Over the past few years, I’ve been invited to participate in ethics roundtables or seminars sponsored by United States military branches and intelligence agencies. In those seminars, we’ve discussed various topics, such as principles for deciding whether or not to go to war, principles for waging a just war, and principles for facilitating a warrior ethic that can sustain military power and military goodness.
I am grateful for how seriously our military and intelligence leaders take our nation’s security, but also for but how committed they are to cultivating the type of warrior ethic that can undergird soldiers and commanders both on the battlefield and off.
Over the course of the next few months, I’ll be speaking at three military events. For each event, I’ve been asked to speak about the greatest cultural challenges to a sacrificial warrior ethic. And, given that these cultural challenges affect not only our military personnel but also the rest of us, this article summarizes the challenges in the hopes that we can meet them.
The article begins by defining some terms and proceeds by outlining three challenges that undermine not only American military power and goodness but also American cultural health and national goodness.
Cultivating a Sacrificial Warrior Ethic that Sustains Military Power and Goodness
The most significant challenge our military faces today is cultivating the type of sacrificial warrior ethic that can sustain military power and goodness. Not only national security but national moral legitimacy depends upon it. The cultivation of such an ethic is repeatedly undermined by certain cultural trends in our nation.
As former White House adviser, Vietnam veteran, and just war ethicist Daniel Heimbach has repeatedly argued, the United States military needs a sustaining ethic, a framework of beliefs that shapes its personnels’ character and governs their actions, speech, and desires. The sustaining ethic of the U. S. armed forces is a warrior ethic and any warrior ethic that is not a sacrificial ethic guided by transcendent moral principles cannot sustain military power or goodness.
The cultivation of a warrior ethic, therefore, cannot make self-survival, self-gratification or any other self-centered criterion the chief goal of the ethic he or she lives by. It must involve living for something—Somebody—that transcends the self, that is greater even than life itself.
Cultivating a Warrior Ethic in a Secular Age
The greatest cultural challenges to American military power stem from the fact that we live in a secular age. The phrase “secular age” could mean many things. It could mean that we live in an era in which most people are atheists or agnostics. It could mean that we live in an era in which most people refuse to bring religion into the public square. But neither of these sentiments captures my intent in speaking of a secular age.
Instead, I mean to say that in the United States Christianity has not only been displaced from the default position but is now positively contested by myriad religions, ideologies, and “takes” and “spins” on life.
As Philip Rieff has argued, Western culture in general and American culture in particular is in the midst of a historically-unprecedented attempt to undermine Christianity’s influence on our cultural institutions and social order. Although civilizations everywhere have understood the necessity of sturdy religion for maintaining social and cultural goodness, Western power-brokers have done their best to undermine and even eviscerate sturdy forms of religious belief. Rieff warned that the exercise would prove disastrous and that our cultural institutions and products would become “deathworks,” meaning, agents of social decay.
Similarly, Charles Taylor argues that Westerners have learned to manage life without any real reference to God, and often without any real belief in a transcendent moral framework that guides our lives. Historic Christianity is viewed as implausible, unimaginable, and even reprehensible. It is now positively contested by myriad competitors. As a result, all Americans—Christian, atheist, or other—have a hard time believing what they say they believe.
The resulting moral ambiguity and equivalence has fostered what Taylor calls the “extraordinary moral inarticulacy” of our age. On one hand, we have high moral aspirations (e.g. justice for all, equality for all, poverty alleviation). On the other hand, we can’t support our morality with any transcendent frame of reference. We struggle to articulate why others should submit to our self-authorized morality. As a result, all we can do is shout each other down, make power plays, and gain political victories using an ethic in which the end justifies the means.
Cultivating a Warrior Ethic that Challenges Egoism, Emotivism, and Relativism
Given that many Americans manage life without any real reference to God and his moral law, new ethical systems have arisen, including egoism, emotivism, and relativism. These systems undermine not only our military but also our society. And, although these technical terms may not be well known, the ethical systems they represent are alive and well in every sector of society, whether military or civilian. All three ethical systems reject transcendence and are centered on the self, and thus cannot sustain military power or goodness.
Ethical egoism is the view that a person lives a good life to the extent that he or she acts out of self-interest. Egoism has a long and storied history. For example, Plato tells the story of Socrates’ interaction with two ethical egoists. These egoists, Callicles and Thrasymachus, argued that a well-lived life consists of acquiring what each person, individually, wants. A person has lived a “good” life if he has acquired what he desires, if he has acted out of self-interest.
Socrates responded with an illustration. He describes a (hypothetical) man whose sole desire is to scratch himself, both in private and public, ignoring not only manners but life’s normal obligations. Has this man lived a good life? No.
Any kind of consistent moral egoism is repugnant to most people globally. This can be concluded from the fact that nearly all cultures have a version of the golden rule. Egoism is also counter-intuitive. If egoism is right, we must admire the man who does nothing but scratch himself in public just as much as we admire a doctor who heals, a teacher who educates, or a soldier who defends. If egoism is right, we must frown upon people who live self-denying, sacrificial lives. Egoism is unable to settle conflicts of interest. If there is no transcendent moral framework, each party can merely assert his or her self-interest. Egoism, therefore, pours gasoline on the fire of social unrest.
Ethical emotivism argues that moral judgments are nothing more than expressions of our personal feelings and preferences. The egoist argues that there is no such thing as an objective and transcendent moral law. Our moral judgments are neither true or false; they are merely sentiments. As a result, we should not expect to reach agreement with other people through rational discussion and debate. People’s moral judgments are not formed rationally, as the argument goes, and thus people’s minds cannot be changed through rational persuasion.
An emotivist can easily justify his own ethical decisions—such as cheating on his wife, looking at child pornography, or committing war crimes—based on the fact that he is doing what he feels is right and good. Likewise, he easily ascribes to other people the same type of ethic. On an emotivist account, when President Bush 41 called Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait a “violation of justice,” what Bush really meant was, “I don’t like that.”
Emotivism is absurd and self-defeating. It makes the truth claim that all “truth claims” are nothing more than expressions of preference. It tells us that we “ought not” believe in “ought not” statements. Further, emotivism is counter-intuitive. Most Americans understand that “you ought” does not merely or simply mean “I feel” or “I prefer.” Finally, emotivism cannot be lived consistently. Even the most ardent emotivists suddenly become moral absolutists when they find themselves being cheated, robbed, or raped. Even the most ardent emotivists appeal to principles when they’re trying to resolve problems.
Ethical relativism is the view that there is no such thing as a transcendent moral law. For relativists, the moral law is not objective; moral laws are merely subjective preferences. Similarly, relativists argue that moral law is not timeless; moral laws are man-made, changing according to time and place. Thus, for the relativist, there are no moral laws that hold for all people, at all times, in all places.
Like the egoist and emotivist—whose ethical systems reduce to relativism—a forthright relativist can easily justify abusing his wife or disobeying his superiors. After all, he is doing what he considers good at that moment.
Can ethical relativism foster the type of warrior ethic that sustains American military power and goodness? No.
Ethical relativism is absurd and self-defeating. Relativists are “absolutely sure” that there are no absolutes. They say that we “ought not” believe in “ought not” statements. They think that anything a person decides to do can be “right.” They don’t understand that if something is “relative,” it must be relative to an absolute (e.g. Einstein’s theory of relativity had an absolute—the speed of light). They don’t understand that without absolutes, nothing can be measured (Without a standard of evaluation, how could we say what the “better” or “worse” course of action is?).
Ethical relativism is wildly dysfunctional and ineffective. With neither a transcendent moral framework nor the objective moral standards entailed by such a framework, even Hitler cannot be justly condemned. That is why the Nuremburg trials condemned Hitler’s regime based upon the “natural law,” by which they meant an absolute moral law that is built into the universe.
Without an objective standard, we cannot adjudicate the world’s inevitable moral conflicts. That is why the United States’ just war tradition relies upon a framework of transcendent and objective principles that should guide our nation in decisions about war. If there are no transcendent standards, there is no possibility of real resolution.
Cultivating an Ethic to Sustain America in A Secular Age
The United States faces two serious threats, one internal and the other external.
Internally, we have been weakened by elite cultural power-brokers who have worked hard for many years now to undermine the role of religion in ordering society. As a result, our nation now is home to a self-centered, emotionally-driven, relativistic ethic that undermines the wisdom and courage needed to sustain military power and engender virtue among citizens.
Externally, other nations and non-state actors are building hostile military forces intent on destroying us. Further, many of those nations and non-state actors have cultivated powerfully sacrificial ideologies capable of sustaining hostile military power against us.
Either of these threats is formidable by itself, but taken together, they surely threaten the future of our nation. Unless American citizens and military personnel together reject egoism, emotivism, relativism, and other similar ways of thinking, our nation will continue to weaken until it is one day overtaken.
Thus, as I will argue in an upcoming article, we must cultivate the type of ethic that can sustain our nation. And that ethic must be built on something—Somebody—that transcends our personal feelings, personal comfort, and personal preferences.