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Military Ethics and Military Ethics Education: In Search of a “European Approach”


Is there a distinctive European understanding of military ethics? This issue of “Ethics and Armed Forces” approaches the question by looking at various fundamental topics, from Just War and Just Peace to soldierly professionalism and role models. It is also the central question of the upcoming annual EuroISME conference in 2024.[1] Rather than answering the question, this short introductory paper provides an overview which can serve as groundwork for answering it, and a preliminary comparison between the Netherlands and Australia.

In general, military ethics sets a normative standard specifically for people working within armed forces, who are authorized to use violence on behalf of the state. It is, according to George Lucas, “about the moral foundations of the profession of arms, and the core values and guiding principles of the men and women who have served, or who are now serving in that profession”[2]. Ted van Baarda and Désirée Verweij define it as, “An ethic which relates to the nature, content, validity and effect of morals in a military context. As such, military ethics refers to both the conceptual creation of scientific theory, as well as applied ethics including casuistry.”[3] This definition reflects that, although military ethics is an academic field of research, there is a strong focus on the education of military personnel.

When comparing views on military ethics, there will be strong similarities when it comes to those core values and guiding principles. At the same time, however, and as result of variations in culture, structure and politics of the state, organization of the armed forces, and historical experiences, there will undoubtedly be differences as well. More specifically, military ethics education can differ with regard to its perceived function or purpose, theoretical underpinnings, topics, and didactic methods. Bringing to light a distinctive European understanding requires an analysis of these aspects within European countries, comparing those in order to see whether there is such a common understanding, and if so, comparing that view with other countries and regions, for example American, Australian, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern views. For all these comparisons, it would be helpful to distinguish the different aspects of military ethics education – the purpose, theoretical underpinnings, content, and didactic methods. This paper provides an overview of those aspects, shows how they can be interpreted, and then uses them to briefly compare Dutch and Australian views.


What is seen as the core function or purpose of military ethics education will influence the other aspects distinguished here. The core function of military ethics is “to assist those professions to think through the moral challenges and dilemmas inherent in their professional activity and, by helping members of the profession better understand the ethical demands upon them, to enable and motivate them to act appropriately in the discharge of their professional obligations”[4]. At a minimum, this ought to reduce the occurrence of war crimes and other grave violations of humanitarian law. That includes enabling soldiers to decline an order when that requires them to violate humanitarian law (or do something ethically inappropriate[5]). There will be plenty of grey area situations as well, where service members are confronted with conflicting obligations or values, or situations in which the rules are vague or even contradictory.[6] To cope with these situations, military ethics education aims to enhance the necessary skills to identify the moral dimension of problems, consider possible options, validate a choice, and to act. In that way it prepares service members to handle complex ethical dilemmas they can encounter on operations.

While the military forces of many countries will agree on this general purpose, there are likely to be differences that have to do with the related scope of military ethics education. Helpful here is the distinction made by Jessica Wolfendale between two contrasting purposes that determine this scope: is military ethics education perceived as functional or aspirational?[7] The functional view sees the primary purpose as ensuring that military personnel behave correctly, therefore changing character is redundant if individuals behave appropriately. Those who are educated are seen primarily in their professional role, and military ethics educations contributes to morally responsible professionals. The aspirational view focuses on improving ethical competence or character in general. In this paradigm, military ethics education has a wider scope; it is more personal and character development is critical. There can be different views, therefore, on whether military ethics education and training should “produce military personnel who are virtuous people as well as effective fighters”[8]. For example, Asa Kasher is critical with regards to this aspirational view, arguing that “a military force of a democracy that includes people who are conscripts and people who are reserve officers and NCOs should […] avoid any attempt to change their character in a deep and broad way […]”[9]

Theoretical underpinnings

Military ethics is predominantly a philosophical field, but interdisciplinary as it overlaps and relates to fields such as humanitarian law, political and moral philosophy, leadership theory, and (moral) psychology. It is likely that, as the function and focus between regions and countries will vary, so too will the theoretical underpinnings of military ethics education. The 2008 edited volume Ethics Education in the Military[10] compared across ten democratic states: Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Israel, Japan, Norway, and the United States. A clear outcome of this study is the finding that, “The philosophical principles behind these [national] programmes are … often very different from one nation to another, producing significant variation in the methods used to tackle the common problem.”[11]

As a theoretical starting point, three familiar ethical theories are usually central in military ethics education. Consequentialism determines that the moral value of an action is contingent on its outcomes. In essence, moral decision-making entails a cost-benefit analysis where positive consequences are weighed against negative consequences. Deontology is rule-based, and rather focuses on intentions and the intrinsic nature of actions. Some actions are inherently wrong, irrespective of their positive outcomes. Immanuel Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ is an example of deontology, as it entails the strict obligation to treat other human beings (and oneself) as ends in themselves rather than means to an end. Lastly, virtue ethics focuses on the individual that performs the action. Virtues – such as moderation, wisdom, and justice – are seen as essential for leading a morally righteous life. Rather than prescribing specific rules, virtue ethics assumes moral character can be built by a cultivation of these virtues, and that virtuous people will do the right thing. Differences in military ethics education can relate to a specific theoretical focus, as each of these theories offers distinct criteria to determine whether conduct is considered morally right or wrong: consequentialism evaluates actions based on their outcomes, deontological ethics emphasizes the intrinsic nature of actions and the importance of intentions, and virtue ethics centers on personal character development.

Military ethics education will rely heavily on the philosophical theories that focus specifically on the military profession.[12] The criteria central in the ethical theories above are reflected in applied theory on war and warfare: just war theory and military virtue ethics. Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars is likely to be part of the curriculum at many military academies.[13] While jus ad bellum is primarily relevant to statesmen and political leaders, it is assumed that officers nonetheless require an understanding of the ethical principles underlying their task, the reasons for deployment, and the arguments used in the public debate. Jus in bello specifically addresses military personnel and relates to the ethics of the profession of arms. It determines and justifies the principle of distinction, which means that non-combatants are immune and cannot be intentionally targeted, but combatants are equally liable to be killed, and equally permitted to kill their adversaries (deontology). Attacks on combatants and military targets must furthermore be proportionate; collateral damage cannot be excessive and must be outweighed by the expected military advantage (consequentialism).[14] This central idea is reflected in international humanitarian law, which determines that its norms apply to all those concerned and imposes the same obligations on them.

Military virtue ethics is also widely taught at military academies as the theoretical basis for building character, including cultivating the virtues that help military professionals perform well.[15] Military virtues are largely interwoven and are weighed up in complex ethical environments.[16] Singular virtues, such as respect, courage, or loyalty can be interpreted in a narrow or broader way: courage can be defined as only physical and/or moral courage, loyalty can be defined as both loyalty to a principle or loyalty to a person, group, or nation, and as for respect, this can be seen as respect for colleagues or is extended to ‘outsiders’.[17] Virtues are often reflected in the ‘values’ formally promulgated by military forces, prescribing how an individual ought to be. For example, the Netherlands Armed Forces value responsibility, comradery, trust, and safety, codified in a code of conduct (although common virtues within Western democratic armed forces).[18] Also comparable with Armed Forces abroad, within the different Dutch branches units adhere to their specific values like courage, loyalty and discipline. Similarly, the Australian Defence Force values are service, courage, respect, integrity and excellence – all of which are either virtues or are virtue-proximate.

While just war theory and military virtues are fairly distinct academic fields, sometimes they are combined. Allen Buchanan, for example, assumes that the goal of just war theory is not merely to offer a ‘checklist’ of criteria, but must also include “directly action-guiding rules”, guidance for the evaluation of institutional processes, criteria for the evaluation of the laws of war, the decisions of leaders, and social practices, plus an account of the virtues of leaders.[19] A.J. Coates also emphasises that the key determinants of justice in war are the moral dispositions of combatants.[20] Even if someone knows the correct action to take, that does not necessarily mean that this person will act accordingly. Therefore, just war theory is not only about rules and principles, but also virtues and vices. Since virtues are expressions of combatants’ moral character, they are vital for incentivizing moral conduct.


What sort of topics are discussed within the education and training of armed forces? Military ethics can cover a wide range of themes and topics. An important distinction can be made between peacetime and deployment related themes. Military ethics related to deployment and (being confronted with) the use of force centers around the moral standard that governs warfare, i.e. the jus in bello. Topics within this theme are often strongly related with international humanitarian law, the mission’s mandate and the rules of engagement. Specific issues might include the principle of distinction, the justification for civilian casualties, guerilla warfare, warrior codes, cultural awareness, perceptions of ‘the other’ and the risk of dehumanization, and more recently also the role of technology and meaningful human control, soldier enhancement and autonomous systems.[21] Moral disengagement is another common theme within mission-oriented ethics education. A mechanism which pushes military units on to a slippery slope of misconduct, due to the absence of checks and balances and moral self-justification (amongst others).[22] Military ethics in peacetime significantly overlaps with organizational ethics, but there are issues more uniquely connected to the military organization as well. In education and training, armed forces might focus on topics such as integrity, corruption, whistle-blowing, power relations, social safety, inclusion, sexual harassment, leadership, and moral case deliberation. More specific issues can be military codes of conduct, command responsibility, off-duty conduct, hazing and military traditions, and military leadership.

In general, all these topics fall within the ethics of the military profession. There are particular professions within the military that pose distinct challenges, such as those related to the tasks of military medical personnel, border patrol officers, or intelligence officers. Additionally, the military profession comes with an important political dimension, as the armed forces are an ‘instrument of the state’. That means that the jus ad bellum issues are relevant, as are civil-military relations, the political goals of certain missions, foreign affairs, and topics related to international affairs. Depending on national or regional experiences, cultures and prioritizing, armed forces are likely to differ with regard to the topics that receive most attention in the curriculum.

Didactic approach

Military ethics can be taught actively or passively and in different ways, e.g. through lectures, (interactive) classroom teaching, (personal) case studies and discussions, war gaming, self- and peer reflection. There can be divergent views as to whether military ethics education should be predominantly theoretical – focused on ethical concepts and principles – or practical, focusing on situations soldiers experience in the military profession (be it combat or peacetime duties and activities). The aim of theoretical instruction is to make soldiers aware of the justification of rules and the underlying values. Thus, soldiers are equipped with a moral understanding that shapes their responses to ethically challenging real-life situations. Conversely, practical training has a similar goal, however, it aims to realize these by building the soldier’s competence in ethical decision making (EDM) via experiential learning. Such training will use historical examples, casuistry, and real-life experiences, so to allow service members to strengthen their moral competence. This will involve (elaborate) assessments of ethical dilemmas and cases. Ethical theory is used in a more limited way, to recognize the ethical issues at stake, and the personal value system of soldiers is likely to be included in these assessments as well.[23]

A less familiar debate concerns the role and effectiveness of passive education. Robinson (2007) refers to a process of ‘osmosis’, in which the military institution by nature,  culture and instructing personnel helps instilling the values of a military professional. This is a form of education which is rarely involved in designing ethics education as an addition to theoretical and practical education.

The Netherlands and Australia

The above overview shows in what ways national and regional views on military ethics might differ. That distinctiveness can be brought to light by comparing the perceived purpose, theoretical underpinnings, content, and didactic methods. To see how such comparisons can work, this section provides a preliminary analysis of differences and similarities between Dutch and Australian views.

The Charter of the Australian Defence Force Academy includes the requirement to provide cadets with military education and training for the purpose of developing their professional abilities and the qualities of character and leadership that are appropriate to officers in the ADF.[24] This dual focus on understanding key ideas in military ethics, and on the development of character, suggests that the ADF sees military ethics education as both functional and aspirational, or (perhaps more likely) that there is no clarity of purpose for military ethics education across the ADF. A similar combination of functional and aspirational goals is found in the Dutch curriculum. Distinctions can be made between initial-, career-, and specific education within the Netherlands Defense Academy (NLDA). An analysis of documents and interviews with instructors show that there are often mixed goals for most courses, i.e. with functional and aspirational elements.[25]

In terms of theoretical underpinnings and content, a 2021 doctrinal document states that next to the just war tradition, three ethical theories ground the ADF’s approach: natural law theory, deontology and virtue ethics. Interestingly, consequentialism is not included in this list. For the Dutch military ethics education, various theories are used depending on the type of course. In general, however, there is an emphasis on (military) virtue ethics. The bachelor courses that are part of the initial education (long track officer program) combine different theories. The common Military Leadership and Ethics course largely deals with leadership theories, but discusses the three ethical theories in the session on moral leadership, and includes sessions on military virtues and just war theory. Elective courses offer a more in-depth study of, for example, the just war tradition and the psycho-social dynamics of armed forces (combining ethics, moral psychology, and anthropology). The train-the-trainer course strengthening moral competence is an example of specific education. The starting point is the assumption that effectively dealing with moral dilemmas requires “that one is aware of one’s personal moral values and the values which are important to the military organization. This can be stimulated through fundamental moral education which focuses on character building.”[26] This course is built on virtue ethics.

In both countries, the educational approach is fairly similar, with a large emphasis on case studies. The Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) is the consumer of the most extensive package of ethics education in the ADF, in the form of the semester-long ‘Introduction to Military Ethics’ course offered there by UNSW Canberra. Central to this course has long been the textbook written for the purpose by Stephen Coleman, and its approach is highlighted in the title: Military Ethics: An Introduction with Case Studies (Oxford University Press, 2012). Martin Cook (2004), when reviewing ethics as part of Australian Joint Professional Military Education (JPME), claimed there were two main subjects: ethical issues in proper and legitimate use of force for military, and broader ethical issues concerning topics such as military professionalism and civil-military relationships.[27] The bachelor courses at the NLDA consist of classroom instruction (lectures) combined with interactive tutorials and student presentations. Historical case studies are used to discuss the application of theories. The specific topics discussed vary per course. E.g. the psycho-social dynamics of armed forces includes topics such as the ethics of technology, hazing, and moral injury. In the career- and specific education courses there is more emphasis on sharing and reflecting on (personal) cases and less on transferring academic knowledge. The train-the-trainer course is a notable example, as it combines a Socratic attitude with a process of ‘lived learning’. Whiting this training, there is specific attention for topics such as power relations (Foucault), moral injury, just culture and international humanitarian law.

There is a lot of similarity with regard to other more specific topics that are part of the Dutch and Australian curricula, e.g. the criteria of jus ad bellum and jus in bello, and ethical questions related to emerging technologies, such as cyberwarfare, remote warfare, and autonomous weapon systems. Interestingly, in both the Netherlands and Australia inconsistencies in the curriculum are reported. Kevin van Loon, one of the authors of this paper, emphasized in his research the need to work on a “well-thought-out continuous ethics curriculum” in order to strengthen coherence and consistency.[28] And similarly, Jamie Cullens of the Australian Defence Force’s Centre for Defence Leadership and Ethics (CDLE) claimed in 2008 that “the current approach to the delivery of military ethics programmes could be summed up as containing some good ideas and appropriate intent but lacking in cohesion and focus”[29].

Concluding thoughts

There will be many similarities but also differences in the way armed forces shape their military ethics education. These differences are likely to be related to its perceived function and scope, the theoretical underpinnings, specific content, and the way the education and training is organized. Whether or not there is a distinctly European approach to military ethics is, at foundation, an empirical question. Do European military forces reflect common trends in how they view the role of military ethics education? Is the emphasis functional or aspirational, theoretical or practical? A short comparison between the Netherlands and Australia shows large similarities but also points to the internal variations; different educational approaches depend on the level of the course and the target group, with each their own emphasis on a certain focus, topics and theoretical grounding. These internal variations raise the risk of inconsistencies in the complete curriculum. Analyzing the aspects of military ethics here discussed – for the purpose of comparisons or independently conducted – might raise awareness and help armed forces to strengthen their curriculum. A point of discussion is whether the analysis and comparison of ethics educational programmes alone is sufficient to fully answer the question regarding a distinct European understanding of military ethics. Additional research regarding the effectiveness of ethics education and the actual behavior of the various servicemen within barracks and during combat would offer a v


[1] See: (all internet sources accessed December 4, 2023).

[2] Lucas, G. (2015): Routledge Handbook of Military Ethics. London and New York.

[3] Van Baarda, T.A., and Verweij, D.E.M. (2006): Military Ethics. The Dutch Approach – A Practical Guide. Leiden.

[4] Cook, M.L. and Syse, H. (2010): What Should We Mean by ‘Military Ethics’? In: Journal of Military Ethics 9 (2), pp. 119-122, p. 119 f

[5] Coleman, S. (2013): Military Ethics. An Introduction with Case Studies. Oxford.

[6] Van Baarda, T.A., and Verweij, D.E.M. (2006), see endnote 3.

[7] Wolfendale, J. (2008): What is the point of teaching ethics in the military? In: Robinson, Paul, de Lee, Nigel and Carrick, Don (eds.): Ethics Education in the Military.Aldershot/Burlington, pp. 161-174.

[8] Ibid., p. 162.

[9] Kasher, Asa (2008): Teaching and Training Military Ethics: An Israeli Experience. In: Robinson, Paul, de Lee, Nigel and Carrick, Don (eds.), see endnote 7, pp. 138-146., pp 139 f.

[10] Robinson, Paul, de Lee, Nigel and Carrick, Don (eds.), see endnote 7.

[11] Robinson, Paul, de Lee, Nigel and Carrick, Don (eds.), see endnote 7, p. 1.

[12] This section is based on previous work: Peperkamp, L. and Braun, C.N. (2022): Contemporary Just War Theory and Military Education. In: Kramer, E. and Molendijk, T. (eds.):Confrontations with Violence in Extreme Conditions. New York, pp. 101-117.

[13] Walzer, M. (1977): Just and Unjust Wars. A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. New York.

[14] Of course these principles are debated. For the purpose of this paper, we only highlight the core principles as set out by ‘conventional’ just war theory. For contrasting views and different ethical foundations, see e.g. Benbaji, Y. and Statman, D. (2021): War by Agreement: A Contractarian Ethics of War. Oxford; Frowe, H. (2014): Defensive Killing. Oxford; McMahan, J. (2006): The Ethics of Killing in War. In: Philosophia, 34(1), pp. 23-41; Rodin, D. (2003): War and Self-Defense. Oxford; Shaw, W.H. (2016): Utilitarianism and the Ethics of War. London. For comparisons of those views see e.g. Peperkamp, L. (2019): De Oorlog in de Theorie van de Rechtvaardige Oorlog. In: Algemeen Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Wijsbegeerte, 111(1), pp. 63-94; Lazar, S. (2018): Method in the Morality of War. In: Frowe, H.and Lazar, S. (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Ethics of War. New York, pp. 21-40.

[15] An excellent recent overview is: Skerker, M., Whetham, D. and Carrick, D. (eds.) (2019): Military Virtues. Havant. And for a critical view of the value of military virtue ethics see: Miller, J.J. (2004): Squaring the Circle: Teaching Philosophical Ethics in the Military. In: Journal of Military Ethics 3(3), pp. 199-215.

[16] De Vries, P.H. (2015): Column Praktisch Inzicht.

[17] Olsthoorn, P. (2013): Virtue Ethics in the Military. In: van Hooft, S. et al. (eds.) (2014): The Handbook of Virtue Ethics. Abingdon/New York, pp. 365-374.

[19] Buchanan, A. (2018): Institutionalizing the Just War. Oxford.

[20] Coates, A.J. (2016): The Ethics of War. Second Edition.Manchester, pp. 1-19.

[21] Van Loon, K.J.C.M. (2023): Militair Ethiekonderwijs voor Officieren. In: Militaire Spectator 192 (5), pp. 248-260.

[22] Van Baarle, Eva and Blom-Terhell, Marjon (2022): ‘The Roof, the Roof, the Roof is on Fire’. Moral Standards and Moral Disengagement in Military Organisations. In Verweij, Désirée, Olsthoorn, Peter and van Baarle, Eva (eds.): Ethics and Military Practice. Leiden, pp. 24-39.

[23] For an overview of teaching methods see Van Loon, K. (2020): Military ethics education for Royal Netherlands Army (candidate) officers: a continuous curriculum? pp. 24-25.

[24] Australian Defence Force Academy (2004): Handbook. Canberra.

[25] Van Loon, K.J.C.M. (2020), see endnote 23.

[26] Wortel, E. and Bosch, J. (2011): Strengthening Moral Competence: A ‘Train the Trainer’ Course on Military Ethics. In: Journal of Military Ethics 10 (1).

[27] Cook, M. (2004): Perspectives on Ethics Education in Australian Joint Professional Military Education. Leadership Papers. Centre for Defence Command Leadership and Management Studies.

[28] Van Loon, Kevin (2020), see endnote 23: “All interviewees confirm that most coordination is bilateral and incidental and some even emphasise the need for an overarching structure with central aims and direction. They perceive courses and education as bottom-up initiatives within fairly isolated programmes.”

[29] Cullens, J. (2008): What ought one to do? Perspectives on military ethics education in the Australian Defence Force. In: Robinson, Paul, de Lee, Nigel and Carrick, Don (eds.) (2008), see endnote 7, p. 88.


Lonneke Peperkamp

Dr. Lonneke Peperkamp is professor of Military Ethics and Leadership at the Netherlands Defence Academy. She is also affiliated with iHub at Radboud University Nijmegen and the Centre for Military Ethics at King’s College London. Her research interests are: just war theory, peace building, global justice, human rights, and space security.

Kevin van Loon

Major Kevin van Loon is an infantry officer and during his career has been deployed to Afghanistan twice. Currently, Kevin is an assistant professor at the Netherlands Defence Academy. His areas of expertise include Military Leadership and Ethics, Human Resource Management and Research Methods.

Deane-Peter Baker

Dr Deane-Peter Baker is an Associate Professor of Ethics in the School of Humanities and Social Science at UNSW Canberra, and Director of the Military Ethics Research Lab and Innovation Network (MERLIN). He is also a Senior Visiting Research Fellow in the King’s College London Centre for Military Ethics. Prior to taking up his current role he taught in the Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law at the US Naval Academy.

David Evered

David Evered has served in the Australian Regular Army and Army Reserve for 47 years. After serving in the Regular Army, he joined the Australian Public Service and worked in the Department of Defence and the Department of Home Affairs. In his final posting he served as an oral historian with the Army History Unit, where he saw active service in the Solomon Islands. David holds a DBA and MBA from the University of Southern Queensland and is undertaking a PhD at UNSW Canberra.

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All articles in this issue

Military Ethics and Military Ethics Education: In Search of a “European Approach”
Lonneke Peperkamp, Kevin van Loon, Deane-Peter Baker, David Evered
Just peace despite war? In defense of a criticized concept
Markus Thurau
Russian Invasion of Ukraine. Not a Bit of the Old Ultraviolence
Arseniy Kumankov
Military Ethics Education – Bridging the Gap or Deepening the Chasm?
Dragan Stanar
The Retransformation of Soldiers’ Identities
Patrick Hofstetter
The Army is No Place for a Warrior
Christopher Ankersen
“Try to get more emotion into the classroom”
Deanna Messervey


Roger Mielke Janne Aalto Michaël Dewyn Patrick Mileham Stefan Gugerel Evaggelia Kiosi Mihály Boda Richard Schoonhoven