Students Reflect on Personal Ethics in National Security

By: Andrew Johnian, Reporter

Photo Credit: Code of Ethics Logo (Clipart Library)

Last weekend nearly 40 students in the Security Studies Program participated in a two-day workshop on personal ethics in national security. The workshop was geared toward providing skills and peer-to-peer engagement on personal ethics in national security that can be used in the classroom, in the workforce, and in leadership positions.

Attendees received instruction from alumnus Eli Margolis (Class of ’08), and Professor Jim Dubik, who have studied ethics and reflected on its role in national security careers. Following brief introductions and an overview of key concepts in ethical reasoning, participants were separated into three groups. Each group engaged in discussion on complex case studies, and reported their analysis to the participants in the Mortara Conference Room.

On Friday night, students spoke about the challenges of weighing, and prioritizing competing ethical considerations. For many, this included reflection on a combination of personal, physical, professional, and spiritual ethics. Dubik then turned to the challenges of balancing multi-dimensional lives and the importance of finding moral consistency. Workshop members were taught about the harmfulness of relying on only one mental framework to solve complex, competing interests. As such, participants used a variety of analytical concepts to evaluate the ethical dilemmas of national security professionals. Some issues included civil servants’ decisions to resign or challenge institutional norms over disagreements about Cold War strategy, NSC structure, climate change policy, and the intelligence-policymaker relationship.

The groups discussed the nexus of upholding personal, professional, and institutional obligations. Participants noted that ethical conflict is often magnified in national security due to exceptionally high stakes. The national security field relies strongly on bureaucratic discipline and maintenance of secrecy to protect American lives and national prestige, especially in government. Students noted that despite numerous structural constraints in the national security establishment, individuals have an impact on institutions. Understandably, the impact is greater in some areas more than others. In group discussion, participants compared and contrasted the degree of impact political appointees and civil servants can have on institutions. The role of individuals is especially important given that institutions must adapt to meet emerging national security threats. As such, employees have agency to make ethics decisions that affect their professional lives and also the lives of others.

On Saturday morning, participants were given four different ways of thinking about ethical dilemmas that may occur in their careers. The analytical frameworks included (1) reasoning from consequence, (2) reasoning from duty, (3) reasoning from virtue, and (4) reasoning from principle. Participants offered robust analysis on which frameworks were most suitable in each case study.

Reasoning from consequence is defined as the right thing to do, or rule to follow that produces the best outcome. They essentially lead an individual to make decisions based on the “maximum or ultimate good.” An individual may determine “the good” from a variety of different means. Reasoning from duty hinges on doing the right thing for the right reason in accordance with obligations, “regardless of its consequence.” Under this framework, individuals must define standards and determine which duties are most important to fulfilling their roles and obligations. Reasoning from virtue focuses on the actor rather than the action, emphasizing the cultivation of virtue or “personal excellence” rather than providing specific rules. The framework emphasizes personal reflection and values-based judgment of how to act or respond in the event of an ethical dilemma. Finally, reasoning from principle is doing the right thing because it is “required by a standard imposed by legitimate authority.” Reasoning from principle requires an individual determine which rules or laws are relevant in a particular case.

The workshop was interactive and student-driven, which contributed to the development of critical thinking, argumentation, and public speaking. Lively debate and engagement between the participants and conference facilitators sparked new ideas and ways of thinking about ethical dilemmas. In closing, Professor Dubik noted that, as young professionals advance in their careers, they must develop moral as well as technical capacity.

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