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The Virtues of the Good Intelligence Professional
In virtue ethics, the virtues are determined by understanding the purpose or role a person serves.9 In non-moral terms, knowing the purpose of a thing reveals whether it is functioning well or poorly. For example, if the purpose of pack animals such as mules is to bear burdens, we can tell which mules do better and which do worse. Further, we can tell what qualities a mule must possess, such as strength, surefootedness, and endurance, to do its task well. To the degree a mule possesses these traits, the better the mule is. A human being must also have certain characteristics to be a good human being. Aristotle, who saw the purpose of humans was to reason and form communities, claimed that the virtues of the excellent person include courage, temperance, liberality, proper pride, good temper, ready wit, modesty, and justice.10 Plato listed, and subsequent Christian thinkers have accepted, the cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice.11
The lengthening and shortening of the “list of virtues” does on the surface seem arbitrary. Part of this lack of clarity results from the complexities associated with determining what human nature actually is. Because what it means to function well for a human is much more complex than what it means to function well for a mule, defining “functioning well” is difficult. Part of the problem is that a complex combination of biology, environment, culture, and tradition determines what it means for humans to function well. What this complex combination is and how its components relate to each other are not always well understood and are therefore subjects of much debate. This lack of clarity not only complicates discerning what the virtues are, but also how they should be interpreted.
But the function, environment, culture, and traditions of the Christian community, like the intelligence community, are well understood. Aquinas, drawing on Aristotle, noted that man’s nature in part determines which traits will lead to flourishing and which ones will not. He referred to this kind of flourishing as “imperfect happiness,” since it was limited both by human nature as well as the fallible human ability to discern how best to attain them.12 But Aquinas also accepted a kind of “role-specific” virtue as he argues that as Christians, we are called to have a right relationship with God and to do that required by other virtues, namely, faith hope and love.13
Similarly, the IC has a purpose that allows us to distinguish it from other forms of human activity. This purpose is to collect and analyze information from foreign sources essential for national security.14 Fulfilling this purpose requires conducting clandestine operations as well as safeguarding state secrets. It requires also telling truth to power.15
Given these functions, one can determine some of the virtues that are associated with the intelligence profession. These traits include: selflessness, prudence, courage, secretiveness, conscientiousness, and integrity. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but rather is intended to illustrate a process by which to develop an ethical approach based on the role intelligence professionals fill and how that should affect the kinds of traits they acquire.
To properly establish goals and methods of intelligence operations, intelligence professionals will need to be prudent and selfless.16 Prudence is necessary to discern the proper ends and selflessness is necessary to mediate when proper ends conflict with self-interest. Intelligence professionals require courage, conscientiousness, secretiveness and integrity to achieve the goals they establish.
Courage is required because clandestine operations require risks. Even analysts require courage because often speaking “truth to power” is not welcomed by the powerful. Conscientiousness is required because decision makers need to know that collectors did not take short cuts in collecting the information and that analysts did not “cherry-pick” intelligence, but rather engaged in the sometimes painful research necessary to ensure that their products are based on the most complete data available. Intelligence professionals also need to be appropriately secretive to ensure that information critical to national security is safeguarded. Finally, integrity is required because at all levels of the profession, decision makers need to be able trust that the information provided is not tainted by political bias or personal interest. In the next section we will discuss what it means to possess these virtues.
It should be noted that these virtues do not replace, supplant or supersede other virtues associated with living the Christian life. The point of virtue ethics is that there is an objective human nature, created by God and which ultimately depends on the right relationship with God in order to be fully realized. This is similarly true for the Christian intelligence professional. The special virtues of the profession do not conflict with the exercise of Christian virtues, rather they are a theoretical framework that clarifies decision making in the context of the intelligence profession