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Developing the Virtues of Good Character
A virtue ethics approach to intelligence ethics can help resolve certain dilemmas that reasoning from necessity or simply following the rules cannot. Instead of focusing on doing good things, the virtuous person focuses on being good, and the doing good naturally follows. How one becomes good is by acquiring certain virtues or character traits that lead to doing virtuous things. However, rule-based approaches can play a key role. Virtues do not develop overnight. One cannot wake up one day and decide to be courageous, for example, and immediately be so. Being virtuous means knowing the right time, place, circumstance, and manner in which to be courageous. One acquires these traits by habituation.
According to Aristotle, whose writings greatly influenced modern virtue theory, one becomes virtuous only by performing virtuous actions until doing so becomes habitual. In other words, practice and experience are necessary. Aristotle makes this point by contrasting virtues with natural capacities:
Of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g., men become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.23
Thus, just as one becomes a good musician only by practicing an instrument, one becomes a good intelligence officer only by practicing the profession. Musicians follow rules and care about results, but the end is to be become a musician of excellence, not simply to be in conformity with certain rules or achieve certain results. But how does one who has no experience in virtue development create such necessary experiences? When we try to describe a virtue, we tend to list the acts we must perform to embody the virtue. Listing these acts is just like listing rules and principles. This is line of reasoning is, in fact, one of the major critiques of the virtue approach. When we consciously set out to put rules and principles into practice, we end up with what appears to be essentially a rule-based system. When this happens, we lose sight of the role of character.
To illustrate this point, consider rules regarding the disclosure of classified information. Not only are members of the IC prohibited to disclose classified information to those without the proper security clearance, they are also prohibited from disclosing certain information to members within the community, even if they have the appropriate clearances. These restrictions are driven out of a concern of protecting sources and methods: the risk being that the more people who have a piece of information, the more likely it is to be leaked.
Further, these lines are not as clear as they may seem. Sometimes, members of the IC as well as the decision makers they support will pressure an analyst or collector for information they want, but are not cleared to receive. Other times, the collector or analyst will want to provide information to a wider audience, but be restricted because of these clearance issues. To handle such situations, the IC employs a number of disclosure procedures to ensure that information gets to those who need it.
Following these procedures can often be tedious and time consuming. But if we understand the rule to be: Do not disclose classified material to those not authorized, one can be a good rule-following professional by not doing anything. The cost, of course, is that information does not get to where it can do the most good. But that cost does not factor in to a rule-following ethic. And here we can see the difference with the virtue ethics approach.
The virtuous analyst will of course uphold the rule, but being conscientious, will undertake what procedures are necessary to get the information released (if possible) to whomever needs it. This is the difference between the virtue of integrity in truth-telling and mere failure to lie. Once this happens, the IC professional is no longer simply following rules. He or she has actually developed the capacity to make them. What motivates him or her to adopt this attitude is an understanding that it is not enough to do good, it is just as important to be good. In fact, doing good flows from being good.
Aristotle also points out that one cannot develop virtue by accident or by doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The analyst or collector who undergoes disclosure procedure in order to increase the distribution of their work and thus serve their career interests may not be said to act virtuously. This is why intent is important. One simply cannot become conscientious or wise or honest unless one is trying to become so. For an action to be truly virtuous, a person must be in the right state of mind, and have the right attitudes about his or her own development.