Virtue Ethics and Relativism on Military Ethics
I. Introduction (200 words)
Military ethics has been in existence in times immemorial. Tribes, communities, and sovereign governments from around the world have at times in their history engaged in either just or unjust wars. The rationale behind armed fights and wars is for soldiers to protect their own lives, people they serve, and state. The moral question that seem to perplexed some individuals and groups is whether it is morally right to kill others in order to preserve one’s life, particular society, government, and even posterity. Such a moral questioning is an ethically significant issue because modern humankind has later on learned to live and let others’ live (that is, under the principle of universal co-existence), just like some kingdoms and communities who exercise due care to prevent collateral casualties caused by engagements between the military and enemies. In this essay, I would like to defend the thesis that military ethics is necessary for a harmonious interrelationship among humans of various ideologies, cultural contexts, and religious beliefs because fellow humans have to be respected for want they are despite differences. To explicate on the matter of military ethics, I will present an application of the core principles of virtue ethics and relativism first.
II. Application of Virtue Ethics and Relativism
Virtue ethics (300 words)
Virtue Ethics is rooted in the astute ideas of Aristotle (384-322 BCE), one of the greatest ancient Greek philosophers. Aristotle claimed that humans have to live virtuous lives. He defined virtue as an admirable attribute, trait or quality worthy of praise that leads to a person to attain moral excellence. Additionally, Aristotle believed in intellectual and moral virtues used in practical living. However, to attain and sustain virtue (for example, honesty), it requires good upbringing, training, education, and habit). He likewise proceeded to state that without practical wisdom, moral excellence is unachievable. He further argued that since virtue is the opposite of vice (or moral weakness that results to evildoing), he advised humans to be virtuous or live their lives in moderation, mean or between the middle of two moral extremes (such as, mercy versus ruthlessness and indifference).
Virtue ethics as applied in the military is evident in just causes and in what Julia Anass called “Intelligent Virtue” or what is also referred to as rational “active [development of] dispositions” (p. 7). Much of the training that military trainees undergo require discipline, perserverance, “integrity, respect for human life and dignity,” as well as, other related virtues (Robinson, 2007, p. 259). As such, trainees regularly have rigorous training exercises while still having to pass various tests before being deployed in the field. When in the battlefield, for instance, military personnel are expected to defend themselves and others against threats and other forms of aggressions. Hence, virtue ethics is important for prospective soldiers because it is not an easy matter to be in the military and fight for one’s life and the lives of others given one’s oath to defend and protect other lives and country. Be that as it may, it does not end there. Virtue ethics as applied in the military requires a ready and upright mind especially in times of actual engagement.
The moral question faced by some soldiers is always abide by the laws of war, rules of engagement, and protecting themselves. Likewise, whether soliders have to exercise mercy killing in the battlefield, paralyze enemies (that is, in the physical and psychological senses of the word) or kill them even in an act of non-self-defense. Hence, if protecting and preserving lives is a virtue, how about killing others in line of duty? Does it not create a dilemma among soldiers? How can someone protect lives and kill others when they too are human beings who have lives and ideologies to protect, preserve and sustain? Is it really necessary to kill enemies simply because they are opposed to an established government (for instance, they are communists)? Is it not also a virtue to love one’s enemies despite animosity?
Thus, when virtue ethics is applied in the military, or as part of the military code of conducts, it is similar to a two-edged sword. First, it offers virtues or characters that military personnel should possess despite some enemies ingenious cruelty as repeatedly portrayed by the dark history of war (Walzer, 2006). On the other hand, there is a need to somewhat value one virtue over the other (such as protecting countrymen versus killing foreign enemies) as a more fitting virtue . Hence, the question whether the military are doing the right thing of engaging with enemies for the sake of one’s own race, kind or ideology is noteworthy given the sovereignity, legitimacy, and type of government. Nonetheless, there are other virtues or right things to consider and opt to before a military has to engage in a war; thus, also about matters of choice among alternative virtues.
Relativistic ethics may also be referred to as a subjectivistic or personalistic ethics. Proponents and adherents of this ethical perspective claim that all matters and criteria of moral judgment depend on individuals and situations. One human’s morality may be another individual being’s immorality. There is thus no systematic ethics to hold on two and believe in except one’s own. Morality, in general and particular, thus, is simply relative from one individual to the other, especially that there is no ranking, supererogation, or whatsoever when considering what is good or bad for oneself or others. Any person, race or country have their own moral codes and norms to follow given that culture is also different from one society to the other. If there is but morality among relativists, it is individual ethics of right or wrong, good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, and so on.
Relativistic ethics, as applied in the military, is applicable when speaking of individual or personal ethics on a case-tocase basis. Individually, relativistic ethicists prefer to have ethics of their own making. They view ethics as reliance on private feelings, personal meanings, and individual choice, such that there are non-universal moral maxims, principles, and rules under any or all circumstances. Morever, it is the sincere claims of relativist ethicists that since there are no ethical standards, dealing with morality is simply a matter of personal taste, understanding, opinion, culture, and self-claims regarding what is right or wrong, good or bad, inter alia. Further, subjectivist moralists avoid or do not altogether engage in moral issues, controversies, or queries. Nonetheless, persons who apply “each to his own” morality are still tied up with their upbringing, intellect, and culture; thus, ethics among relativists varies from one individual and culture to the next. As such, when applying relativism in military ethics, it is more than meets the eyes.
In reiteration, concerning military training, would-be soldiers also require good upbringing (such as having good physical constitution) and intellectual prowess (which could be somewhat related to the characteristics required of a virtuous person under virtue ethics). However, apart from the individual level, it is hard to imagine how two relativist military personnel could more likely share the same personal and professional values, especially when they have “careless form of moral relativism” (Mandel, 2014, p. 373). Much of the military ethics require collaboration and collective efforts in order to meet organizational goals and achieve institutional objectives. Despite anything to that, relativist ethics is applicable in military ethics given that a trainee enters the military with an end-in-mind and value perspective of serving not only his or her own belief in protecting and safeguarding one’s life and those of others, but also because he or she believes in the organization’s vision, mission, and purposes. The moral issue that confronts soldiers is still whether they have to fight and kill enemies despite seeming dilemmas in the battlefield.
In line with the aforementioned statement, the moral conclusion then for the military to include as part of their ethics relativism is that it only guarantees a positive perspective in the use of individual autonomy and rationality, as well as, allow for multiculturalism in the military. Likewise, the only personal duty and liability military personnel might have, most likely, is on their own and others for being secondary to their own perception of what ought to be done or not at any given circumstances. As such, while in combats, it is possible that a relativist soldier would likely use his or her own valuing system to save his or her life first and others as second, and vice versa.
III. Evaluation (300 words)
Virtue ethics is more suited for military ethics because it puts premium on both intellectual and moral virtues, which is among the requisites for military personnel. One’s good physical constitution, more likely than not, may be due to good upbringing (such as good nutrition) from childhood until adulthood. Likely, a good education may come from one’s innate capacity thinking more logically given once habitual use of one’s personal endowments. A more likely weakness of virtue ethics includes the argument that an individual’s happiness (that is, aspiration for moral excellence) may or cannot also be equal to another person’s happiness given that a particular virtue might be relative from one individual to the next. Although relativist ethics also consider good upbringing and intellectual ability that lead individual to think rationally and autonomously, it is a wavering ethics as it cannot be firmly constituted or grounded in an intersubjective view of morality.
Thus far, when relativist or subjectivist morality is applied in the military, it would spell adjustments to changing factors or bring about disaster. First, relativism offers no firm and solid guidance as to collective ethics worthy to be followed by all or most military personnel. “To each his own” means dependence on personal preferences and feelings. Relativism somewhat does not put higher priority over one soldier over the other soldiers have to make up their minds as to what they consider best when dealing with their dilemmas in the military. A higher ranking official may resort to torture and other means of extracting intelligence from a spy while another official may oppose such inhumane treatments. Hence, other than being subjective in carrying out military plans and objectives, relativism as applied in military ethics could be most likely embraced if soldiers have to think, act and rely on their own toes.
IV. Conclusion (300 words)
In conclusion, virtue and relativist ethics are just two of the myriad Western ethical philosophies. In this paper’s own delimitation, it is claimed that virtue ethics is a more fitting candidate for military applications because it highlights moral excellence required in the military. Although trainees undergo rigorous training prior to deployment in the field, it is a requirement that could mean the difference between saving and protecting lives or losing even one’s own life during armed conflicts and the people one’s protect due to collateral damages or casualties. Hence, applying in context the safeguarding and preservation of individual lives as against one’s enemies, the moral conclusion leads me to believe that it is the golden mean in action when protecting my loved ones, own kind, state, and the world as opposed to those who have contradictory ideologies, beliefs, claims, etc. where it should rather be the exercise of virtues such as tolerance, harmony, peace, etc.
Nonetheless, when it comes to applying peaceable means just to avoid or prevent possible engagements with enemies, it is still important to apply other virtues other than each and every individual morality or ethics. The inference that I made is that if relativist ethics is applied in military ethics, it could denote more harm than benefits because of its changing nature, let alone those who adhere to “to each his own” or careless form of relativist morality. For me then, being virtuous is more credible and worthy to be aspired than being relative or without any collective moral sense and principles. Despite the presumed weaknesses of virtue ethics, it is more preferable that relativist ethics because it offers prescriptions as to what virtues ought to be collective applied in most particular circumstances especially when taking into consideration what Julia Annas referred to as “Intelligent Virtues.”
Annas, J. (2011). Intelligent Virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mandel, D. R. (2014). Suicide terrorism, moral relativism, and the situationist narrative. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 37(4), 373.
Robinson, P. (2007). Magnanimity and Integrity as Military Virtues. Journal Of Military Ethics, 6(4), 259-269.
Walzer, M. (2006). Just and Unjust Wars. New York: Basic Books.