PME Resources

#ICYMI: Ethical Decision-Making: A guide to personal development in one of Army's core combat behaviours

By The Cove October 12, 2021
Trooper Jonathon Church in Rwanda

'Our soldiers have strength of character. This is reflected in our ability to make ethical and moral decisions and be accountable. We do the right thing. We sustain our trust in each other and cohesion in our teams.' 

LTGEN Rick Burr AO, DSC, MVO - Good Soldiering

Ethical decision-making: a core combat behaviour

Ethical decision-making lies at the very core of what makes Australian Army soldiers. While many nations and armed groups have created tactically effective teams, it is the commitment to act in an ethical and moral manner which defines who we are, both as individuals and as an organisation. We need to conduct ourselves ethically, regardless of the environmental challenges, the nature of war, or how our adversaries conduct themselves.  Our capacity for restraint, compassion and above all ethical reasoning is what distinguishes the Australian Defence Force as an ethical profession of arms.

The CDF has directed that there be one foundational publication on ethics. Just as there is one foundational publication on leadership. These two publications on leadership and ethics form a coherent pair as ADF-P-0 ADF Leadership states:

Ethical leadership is the single most important factor in ensuring the legitimacy of our operations and the support of the Australian people.

The new publication, ADF-P-0 Military Ethics, defines our approach to military ethics. It provides the basis for understanding ethics and is the foundation document for the ADF Ethics Continuum. The ADF Ethics Continuum incorporates ethical capabilities; individual education and training; continuous professional development resources, and ethical learning for groups; collective training; and large-scale activities.

ADF-P-0 Military Ethics includes an ethical decision-making framework for use by ADF members. This framework draws from theories we already use, including the concepts of intent, lawfulness, and alignment with Defence Values. It then calls on us to evaluate our thinking to ensure we have addressed any biases or stereotypes.

Developing ethical decision making

While the development of ethical decision-making is incorporated into formal and collective training activities - such as career courses and scenarios on exercises -  it is an aspect of our professional development that we can spend time investing in ourselves. It’s also a great way to use time in lockdown or at home to develop yourself. To help, the team at The Cove have put together a list of some resources for you to check out.

Good Soldiering. This is one of the Army’s keystone documents and if you haven’t read it yet, you should. It describes what is expected of you as an individual and how you contribute to an Army in Motion that places ethical decision making at the centre of everything it does. It can be found here.

The Cove’s partnership with the King’s College London Centre for Military Ethics. The Cove has partnered with Kings College London (KCL) to offer you access to their world-class online military ethics course which was developed in cooperation with the University of New South Wales Canberra. We have covered the administration fees so that you can complete the course for free. The course covers the spectrum of military ethics and draws on expertise from academics, practitioners, and the very best curricula being taught in academies, staff colleges and war colleges around the world.

You can register for Key Concepts in Military Ethics: The Cove here

Centre for Defence Leadership and Ethics (CDLE)The Centre for Defence Leadership and Ethics (CDLE) is a centre of excellence at the Australian Defence College (ADC), located at the Weston Creek campus in the Australian Capital Territory. As the Joint Learning Management Authority for Leadership, Ethics and Character, CDLE provides a range of specialist advice, education and research to advance Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) in these areas. CDLE’s main focus is the practical application of leadership, ethics and cross-cultural competence across Defence. To do this, it draws on joint, all-ranks perspectives, reinforced through real life case studies, deep personal experience and world-leading research.

Some of the key CDLE activities include:

Working with the Services to enable personnel across joint, single Service, broader Defence and interagency forums to better understand and apply ethical and culturally-intelligent leadership in war and peace. For example - the CDF NCO Leadership Forum and the Cultural Intelligence for Defence Engagement Course.

Production of world leading research in the fields of military ethics, leadership and cultural intelligence. For example – NATO Research into Ethical Leadership and other CDLE papers presented to the International Military Testing Association (IMTA) and the International Society for Military Ethics (ISME).

Subject matter support and delivery to the command, leadership and ethics elements of the courses conducted by ADC such as the Australian Defence Force Academy, the Australian War College.

Authorship and coordination of key doctrine publications like ADF-P-0 Leadership, ADF-P-0 Military Ethics, and next year, ADF-P-0 Military Character.

Further reading

There are a number of great books and articles out there that cover military ethics and ethical decision making. These are some of our favourites:

Stephen Coleman – Military Ethics: An introduction with case studies. This is a very practical book, including more than fifty engaging case studies--personal, historical, and fictional accounts--that give a bird's-eye view of various real-world ethical dilemmas. Opening with an introduction to ethics and an overview of ethical theory, the book goes on to discuss ethical problems related to: the use and misuse of power and authority; discrimination and proportionality in traditional conflicts, irregular wars, and humanitarian military interventions; supreme emergency, terrorism, and responses to terrorism; and much more.

Shannon E. French - The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present. Warrior cultures throughout history have developed unique codes that restrict their behaviour and set them apart from the rest of society. But what possible reason could a warrior have for accepting such restraints? Why should those whose profession can force them into kill-or-be-killed conditions care about such lofty concepts as honour, courage, nobility, duty, and sacrifice? And why should it matter so much to the warriors themselves that they be something more than mere murderers? The Code of the Warrior tackles these timely issues and takes the reader on a tour of warrior cultures and their values, from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the 'barbaric' Vikings and Celts, from legendary chivalric knights to Native American tribesmen, from Chinese warrior monks pursuing enlightenment to Japanese samurai practicing death. Drawing these rich traditions up to the present, the author quests for a code for the warriors of today, as they do battle in asymmetric conflicts against unconventional forces and the scourge of global terrorism.

Pauline Shanks-Kaurin - On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for the Military Citizenry and Community. This is a great book about the virtue of obedience in the context of the professional military and the broader civilian political community, including the general citizenry. The nature and components of obedience are critical factors leading to further discussions of the moral obligations related to obedience, as well as the related practical issues and implications. It asks: What is obedience? Is it a virtue, and if it is, why? What are the moral grounds of obedience? Why ought military members and citizens be obedient? Are there times that one ought not be obedient? Why? How should we think about obedience in contemporary political communities?

Jim Fredricks - Black Hearts: One platoon's descent into madness in Iraq’s triangle of Death. If you read one book on military ethics, make it this one. This absorbing read into how a platoon lost its ethical way in Iraq contains sobering lessons for all levels of command. Want to know more? Check out Brendan Robinson’s book review of it on The Cove as well as Claire Von Wald's article which looks at what we can learn from the book.

Deane-Peter Baker - Key Concepts in Military Ethics. This book is structured as a series of ‘mini-chapters’ that cover a huge range of topics and issues: moral dilemmas, military and civilian interactions, freedom of the press, peacekeeping, terrorism, and humanitarian intervention. A great place to start for someone who hasn’t read much about military ethics before.

Ed Micheal Skerker, David Whetham and Don Carrick – Military Virtues. This book identifies 14 key virtues of the military professional and through opening commentaries and real world examples of those virtues in practice, it provides guidance for service personnel at every stage of their career. Includes a case study written by former Director of The Cove, LTCOL Tom McDermott, so we highly recommend you check this one out of the library.

Anthony E. Hartle - Moral Issues in Military Decision Making. When it was originally published, Moral Issues in Military Decision Making reflected the concerns posed by nuclear stalemate and the lessons of Vietnam. In that highly-praised work, Anthony Hartle outlined the essential elements of the Professional Military Ethic created for American military forces. In this new edition, he re-examines the moral foundations for America's military leadership in the post-9/11 era.

Sally Graham - Ethics: what can we learn from the case of SGT Blackman. In 2018, The Cove published a collective PME package on ethical decision-making using the case study of SGT Blackman from the UK's Royal Marines. It includes some useful questions for small team discussion and a facilitator's guide.

Defence Library Service. The DLS has a fabulous online collection on its OverDrive site, including ebooks, audio books and reading lists. It means there really is no excuse for not being able to read! You can find OverDrive by clicking here.









The Cove

The home of the Australian Profession of Arms.

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.


Stop it. Ethics cannot apply to war - to fighting. Niceness and warfare are incompatible. Had we shown any niceness, had we applied ethics to our fighting then we would be Nazi now. What you are preaching is awful. Stop it.

In the Military, ethical decision making is vital for all soldiers to have and gain over the course of their career, and to continue striving to make better decisions, from all ranks, whether private, sergeant or captain.

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