Bill Nye, Ken Ham Debate Meets Military Cheating Scandals

There’s a fascinating philosophical connection between the debate of Bill Nye and Ken Ham over creationism on the one hand, and reports the US Department of Defense is becoming increasingly “troubled” over troops’ ethical problems on the other.

First, Dr. Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, attended the Nye/Ham debate (viewable on YouTube) and made an interesting assessment. The debate wasn’t, in the end, over facts. It was over worldview — and Bill Nye’s faith that “human reason” was an ultimate solution [emphasis added]:

Bill Nye repeatedly cited the reasonable man in making his arguments. He is a firm believer in autonomous human reason and the ability of the human intellect to solve the great problems of existence without any need of divine revelation…He sees himself as the quintessential “reasonable man,” and he repeatedly dismissed Christian arguments as “not reasonable…”

Bill Nye is a true believer in human reason and the ability of modern science to deliver us. Humanity is just “one germ away” from extinction, he said. But science provides him with the joy of discovery and understanding.

Dr. Mohler then made a point that can essentially be explained in secular terms: It is foolhardy to assert the supremacy of human reason when humans are, by nature, faulty. Citing Romans 1, Dr. Mohler said [emphasis added]

The problem with human reason is that it, along with every other aspect of our humanity, was corrupted by the fall…We have not lost the ability to know all things, but we have lost the ability to know them on our own authority and power.

We are completely dependent upon divine revelation for the answers to the most important questions of life. Our sin keeps us from seeing what is right before our eyes in nature. We are dependent upon the God who loves us enough to reveal himself to us—and to give us his Word.

In a manner of speaking, our fallible humanity cannot be the solution to our fallible humanity.

Which brings us to the military and its ethical struggles.

The US military has been dealing with allegations it improperly handles sexual assault, Air Force officers have been caught “nuclear cheating” — as have some in the Navy — and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is “deeply troubled” over military ethical issues, and that’s just over the past few months:

“He definitely sees this as a growing problem,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said. “What worries the Secretary is that maybe…he doesn’t have the full grasp of the depth of the issue. He is genuinely concerned that there could be, at least at some level, a breakdown in ethical behavior and in the demonstration of moral courage.”

There is no doubt that moral courage is an essential character trait for military service. But what is “moral courage”?

Moral courage is generally defined as the fortitude to do what is right in any circumstance — even if at great cost.

But what is “right”? How can a US service member know what is right in a culture that refuses to define it?

Many will assert that US troops just need to follow the rules — rules established to guide or “fix” the vices of human behavior. The problem, some troops will point out, is that the rules aren’t always clear.

Take, for example, the Defense Department’s tortured explanations over whether or not a service member was allowed to express his or her faith to another troop. It took three explanations over the period of a week, and it still wasn’t clear to everyone. Consider how service members feel trying to follow rules the DoD seems to have difficulty explaining.

Take the situation with sexual assault, which the military has indicated is largely a problem of alcohol and a “lack of consent.” What defines “consent?” Does one need a text? Does one beer remove the ability to grant consent? If both a man and a woman consume the same amount of alcohol and have sex, which one assaulted the other?

What of all the senior officers who have been implicated in the wide variety of ethical failures over the past few years?

Trying to create a rule for every individual moral situation is a tacit if not explicit acceptance of moral relativism. Moral relativism will ultimately fail as ethical leadership guidance simply because it is impossible to create individual rules that will provide specific guidance in each situation.

So, forget the rules for a minute. What is right?

With regard to faith in uniform, every service member can share their faith with any other. No service member should attempt to use their military position or authority to influence another’s faith. Those are morally absolute, and they are morally right. Further nuance is unnecessary.

With regard to the “epidemic” of sexual assault, the solution is far simpler than most are willing to admit: Sexual relations are to be reserved for marriage. It is morally absolute, and it is morally right. There is no need to create a myriad of rules for individual situations or try to train troops to be “better bystanders” or institutionalize wisdom like this from an Air Force base:

Ask yourself: “Would this person have sex with me if he/she was sober?” If the answer is ‘yes’, then there is no reason you can’t wait until they are sober before you initiate sex! On the flip side if the answer is ‘no’ then you should find someone else, who is willing to have sex with you when they are sober…

In the end, Dr. Mohler’s observation of Bill Nye’s worldview stands here, as well: As the military tries to address its ethical failures, it may have intermittent success with specific rules to address specific behavioral ethical issues in its troops. But, it will ultimately fail if it refuses to acknowledge the value of moral absolutes: there is right, and there is wrong.  One must be encouraged, the other punished — consistently and absolutely.

To be clear, this does not require the military to establish a religious standard. The military already has a mandate to control behavior, even behavior accepted or even protected outside of the military.

This isn’t the first time the US military, even Secretary Hagel specifically, has called for moral courage on the part US troops.  Simply calling for ethical behavior probably won’t solve the problem. If the military wants ethical behavior and moral courage from its troops — even when those same character traits are not prevalent in society — the military will have to institute policies that engender such ethics and morality.

The only question: Will it do so?

Also at Foreign Policy, the Stars and Stripes for Secretary Hagel’s reaction and Navy cheating, and the Air Force Times.