Leadership & Ethics

Ethics Need a Foundation

By Chaplain Dan August 6, 2020

‘The ethical standards of uniformed personnel must hold firm every second of every day. Soldiers are always soldiers, in or out of uniform.  They must, therefore, hold themselves to the highest ethical standards, making choices about conduct based on firm ethical foundations.’[1]

It’s hard to find members of the Army that do not assent to the Army values of courage, initiative, teamwork, and respect. Nor the principles of Just War Theory. Yet so many fail in practically living these out.

A failure to help personnel identify the potentially incompatible nature of their moral framework generates significant reputation risk for us and could undermine Army’s status as a trusted national institution.

The argument being made here is that any Just War Theory and military ethics training requires “firm ethical foundations.” There needs to be a means by which the individual is able to determine what “Just” is.

These foundations, whilst aligning with the corporate values, must be or are best positioned within a member’s individual moral framework. Not all moral frameworks are equal and some are completely incompatible with military service.

But this isn’t about assigning a specific moral framework to an individual nor saying that there is one which is superior to another. That’s impossible. However, in educating and teaching our people about ethics, the organisation is beholden to press and challenge their moral framework.

In my experince, when I have quizzed our people on what they personally believe, the results are disturbing. They predominately state that value judgements are ultimately relative or subjective. And that nothing is intrinsically good or bad.

Value judgments are an essential and undeniable feature of human life. If our members are to be entirely consistent in their assessment of what is just, or what’s “good” and what’s “bad,” then what they cognitively assent to must also match their moral framework. None more so than in their application of lethal force. To do otherwise would require them to be functionally bipolar.

Therefore, ethics training must extend beyond simply defining what is and is not ethically acceptable to the organisation.

Our people must be challenged about the reality of their illogical framework and to ponder the undeniable, especially prior to operations. To get them to ask the difficult questions. Do they really believe what they say they believe? Do they match organisational values? Will it pass the rule of law that actually does define what is “right” and “wrong”.

By challenging our peoples moral framework, they will; first, be able to know and articulate what their personal framework is, and second, bring into clear focus the logical inconsistencies of their moral framework - exposing those that are incompatible with military service.

For some it will expose all the shallow assumptions, all the naïve generalisations. Conversely, it can also strengthen an individual’s moral courage and conviction. Enabling them to live out their moral framework in a way that is entirely consistent and matching with reality making them more resilient and robust.



[1] Chris Field,  The Practicalities of Ethical Accountability,  ESSAY in ETHICS UNDER FIRE (ed) Tom Frame, Albert Palazzo, 2017, UNSW Press, p282




Chaplain Dan

Dan is a Chaplain in the Australian Army.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


“The argument being made here is that any Just War Theory and military ethics training requires ‘firm ethical foundations’. There needs to be a means by which the individual is able to determine what ‘Just’ is.” Maj Gen Jake Ellwood recently wrote in ‘The Cove’ that: "... ethical conduct is a personal thing. It must come naturally and instinctively to a person, especially in combat." In my response, I asked rhetorically if such things were [either] a “a Rules of Engagement (ie. military law) matter or a personal ethics matter?” I ventured that it was both, ie. one without the other wouldn’t work. Mentioning this to a friend (also a Vietnam veteran) he commented that: “There is, in my view, a hierarchy in the moral code of responsibility and accountability. First comes the Rules of Engagement (ROE), and the training necessary to ensure understanding and acceptance that such rules are no different from any other ‘Order’. Second, when confronted with a situation which might entail a breach of ROE, the soldier must be cognisant that he is about to disobey an ‘Order’. Only then does the soldier confront the third hurdle referred to by Ellwood [ie. a personal thing [which] must come naturally and instinctively to a person].” I agree entirely that “ethics training must extend beyond simply defining what is and is not ethically acceptable to the organisation” and that soldiers must be challenged to ponder such things, “especially prior to operations”. But I also believe that there is a place for stressing the need to obey orders … something drilled into soldiers from Day 1. This, of course, raises the dilemma of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ orders. Here lies the responsibility of the individual. ROE as applied to a theatre of operations, clearly define the ethical boundaries, ie. ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Such Rules constitute an ‘Order’. It is only when the ROE are countermanded by a superior, that a soldier faces a personal crisis. Training must address such a possibility.

Thank you for this article, Dan. It’s an important subject. Recent operational behaviour makes it so, as do current investigations, inquiries and media exposes. And naturally it's important in its own right, because when we're engaged in the ghastly immorality of war we at least need to be more moral than the other guys. Having got that out of the way, I dispute your first point: that most Army members assent to the Army values and to the principles of just war theory. I'll leave just war theory out of the argument for now, because there's already enough to go on with. When members assent to Army's values it's because they've been exposed to them in a presentation or they've been reminded of them in some more formal setting. Naturally they toe the party line when they’re being assessed. Their lack of genuine assent is illustrated by your own observations about failing to practically live these values. So, what’s to be done? Firstly, let’s drop the institutional pretence that every member of Army gets its values and always demonstrates them. I think you are saying this, more politely than I am, but what’s to be done about it? The conundrum you are illustrating is this: it's not about what's moral, it's about learning to be moral. This is an attitudinal disposition, demonstrated in the cognitive and affective domains, not a simple psycho-motor skill that's learnt and assessed in a few hands-on lessons. Ethical behaviour on operations begins with ethical behaviour in barracks, and ethical behaviour in barracks is underpinned by education and leadership. The education part is that Army’s people need to be exposed in their training to values that they wish to internalise and display because they know that its right to do so. This is affective domain stuff. A good example is safety precautions and safety around a weapon or weapon system. Everything about a weapon is taught as a drill, except safety, which is instilled as a value. OK, safety behaviours are taught as drills but the outcome is a value, not just a skill. You don’t get people to be safe by telling them to be safe. You get them to act safely because they value doing so. This is your challenge with ethics. Ethical behaviour is not going to arise because people are told to be ethical or because they read about it in induction sessions or see it on PowerPoint slides. It has to be modelled in training, unpacked in educational periods of instruction, and modelled by the chain of command. If Army really wants to ‘challenge our people’s moral framework’ then ethics need to be intrinsic to Army education and training – and the learning design needs to be based on ‘how to value’, not ‘what to value’. To stimulate further discussion, how many instructional periods in the soldier and officer all-Corps continuums, at each level, are devoted to ethics? And of those, how many give a list of prescribed behaviours as distinct from requiring each trainee to challenge who they are, what they value, and how they would behave on a difficult day?

I would like to thank Chaplain Dan for his piece on military ethics. This is an incredibly important topic noting emergent circumstances. First, the tenor of the article seems to conflate an important foundational part of military ethics and ethics more broadly, the difference between a test of integrity and ethical dilemma. An ethical dilemma (or sometimes, a test of ethics) is a situation in which the difficulty lies in knowing what the right thing to do actually is. In other words, the ‘right answer’ is incredibly difficult or unclear. It is a situation in which a person is faced with a number of choices, often a number of bad choices, and has to work out what is the right thing to do in that particular situation. A test of integrity is a situation in which it is reasonably obvious, or even perfectly obvious, what the right thing to do, but for whatever reason, it is difficult for the person involved to actually do the right thing. Being precise and addressing ethical dilemmas vis-a-vis tests of integrity (or vice versa) would have greatly enhanced this article and given it more precision. A significant issue is its lack of engagement with scholarly debates on military ethics or even ethics more broadly. The author referenced only one quote from an Army General in his article. No mention of arguments from leading ethical scholars were not made who have spent their whole professional life addressing this very issue engaging with a wide array of practitioners. Therefore, the argument can be believed to take a largely prima facie approach lacking the analytical rigour provided by the vast array of academic dialogue on the matter. The Centre for Defence Leadership and Ethics is an excellent start point to delve further into this incredibly important area of study. The author described some ‘disturbing’ personal experiences regarding ethics and is not uncommon when serving in any military organisation. However, the article fails to comprehensively provide any meaningful recommendations on how to improve this issue or how to “build the ethical skin of the organisation” as stated by Dr Simon Longstaff, AO of The Ethics Centre in Sydney. For example, the ADF is currently drafting joint doctrine regarding ethics and have recently updated their doctrine on leadership with a focus on ‘ethical’ leadership. Contribution to doctrinal development or providing broad recommendations would have been an important initiative noting the inherent link between training and doctrine. Further, identifying the “enemies of ethics” would have supported the organisation’s quest for the effective application of ethical leadership and decision making in Army. It has been argued that “hypocrisy" and the “unthinking custom and practice” are the primary enemies of ethics. Therefore, addressing these two factors and how the Army could mitigate them would also be a useful, meaningful contribution to the debate. Thank you again and kind regards, From an anonymous student of military ethics with over a decade of military experience.

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