Ethics and Insights

By: George Lober

The Real "Double-Bind"

If you're reading this column, odds are you're involved to some degree in the service and defense of your country. The odds are even better that as a result of your service, you're presumed to be a man or woman of high personal ethics. In most cases, that will be the default expectation, but there are, of course, exceptions. For example, I know a lawyer who contends that because of collusion and coterie, the police in his hometown are little more than "the best-armed gang"—but by and large, I believe those who serve and protect, be they military, homeland security, law enforcement, or national defense, are generally perceived to be individuals who possess high personal moral standards.

More importantly, I believe that individuals such as yourselves are fully expected to draw on and, when necessary, act on those high personal morals and ethics in a time of crisis. That, I suggest, is the deal. In situations where the majority of society would cave under the pressure or temptation to do "the wrong thing," those of you who serve to protect and defend are expected to embrace your personal ethics and pick the harder path. You're expected to choose the action or take the moral stand that accords not only with general societal expectations, but also with your own keenly developed personal moral standard. That's why you're often regarded as heroes, entrusted with badges, weapons, the uniforms of your Service and the sacred responsibility of protecting innocents. Realistically, though, I submit that actually taking such a strong, personal, ethical stance is far, far easier said than done, even for the finest among you who are reading this column.

I say that because I believe there is a competing set of ethics that individuals serving to defend and protect their society and country must confront and perhaps resist, prior ever to taking an ethical stance of their own. This set involves an organization's own pervasive system of ethics. In times of crisis, most individuals who serve will find that the ethics of their organization strongly compete for supremacy over any system of personal ethics. The reasoning behind that competition comes in the form of at least three classic arguments. The first I'll call the Collective argument because it argues for steadfast loyalty to the wisdom of the collective over individual conscience. Or, as more than one U.S. Special Forces captain has told me, "When you sign your name on the dotted line of your contract to serve, you surrender certain personal rights. Among them is the right to pass moral judgment on what you are asked or ordered to do." In my experience, this is not an uncommon opinion. Most of us, I think, can accept the fact that, as Richard Miller succinctly points out, "Individuals who consent, tacitly or explicitly, to join the military waive their rights to life and liberty."1 It's reasonable then to suggest that for some individuals, such a waiver of rights, by extension, also includes the right to pass moral judgment on orders, directives, missions, actions, and the like. And while this line of reasoning is definitely not universal among those who serve, from my observation, it exists to some measure across all branches, Services, and agencies. For example, Roger Collier, senior editor of the Canadian Medical Journal, recognizes there are those in service who "argue that people surrender certain personal rights when they join a military, and that the mission of the collective trumps the rights of the individual."2 The problem I have with such reasoning is that it's not accurate, at least not when it comes to ethics. There are limits to the legitimacy of an order or a mission, and officers and leaders in the service of their countries are expected to recognize and respect those limits at all times, regardless of whether they penned their name to a obligating contract.

This leads us to the second argument in favor of subjugating one's personal ethics to those of the organization, which we can call the Effectiveness argument. This idea, which bears a close resemblance to J. Carl Ficarrotta's "Functional Line,"3 says that the organization couldn't possibly function effectively if everyone reserved the right to filter every order or mission or action through his or her own personal set of ethics. As one U.S. Navy SEAL officer evocatively remarked to me, "Sir, we can't have everyone charging a hill with their weapon in one hand and their copy of Rousseau or Mill in the other, checking to see if the charge is morally justifiable." This officer is suggesting that for the sake of the mission and the safety of everyone involved, there comes a point when, even in light of strong personal doubt, individual ethics have to take a back seat to the common values of the organization. And for the record, I buy that argument to some extent—I get that personal ethics and organizational ethics are not always going to be in sync. As Davis Brown writes,

There is an inherent tension between these two dimensions of military ethics. On one hand, good order and discipline within a military organization is essential to its success at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. Military success depends on commanders being able to rely on their subordinates to follow their orders, and also on the subordinates being able to rely on each other for mutual protection and support.4

My problem, though, is that this reasoning can lead to the presumption that during a time of high stress or crisis, one is permitted—even expected—to mute one's ethical conscience and extend carte blanche approval to any order, regardless of its consequences, for the sake of unit cohesion and tactical, operational, or strategic success. I believe that such acquiescence ethically is not justifiable, even for the sake of success, and Brown himself quickly adds,

... the old adage "I was just following orders" has rationalized too many tragedies in military history. Individual military members must also be able to discern when the facts on the ground are such that blindly following orders would actually impede success—or worse, constitute a manifest violation of the law of armed conflict.5

Admittedly, such discernment is often difficult, particularly with regard to the third classic argument for suspending moral judgment that is, in essence, an amalgam of the previous two. I'll call this the Greater Strategy argument. It asserts that since one can never be sure that the order or mission in question isn't part of a greater strategic plan designed by more knowledgeable and, presumably, wiser superiors—a plan that a doubting subordinate may be completely unaware of—the best and most loyal response is to fulfill the order or mission to the very best of one's abilities in order to meet the strategic vision. In doing so, the subordinate officer trusts that those higher in the chain of command have a firm grip on the ethical necessity and justification for the action ordered. My problem with this reasoning, however, is that it's open-ended and completely exculpatory. By implication, at virtually every level of command from captain to commander, one may simply choose to ignore personal ethics and execute orders on the presumption that those above are privy to a greater strategic vision or plan. Such thinking I find ethically dangerous. As Stanley Milgram warned over 40 years ago,

The most far-reaching consequence is that the person feels responsible to the authority directing him but feels no responsibility for the content of the actions that the authority prescribes. Morality does not disappear—it acquires a radically different focus: the subordinate person feels shame or pride depending on how adequately he has performed the actions called for by authority.6

Interestingly, Milgram also added,

The most frequent defense of the individual who has performed a heinous act under command of authority is that he has simply done his duty. In asserting this defense, the individual is not introducing an alibi concocted for the moment but is reporting honestly on the psychological attitude induced by submission to authority.

For a person to feel responsible for his actions, he must sense that the behavior has flowed from "the self."7

What I'm suggesting here is that if one sees his or her actions flowing from a greater strategic vision, it may be difficult to also see one's personal ethical responsibility for those same actions. In that case, in the competition between organizational ethics and personal ethics, the organization will have won.

Unfortunately, though, such victories are short-lived and often bittersweet for the individuals involved. The reality is that while a command structure or "collective" may be held morally accountable for certain policies and subsequent actions or atrocities,8 the individuals involved in those actions are rarely absolved of culpability. In fact, holding individuals morally responsible for their actions in warfare is by now a historical given. As Neta Crawford notes, "The notion of individual responsibility of both perpetrators and commanders was developed over several centuries in both European and American treaty and domestic law and is no longer disputed."9

So where does this leave you if you're a member of an organization or agency or branch of service engaged in defending and protecting your society? It leaves you with the reality that you can align your loyalties to the organization or collective, and you can subscribe to the ethics of that Service, but at the same time, you can never entirely avoid being held accountable for your actions if they depart from your own ethical standards. You can't sign that accountability away on a contractual line, nor can you excuse your accountability because the mission or greater strategy required you to act contrary to your own conscience. In other words, despite the pressures and arguments from your organization, you're still expected to be a moral individual "who must act responsibly in making ultimate moral judgments."10 As I said at the beginning, it's not an easy trick. But bottom line: it is the one you're expected to pull off.


1. Richard Miller, review of Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations by Michael Walzer, Journal of Law and Religion 16, no. 2 (2001): 1014.

2. Roger Collier, "Irreconcilable Choices in Military Medicine," CMAJ (8 November 2010): E821; doi: 10.1503/cmaj.109-3723.

3. J. Carl Ficarrotta, "Are Military Professional Bound by a ‘Higher' Moral Standard?" International Society for Military Ethics, 1998:

4. Davis Brown, review of Military Ethics: International Perspectives by Jeff Stouffer and Stephen Seiler, eds., Academic Council on The United Nations System, 30 April 2013: perspectives-by-davis-brown/

5. Ibid.

6. Stanley Milgram, "The Perils of Obedience," Harpers (December, 1973): 77.

7. Ibid.

8. Neta Crawford, "Individual and Collective Moral Responsibility for Systemic Military Atrocity," The Journal of Political Philosophy 15 no. 2 (2 November 2007): 191-192:

9. Ibid, 197.

10. Daniel Oh, "The Relevance of Virtue Ethics and Application of the Formation of Character Development in Warriors," International Society for Military Ethics, 2007:

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