Virtue Ethics in the Military

In S. van Hooft, N. Athanassoulis, J. Kawall, J. Oakley & L. van Zyl (eds.), The handbook of virtue ethics. Durham: Acumen Publishing. pp. 365-374 (2014)
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In addition to the traditional reliance on rules and codes in regulating the conduct of military personnel, most of today’s militaries put their money on character building in trying to make their soldiers virtuous. Especially in recent years it has time and again been argued that virtue ethics, with its emphasis on character building, provides a better basis for military ethics than deontological ethics or utilitarian ethics. Although virtue ethics comes in many varieties these days, in many texts on military ethics dealing with the subject of military virtues the Aristotelian view on virtues is still pivotal. Developing virtues is by some authors seen as the best way to prevent misconduct by military personnel, it being considered superior to rules or codes of conduct imposed from above. The main argument these authors offer is that these solutions are impotent when no one is around, and lack the flexibility often thought necessary in today’s world. Finally, rules and codes try to condition behavior, leaving less room for personal integrity. At first sight, then, there is a great deal to say in favor of virtue ethics as being the best way of enhancing the chances of soldiers behaving morally. However, this preference for steering conduct by means of promoting certain desirable dispositions is not without any problems that, as it stands, are hardly ever addressed. To begin with, there are a few practical concerns. For instance, even if we assume that military virtues can assist military personnel to do their work in a morally sound manner, it is still not clear to what extent virtues can, in fact, be taught to them. It is an assumption of virtue ethics that they can, but is this really the case? And if so, how should they be taught? – virtues are supposedly developed by practicing them, yet how much room is there for practicing virtues in for instance the ethics education as followed in military academies and school battalions? Secondly, it appears that the traditional military virtues, such as honor, loyalty, courage, and obedience, are, especially in their common interpretation, mainly beneficial to colleagues and the organization, not so much to the local population of the countries military personnel are deployed to. Changes in the military’s wider environment have led to a shift from traditional of self-defense tasks to new, more complex tasks, and especially in today’s missions one could expect that the proper virtues are not necessarily solely the more martial ones.

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Peter Olsthoorn
Netherlands Defence Academy


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