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Military virtues for today

By Peter Olsthoorn

How can military personnel be prevented from using force unlawfully? A critical examination of typical methods and the suitability of virtue ethics for this task starts with the inadequacies of a purely rules-based approach, and the fact that many armed forces increasingly rely on character development training. The three investigated complexes also raise further questions which require serious consideration – such as about the general teachability of virtues.

First, the changing roles and responsibilities of modern armed forces are used to refute the notion that timeless, “classic” military virtues exist, for example physical courage. With regard to today’s missions, virtues of restraint seem more necessary. Reflecting on the four interrelated and less military-specific cardinal virtues of courage, wisdom, temperance and justice could bring the military and civil society closer together. At the same time, this would be a logical step towards promoting personality development.

Respect is one example of such a “contemporary” inclusive virtue that some armed forces have adopted into their canon of values. Apparently, however, it often refers only to members of one’s own organization. And it is no less inappropriate to use it to justify moral relativism or excuse immoral practices, such as the widespread sexual abuse of Afghan boys by men in positions of power (“boy play”).

Finally, the essay asks about the general suitability of a virtue-based approach in ethical education, since social psychological research has shown that situational factors strongly influence behavior. The research findings do not render such an approach worthless, but they should be integrated into military personality training.

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