Military Ethics and Business Ethics

Dr. David L. Perry
Professor of Ethics, U.S. Army War College

Presented at Roskilde University, Denmark, 5 December 2003, as the keynote address for a conference on
Corporate Social Responsibility and Values-Based Management



Many thanks to Jacob Rendtorff for the wonderful opportunity and privilege to talk with you about this important topic. (Please note that although I'm a member of the faculty at the Army War College, I'm not an official spokesperson for it or the Department of Defense, and none of my comments should be construed as necessarily reflecting official U.S. views or policy.)

The pairing of military ethics and business ethics seems very odd at first. But it can sometimes be educational to compare and contrast two rather different moral realms: we can learn new things about each one from the comparison.

I'll begin by using the concept of a profession. A profession is granted legitimacy and autonomy by society, when society benefits from restricting membership in it to those who satisfy special criteria, which are typically established and regulated internally by members of the profession.

Professionals are sometimes said to be permitted to act in ways that would be unethical for private citizens. For example, lawyers in the U.S. who are defending criminal suspects are sometimes permitted to withhold some information that the judge or jury would consider important, or to undermine the credibility of a witness for the prosecution whom the defense lawyer knows is telling the truth.

But professional autonomy can too easily be used by professionals to rationalize abuses of their roles. Becoming a member of a profession does not render one immune to wider ethical scrutiny. Professionals do not have a "blank check" in serving the interests and wishes of their clients or in preserving their professional power.

The basic purpose of the military is to protect society from grave external threats. As such, it's granted a monopoly over certain uses of force. Like the police, the legitimacy of the military is an extension of the right of individuals to defend the innocent with deadly force. (If you wish, we can later discuss some of the fundamental ethical issues in killing. But for now I'll assume that killing can at least sometimes be justified.)

The "social contract" of the military is violated if it usurps constitutional limits. Thus whatever loyalty military organizations foster among their members must be subordinated to loyalty to the nation and commitment to preserve its constitution. The use of force by the military is also limited by just-war principles of discrimination and proportionality, which are intended to minimize harms to the noncombatants.

The military places a premium on hierarchy, and inculcates strong habits of obedience to superior officers on the part of those who enter that profession. Obedience is often fully willing: soldiers and officers can feel tremendous trust in and respect for their commanders. But soldiers must also be encouraged and trained to refuse to obey clearly unethical or illegal orders, and enabled to do so without retribution.

Soldiers in combat must also have considerable courage to achieve important objectives while their enemies are actively trying to kill them.

The basic purpose of business is to make efficient use of capital, labor and material resources to produce goods and services that meet society's needs and wants. Business management is not per se a profession like the military, law or medicine. It's possible to go into business with no special training at all. But many people in business see themselves as if they are professionals, or as accountable to high standards inherent in their vocation. And some people in business like accountants and engineers have a real set of professional values and expectations that go beyond those of the particular corporations where they work.

Society permits business managers to act as the agents of owners, without intending to directly maximize social utility. But since Adam Smith, society has also assumed that competition among businesses will serve that end. Thus, business managers violate their "social contract":

- if they knowingly market dangerous products without disclosing their dangers to consumers;

- if they make false or misleading claims about their products or services;

- if they endanger surrounding communities by dumping dangerous wastes into the air, water or land;

- if they endanger their employees or severely restrict their freedom;

- or if they collude with competitors to fix prices, limit supplies, divide up markets, or otherwise limit competition.

Both military officers and business executives seek to be admired as leaders and to be effective and responsible stewards of the people and resources entrusted to them. Military and business cultures both have their respective moral heroes whose stories are told to inspire integrity (in addition to promoting social acceptance of their vocations).

Many people in the military and business have shown themselves capable of real altruism.

Soldiers have often shown compassion to wounded soldiers and hungry and frightened civilians. The bonds they form with their fellow soldiers are some of the strongest in human experience. Many soldiers willingly sacrifice their lives to preserve the lives of others. And they must sometimes bear a heavy burden of guilt for having killed and maimed other human beings, even when they're confident that it was the right thing to do under the circumstances.

Many businesspeople engage in diligent work without direct expectations of reward, but rather out of service to their customers, loyalty to their peers, or in line with what they perceive to be intrinsic standards of professional excellence. Some employees have even risked their jobs and careers when they felt compelled to expose dangerous corporate practices that their leaders refused to address (e.g., safety of aircraft parts, nuclear power plants, chemical factories). Few businesspeople would be expected to incur the degree of personal risk that soldiers take on, though.

On the other hand, neither the military nor business measures up to these high standards consistently.

Military training often involves highly demeaning forms of hazing. And soldiers are often encouraged by their leaders to feel deep hatred toward their opponents on the battlefield, which can lead to ruthless treatment of those who surrender or are incapacitated by wounds.

Businesspeople are too often motivated to serve only their own self-interests, to sacrifice public welfare in the pursuit of maximizing shareholder wealth, or to rationalize ruthless methods of competition.

Both warriors and capitalists are subject to a number of deeply human tendencies:

- to divide the world into Us vs. Them, and treat Them as if they do not deserve fair or compassionate treatment;

- to obey authority figures even when they order actions that violate their conscience;

- to feel less compunction against causing harm to others the further we're removed from the victim.

If otherwise normal and decent soldiers at places like My Lai are capable of slaughtering hundreds of clearly unarmed civilians, think of how easy it is for businesspeople to cause much less dramatic forms of harm in the service of their organizations.

Leaders in both the military and business must be aware of the dangers of "management by objective": if subordinates are told only what outcomes they must achieve in order to be rewarded, and not how to do so ethically, serious problems are likely to occur. The stress on body count during the Vietnam War by Pentagon officials led to indiscriminate killing of noncombatants.  (A common saying among American soldiers at the time was, "If it's Vietnamese and it's dead, it must be Viet Cong.")  Pressures by corporate executives on their subordinates to meet sales objectives or cut costs can lead to unethical tactics that can harm customers, stockholders, and other employees.

People in both business and the military sometimes face real ethical dilemmas, a conflict between powerful moral values.  Officers must sometimes balance a desire to avoid inflicting unnecessary civilian casualties living near an enemy military installation against the risks to their own troops if they avoid attacking it. Corporate executives must sometimes choose between the interests of their employees and their stockholders, for instance, when the only way to maintain profitability is to shift production from a domestic plant to a foreign one.

Finally, we should note that many ethical issues facing the military and business are rooted in broader political and economic questions:

Our economies our heavily dependent on oil, and thus the companies that have the technical skills to extract and refine it. Much of the health of our economy overall is due to the benefits that we obtain from relatively cheap oil. But oil extraction and consumption pose serious threats to the natural environment, poisoning land and water, killing endangered species, and increasing global greenhouse gases. And the fact that much of the oil that we consume originates in countries with corrupt authoritarian governments has unfortunate consequences for our foreign and military policies. Addressing these concerns goes well beyond the purview of either military or business leaders. (Then again, we've frequently supported corrupt governments as long as they kept the oil flowing....)

Consider further the situation I just mentioned where domestic workers are laid off in order to shift production overseas.  Changes like that are inevitable to some degree in market economies, especially as global barriers to trade decrease; this is connected with what Joseph Schumpeter famously called the "creative destruction" of capitalism. But we can't simply blame corporate leaders for the harms that their displaced domestic workers experience: we must also ensure that public and private funding is being adequately invested in training and education that will enable domestic workers to obtain jobs that are less vulnerable; we also need to apply diplomatic and economic pressures on countries that refuse to establish or enforce basic protections on worker safety and the environment. Free trade is only truly free when it occurs on a level playing field.

Similarly, the moral dilemmas faced today by American and other coalition military leaders in Iraq are not simply nor even primarily ones of their own choosing: they're driven by the tactics chosen by their enemies, such as indiscriminate terror and hiding behind noncombatants; but also by the decision of our President to launch a preventive war that much of the rest of the world regards as heavy-handed and imperialistic and thus are loathe to support with their own troops.

Go to Dr. Perry's CV.