Morals under the Gun: The Cardinal Virtues, Military Ethics, and American Society

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MORALS UNDER THE GUN: The Cardinal Virtues, Military Ethics, and American Society, James H. Toner, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2000, 256 pages, $29.95.

Events of the recent past remind us that personal and professional ethics must concern every soldier, especially those entrusted with leadership responsibilities. The Army has always taught ethics, but has been unable to make people ethical. Is there a standard that transcends all times and cultures? If so, which one? Or, are standards personal, cultural, or time-bound?

In Morals under the Gun, James Toner examines these issues, addresses the place of ethics in the military and the challenge to ethics in U.S. society, and proposes a solution. Toner, a professor at the Air War College and a former Army officer, approaches ethics from a traditional Roman Catholic perspective, proposing a virtue ethic to redress the weakness he sees in current values training.

To reach Toner's argument, the reader must get past the first chapter. I recommend skipping it entirely. Written from the perspective of moral relativism, the chapter is a deliberate provocation. Only in the next chapter does Toner admit this, then introduces his own approach.

All ethics derive from transcendental moral norms. This means ethics is about applying absolutes to individual or cultural situations. To prevent his ethical position from being dismissed as religious and thus irrelevant to secular society and inappropriate for teaching in the military, Toner argues from natural law and suggests that the classic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance are foundational to character development and value systems. …