Thursday, June 01, 2006

Deja Vu: Sir, Yes, Sir

So the official response to the massacre and cover up in Haditha is...wait for it..."core values training on moral and ethical standards on the battlefield". Now, I have no battlefield experience myself, but I am a veteran of the fight over core values training on moral and ethical standards on the battlefield having been in the Leadership, Ethics, and Law department at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis where they brought me in to teach a couple of courses in philosophy and to help develop supporting materials for their version of ethics training. That was also a response to several scandals that had hit the Academy.

This one will no doubt be as well thought out as that one. In the Annapolis version, all second year midshipmen were to take a required course that consisted of a one-hour lecture on Mondays delivered by a professional philosopher on Aristotle, Mill, or Kant (we weren't allowed to even mention Locke or Hobbes because they had been conscripted by the Political Science faculty) and then smaller group meetings on Wednesdays and Fridays led by Naval officers who had to teach two hours on difficult philosophical texts that they had only seen for the first time days before in a one hour prep meeting. In addition, they were mostly hostile to the entire project because it was not there when they were midshipmen and any change is necessarily a sign of softness.

This call is no different from the one in Annapolis, it is a band-aid. No, it will not do anything.

Very simple. Acting in an ethically proper sense is a two step process. Step 1: determine what is the right thing to do in the situation. Step 2: do it. In most cases step 1 is trivially easy, it is step 2, having the moral courage to stand up and do what is right, even when it is not expedient, that is most frequently the tricky one. This is why moral philosophy is so easily made fun of -- most of the time telling right from wrong is so obvious that it seems as if there is no rational process at all, as if we have a sixth sense in which the morally acceptable options just appear before our mind's eyes.

But there are a few questions for which step 1 is not only non-trivial, it is incredibly difficult. This is where you bring out philosophers to set the table by clarifying the issue and then everyone joins in to engage in the moral side of deliberative democracy or what I like to call "civil fucking discourse": it's civil in that it is an open-minded, good faith attempt to find truth, but it is not civil in that it is a knock-down, drag-out, intellectual cage match where all ideas are welcome in the ring regardless of where they sit on the political/religious/ideological spectrum.

"Ethics training" is an insult to step 1 in that it treats the trivial cases (don't assassinate little children) as if they weren't trivial and treats the hard cases (you have a family that you need to come home to, you are in a war zone where people are trying to kill you, but you don't know the language or the culture or exactly who the people trying to kill you are. what do you do?) as if they are a matter of following a few simple rules. It is an insult to step 2 because it treats the notion of character as if it were something you could acquire by sitting in a Tony Robbins seminar. I've got 18-21 year-olds who flip out over a logic final and threats to one's GPA are a little less traumatic than watching your friend blown up by an IED. Yes, the massacre is indicative of an ethical problem (I'm a philosopher, I say deep things), but it is one in which step 2 is hampered by psychological issues arising from extreme stress and trauma on young adults who have not fully matured. Stress and trauma that are the result of political and diplomatic immaturity and incompetence and irrational degrees of belief in neo-conservative doctrine. With the real problems underlying the situation, to have ethics training served up again as a finger in the dike just makes me want to scream.

That's not to say that the whole Naval Academy experience was a complete waste. I learned that "making a head call" was a lot less exciting than it sounded at first.