Military Ethics


Ethics is a universal notion, which considers various aspects of human activity and life in general. Defining the moral concepts it serves as a basis for the characteristics of the good and ad traits of the things and the implications of the deeds. It is evident that ethics is the criterion, which can be applied to the specific aspects that have implications on life and health of people. One of such spheres is the military service, which considers individual lives as well as the lives of communities and the existence of the countries. Despite aspiring for the defense of the society it involves different ethical collisions, which arise from the availability of power due to the possession of weaponry. That is why the military service can be characterized by strict conditions and obedience to the superiors. At the same time, this system goes wrong, which means that some particular cases require ethical resolution. Among such cases is the clash between the demand for obedience to the order and its unjust or illegal character. Ethical practitioners apply different theories as tools for resolving such issues. Therefore, this paper uses the utilitarian theory of ethics applying it towards the discussed cases. Relevant application of this theory allows revealing its pros and cons as well as the similar characteristic of the discussed ethical dilemma.

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Theory Explanation

Furthermore, one has to describe the basis of the theory, which is applied in order to reveal certain features of ethical problem and find the appropriate solution. Thus, the ethical theory applied in this paper to the issue of disobedience to superiors in the military because of unjust orders is utilitarianism. Scholars claim that this theory appeared in the late 18th century in the works of Jeremy Bentham and was later enriched by Sidgwick and Mill. The fundamental concept of this theory is “actions are right n proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”. Basically, it means that the only criteria, which defines the morality of the analyzed action or deed, comes from its implications. Therefore, if a person performs some harmful activity and it is predicted that this deed would serve for the greater good, the action is defined as moral and just. At the same time, if the repercussions of a good deed are bad even this deed may be interpreted as an evil one. Thus, the greater good serves as the criteria for the measurement of any action or phenomena. One of the examples of this theory in practice was the case with the usage of DDT and the existence of penguins provided by Baxter. Scholar indicated that there is an ethical collision between because of the usage of DDT, its effect on nature and people’s life due to its wide agricultural usage. However, he indicates that the utilitarian approach makes it clear that the benefits of people should be at the first place. Thus, he argues that “my criteria is oriented to people … damage to penguins … is … simply irrelevant… I have no interest in preserving penguins for their own sake”. Wolff regards this theory as consequentualist or teleological because it uses consequences as the means of judging the morality of the performed act.

Moreover, one has to indicate that in some cases this theory is rather controversial because it allows performing “unjust” deeds. For instance, one person may lie to another person, which is defined as “bad” in general. At the same time, if the consequences of the lies lead to the saving of a person, the lies are defined as morally justified and right. One of the typical examples of the utilitarian approach to lies is stated by Wolff. The scholar argues that a utilitarian is obliged to lie if this act will produce the greater balance of pleasure over pain. One more example of such cases is if a lie might condemn an innocent person to imprisonment. It this case a utilitarian is obliged to tell the truth if not lying leads to positive consequences. Furthermore, this theory might be applied to the sphere of military service in order to reveal its validity and reliability. One suggests that the stages of application and objection would reveal the advantages and disadvantages of this theory regarding its action in practice.


This paragraph discusses the practical application of the utilitarian theory of ethics to the issue of disobedience to unjust orders of the superiors in the military. First, one has to state that moral formation is extremely important for military servants because they are entrusted military power. At the same time, Van Baarda, Van Baarda and Verweij state that there is a significant amount of cases in which ethics relates to such military skills as leadership. Thus, illegal orders from the superiors are the violation of the law. At the same time, the military system is strictly based on subordination and disobedience may be punished. That is why such cases create an ethical dilemma where the obligation for performing the order is undermined by its unjustified character. However, the application of the utilitarian theory creates a special framework where there is an ethical possibility for obeying unjust or illegal orders. Thus, according to this theory, the servant should analyze the repercussions in cases the one refuses from obeying or obeys. Furthermore, the analysis leads to the solution regarding the perspective, which brings lesser evil. In this case, a military servant may obey, and unjust or illegal order if it is associated with greater good in contrast when done the opposite. However, if the obedience of the unjust order leads to greater evil, the servant may refuse though it might lead to negative consequences for him or her. In this sense, a soldier is ready for the substitution of personal problems for the greater good to someone else. For instance, if there is an order to shoot at the people presented at the civil riot, the utilitarian approach would suggest refusing in order to save lives. At the same time, if there is a direct threat to one’s life whereas the superior refuses from the command to shoot, the utilitarian approach would suggest shooting. In this case, the life of a military servant may be regarded as a greater good that the life of the attacker. However, one should indicate that the addressed ethical theory has certain objectives, which reveal certain disadvantages of its application.


Addressing the critique of utilitarianism one has to identify the core principles for the disagreement. Thus, scholars claim that the utilitarian ethics is based on vague statements, which allow treating extremely controversial acts as positive. In this sense, Weathington, Cunningham and Pittenger argue that “one of the essential problems of utilitarianism is that value, discomfort, and happiness are vague terms that are hard to quantify.” Indeed, there are only subjective interpretations of the benefits of any particular action, which sometimes allow justifying inappropriate things. For instance, Amjad-Ali indicates that in certain Islamic countries the notion “jihad” may be interpreted striving for good by the way of participating in holy war for God. Therefore, one presumes that this concept allows making mass killings justified because they support God’s idea brought by the Prophet. Additionally, it may justify invalid reasons for disobedience to the orders of the superior. Thus, a soldier may consider some orders as unjust and illegal on the basis of one’s personal values and beliefs. In such cases, disobedience is unjustified because it responds personal and not universal values. In this aspect, the deontological ethical theory might be more valid as it rises from universal concepts of good and evil. Additionally, one states that the strict system of governance and subordination on the army contrasts with the vagueness of utilitarian statements, which may bring confusion. Therefore, one suggests that ethical utilitarianism is non-valid regarding the military sphere and the cases of disobeying unjust or illegal orders.


Summarizing the presented information, one comes to a conclusion that the theory of ethical utilitarianism is irrelevant regarding the cases of military disobedience as a response to unjust orders. The reason for this statement is that it is based on vague notions, which are impossible to quantify. Despite the utilitarian ethics is based on the notions of lesser evil, scholars regard is defective as it may mislead people. The reason for such misleading is that vague statements serve as a good basis for wide interpretation. Moreover, this interpretation contrasts the strict system of military governance, which demands obedience and subordination. Therefore, disobedience unjust or illegal orders may be grounded on wrongful statements of what is unjust and illegal, which come from the notion of lesser evil. Therefore, the utilitarian theory in ethics is cannot be applied to the military. Consequently, the study suggests that the usage of deontological theory would assist resolving ethical dilemmas in the military.

Dec 18, 2019 in Informative
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