Ethics and the Next Century's Navy

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 28, 1999 | Go to article overview

Ethics and the Next Century's Navy


The January-February issue of Shipmate contained an interesting juxtaposition of disparate views on Ethics at the Naval Academy; ranging from Bud Edney's leadership testimony, Professor Aine Donovan's case for ethics education, and a now controversial essay written by a student at the Academy.

The essay, titled "Lessons Learned From Tailhook," shows the type of ethics taught at the Academy. Mr. Edney counseled "that you must act on what you discern to be wrong, even at personal cost. . . . And, finally, must openly justify your actions as required to meet the test of right and wrong."

This prompted me to write the following commentary. I feel obligated as a citizen, Academy alumnus and a naval person to comment on what I consider to be wrong. The hope is publically speaking out will prompt corrective action and result in a better Navy.

Miss Donovan's exposition makes sense and her conclusion that, over the years, the Academy has made moral leadership an appropriate element of the curriculum, is in tune with her goal to provide today's midshipmen "an opportunity to reflect on the most important aspect of their education: their moral motivation." Sounds good until you read the award-winning midshipman's essay that must reflect the current Navy and Academy views on ethics.

The essay links Tailhook with the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and develops four lessons learned: (1) loyalty to the Constitution, (2) the maintenance of individual accountability, (3) the concept of a continual evaluation of the utility of traditions and, (4) finally, a duty to support all politically mandated changes to the heritage and ethos of the service.

In the essay, the midshipman espouses the utilitarian concept of a pleasure vs. pain ratio to define appropriate conduct; if it feels good and everyone is happy, then it's OK; and by inference there are no absolutes and all ethical standards are relative.

The exposition takes on more the nature of a political manifesto than that of an ethical diagnosis. The essay particularly worries me when it is coupled with the pronouncements of Navy Secretary Richard Danzig in the January issue of the Naval Institute Proceedings. In that issue he says one of his missions is to ensure that, "The values of the civilian world must be incorporated in the military environment and must control that environment."

Whose values and whose ethics?

I have written a number of essays, commentaries and diagnoses on the drift of the Navy into the shoal waters of political correctness. In particular, I have been concerned about the liberal biases of the ethics faculty at the Naval Academy. …

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