Military ethics and strategy: Senior commanders, moral values, and cultural perspectives

Shannon Ford

Research output: Book chapter/Published conference paperChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Senior military officers have an important role to play in deciding how a state views the place and role of military force in statecraft. The use of armed force is a most difficult form of government policy. Not only are the political outcomes of warfare unpredictable, but also the ambiguity and complexity of modern conflict can easily reinforce national prejudices and self-deception. Despite the well-established history of theorizing about the use of force in international politics, the study of security issues has been made more complex by the increase in forms of violence that do not fit conventionally understood categories. This means that the development of effective strategy, which has always been a difficult and contentious enterprise, is becoming even more arduous.This chapter explores the importance of ethics education for senior military officers with responsibilities at the strategic level of government. One problem is that senior commanders might demand 'ethics from their soldiers but then they are themselves primarily informed by a 'morally skeptical viewpoint (in the form of political realism). This chapter argues that ethics is more than a matter of personal behaviour alone: the ethical position of an armed service is a matter of the collective responsibility of the people who constitute it, and senior military officers, having authority to give the orders, have a particularly important role. First, the chapter discusses the continued prominence of a neorealist mindset in strategic thinking. Neorealist theory assumes that ethics is a largely irrelevant concern for strategic decision-makers. In contrast, it is argued that consideration of moral values should be at the centre of strategic theory and practice. Then, in the second section, it explores the 'professional ethics' of senior military officers in order to develop an appreciation of the shared values and expectations regarding required conduct within any professional military service. It is argued that senior military leaders should be concerned with what it means to be 'good' and that this concept of the good can, and should, be applied across cultures and national boundaries. In the final section, the chapter examines armed conflict and briefly discusses the moral reasoning involved to justify deliberate killing and destruction. It is concluded that senior military officers require an understanding of sound moral reasoning to implement effective strategy.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRoutledge handbook of military ethics
EditorsGeorge R. Lucas
Place of PublicationAbingdon, UK
Number of pages13
ISBN (Electronic)9781315813516
ISBN (Print)9780415743686
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Publication series

NameRoutledge Handbooks


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