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Applying the Virtues
Having decided what the virtues of good intelligence officers are, we need to discuss what it means to act virtuously. Virtues are excellences of character, that is, they are fixed dispositions toward certain behaviors that result in good acts.17 Aristotle viewed virtues as the “golden mean”—a mean between the two extremes (vices) of excess and deficiency in regard to certain human capacities. For example, with regard to feelings of fear, courage is the mean. A person can feel too much fear and be cowardly or feel too little fear and be foolhardy. A person, who runs away in the face of danger, when the proper thing to do would be to stand his ground, is a coward. But the person who stands his ground because he does not comprehend the danger, is also not courageous. The moderation criterion works the same way for other virtues as well.
For example, with regard to selflessness, one extreme is careerism, where intelligence professionals are too concerned with personal advancement and fail to place the needs of the organization above their own. But one can also be too selfless. Intelligence officers who never take care of personal interests might impede their ability to lead. For example, persons who deny themselves sleep, so as to demonstrate their commitment to the task, quickly become incapable of making good decisions.18
In the context of professional ethics, we can identify character traits which are particular to the profession, and which outside the profession may not be considered a virtue. Consider secretiveness, a trait most closely, and perhaps exclusively, associated with the intelligence profession. The extremes are being too open and too “withdrawn.” Intelligence professionals spend most of their day working with secrets, but must still function as members of a more open society, and in the role as spouse or parent must develop the bonds appropriate for a good marriage or raising of children. Intelligence professionals who talk too much about their work, even to close family members and friends, make themselves vulnerable to exploitation by adversary intelligence organizations.
In fact, much good human intelligence is obtained by clandestine operators or recruited sources who exploit the human need to develop close and intimate relationships. On the other extreme, it is commonly reported that the intelligence profession’s aura of secrecy and requirement to protect sensitive information often gradually expands over personal matters until eventually the intelligence professional is unable to effectively communicate with family members or friends. This can lead to feelings of abandonment by children, spouses, and close friends, which is arguably a morally undesirable outcome.19
Not all virtues are found in the mean between extremes. Virtues like conscientiousness and integrity are required if we are to instantiate properly the other virtues. In virtue ethics one must consciously and conscientiously cultivate a virtue—that is, one must habitually perform acts that reflect the relevant virtue if one is to say he or she possesses that virtue.20 Psychologically, the habituation of virtue can take on the qualities of a duty. For example, to develop the virtue of integrity—which can be understood as a commitment without coercion to a consistent set of well-founded moral principles and values—one must always act in accordance with those principles and values.21
It is worth emphasizing that for Aristotle the mean is sought only because it is beneficial; the mean between two extremes enables the individual to live well. To discern what the mean is one must develop the ability to reason well, itself a virtue that Aristotle called prudence or practical wisdom. This virtue is necessary to resolve the tension between the feelings that emerge from natural appetites, concerns of self-interest, and the requirements of virtue.22 The conflict between reason, feeling, and self-interest lies at the heart of the virtues. What drags us to extremes detrimental to our long-term happiness are passions and feelings, such as excessive (or defective) fear or excessive love of pleasure. Reason is required to control behavior, passions, and feelings. Virtues are applications of reason to behavior and emotion. These virtues can emerge with proper officer development.
Virtue ethics allows us to take into account considerations of necessity and law, rules, duties, and principles in a way that resolves the tension inherent among them. As in consequence-based ethical theories, we must be concerned with consequences of an action to determine its normative value. In virtue ethics, one must be sensitive to the conditions that frame moral choices. Acting on the principle of always telling the truth is good, but ignoring how that truth might affect others risks doing moral harm. A caring husband, for example, should bring to his wife’s attentions matters negatively affecting her health. A vicious (or at least stupid) husband will simply announce that she is fat.