Every society develops, struggles to find and seeks solutions that will be best for society. What are the best laws, political style and what should be considered right and wrong and good or bad. Science says that for every action there is a reaction. Essentially, this means that there are consequences for all actions and choices, which calls for great consideration in regards to those acts being right or wrong, good or evil and or even worthwhile. Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted means by which attain these social goals that need to be achieved. One area of ethical debate that has remained highly active in the past, present and will likely remain so well into the future is those in regards to the United States military. How they are used? How they perceive themselves? Whether or not the needs of the military are being met? Ethical principles, like utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics, which are three of the most discussed theories. The research supports that the differing principles are all present in different aspects of the military and it relationship with the government and the people. While members of the military are very deontological in nature and the general, civilian public often looks at the “virtue ethics” in viewing the military and the United States military’s actions, it is, however, utilitarian that most represents the perspective that the United States government has concerning the military. It is this philosophical theory that allows the American government to address the problems with an objective approach that looks to greater good and best outcomes on a large scale. After reviewing the relevant research it becomes clear that while all ethical perspectives make strong cases, the reality is that best approach for the United States government to use when considering military actions is utilitarianism. The government cannot function succinctly unless it can make decisions using not an individual perspectives, but national and, often, international lenses.
All of the ethical theories have merit yet they are incredibly different, sometimes antithetical to one another. In order to understand those theories and better understand how to apply these theories as it applies to the American military it is best to discuss them individually. The differing ethical theories offer very different in focuses and approaches.
Deontology: Also called duty ethics, which argues that morality or what we perceive as ‘good” is based on whether or not the action taken guided by a series of rules, rather than the ultimate outcome of those actions, as been followed. In other words, once a law, rules or standards are established and adhered to then their actions are automatically good, therefore right; even if the consequences are ultimately negative (O’Neill, 1993).
Virtue Ethics: Virtue ethics bases its ethical perspective on the idea that it is “moral character” and it attempts to define moral character and supports that all decisions are made based on that character. In many ways virtue ethics looks at the innate or intrinsic presence of virtue in all individuals. Human beings are guided by the goal of ideal happiness and believing that people will make their choices, for the right reasons, because at the core people are virtuous and good (Hursthouse, 2012).
Utilitarian Ethics: Utilitarian perspectives are based upon the premise that what is most beneficial for society is that which provides the greatest pleasure or happiness and the least amount of pain or negative consequences for the largest number. In other words it centers on the general philosophical concept of the needs of the many is more important that the needs of the minorities or the individual (Mill).
The differing ethical theories are contradictory to one another in many ways, yet we can see evidence of all these views in different interest groups, professional circles, individual beliefs and significantly in the American military. The United States military is a complex system of very strict rules, succinct procedures and detailed policies; but their power is at the discretion of American government that exists above those policies and finally there is the civilian perception of the military in the modern era. This will help to show how each is influenced by these different principles and why it is the means by which to guide military action.
First and foremost, the United States government embraces a very utilitarian approach as to how to organize implement and deploy military forces. They see the military as the body responsible for the protection, defense and offensive needs of societies best interest is served by leading the military into acting for best interests if the greater population and the sacrifice of a few to benefit the majority is also considered to be necessary (Mill). There are, more than, 300 million Americans whose lives and well beings cannot favor any smaller groups. In the military coordination the best interests of the greater population and the sacrifice of a few to benefit the majority is considered a worthwhile act.
Those Americans who serve in the military may be led by those utilitarian principles, but the military itself has elements of deontological attitudes in how its members are trained guided and the expectations on how they behave. The military has immense rules and an abundance of procedures that should “always” be adhered to. As long as the soldiers, marines or airmen believes in and follow the procedures then their actions will “always” be good. For example, members of the military are expected to follow orders from superiors this is how they fulfill their duty, regardless of their own opinion, without question (O’Neill, 1993). That sense of duty extends to the ideals of honor, integrity and obedience is what empowers them to do ‘good” by following orders, adhering to rule and placing themselves between “danger” or threats to the people (Robinson, 2007).This seems to work out well, often, for government leaders, the military’s deontological dedication to duty and rules meets the utilitarian government’s need for them to defend their “greater good.”
Virtue ethics has gained attention and popularity in the modern era. This ethical theory, again, focuses on the individual moral character and that one should make decisions on the intrinsic moral propensity shared by all human beings. Looking at people as the means to an end, as in utilitarian, or upon duty owed, as in deontology, is in fact, not giving respect to the value of an individual. The government decides when the sacrifices will be made and the deontological dedication to duty encourages soldiers to give their lives as a responsibility of duty to meet the greater good is more frowned upon in the present. However, when looking at the military it is civilians that often argue against the arbitrary and cold logic of utilitarianism, many virtue ethicists offer that to force others to kill, that the taking of a life, defies the innate goodness of doing little harm (Hursthouse, 2012). Supporters of virtue ethics do not approve of the utilitarian perspective and wholly speak out against it.
While no one disregards the value or opinions of the different ethical theories, when it comes to the American military it is necessary to defend the utilitarian perspective. The United States military does not just protect the borders, but is, also, involved in humanitarian conflicts all across the globe. That being said the American government is not always just looking at the hundreds of millions of Americans, but billions of people all over the world. Being utilitarian in nature allows them to benefit the greatest number of people without the worry of individual needs. If they did it would make the difficult decisions nearly impossible to make when it comes to sending military members into danger and possibly death. In this case the ends justify the means is the best approach and those actions will likely result in the achieving if the greater good (Olsthoorn, 2011).
The military would not be as effective if it was not controlled by American governmental body using the utilitarian approach. The sharp rules that guide military member’s works well because it supports the overseeing government’s utilitarian interests. However, if the government adopted deontology then it would become overwhelmed and laden with rules and regulations that would prevent them from making variant and unpredictable solutions. The entire system would breakdown in an effort to follow rules that will make their actions just and “good.” If United States government was to adopt the principles of virtue ethics in regard to the military it would be even worse. Virtue ethics relies on the idea that thinking and feeling people are innately good and when given the opportunities will make the ethical, right and good decisions (Hursthouse, 2012). Unfortunately, that is similar to the argument that stricter gun laws restrict law abiding citizens from possessing guns, the now illegal status would encourage wrong-doers and criminals to abide by the law and surrender their weapons because it is the right thing to do. There is simply no guarantee of that. If the virtue ethics were applied to the government and how they utilize the military then the government would not be able to make timely, decisive and targeted choices, weighed down by contemplating the moral characters and ethical rights of each and every individual, including the well-being of the military, but with all of the civilians that could be caught in the crossfire, as well. In the end, only utilitarianism allows the government to make effective military decisions that benefit the society as a whole not only its individual members. Virtue ethics also frowns upon the taking of life, it would be impossible to face, strategize and accomplish military goals without the loss of life (Olsthoorn, 2011).
The United States government has operated its military with utilitarian controls for decades and it has proven to make American military actions some of the most organized and successful, The deontological aspects of the internal military compliments the needs of the utilitarian government to potentially expect the lives of soldiers, marines and airmen to be sacrificed. Most people would tell you that it would be wonderful if we lived in a world free of crime, conflict and warfare, therefore rendering the ethical conundrums irrelevant and eliminate the need for an active and organized military. Unfortunately, that is simply not the case; conflict violence and battle is a part of human history, current society and, very likely, in humanity’s future. Having a prepared military is, again, not just about warfare for the United States, but it is also there to offer military assistance and aid to nations all across the globe when violence is being unjustly being visited upon them. The United States still needs its strong military because the forces of many enemies are still organized and willing to commit great violence to achieve their goals. In the end, it becomes clear that while there is a place for all ethical considerations, but some are better than others in some situations. In this case it is the necessity, effectiveness and arbitrary controls of a utilitarian approach to the military of the United States government that is best ethical theory to be following at this time.
Hursthouse, R. (2012). Virtue ethics. In E. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism, in the original version in the textbook, or in the version by
Jonathan Bennett. Retrieved from www.earlymoderntexts.com
Olsthoorn, P. (2011). Intentions and consequences in military ethics. Journal of Military Ethics.
O’Neill, O. (1993). A simplified account of Kant’s ethics. In T. Regan (Ed.) Matters of Life and
Death, 411-415. Retrieved from http://users.manchester.edu/Facstaff/SSNaragon/Online/texts/201/O'Neill, Kant.pdf
Robinson, P. (2007). Ethics training and development in the military. Parameters. 23-37.