#METC: Setting an Ethical Command Climate

In this section we’re talking about setting an ethical command climate. We’ve got a lot going on here:

  • The challenges of command in a multicultural society across a distributed battlefield;
  • The challenges of commanding increasingly large units composed of people with different moral backgrounds and levels of expertise;
  • Spectacular failures and significant successes; and,
  • Suggestions for best practices.

My goal for us by the end of this session is to refine our understanding of what leaders can do to cultivate an organization that is disciplined, focused, motivated, and cohesive. I’ll argue, and we can chew on this in discussion, that ethical units are the fruit of strong command climates – they come from discipline, focus, motivation and cohesion (because those traits are the anecdote to ambiguity, isolation, powerlessness, boredom, and danger that Paul Bartone lays out in his reading, Understanding Prisoner Abuse at Abu Ghraib for this section.  They create people’s sense of commitment, control, and challenge).

In “The Responsibility of Leadership in Command,” Gen John Michael Loh notes, “The essence of command and leadership is to create a climate throughout the unit that inspires all to achieve extraordinary goals and levels of performance at all times and under all conditions, especially in the stress of combat.”

While this course is focused on military ethics, the issue of how to build ethical climates in organizations is universal, so I expect that folks from different backgrounds will have a lot to contribute.

I’ve assigned the Bartone piece listed above, which partners with The Taguba Report (declassified 15 October 2004). Also, please take a look at the ICRC’s Report on The Roots of Behaviour in War. To the American service members who do: Don’t freak out that the ICRC is saying negative things about combatants violating international humanitarian law. (1) The report studied combatants in four countries (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Congo, and Georgia) so their findings — while important — aren’t reflective of American military behavior; and (2) the psychological dynamics captured in the report are reflected in US military units, even if the behaviors aren’t, which highlights the main question of this lesson: How do military leaders create and maintain ethical command climates that protect against the social inclination for unrestrained violence among combatants in war?

I also strongly recommend Roger Shinn, “Ethical Aspects of the Exercise of Command,” in Military Ethics: Reflections on Principles (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1987), 45-60. Unfortunately, I can’t find a publicly available electronic version to share with you.

I’ll start posting questions with the #METC hashtag around 8pm Eastern. Please include #METC in your tweets if you post on the topic (rather than just replying to me). Come and go as you’re able; we’ll continue the conversation tomorrow as well, so nothing’s time sensitive. I look forward to the conversation!

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#METC: Motivating Moral Behavior

I messed up. I thought our next section was on Setting an Ethical Command Climate, but that starts Wednesday. Today and tomorrow we’re talking about motivating moral behavior. We have a few readings that take different approaches to why people act the way they do – as leaders, it’s important for you to be familiar with these different approaches so you can match your motivational strategies to the individuals you encounter.

  • Mark Amstutz talks about different ways we think through moral questions and how our frameworks for viewing the world (realism, idealism, etc.) shape those frameworks;
  • Robinson focuses on the dual faces of honor: magnanimity and integrity as external and internal motivators of moral behavior, shaping how we define situations and which actions we are willing or even compelled to take;
  • Erickson and Haidt and Joseph deal with moral impulse – what non-rational intuition shape our actions before we’ve had the time to think through an issue in the way detailed by Amstutz?

It’s not the case that one guy is right and the others are wrong: we do all these things to different degrees at different times. The key is to become increasingly familiar with what drives people to act morally so that we can contribute to that motivation and help shape it, when someone’s moral impulse misfires due to lack of experience, training, or character.

Make sense? Good. Let’s start with the components of moral behavior (which I take from James Rest, who you’ll read for next week).

Components of Moral Behavior:

  1. Moral Sensitivity: Ability to see the moral component of a situation. (Culture shapes in the ways outlined by Haidt and Joseph)
  2. Moral Judgment: Ability to decide the right thing to do. This includes reason and intuition. Eriksen IDs how judgment improves through the accumulation of experience; Haidt and Joseph ID how both innate human tendencies and cultural conditioning shape how we weigh different options.
  3. Moral Motivation: Ability to chose the right thing over competing options. This includes one’s sense of agency – can come from within (integrity), from without (magnanimity, institution, family, society). Kohlberg’s stages of moral development also apply to motivation.
  4. Moral Character: Habits that reinforce the intuitive aversion or compulsion to act in certain ways. As experience and intuition grows stronger, so does one’s character. This can be good or bad. Character is living, much like a muscle. If it’s not growing stronger, it’s atrophying. This raises the importance of ethical and moral fitness, which we’ll discuss at the end of the course.

What we’re talking about in this section is moral motivation, but you can see that the issues of intuition and virtues do more than simply motivate action.  They permeate how we understand moral behavior. Part of what we’ll do here and continue to do through the course is add layers onto these four components of moral behavior so we can better understand why people behave poorly and how you as a leader can help reinforce good behavior in others.

Here I’m focused specifically on Haidt and Joseph’s point about parent’s providing frequent moral feedback, including displays of moral emotion, and not exposing them to conflicting messages as being key to cultivating culturally appropriate virtues and intuitions.  I’m also drawing from Eriksen’s point that practice (even if not experience) helps build habit of including moral considerations into people’s situational response. It also helps develop a solid foundation to ground moral behavior, which can speed the process of gaining expertise from experience.  Two ways of possessing knowledge – to know through acquaintance (experience) and to know through description.  They should reinforce each other. The question is how you, as leaders, help shape both in constructive ways within your organizations.

We’ll start the conversation here and see where it goes. I look forward to your thoughts!

#METC: Reflections on Week One

As we wrap up our first week of the military ethics twitter course, I wanted to take a minute to conduct a quick in-progress review. Hopefully you’ll be willing to think about what’s working and how you think things could work better and let me know. I’m having a ton of fun, but this course is for you, so what’s ultimately important is that you think it’s adding value.

What’s Working:

  • Your level of energy and involvement is outstanding: Overall, I’ve been really impressed by how consistently thoughtful and thorough you’ve been. I’ll come back to my computer after work and find a fully developed thread on cultural relativism or Walzer’s view of moral dilemmas. That’s perfection. When we gather in the evening to talk you all bring your A game. I hope the people who argued twitter was inappropriate or insufficient for a conversation on ethics are paying attention.
  • The hashtag seems to have caught on: The first couple of days people would respond to me without the #METC hashtag and that kept everyone else out of the conversation. That seems to have corrected itself by this point. Keep it up!
  • Your varied backgrounds add a lot: We have folks with varying degrees of military experience from around the world participating in the conversation. That plurality of perspectives – and the respect with which ya’ll are engaging each other – makes the discussion much more robust than if we were nothing more than a U.S. military echo chamber.

What Could We Improve:

  • Five weeks is a long time for this pace: When I initially thought of 3-day blocks for each topic, I imagined we would have a more leisurely exchange with people coming and going as they could. People do come and go, but it felt like a pretty heavy pace that ground to a halt on Friday. I’m considering shortening each session to 2 nights (Mon-Tues and Wed-Thurs) so we can take Friday off and have the weekends for more open exchange or final wrap up. Let me know what you think.
  • A lot of this goodness gets lost in the twitter wind: On the one hand, this is true of any normal conversation or seminar; people don’t document every single exchange or thought that’s shared in real life. At the same time, there are so many ideas going back and forth among so many people, it’s easy to lose the conversation thread and not get it back. I had intended to storify conversations to help remedy this problem, I just don’t have the time (and probably won’t for another week). Are folks okay with just accepting this or does the inability to capture conversations really erode your ability to absorb the concepts and issues we’re discussing? Lemme know.
  • I’m struggling to figure out how to evaluate learning in this medium: I won’t lie; I’m doing this because it’s fun. What makes it fun is feeling like I’m helping folks think about important issues in ways that will add value to their lives (professionally for the service members and in terms of civic engagement for the civilians). I’m trying to think of how we find out whether you’re actually getting anything out of #METC. My students write papers and do group projects. We can’t do that here. I see the quality of your tweets, but I can’t tell whether that’s you learning or expressing knowledge you already had. Maybe success for this #METC will just be sustaining the conversation for 5 weeks. I know there are people following who aren’t tweeting, so maybe we just have faith that they’re gaining from the knowledge and experience of the folks who are engaging. Not sure. I’d love your thoughts on this.
  • What am I missing? What would make #METC more useful for you? You can post your responses to any of these issues in the comments section or tweet them with the hashtag.

Our next topic is Setting the Command Climate, where we’ll look at the connection between command climate and ethical behavior. This isn’t an exclusively military issue – it speaks to any organization. I’ll have the post up tomorrow morning.

#METC: Moral Dilemmas

First things first: you all did a great job kicking off #METC with some seriously thoughtful and interesting exchanges on the professional military ethic. Very impressive stuff! Next up: moral dilemmas.

The readings are tougher to find, so I’ll do a little more summary than with some of the other sessions. The topic for the next three days is moral dilemmas: What do you do when you’re confronted with a situation that doesn’t appear to have a clear, morally correct response? Rushworth M. Kidder has written a great introductory book called How Good People Make Tough Choices that focuses on this question.

The most important thing to remember is that the overwhelmingly majority of the moral questions we face in life are not moral dilemmas; they are moral temptations. That is to say, we know (or can find) the right thing to do in a situation, but out of greed, fear, fatigue, etc. we simply don’t want to do it. Instead, we try to rationalize choosing the wrong course of action.

This is a key point in moral decision making: when you’re confronted with a moral choice you have the opportunity to reflect on, ask yourself how you’re thinking about the issue:

  • are you reasoning through the moral question: looking at the consequences of the different options you possess for the different morally relevant actors involved (not just the effect on you and your unit) and the values and principles that will be affirmed or undermined by choosing the different options, or
  • are you rationalizing the question: typically, trying to benefit yourself at the expense of others, trying to protect yourself from perceived harm, or trying to relieve the pressure of a stressful situation?

If you’re reasoning through a situation and can’t find a satisfactory resolution, you may be facing a true moral dilemma. If you’re trying to find a way to justify the thing you want to do anyway, you’re probably facing moral temptation. (In seminar, I would make a very heavy handed crack about only the weak and undisciplined succumbing to temptation, which strong, disciplined Marines would never allow. Everyone would laugh, then we’d go on to discuss precisely how easy it is to fall into the trap – a core element of our next few sessions.)

How do you characterize moral dilemmas? Kidder identifies four types – dilemmas that pit core social values against each other (What he calls “Right vs Right” dilemmas):

  • Truth vs Loyalty
  • Individual vs Community
  • Short-term vs Long-term
  • Justice vs Mercy

All eight of these are core values that are critical to the strength and preservation of society – they are moral. People always like to quibble with Kidder’s dilemmas; they find a fifth dilemma or don’t think he’s got them sorted correctly. That’s fine. The important take-away is that we have core social values that strengthen that community that sometimes come into conflict. We also can be motivated to try to twist our personal desires to fit these values in an effort to justify moral temptation.

For example, when the Mental Health Advisory Team’s Report, MHAT IV was released in November 2006, fewer than half of the Marines surveyed indicated they would report a unit member for injuring or killing a non-combatant, disobeying general orders, or violating ROE. They chose loyalty to their fellow Marines ahead of truth. While fidelity is essential to the Marine Corps ethos and combat effectiveness, Marines have an even more foundational loyalty to the Corps and the American people, which requires maintaining discipline and accountability in units tied to American values and the rule of law (which you all know from our previous session on the professional military ethic!).

The case study assigned for this session illustrates the dangerous road units can go down when these elements of discipline and accountability come unmoored from social values and legal restraints. Refusing to report or covering up battlefield violations is an illustration of misplaced loyalty.

This question of reporting battlefield infractions also illustrates Kidder’s other dilemmas: a Marine doesn’t want his buddy to be punished for his actions, but a lack of discipline and accountability harms the entire unit (the Individual vs the Collective). Likewise, Marines who ignore battlefield infractions often think they’re protecting their fellow Marines (choosing Mercy over Justice). Unfortunately, we know that accountability to key to overcoming moral failing, so by not reporting, Marines are robbing the people they’re trying to protect of the ability to redeem themselves. The ‘mercy’ they have chosen at the expense of justice isn’t actually merciful.

The key to resolving this moral temptation masquerading as moral dilemma is to help Marines in situations of significant stress recognize the difference between the two sorts of moral choices. That’s what we’ll be doing the rest of this week. Later we’ll talk about different approaches to overcoming temptation and resolving dilemmas and how you can prepare those you lead to do the same.

In this section on Moral Dilemmas we’ll also discuss what Michael Walzer defines as the ‘Dirty Hands’ phenomenon – or when individuals are forced to chose among a collection of morally bad options. If the overwhelming majority of moral choices are “Right vs Wrong” choices (and moral temptation is choosing the ‘Wrong’ option), and moral dilemmas as Kidder defines them are far rarer “Right vs Right” choices, then Walzer explores the exceptionally rare set of “Wrong vs Wrong” choices.

I’ll write a separate post on this sort of moral dilemma tomorrow or Saturday. I have a hunch this is where folks will want to spend all their time, but it is the rarest of all the moral choices we face in life and a moral temptation in its own right (I couldn’t help but do this terrible thing; I had to prevent this other terrible thing! I know there are moral boundaries I’m about to transgress, but I’m good and sincere, so I should be able to ignore them while other people should be made to follow them!). Let’s get our feet under us on the more common forms of moral temptation and dilemmas we face, then we can think about when we find ourselves in morally tragic situations (where there are no good moral choices) and how we can respond.

#METC: The Professional Military Ethic

For the next three days we’ll be looking at the concept of the professional military ethic. A couple of concepts to clarify first (and remember, I’m not looking to make you all professional ethicists, so I’m giving you ‘back of the envelope’ definitions that are more likely to stick in your head. The philosophy PhDs may not like them; they should feel free to discuss on twitter).

Moral: That which strengthens the community and binds it together. While there are some true hermits in the world, humans are inherently social creatures. Morality is concerned with the health of our social world. Acts are moral when they strengthen our social world, immoral when they corrode it, and amoral when they are unrelated to the health of our social world (all those avocados I ate this weekend, or the fact that some knucklehead installed my cable to come out of the floor instead of the wall are examples of amoral actions).

Ethics: Technically, ethics is the study of morality. It also refers to that which maintains the standards of a profession – in our case, the profession of arms. The Army has a great White Paper on the Profession of Arms that lays out the contours of the military profession. Don Snider has also written extensively on the topic. We’ll discuss in far greater detail the next three days, but in a nutshell, professional ethics pertains to the acquisition, certification and maintenance of specialized expertise on behalf of a client (in the military profession, this is the constitution, as embodied by the American people). The inherent logic of a profession is effectiveness, not efficiency – a trait that sparks real angst in the midst of the current budget crisis.[1]

Boundaries of the Profession of Arms

I’ve pulled together the defining characteristics of the military profession and military professional from the Army’s White Paper on the Profession of Arms to give a quick outline of the boundaries of the profession (the definitions in the footnotes come from the document; I haven’t cited precisely). This will frame the responsibilities, expectations, and obligations we’ll explore over the next five weeks. We can discuss if you’re interested, but this also provides a useful frame of reference when discussing professionalization in FID or Security Cooperation programs. We hold our military to an incredibly high standard; the bar is far lower in some countries.

THE PROFESSION THE PROFESSIONAL
Expertise[2] Skill
Trust[3] Trust
Development[4] Leadership
Values[5] Character
Service[6] Duty

I’d also commend the talk by Dick Kohn at the Naval War College’s Annual Ethics Conference last February. Regardless of whether you agree with Dr. Kohn completely (and sorry it’s just a recording of a speech; not super exciting!), he lays out some some foundational issues in the profession.

I’ll tweet some questions after lunch, but feel free to start tweeting any questions you have from the readings or points you’d like to make sure we cover. Remember the hash tag so I’ll catch them when I get back to the computer.

Here we go!


[1] Snider argues that the U.S. military is also a bureaucracy (a reality confirmed by anyone who spends any real time with the military!)

[2] The Profession of Arms requires expert knowledge (i.e. expertise), and that expertise is

manifested as unique skills in the individual professional and by Army units.

[3] The profession exists only through a relationship of trust with the client; and that trust is the same trust that enables the individual Soldier to develop within the Army as a profession, for Soldiers and units to bond, for Soldiers‘ families to trust the Army through myriad deployments, and for Army leaders to engage effectively in civil-military relations. In fact, that is why trust is clearly the most important attribute we seek for the Army. It is equally applicable and important in its simplest form to both profession and professional. It is our lifeblood.

[4] To maintain that trust, the profession requires the continuous development of human practitioners, (i.e. experts) who hold high levels of knowledge, adaptability, resilience, and other attributes that make them effective members of the Profession of Arms. That development is manifested in leadership by professionals at all ranks.

[5] The profession requires unwavering, deeply held values on which to base its Ethic. Those values, when well internalized, are manifested in the character of individual professionals. Such strength of character would include internalization of the Army values and ethos amongst other aspects of the Ethic.

[6] Finally the profession provides a vital service to American society and does so in subordination. That service is manifested in the duty of the individual professional.

Welcome to Military Ethics Twitter Course #METC!

#METC starts tomorrow, so I wanted to lay out how I see this working, as well as the general approach we’ll take over the next five weeks. First things first, several of you listed your learning objectives for the course. We will explore some of those questions directly; others could serve as topics for future #METCs if our experiment bears fruit.

My objectives for the course are the following:

  1. to help you develop a deeper familiarity with some of the core concepts and debates within the field of military ethics;
  2. to help you identify strong sources and rigorous approaches to moral reasoning so you can continue your study and analysis after we’re done; and,
  3. to learn how we can better engage on issues related to military ethics in this particular medium.

I heard from a number of people who think twitter is either an inappropriate or insufficient venue to discuss ethics and morality. I disagree, but certainly there are more and less effective ways to do it. Hopefully the next five weeks can help us learn how to better discuss issues related to military ethics without recourse to platitudes or fear mongering.

This means a few things for how I’ll engage #METC:

First, I’ll intentionally take positions I disagree with to push the conversation. I’ll also take starker positions than I’m personally comfortable with in order to clarify the boundaries or implications of an issue. #METC isn’t about where I come down on these questions; it’s about helping you figure out where you come down. I can do that better by focusing on clarity, sometimes at the expense of nuance and candor. If you’re ever interested in my own position on something, just ask.

Second, thoughtful, well-intentioned people can disagree. There are some clear red lines in military ethics, but there are also a significant number of choices that come down to judgment; that is to say there are multiple morally defensible choices (or, unfortunately, no morally defensible choice, only multiple indefensible choices of varying types). Since our goal is learning, you should focus your effort on how you justify your arguments or why you find some arguments more persuasive than others. If you were in the hot seat, asked to make a call, then you’d be judged on your ability to make a choice and carry it out. Here we have the luxury of focusing on why we would make particular choices over others. We won’t all agree. That’s life. It is cause for neither concern nor disrespect.

Third, there are plenty of topics we won’t cover in this #METC. I’m simply mirroring the elective I teach at the Command and Staff College. There are topics we should include in a thorough Military Ethics Course (the Just War Tradition) that we won’t cover here for the simple reason that they’re included in our core curriculum. I’ll keep a running list of topics you’re interested in if we decide we’d like more #METCs at a later date.

Now some nuts and bolts:

  • I’ll post a quick overview of the day’s topic at some point on the first day, ideally before lunch.
  • I’ve got a series of questions that I’ll tweet with the #METC hashtag starting that evening. You all can engage those questions and each other (use the hashtag!) or you can ask me questions directly. I have more time in the evenings, so you may have to wait a little bit for a response, but I’ll get there!
  • I’ll work to storify conversations as they come together. If something needs a longer response, I also might blog a longer post, though I really want to see if we can keep this predominantly twitter-centric.

Want to ease yourself in? Here’s the Army’s Ethic (though we’ll look at more than battlefield ethics). If you’re really looking to geek out, the Naval War College has their very own YouTube page where they post talks. You can find the 2011 Ethics Conference and the 2012 Ethics Conference. I’ll link specific talks relevant to the topics we cover as we go, but now you have the whole shootin’ match. The Naval Academy also posts their lectures on-line. Enjoy!

Military Ethics Twitter Course

We’re getting ready to start our electives period at the Command and Staff College, where I have the good fortune of teaching 17 Majors, Lieutenant Commanders, and GS-14s about military ethics. The course runs 10 sessions over five weeks, and as I’ve been preparing I had one of those ‘flash of the obvious’ moments:

I love teaching. I love military ethics. I love twitter.

Would it be possible to combine the three? I honestly don’t know, but I figure we might as well take a crack at it.

Here’s what I propose:

  1. You can see a readings list at Twitter Military Ethics Course. Google around and you can find most of them. If you have better ideas for readings, videos, etc., lemme know and I’ll update. Nothing like crowd sourcing learning!
  2. I intend to loosely mirror the same pace as my seminar course, which means we’ll cover 2 topics per week.  Unlike seminar, we’re not constrained by a two-hour window. We’ll have roughly 3 days to develop our thoughts (in 140 character chunks!).
  3. All are welcome. Come and go as you please.
  4. I’ll post a brief backgrounder on this blog at the start of each topic to kick things off. Then I’ll tweet specific learning points and questions with the hashtag #METC. All you need to do is follow along and ask me questions or give your thoughts on the questions I ask. Just make sure to use the hashtag #METC so everyone catches it. I’ll do my best to storify conversation threads as we go.
  5. Since I’ve never done this before, I expect there will be a pretty sharp learning curve. Apologies in advance for whatever I mess up; please let me know how I can help make it more productive for you! Always remember: you get what you pay for.
  6. There will be an honor grad. There will be an honor grad prize. That is all I have decided so far.

Any questions? Hit me up at @johnsonr. Here are the general windows for each topic:

Class 1: Introduction to Professional Military Ethics   (January 21-23, 2013)

Class 2: Moral Dilemmas   (January 24-26, 2013)

Class 3: Motivating Moral Behavior   (January 28-30, 2013)

Class 4: Setting the Command Climate   (January 31-February 2, 2013)

Class 5: Moral Development   (February 4-6, 2013)

Class 6: Targeted Killings   (February 7-9, 2013)

Class 7: Emerging Issues – Unmanned Systems   (February 11-13, 2013)

Class 8: The Stoic Warrior   (February 14-16, 2013)

Class 9: Responding to the Command Climate   (February 18-20, 2013)

Class 10: Ethical Fitness   (February 21-23, 2013)

February 25, 2013   GRADUATION!!!