The USAFA Paradox: Teaching Ethics without Morality

The US Air Force Academy published an article featuring cadets attending a seminar on “ethical dilemmas.”

Eight special operations captains from Kirtland and Cannon Air Force Bases, Academy active-duty Airmen and Air Force retirees shared ethical dilemmas that have occurred in their personal and professional lives with about 70 cadets, to engage in reflective conversation, focus on character and leadership, identify pressure that make ethical action challenging and how to improve them.

While the class was certainly long-scheduled, the timing of the public affairs piece is probably not coincidental, given the recent focus on ethics — more accurately, ethical failures — in the US military.

The cadets were introduced to the USAFA Center for Character Development’s ARDA model for decision-making: Awareness, Reasoning, Decision and Action. They then rotated through tables where they interacted with active duty officers who spoke to them about ethical dilemmas they had experienced.

The program certainly gained much credibility in having the cadets interact with officers who had “real” problems to discuss. It was not an academic situation, like the cadets had likely discussed in their core philosophy class (Is it ethical to steal bread for your starving family? If you can only save one life, do you rescue your wife or your child…?). Still, if the intent is to “train” cadets to derive answers based on the circumstances, then they are still teaching situation ethics, a weaker moral framework that replaces “right” with “right in this situation.” Such a philosophy tends to ignore or dismiss the concept that there are some things that are always “right.”

At the same time, the entire program — which is a day-long graduation requirement for senior cadets — cannot be encapsulated in a 500-word news article. Quotes within the text seem to indicate breadth in thought, at least.

For example, LtCol Brad Oliver, commander of the 557th Flying Training Squadron at the Air Force Academy:

During the session Oliver asked cadets: At what point should your leadership be aware of unethical behavior?

“You have to consider, ‘What is at stake?'” he said. “Is it a threat to national security? The needs of our Air Force and security of our nation is critical.”

That situational analysis is entirely the wrong precept for ethical decision-making. For proof, look no further than the nuclear missile officers who are being accused of wrongdoing not for cheating, but for not reporting their peers who cheated — on a knowledge test that likely had negligible (if any) real world impact.

However, speaking of the 8-hour ethics seminar, LtCol Oliver also said [emphasis added]

“The point of today, as you leave this place, is hopefully we’ve instilled in you a bit of moral character. These are decisions you have to make personally, before you put yourself in such a situation. They’re the kind of situations you might be in regardless of your career field.”

The concept that an officer — that any person — should decide ahead of time how they will ethically behave suggests an ethical framework that is not situationally based. Instead, such a philosophy is based on the concept of a higher framework that governs decision-making in all circumstances, regardless of the details of a particular situation.

In that regard, the “situations” in the ACE seminar provided “proof” to the soon-to-be 2nd Lieutenants that they would, indeed, face ethical dilemmas in the Air Force — and perhaps motivated them to understand they needed to consistently live with the moral character necessary to act rightly in any situation.

The US military is in an awkward situation with regard to ethics and morality. Because of the lethal nature of the military profession, it must demand moral conduct from its troops. But the military has given some the perception of separating itself from the traditional foundations for morality, such as religion. For example, the Air Force announced that it pulled a chaplain’s ethics course for nuclear launch officers — ironic, given recent accusations against those same officers — after a complaint about references to religion. That was one example of many that may have created the perception that the military won’t touch religious issues or defend their virtues, even when such issues might actually add value to the military mission.

The Air Force Academy is making an admirable effort to instill character in its future officers. Regrettably, the society from which cadets come increasingly devalues moral character, and the military environment even seems to limit the ways in which it can instill the very character it demands. Hopefully, USAFA will succeed.

Hopefully, men and women of character — of Godly character — will continue to enter the military and provide strong, positive examples of moral courage and leadership throughout the US Armed Forces.

Time will tell.