Saturday, January 9, 2010

On Asa Kasher's "Teaching and Training Military Ethics: An Israeli Experience"

On Asa Kasher's "Teaching and Training Military Ethics: An Israeli Experience" (_Ethics Education in the Military_ Paul Robinson, Nigel de Lee and Don Carrick, eds.)

Kasher's paper is an interesting discussion by an extremely thoughtful philosopher about teaching ethics in a military setting to military officers. The paper begins by outlining why Israel may be in a unique ethical position vis a vis military ethics: Israelis in military service are homogeneous in many ways, have extensive combat experience, have a peculiar military education, have particularly qualified officers, and a decentralized concept of command philosophy.

Also, Kasher makes a point I think to have broader repercussions than I suspect he realizes when he prefers to introduce military ethics as a set of principles rather than virtues. The US Army attempts to inculcate virtues as ethics, i.e., the Army values. Kahser's reason for not using this approach is interesting though: in a democracy, the goal of a military is not to change the character of the citizens, but rather maintain their nature and autonomy as humans. Inculcating virtues is an approach that is designed to change someone, not necessarily only their behavior.

So how to introduce ethics to military officers? Kasher claims that experience has shown that the best way to introduce ethics into a military setting is by making it part of their professional development; that is by showing that military ethics adds insight into the military profession. But a course in military ethics must be approached properly. Kasher thinks it misguided to treat military ethics as merely a discussion of moral issues in military affairs. This is because such a course ends up considering the relationships that moral individuals have with each other qua moral individuals instead of the relationships that individuals have with each other in the context of a complex military hierarchy, the latter being necessary in the Army.

In what setting should Military ethics be taught? Should it be taught as an academic course or as a purely military course? Kasher suggests something in between. Academic ethics generally stress criticizing established theory. It does not stress taking responsibility for correct decisions. His experience has shown that it is best to start with a theoretical background and then move to case studies, first presented by military instructors and then by the soldiers in the class.

Finally, it is interesting to note that of we contrast this military ethics education with academic ethics academic ethics is meant to teach ethics, military ethics is meant to inculcate ethics, so ethical pedagogy is way underexplored as a philosophical and psychological field. In that sense then, Kasher's paper is an interesting counterpoint to standard approaches to ethics. It is also useful to think about whether or not a similar account works for other branches of applied ethics where we might want to inculcate ethics as well. Business ethics did not arise in university curricula because of the theoretical interest of academics. It arose as a response to a public demand. But the public does not demand that future business people know ethics, rather that they practice it. So inculcation must be a part of a course in applied ethics, whatever subject it is.

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