Ethics and Morals and America’s Officer Corps

Many posts here on InTheOldCorps and on its predecessor OPFOR, are outrage-posts. Outrage usually at the stark, abysmal absence of what is considered an acceptable morality displayed by military service-members, especially flag officers. If one only read the news or our posts here (far better than any news source, to be sure), one would believe our officer corps to be filled with evil men bent on lying, cheating, stealing, and tolerating in order to form networks of corrupting satraps. As Townie is fond of saying, in regards to VMI, but it does apply here as well, ‘thus it ever was, thus it ever shall be.’ The recent posts on the corruption of the American officer point to structural confusion on what is good and what is bad. That confusion is by design. The current construct of morality in the Armed Forces is confused, inhibiting justice and disrupting the good order and discipline necessary to fight and win the Nation’s wars. Because morality is unknowable, the American officer ethos is essentially corrupt.

The confusion stems from the conflation of ethics and morality. Ethics, ethos, is not morality but instead the habit you perform when living your life. Ethics are habits. When asked a question, answer truthfully, especially when it is a career-killer. When asked a rhetorical question, practice discretion and ask for clarification or better, just stay silent. When co-workers and friends give you money to purchase lunch, provide exact change and receipts, or keep the change and buy lottery tickets – but do it every time. In this example, the moralities used are different: return what is theirs, or keep what is theirs and use it for your own benefit. Ethics is not morality, but the habit of action that is guided by morality. One learns ethics through casuistry. Ethics being a neutral, like the pan you cook eggs in, can be used with any number of moralities. The eggs can be fried, scrambled, burned, runny, delicious, or fit only for animal consumption, it doesn’t matter to the pan.

Morality is the framework of knowing right and wrong and of assigning the values good and bad to that right and wrong. Fasting on Friday is right and good. Having anorexia nervosa is wrong and bad. That is one view of morality. Another is like Buffalo Bill: he’ll skin his victim (right, good), but wants the lotion applied (right, good), otherwise the victim gets the hose again (right, good). You’re aghast, but in Buffalo Bill’s moral framework, human life has meaning only in it’s support to his transformation. It’s similar to communists. Collectivized farming is good, therefore the killing of peasants who won’t surrender their farms and selves for labor is good. Since the goal is Utopia, communists are always right in saying they are just one more murder away from Utopia, and it’s the murder victim’s fault whenever Utopia remains out of reach. Morality being simply a world-view of right and wrong, and with Christian morality being judged as too devilish for use in America, Americans found another way: legalism!

Legalism is another word for rules-based morality. Over time one can create a rule for every single situation requiring a moral decision to be made. “Does this dress make me look fat?” Consult the ethics lawyer, whose legal opinion is founded up Rule 1804, found on page 2021 of the Joint Ethics Regulation: “yes, dear, it does make you look fat. Now hurry so we can go to the buffet.” What is both interesting and horrifying is that, in rules-based morality, one can be right and wrong at the same time. Take for example, the admiral that Townie wishes to keelhaul. The admiral ensured his ship was provisioned and ready for combat, which is good, but pocketed some extras which is bad. That is bad. Had the admiral gone TAD and instead of eating out, he had instead stayed in his hotel and ate ramen and water and pocketed the savings in Per Diem, that is good.

What happens when there is no rule, or the rules contradict each other based on situation, which will lead to a new rule being written. Rather similar to my dyke’s (Class of ’87) fate when in one incident he added 4 rules to the Blue Book. What he did was wrong and bad, funny as hell, but still wrong and bad, but there were no rules with which to fully expel him. He instead was given time to convalesce. The benefit of rules-based morality is that after a few thousand rules, one can be innocent and guilty at the same time because the rules will conflict, which is why the most important part of any ethical decision is a letter from the prosecuting attorney saying one won’t be pursued.

Of course, that attorney’s letter is only as good as long as it conforms to ever-changing political winds. Then, not so much.

Morality is defined by one’s worldview. Humans are either utterly depraved or essentially good-but-occasionally-misguided-like -Iranian-mullahs-unless-they-voted-for-Trump-which-is-true-evil. The worldview essentially defines right from wrong and assigns good to bad to each. This definition becomes the moral framework, which goes from there to provide either principles with a few specifics, or a rule for every eventuality. One can be trapped in either framework, though rules-based seems to guarantee guilt and innocence at the same time. Prior to post-modernism there was an objective truth. Nowadays, no one can know what is true – the 50,000 shades of gray argument. Is Iago evil because he enacted a cruel revenge on Othello, or was Othello’s giving Cassio the lieutenancy over Iago an act of evil that had to be corrected for greater good of Venice?

I mentioned the keelhaulable admiral, and then there was a certain Marine major who had sex with two USNA midship-its (is that the PC term, “midshipmen” being a holdover from the patriarchy?) and then lying about it; and the Army two-star who behaved as the King of the Swingles and a very modern major general in the hookup culture; and the Air Force officers who abused their authority and practiced double standards to the extreme detriment of their units’ capacity for combat.

In each case mentioned above, these officers were judged based not on rules-based morality, but on the Christian code that underpins the UCMJ. Aren’t we supposed to separate State from the Church? How can we judge an adulterer as wrong/bad when there is no basis for it in the Joint Ethics Regulation? Or is it that we should ask for extra cheese on the sausage cheat-zza? With the use of Christian morality being used to pass judgment while employing a separate, rules-based morality to guide government and military officers ethics it is no wonder our flag officers are so confused: their professional lives resemble Lady MacBeth in in the first and third acts.

Ethics are the habit of action, of enacting a moral-based decision. If morality, that is – what is true about what is goodness and badness can’t be known – and ethics can be taught, aren’t we setting our officers up for failure for having an ethos of moral chaos?

About DaveO

Retired soldier, micro-farmer, raconteur and pet owner from the great state of Oklahoma. Wandered in as a frequent commenter and have been enjoying blogging ever since.
This entry was posted in Air Force, Army, Chaos, Leadership, Marine Corps, Navy, VMI. Bookmark the permalink.

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