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Fixing the Problem

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

Integrating Virtue Ethics into U.S. Special Operations Forces Selection, Education, and Training

By Benjamin Ordiway


“A survey of allegations of serious misconduct across our formations over the last year indicate[s] that [United States Special Operations Command] USSOCOM faces a deeper challenge of a disordered view of the team and the individual in our SOF culture.”

—General Raymond Thomas, Former Commander of USSOCOM, December 13, 2018[i]

“We have a problem.”

Rear Admiral Colin Green, Naval Special Warfare Commander July 25, 2019[ii]

“. . . this force does not have a systemic ethics problem.”

General Richard Clarke, Current Commander of USSOCOM January 28, 2020[iii]

In The Story of Civilization, Volume III, philosopher and historian Will Durant warns, “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.”[iv] Just as elevation is often associated with a position of tactical advantage in combat, the moral-ethical[v] high ground is key terrain in the defense of our civilization; when internal actors surrender the moral-ethical high ground, our adversary’s work is done for them. Every minute spent dealing with the consequences of moral-ethical breaches cedes a contour-line of respect and creates a widening window of opportunity for those who seek the United States’ capitulation as a global power and leader. Special Operations Forces (SOF), which fall under United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), are the sentries entrusted with guarding this moral-ethical high ground across the continents.

SOF teams, though small in number, are designed to achieve outsized effects in support of strategic political and military objectives while in hostile or politically sensitive environments.[vi] Whether coordinating humanitarian assistance projects in the Balkans, enhancing counter-terrorism capabilities from Burkina Faso to Colombia, or targeting Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in Syria, SOF are persistently engaged as frontline emissaries of the United States. To this end, all SOF undergo a multi-week selection process and receive specialized training, which contributes to the development of unique and rich unit cultures.[vii] A sample of SOF unit mottos describe teams that are called to be “quiet professionals”[viii] (Special Forces), “always faithful, always forward”[ix] (Marine Raiders), and “warrior-diplomats”[x] (Civil Affairs). But what happens when the actions of a few servicemembers are neither quiet nor professional, causing senior political and military leaders to lose faith in the character and abilities of those forward? From war crimes, to drug trafficking, to murdering colleagues, a web-search of special operations moral-ethical issues returns plenty of front-page material.

May of 2019 was an especially difficult month for USSOCOM’s reputation. In the span of thirty days, the military sentenced two Green Berets to nine years in prison for drug trafficking,[xi]and a Navy SEAL and a Marine Raider pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in the 2017 death of an Army Special Forces Soldier. Two months later, the Navy convicted a SEAL for posing in a photo with the corpse of an ISIS fighter.[xii]

As the number of incidents grows, so does the outcry. Unfortunately, the response is becoming predictable. Congressionally-directed ethics reviews risk becoming commonplace in the National Defense Authorization Acts,[xiii] and memorandums from USSOCOM’s highest levels perennially call for cultural introspection across SOF.[xiv] Nevertheless, the findings of the recent ethics and culture review maintain a drumbeat that there is not a systemic ethics problem.[xv] As the report would have it, Congress and the public are encouraged to believe that the headlines are owed to the actions of a few bad apples. Should we expect and accept these spoiled fruits as an inevitable consequence of a strained force facing deployment after deployment?


In August 2019, USSOCOM began a comprehensive review of SOF culture and ethics, which, at the lowest level, entailed a small group discussion with one’s peers facilitated by a review team. Additionally, every subordinate command within USSOCOM discussed ethics with the rank and file.[xvi] Upon hearing the details of the recent SOF moral-ethical breakdowns, many in the audience essentially asked, “what were they thinking?” as opposed to the metacognitive question, “how were they thinking?” Alarmingly, some even challenged the fairness of questioning the behaviors of those on ethics-trial, claiming that those in air-conditioned offices are committing the fundamental attribution error by assigning blame to a character flaw rather than the power of the situation. [xvii] Worse yet, others complained that an afternoon was spent unproductively discussing the acts of a “few bad apples,” further opining that the nature of SOF work is inherently “gray,” and that the media and Congress tend to overreact. Cynicism is more common than many would care to admit. It seems to dispose of personal responsibility and an individual’s moral agency, while also disregarding the warning signs that our status within the profession of arms faces an existential threat. A question left unaddressed during both events was, did USSOCOM select, educate, and train SOF for the correct type of moral-ethical thinking to prevent these situations?

When deployed, a SOF team’s high operational tempo, its embedment in a foreign culture—each with unique values, beliefs, norms, and temptations—and isolation from its higher command present unique challenges to SOF. These conditions yield fertile soil for situationism to take root. Situationism is the idea that situational factors (e.g., the actor’s stress level, sense of urgency, amount of social pressure, and the proximity of an authority figure),[xviii] determine how people act, significantly more so than character traits.[xix] While few dispute that a situation, alternatively referred to as the environment, does not contribute to a subject’s behavior, some ultimately say character traits are minimally important or that there is no such thing as character altogether.[xx] A middle way adopted by many in the field of moral psychology, known as interactionism, combines elements of situationism and trait theory. Many outside of the field of moral psychology would take interactionism—the idea that both situations and character traits affect our actions—to be common sense.[xxi] Interactionism forms the golden mean between the two extremes of trait theory and situationism theory by incorporating an actor’s character traits and the external environmental factors when explaining behavior.[xxii] What, then, should leaders focus on when assessing and selecting future special operations service members if aiming to deploy individuals and teams that will conduct themselves and their missions in morally and ethically appropriate ways? SOF leaders should pay heed to the saying “prepare the child for the road and not the road for the child.” Given that it is impossible to predict every situation or environmental factor those in SOF will face, the only practical and morally responsible choice is to focus on developing character—what some call virtue—to guide thinking and behavior.

"...the only practical and morally responsible choice is to focus on developing character—what some call virtue—to guide thinking and behavior."


I propose that the best prevention of SOF moral-ethical transgressions is a systemic inoculation against situational influences. This can be achieved by raising selection standards and by educating and training personnel to think, decide, and act according to a virtue ethics framework. SOF leaders should expand existing selection criteria to include tests for moral and adult development. Once selected, units should steep individuals in a virtue ethics-based education before deployment. Finally, SOF unit leaders should incorporate moral virtue ethics tenants into field training to develop excellence in the exercise of moral-ethical judgment. These measures will increase individual resilience against the situational influences SOF personnel contest with at home and abroad, ensuring SOF mottos ring truer than regrettable headlines.

SOF Selection

“The great challenge of a military profession in an increasingly pluralistic society is that we now have people coming into the profession who have far different and wide-ranging personal moralities than the institutional ethos.” —Colonel (Retired) Don Snider[xxiii]

SOF selection generally focuses on physical and cognitive abilities, personality compatibility deemed appropriate for mission success, and psychopathological issues.[xxiv] What goes unmeasured, at least formally, is an aspirant’s moral and adult development. Such screening would assist SOF commanders in knowing that all personnel in their formation demonstrated a moral foundation which could be reinforced through education and training to support institutional ethics. While additional testing may reduce the available pool of viable SOF candidates during selection, it need not. Instead, if a candidate scores on the lower range of moral and adult development, the assessors could flag the candidate’s file to inform future team placement, assuming the candidate passes the rest of the assessment and selection phase.

Two theories SOF assessors might rely on during the assessment and selection phase are Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development and Robert Kegan’s Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness. Assessors could apply these theories through one-on-one interviews, through essays dealing with practical moral-ethical dilemmas based on vignettes from former and current SOF personnel, and through focused observation of an individual’s behavior in group settings with an eye toward their moral-ethical decision making. Additionally, SOF selection should incorporate these theories into tailored scenarios where individual SOF candidates may take a moral-ethical stand without being acutely aware of what is being evaluated. Finally, SOF candidates should be evaluated for incongruences between their individual behavior and behavior within a group setting with respect to instances where an assessment and selection event poses a moral-ethical question. A significant deviation between behaviors may illuminate areas of concern, such as a willingness to compromise a moral-ethical principle when exposed to the pressures of group conformity.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg, expanding on the work of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget,[xxv] developed a three-level model of moral development spanning pre-conventional to post-conventional moral reasoning. Kohlberg further divides each level into two stages of increasingly complex types of reasoning. Finally, each level corresponds with an age range. [xxvi]

Pre-conventional morality encompasses the kind of moral reasoning found in preadolescents. In stage one, what is deemed right is obedience to an authority figure, and what is wrong is what that authority decides to punish. In stage two, moral reasoning incorporates instrumental purpose; what is right is what provides immediate value to the individual and what encourages beneficial reciprocity from another.[xxvii]

Conventional morality, forming stages three and four, encompasses the type of moral reasoning first arising in grade school and continuing through young adulthood. In stage three, one’s reasoning is a function of conformity to a social group. What is right for a person in stage three is “living up to what is expected by people close to you”. . . because of the desire “. . . to be a good person in your own eyes and those of others.”[xxviii] Stage four builds on the external pressure of a social group by adding adherence to a social system. What is right in this stage is fulfilling one’s duty, upholding laws, and contributing to institutions and society. [xxix]

Post-conventional morality forms the final two stages. Stage five moral reasoning operates from a social contract perspective. What is right is what promotes the common good and protects the rights of all involved with impartiality and recognizes there may be a conflict between individual morals and norms or laws. It follows, then, that a person in stage five is more attuned to dilemmas and willing to consider a course of action that may be in opposition to group norms. Finally, in Kohlberg’s sixth stage, called universal ethical principles, what is moral is what is universally applicable, such as fundamental human rights and the dignity of the individual.[xxx] A person operating in this stage of moral reasoning may very well disregard the social contract, seeing themselves as unconstrained by an ineffective system if that system conflicts with internalized universal principles.

Kohlberg concludes that the majority of adults do not advance beyond conventional morality. In short, most applicants seeking to join the ranks of SOF likely think, decide, and act in situations where a moral question exists—perceived or otherwise—based on what individuals and social groups deem acceptable or unacceptable. This is not without its implications for SOF teams, which are themselves a social system.

Robert Kegan’s Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness

In his seminal work, In Over Our Heads, Kegan describes increasingly complex ways the human conscious constructs meaning, with higher orders including and being preferred to the lower.[xxxi] The four orders most relevant to adult life are order two through five. In order two, called the instrumental mind, individuals relate to others as “separate and unique beings,”[xxxii] but one’s own needs maintain primacy.[xxxiii] This order is marked by competition and compromise within social settings, with relationships tending toward the instrumental or transactional, hence the name.[xxxiv] In order three, called the socialized mind, individuals are acutely aware of their feelings and demonstrate mental abstraction by perceiving and considering other’s desires and emotions.[xxxv] Kegan states that this order is akin to tribalism, where one’s group ideology reigns[xxxvi] and where “other people are experienced as sources of internal validation, orientation, and authority.”[xxxvii] In order four, called the self-authoring mind, individuals assume responsibility for their values and belief systems.[xxxviii] In this order, relationships with others no longer serve as the foundation for one’s identity. Moreover, individuals can see linkages between abstract concepts such as the rule of law and individual rights. Kegan’s final order, the self-transforming mind, is rarely observed in others under the age of forty.[xxxix] In this order, a person demonstrates the ability to see beyond societal constructions and culture and can incorporate commonalities that transcend ideologies and national borders.[xl]

Numerous longitudinal studies conducted by Kegan and others in the field of developmental psychology indicate that nearly two-thirds of adults have not reached the fourth-order of consciousness.[xli] Instead, most adults are conscious of others insofar as they can make use of them (treating people as means rather than ends) or are conscious of others insofar as they form their identity in relation to them. With Kohlberg and Kegan in mind, the ideal SOF candidate should demonstrate post-conventional morality and a self-authoring mind, as both serve as preconditions for adopting and developing a virtue ethics framework. Aristotle, one of the founders of virtue ethics, presupposes that one must first be willing to adopt and train according to a potentially new system of habits. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes, “The virtues, then, come neither by nature nor against nature, but nature gives the capacity for acquiring them, and this is developed by training.”[xlii] Incorporation of Kohlberg and Kegan into SOF selection will assist in highlighting those individuals whose natures are open to the adoption and development of Aristotelian virtue ethics.

An Overview of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

“. . . the practice of . . . professionals is to make discretionary judgments routinely; those judgments are highly moral in nature; such decisions are better made by professionals of high moral character.” Colonel (Retired) Don Snider[xliii]

Aristotle writes that all designed objects, inanimate and animate, have a specific function they are best suited to accomplish.[xliv] Synthesizing Aristotle and Snider, I submit that the specific function for which SOF is best suited is the application of discretionary moral-ethical judgment[xlv] in the conduct of operations in “hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments [which] are characterized by one or more of the following elements: [they are] time-sensitive, clandestine, low visibility, [or] conducted with [or] through indigenous forces, [require] regional expertise, and/or a high degree of risk.[xlvi] Though the object (or in this case the collective body of SOF) may suffice in accomplishing a different function from which it was designed, it will be unable to be employed in an excellent manner consistent with its full potential. To illustrate this point, just as a Navy SEAL platoon is not designed to engage in mounted maneuver warfare (e.g., tank vs. tank battle), an Army cavalry platoon is not designed to conduct a hostage rescue. While either force could conceivably swap roles, neither the tank nor the hostage would likely fare as well.

Simplifying by way of analogy, the function of a sword is to cut or pierce. A virtuous sword is one that is balanced, honed, maintains an edge, and ultimately cuts or pierces well. If a sword lacks any of these virtues, we call it a poor sword; it lacks the character—the summation of virtues (or the means)—of a good sword. By extension, SOF application of discretionary moral-ethical judgment in accordance with virtue means doing so with balance, within a honed moral-ethical framework. Moreover, that framework must be able to hold its edge when tested in the presence of a moral-ethical question. Just as the sword best displays its virtue in cutting, SOF exhibit the epitome of proper discretionary moral-ethical judgment when doing so according to a virtue ethics framework. Those SOF personnel that reason and act against virtue (i.e., they reason and act in accordance with vice) lack the character required of military professionals.

Aristotle describes many virtues in Nicomachean Ethics that all should seek to develop. Though he discusses the virtues of honor, justice, even anger, he holds two—courage and temperance—in high esteem.[xlvii] Were SOF to focus only on habituating adherence to these two virtues within the ranks, there would likely exist a sufficient bulwark against moral-ethical lapses. To be virtuous, then, is to moderate our reasoning and actions. It means heeding former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s call to run the “ethical midfield”[xlviii] and to shy away from the vices of excess and deficiency on the sidelines. Taking courage, for example, the vice of excess is rashness; the vice of deficiency is cowardice. Regarding temperance (self-restraint), the excess is insensibility; the deficiency is self-indulgence.[xlix] Each time a situation exists where the virtue of courage or temperance is hanging in the balance—which is to say nearly every discretional moral-ethical judgment a military leader makes in the conduct of duty—there is an opportunity to reinforce these virtues through habituation.

Finally, Aristotle posits that the virtues can be learned through modeling the behavior of virtuous people (what those in the military might call “leaders of character”), and the virtues are ingrained (made implicit) through habituation of proper reasoning and proper action. Habitually acting out of virtue will likely place one in direct contention with those exercising other ethical frameworks and with those who routinely dispose of moral-ethical considerations altogether. In these cases—especially when circumstances call for moral courage—falling on one’s sword may be the only virtuous option.

Why Aristotelian Virtue Ethics?

“Leaders must prepare their units to fight and adapt under conditions of uncertainty and, during the conduct of operations, must also ensure moral conduct and make critical time-sensitive decisions under pressure.” —The Army Capstone Concept: Operational Adaptability—Operating Under Conditions of Uncertainty and Complexity in an Era of Persistent Conflict, 2016-2028.[l]

Aristotle’s virtue ethics provide SOF personnel flexibility in moral-ethical decision making in ways that deontological (duty or rule-based) ethical systems do not. Furthermore, the character-building inherent in the practice of virtue ethics takes a proactive and preventive approach to moral-ethical breaches. This is because virtue ethics places the locus of control within the actor. In contrast, a deontological approach risks reducing moral-ethical agency by placing the locus of control external to the actor. When faced with a moral-ethical question, the internalized habituated virtue is drawn forth. This implicit adoption of virtuous thinking and acting is superior to deontology’s reactive nature, as deontology requires that one respond to a situation after referencing a set of rules. When under pressure, facing a “critical, time-sensitive decision,”[li] a reactive nature is a liability.

Immanuel Kant, arguably the most influential deontological ethicist, argues that our motivation for action should be bound by duty. Kant maintains that we should obey moral law above all else regardless of the consequences, saying “the moral worth of an action does not lie in the effect expected from it, nor in any principle of action which requires to borrow its motive from this expected effect.”[lii] With Kant, there are no qualifications when it comes to deciding our response; he mandates that we behave according to a moral imperative such as “do not kill” regardless of the circumstances. Given that the military profession is inherently violent, it would seem necessary to violate the moral imperative or to create a subcategory within it such as “do not kill except in self-defense” or “do not kill unless your target is a lawful combatant.” Qualifying a moral imperative adds tension to the moral system. For example, two parties engaged in combat may equally say their actions are in the interest of self-defense. Who then maintains the moral high ground when killing? Kant would undoubtedly take issue with expanding upon the original moral imperative because doing so may undermine the integrity of the moral law. This impracticability of rigid adherence to deontological ethics is one of its most significant criticisms.

In the abstract, dealing with the rigidity of a moral imperative through the incorporation of a subcategory seems reasonable and may even be generally sufficient to maintain good order. For example, it is wrong to violate the speed limit. However, many would agree that if a passenger is suffering a medical emergency, speeding is acceptable; therefore, the possible expanded sub categorical imperative might be “it is wrong to speed unless there is an emergency.” Still, when complex, high-pressure situations call for an expanded categorical imperative (one that likely has not been identified in training nor explicitly codified in an organization’s ethics), the ability for SOF personnel to construct an appropriate exception to the rule is less predictable and therefore full of risk. As a SOF team deployment date nears, the chain of command’s awareness of risk manifests itself on paper.

A commander, realizing too late that the deploying team’s virtue has not been vetted, ponders every possible moral-ethical bump in the road and constructs a pre-deployment “Rules of the Road” memorandum. These legalistic documents place a pylon near every prognosticated moral-ethical pothole, effectively creating rule-based chokepoints. Though well-intended, these memorandums often serve more as a defensive document that leaders wave as evidence of engaged leadership once an individual or team suffers a moral-ethical breach of conduct. The length of such memorandums is likely inversely proportional to the amount of time the signatory invested in training and educating subordinates to conduct themselves within a moral-ethical framework. What is more, burdening teams with legalese violates the very tenants of core doctrine.

In recognition of today’s unconventional conflicts, where adversaries seamlessly float in and out of the civilian population, the Army published The Army Capstone Concept: Operational Adaptability—Operating Under Conditions of Uncertainty and Complexity in an Era of Persistent Conflict. The Army intended for this doctrinal text to compel an institutional-level change in preparation for perceived threats its personnel would face out to the year 2028. USSOCOM leadership and subordinate commands would do well to embrace the following from its pages, “To facilitate the necessary level of adaptation, Army forces empower increasingly lower echelons of command with the capabilities, capacities, authorities, and responsibilities needed to think independently and act decisively, morally, and ethically.”[liii] The best way to empower leaders to act decisively, in harmony with accepted moral principles and institutional ethics, is to educate and train individuals within an inherently adaptive virtue ethics framework.

Consequentialism, commonly referred to as “the ends justify the means” by pragmatists, holds that the outcome of an act provides the basis for judging the act’s rightness or wrongness.[liv] The means, though possibly unsavory, are always subordinate to the rightness of the ends. Clearly, there are certain means which those serving in SOF are unable to employ in realizing the desired ends. For example, the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the International Law of Armed Conflict serve as ethical backstops to an array of means that might otherwise be considered available (e.g., killing an unarmed suspected terrorist to prevent future attacks). Consequentialist thinking risks opening the door to moral-ethical fading, the desensitization to moral-ethical questions. Despite an action being intuitively immoral or unethical, a consequentialist approach may push an actor toward an end that provides more utility than “doing the right thing” in the supposed service of accomplishing the mission.

The type of rationalization that allows for a seemingly insignificant rule to be broken because, say, following the rule is supposedly a detriment to unit morale (e.g., enforcing haircut standards and uniform regulations) creates a debt to discipline. This debt risks collection once deployed and increases the likelihood of moral-ethical breaches. When SOF individuals and teams train on the ethical sidelines, supported by a unit culture that tacitly approves acts of indiscipline, we should not be surprised nor expect teams to run operations in the ethical midfield. Detractors will immediately decry the supposed use of an absurd extrapolation. Still, the military has long adhered to the broken-window theory of discipline, in part because doing so guards against consequentialism.

Only months ago, Rear Admiral Green, the Commander of all Naval Special Warfare forces, connected the dots between low-level indiscipline and the more extreme ethical breaches which have garnered national attention. In an August 2019 memorandum, he banned the use of unofficial unit patches and demanded subordinate leaders enforce basic grooming standards. These measures are designed to target a root cause of ethical fading—an organization’s tacit approval of indiscipline.[lv]

This is not to say that consequentialist and deontological constructs do not have their place. Instead, this is to say that service in special operations first requires virtuous actors and virtuous teams. With the virtues serving as the foundation, SOF personnel should then engage in principled but practical consideration of the rules and then consider the most appropriate outcome. Developing virtuous actors will ensure SOF personnel steer toward the ethical midfield by creating options outside of dogmatic adherence to rules and by expelling any immoral and unethical means in pursuit of the ends.

Applying Aristotle to SOF Education and Training

The current SOF ethics education for officers and enlisted service members is insufficient in scope, frequency, and applicability. Discussing deontological, consequentialist, and virtue ethics frameworks during professional military education and engaging in case studies, although a good start, is not enough to impel change at the tactical level. These discrete forays into the academic realm, sprinkled throughout a 20-plus year career, practically ensure that moral-ethical development is viewed as something for the classroom only.

Just as unfortunate, the junior officer(s) leading a SOF team is often years removed from any formal ethical training, yet is expected to serve as the moral-ethical compass for all service members in the organization.[lvi] A point about actual compasses though—they do not lead or make decisions; they only point at an attractive element. These attractive elements may manifest themselves during deployment as the opportunity to misuse funds for personal gain, the longing to remain popular within a team that has blurred the lines between officers and enlisted personnel, or perhaps the desire to execute vigilante, frontier justice on a suspected combatant. How do SOF organizations ensure their junior leaders’ moral compasses do not orient on the wrong element?

Though it is a multifaceted answer, one which includes selecting the right people, another facet must be education and training. Incorporating moral-ethical scenarios into field training and providing feedback during developmental counseling ensures that moral-ethical development will maintain a persistent presence within the unit culture. As it stands, SOF teams are not educated or trained to identify—much less address—moral-ethical questions in a practical setting within a virtue ethics framework. Perhaps the reason for this is that the military tends to train what it can easily measure, such as physical fitness and weapons qualification.

Many SOF units are required, at a minimum, to test individuals for physical fitness twice every year. Practically every SOF installation or compound features state-of-the-art gyms complete with contracted personal trainers to promote physical excellence within the ranks. Surely SOF leadership can make time for moral-ethical fitness assessments to support excellence in discretionary moral-ethical judgment. Perhaps teams are just expected to rise to the occasion while deployed. Yet, no organization in the military expects its members to simply rise to the level of an expert marksman when at a weapons range. To illustrate the point, units do not conduct a weapons qualification until all personnel revisit, through education and practical exercises, the fundamentals of marksmanship. This is followed by a validation (zeroing) of each weapon’s sights before engaging a target for record. Qualifying on a weapons range is a less demanding feat than correctly addressing a moral-ethical question, and it is less fraught with potentially catastrophic consequences. Why, then, would SOF leaders deploy individuals and teams who have not been formally educated on moral frameworks and whose moral-ethical alignment has not been validated? The cost of doing so is only time; the cost of not doing so? Well, just read the headlines.

Where there is a moral-ethical shortcoming, there is also a training and education opportunity. Recognizing that so-called small moral-ethical transgressions are actually, “cracks in the SOF foundations,”[lvii] is only a part of the solution; we must also recognize and reward quiet courage and shadowed self-restraint. When individuals step forward and demonstrate moral courage, likely at the cost of expediency and their popularity (and potentially their safety), leaders should pause and recognize these virtues in action. Organizations must ensure that whistleblowers are not alienated by those whose actions were called into question, as courage of this nature is a precious commodity in short supply. These individuals are the ethical circuit breakers which just might save an organization from an ethical inferno.


“[I]ndeed we shall do well to suspect, in philosophy, any doctrine which plumes itself on novelty. Truth changes her garments frequently. . . but under the new habit she remains always the same. In morals we need not expect startling innovations[.]” Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy[lviii]

In an age where newer is often confused for better, suggesting that USSOCOM adopt, educate, and train according to the tenants of a 2,500-year-old text is a tall hill to hike. Still, better to trudge upward with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in hand than to continue responding to the gross moral-ethical breaches that continue to dominate news cycles and call into question the very foundation of the professional military ethic—our ability to self-regulate.

If we agree that morals are deeply held, unchanging principles governing right and wrong, it seems necessary to select those individuals who not only exemplify sufficient moral alignment with SOF institutional ethics but who also demonstrate an acceptable capacity for discretionary moral-ethical judgment. With respect to the sword, we should be selecting post-conventional, self-authoring blades willing and able to take an Aristotelian edge. An individual demonstrating post-conventional morality is willing to consider right and wrong largely independent of a proximal social group, reducing the likelihood of unhealthy conformity on a team; likewise, an individual demonstrating a self-authoring mindset is more committed to personal responsibility than personal relationships. This commitment leads to greater moral-ethical agency while reducing the impact of situational factors.

Beyond SOF selection, the hard work of educating and training teams to decide and act in a virtue ethics framework should begin immediately. The good news is, once leaders expose all individuals to the tenants of Aristotelian virtue ethics, no syllabus is required, no online-mandatory training need be developed, and no lunch breaks need be interrupted with discussions of abstract ethical dilemmas. Rather, anywhere and anytime a moral-ethical question arises in the workplace, there exists an educational opportunity. When field-based training lacks a moral-ethical question, a leader can inject one that creates a window for virtuous action without the hindrance of a resource request.

Without so much as defining the term “ethics,” the USSOCOM Comprehensive Review, despite over 20 pages of findings and recommended actions, assessed that USSOCOM does not have a systemic ethics problem.[lix] While there is limited attention paid to SOF assessment and selection, nowhere in the 69-page document is a substantive change to current moral-ethical education or training mentioned, specifically regarding developing excellence in the application of discretionary moral-ethical judgment.[lx] Education and training are major building blocks of unit culture; without addressing these key areas, there can be no systemic solution. Failure to do so all but guarantees another batch of unfortunate headlines followed by increased congressional oversight, leading to another round of policy letters and a comprehensive review which will likely say, according to a January, 2020 “Stars and Stripes” article, that SOF “ethics slips” are largely the product of deploying too much.[lxi] Essentially, the blame is placed on the external factors—the situation—instead of a SOF individual’s faulty moral-ethical foundation.

Every day in SOF units, leaders and subordinates should be asking themselves if the person adjacent to them demonstrates a sufficient capacity for discretionary moral-ethical judgment. Each day is a training opportunity for SOF leaders to improve upon the individual and collective defenses of its moral-ethical fortress. Likewise, each time leaders tacitly permit, approve, or pardon a moral-ethical transgression within the ranks, they weaken the integrity of the moral-ethical framework and damage the cornerstone of accountability within unit culture, ultimately sabotaging the work of the good and rewarding that of the bad. Through the millennia, Aristotle reminds us, “. . . and so with builders and the rest; by building well they will become good builders, and bad builders by building badly.”[lxii] Were he on the House Armed Services Committee, Aristotle might suggest that USSOCOM leadership reflect deeply on the selection, training, and education of its builders, as opposed to sifting through the rubble of its failed creations.

End Notes

[i]. Raymond Thomas, “Ethics and Our SOF Culture 7 A Call To Action SOCOM: General Raymond Thomas,” SOFX, last modified July 18, 2019,

[ii]. Paul Szoldra, “Top Navy SEAL: 'We Have a Problem',” Task & Purpose, last modified August 1, 2019,

[iii]. Richard Clarke, “Special Operations Forces Culture and Ethics Comprehensive Review—Letter to the Force,” accessed January 30, 2020,

[iv]. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ (World Library, 1944), http://www.daniellazar. com/wp-content/uploads/Durant-Christ-and-Civ.pdf, 803.

[v]. The terms moral and ethical are often substituted for one another despite certain nuances in meaning. In this paper, I consider that a moral principle refers to a deeply held internal belief about right and wrong that governs thoughts and behavior and is resistant to change, e.g., killing is wrong. An ethical principle refers to a societally or organizationally-constructed external rule governing behavior and varies depending on the societal and organizational setting. Though often informed by moral principles, an ethical principle may qualify the moral principle in the service of the societal or organizational goals, e.g., while killing is generally considered a moral breach, killing in the service of an approved military objective is considered ethical within the military profession.

[vi]. Kyle Rempfer, “JSOC Deputy Tapped to Lead Division-Level 1st Special Forces Command during Modernization Period,” Army Times, last modified October 24, 2019,

[vii]. Andrew Feickert, “U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress,” U.S. Congressional Research Service, accessed November 28, 2019,

[viii]. Cindy McIntyre, “Army Special Forces: an inside Look at the Elite Group's Capabilities,” last modified August 15, 2017, capabilities.

[ix]. Stewart Smith, “A Look at Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Creeds, Codes and Mottos,” The Balance Careers, last modified January 6, 2019,

[x]. “Civil Affairs,” Civil Affairs Recruiting, accessed November 28, 2019, recruiting.html.

[xi]. Meghann Myers, “Former Army Green Berets Sentenced in Colombian Cocaine Smuggling Plot,” Army Times, last modified May 1, 2019,

[xii]. Meghann Myers, “SOCOM Boss Calls for Another Ethics Review,” Military Times, last modified August 13, 2019,

[xiii]. Andrew Feickert, “U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress”, 8.

[xiv]. Luis Martinez, “Special Operations Command Orders Comprehensive Ethics Review Following Recent Scandals,” ABC News, last modified August 12, 2019,

[xv]. “United States Special Operations Command Comprehensive Review,” January 23, 2020.

[xvi]. James LaPorta, “U.S. Special Operations Command Issues Ethics Guidance after ‘Inexcusable and Reprehensible Violations’ by Personnel,” Newsweek, last modified December 13, 2018, https://www.newsweek. com/us-special-operations-ethics-war-crimes-military-1255843.

[xvii]. Patrick Healy, “The Fundamental Attribution Error: How It Affects Your Organization and How to Overcome It-Harvard Business School Online,” Business Insights, June 8, 2017,

[xviii]. Kristján Kristjánsson, “An Aristotelian Critique of Situationism,” Philosophy 83, no. 323 (2008): 58,

[xix]. Candace L. Upton, “Virtue Ethics and Moral Psychology: The Situationism Debate,” The Journal of Ethics 13, no. 2-3 (2009): 104,

[xx]. Gilbert Harman, “No Character or Personality,” accessed November 28, 2019, https://pdfs.semanticscholar. org/c984/016139dca210b829a1ba2e3ef1fde5279007.pdf, 7.

[xxi]. Claudio Violato, “Interactionism in Psychology and Education: A New Paradigm or a Source of Confusion?,” The Journal of Educational Thought 22, no. 1 (April 1988): 4,

[xxii]. Ibid.

[xxiii]. “Ethics, Morality and Leadership: Snider Dedicates Life to Army Profession.” Association of the United States Army, accessed November 28, 2019,

[xxiv]. Derrick Long, “The Right Soldier for the Right Job: Assessing Complex Military Occupations,” accessed November 29, 2019, 3454.pdf.

[xxv]. Lawrence Kohlberg, Child Psychology and Childhood Education (New York: Longman, 1987), 14.

[xxvi]. Ibid., 284-285.

[xxvii]. Ibid.

[xxviii]. Ibid.

[xxix]. Ibid.

[xxx]. Ibid., 286.

[xxxi]. “Kegan's Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness,” Stanford University: Tomorrow's Professor Postings, accessed November 29, 2019,

[xxxii]. Ibid.

[xxxiii]. Ibid.

[xxxiv]. Ibid.

[xxxv]. Ibid.

[xxxvi]. Robert Kegan, “RSA 21st Century Enlightenment,” RSA 21st Century Enlightenment, accessed November 28, 2019,

[xxxvii]. “Kegan's Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness” Stanford University: Tomorrow's Professor Postings, accessed November 29, 2019,

[xxxviii]. Ibid.

[xxxix]. Ibid.

[xl]. Ibid.

[xli]. Ibid.

[xlii]. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. by F. H. Peters (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2005), 23.

[xliii]. Don Snider, “Renewing the Motivational Power of the Army’s Professional Ethic,” The U.S. Army Quarterly Parameters 44, no. 3 (2014): 8,

[xliv]. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 10.

[xlv]. Don Snider, “Renewing the Motivational Power of the Army’s Professional Ethic,” The U.S. Army Quarterly Parameters 44, no. 3 (2014): 8,

[xlvi]. Andrew Feickert, “U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress,” U.S. Congressional Research Service, accessed November 28, 2019,

[xlvii]. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 58-64.

48. James Mattis, “Ethical Standards for All Hands,” accessed November 29, 2019, Portals/1/Documents/pubs/Ethical-Standards-for-All-Hands-SecDef-04-Aug-17.pdf.

[xlix]. Ibid., 55, 59.

[l]. The Army Capstone Concept, Operational Adaptability: Operating under Conditions in Uncertainty and Complexity in an Era of Persistent Conflict, Training and Doctrine Command, accessed November 29, 2019, (emphasis added)

[li]. Ibid.

[lii]. Immanuel Kant, Ethical Philosophy: The Complete Texts of Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, and Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, Part II of The Metaphysics of Morals trans. James. W. Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 1994), 13.

[liii]. The Army Capstone Concept, Operational Adaptability: Operating under Conditions in Uncertainty and Complexity in an Era of Persistent Conflict, Training and Doctrine Command, accessed November 29, 2019,

[liv]. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, “Consequentialism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, June 3, 2019,

[lv]. Paul Szoldra, “Top Navy SEAL: 'We Have a Problem',” Task & Purpose, las modified August 1, 2019,

[lvi]. Pete Kilner, “When 'Moral Compasses' Need Calibration,” Association of the United States Army, accessed November 28, 2019,

[lvii]. “United States Special Operations Command Comprehensive Review,” January 23, 2020.

[lviii]. Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (New York: Garden City Publishing Co., Inc., 1938), http://www., 49.

[lix]. “United States Special Operations Command Comprehensive Review,” January 23, 2020.

[lx]. Ibid.

[lxi]. “Review Finds Heavy Use of Commando Forces Led to Ethics Slip.” Stars and Stripes, January 28, 2020.

[lxii]. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 23.

About the Author

Captain Benjamin Ordiway is a Civil Affairs Officer in the 92nd Civil Affairs Battalion. He served as the Team Commander of the Civil-Military Support Element, U.S. Embassy Sarajevo, in Bosnia & Herzegovina and has also conducted Civil Affairs Operations in Poland and Serbia. He enlisted as a Cavalry Scout in the Army in 2004 and received his commission as an Armor Officer from the United States Military Academy in 2012. Captain Ordiway is slated to teach philosophy and officership at the United States Military Academy beginning in 2022.

This article was featured in the Small Wars Journal.

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