In this regard it might even be associated with a calling.43 As such, a profession and a professional are distinguished from an occupation and an expert because the skills they encompass are inextricably tied to certain excellences that preclude such (expert) skills from being employed in certain ways and for any ends whatsoever.44 (This is why one might argue that mercenaries, no matter how proficient in arms, are not professionals. They are at best experts for hire.) Thus, for example, professional soldiers in the U.S. military do not properly attack civilians or mistreat prisoners of war not merely because they were ordered not to (which implies that if they were ordered to kill or abuse civilians or POWs that they would with a clear conscience), but because such practices are contrary to the respect, service, honor, integrity, and perhaps courage that properly characterize a U.S. soldier.

How might this shift from deontology to character, from values to virtues, aid in addressing the contemporary moral crisis of the military ethic? Let us begin an answer by reconsidering the three problems mentioned previously that plague a deontological approach to the ethics of war. To begin with, there is the sense that the rules are chronically out-of-date as the nature and conditions of war continue to evolve in response to social, political and technological changes. Closely related is the issue of knowing which rules are applicable in a given situation and knowing how to apply those that are. While the constantly changing character of war presents a challenge to every ethic, a virtue or character ethic is particularly well-suited to address this situation. In fact, there is a virtue whose object or concern is precisely situations where the letter of existing law proves to be either inadequate or inappropriate. This virtue is frequently given the name “equity,” although that hardly captures all that this virtue is about. We might describe one who displays this virtue as possessing insight or wisdom into how to act in a novel situation that is “beyond the rules” yet in a manner that is nevertheless consistent with the spirit of the rules and laws. Mundane examples of this kind of virtue abound. As an engineer once explained to me, those who know only the rules that make up the building code make lousy engineers and, if permitted, would build unsafe structures precisely because they lack the virtues, such as what is classically called “equity,” that are truly essential to the craft of engineering. Likewise, skilled assembly line workers who manage to retain a sense of their work as a craft know the difference between “working to rule” and producing good products. More to the point of just war, the virtue described here, although rarely named as such, is frequently associated with good leadership. There is a significant difference between inexperienced or “by-the-book” officers and officers who have so internalized the spirit of the rules – the character at which the rule properly aims -- that they know when and how to move forward in situations where the letter of the law provides little help.

Closely related to the way a virtue or character ethic addresses the gap in a rule centered approach between the rule and the constant novelty of war, is the way a virtue or character ethic deals with the matter of knowing when which rules apply and how they apply. Here again there is a virtue associated with this skill. It is the virtue of prudence and it is a kind of judgment that is able to assess a situation, identifying what is at stake and how various rules and virtues come into play in this particular situation. In the popular imagination, prudence is often equated with a certain cautious deliberation in acting, a kind of careful application of the rules. What this commonplace understanding of the virtue lacks is a sense of how prudence is more than mere deliberation but involves seeing as well. It is a matter of seeing in the sense that prudence involves recognizing the morally salient features of a situation so as to be able to determine what acts are appropriate and what rules are applicable. Thus, it is a prudent soldier who, upon seeing a small child pushed out into a street in the middle of a fire fight to recover a weapon, is able to discern whether and how the decision to shoot that child involves questions of proportionality or discrimination.

Finally, there is the problem of effectiveness. War is, as Michael Walzer observed, the hardest place.45 And in such a moral pressure cooker, knowledge and will-power are not particularly reliable. Rather, in the midst of battle, which can frequently feel like an ethical wilderness, what checks a person’s descent into brutality and preserves her moral center is character. Character, which concerns a person’s fundamental identity, who one is, and encompasses not only intellectual convictions but also the passions and dispositions that constitute the spirit and emotions,46 is the foundation or well-spring of behavior and action. Thus a soldier who lacks character, who has not internalized the virtues of duty, honor, and courage, who does not inhabit the moral ethos of the professional soldier as that ethos is on display in the command climate as well as exemplary soldiers called officers, cannot finally be counted on to hold the moral line when the going gets tough.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 12:32