#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.


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