Soldiers and Priests: A Contrast in Professional Ethics
My latest for The National Interest, ”The U.S. Military’s Ethics Crisis,” has posted.
Military officers behaving badly have been making headlines. But, rather than a sign of widespread corruption, the fact that they’re being caught and disciplined is an indication of how seriously the profession takes its ethical responsibilities.
Few professions have anything like this level of screening and training for character. The only analog that occurs to me, the Roman Catholic priesthood*, is instructive.
Like military officers, Catholic priests are required** to have a bachelor’s degree and extensive follow-on education. Typically, priests have a master’s degree in divinity, with extensive coursework in ethics and moral philosophy, prior to ordination. The American military, by contrast, maintains extensive professional education for its officers throughout their careers, with most getting master’s degrees some time in their second decade of service.
The overwhelming number of officers and priests alike are credits to their chosen calling, performing exemplary public service and upholding the highest moral standards. In both cases, however, some fall short; some, spectacularly so. And, because the standards are so high and the uniforms of their profession make them so identifiable as a group, the public scrutiny that comes from these failures is not only high, but reflects on the whole.
Two observations come from the comparison.
First, it would seem that no amount of screening for character or training in the rules of moral behavior is sufficient to ensure that every single member of a very large group lives up to the standard. Some people will do the wrong thing even when they’re trained to know what the right thing is. Some will be able to rationalize their bad behavior. Others will simply prove weak in the face of temptation. Others still may simply be hard-wired for evil.
Second, while there are certainly exceptions, the instinct of the military brass has been to identify and punish the transgressors, even if doing so embarrasses the profession in the public eye, while the instinct of the Catholic hierarchy was to try to hide the problem to protect the image of the Church. Why Church acted as it did is complicated and, in any case, beyond my expertise. But the opposite reaction of the military profession is worth highlighting.
Now, the “Washington Post Test” is a good one. As both leaders of people who put their lives on the line for their country and stewards of the taxpayers’ money, flag and general officers ought to be above reproach, avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. But it’s worth noting that they’re being held to a much higher standard than not only their civilian commander-in-chief, the Members of Congress with oversight responsibility over the armed forces, and their private sector counterparts. Presidents, Congressmen, and corporate executives routinely mix business and pleasure, going on trips to nice locations with minimal business to do and taking their families along.
Indeed, The Pentagon’s General Counsel’s Standards of Conduct Office regularly publishes The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failures, a huge volume cataloging in minute and sometimes humorous detail indiscretions committed by uniformed and civilian employees of the Defense Department. Aside from the sheer stupidity of some of the perpetrators, what quickly stands out is that DoD employees are often punished quite severely for conduct that wouldn’t draw a second glance in the private sector.
It’s a good thing, indeed, that the military’s civilian and uniformed leadership is taking this recent spate of ethical lapses seriously. Constant vigilance and scrutiny is good for the profession. But it’s worth keeping in mind how ingrained in the culture they already are.
There’s quite a bit more in between; the piece is nearly 2000 words.