Ethics and Military Operations
May 1988By James A. Stegenga
James A. Stegenga is Professor of International Relations at Purdue University. He is the author of The United Nations Force in Cyprus, The Global Community (with W.A. Axline), and a play, Dunbars Bremen, which explores the ethical issues associated with the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.
Does it make sense to include moral questions when considering or conducting or evaluating military operations? Or is injecting ethics impossible or silly or even dangerous?
Skeptics, cynics, and self-styled realists offer several reasons for their reluctance to include ethics as a proper part of the study of military affairs. Moralists, humanists, some practitioners, and people unafraid of being labeled idealists, on the other hand, have developed their rebuttals.
Before examining these arguments, it would be well to recognize a couple of structural or sociological reasons why ethical matters are frequently slighted or altogether avoided in the field of military affairs.
First, ethics is closely connected to religion. The scholars in the secular universities of a pragmatic society with no official state religion and a laudable, ongoing effort to keep church and state separate have been inclined to remove ethics along with the study of the Bible from the curriculum and from the books they write about human affairs. The teacher who starts talking about ethics in a public classroom is apt to be regarded as violating understood rules. The military affairs scholar who includes the questions of moral philosophy in his writings is apt to be seen as illicitly practicing the marginalized (if not delegitimized) profession of theology.
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