REPORT: Deciphering Difficult Decisions: Personal Ethics in National Security

Book Cover of Public Integrity by J. Patrick Dobel

By: Liana Mitlyng Day, Reporter

Imagine you’re living abroad with your family and working as a US government employee in national security. The country where you and your family are living is generally considered safe, but the potential for attacks on the population from rival countries exists. One day your spouse asks you whether you would warn your family to leave the capital city if, based on US intelligence available to you in your professional life, it seemed that an attack was imminent that would put them in danger. What would you say?

On October 27, 2018 the Georgetown Security Studies Program held a workshop on Personal Ethics in National Security, where this and many other ethical dilemmas were debated. An SSP alumnus currently working within the intelligence community led the workshop, and he was joined later in the day by another SSP alum working in the field who also provided some of his own personal experiences for the group to discuss. Perhaps because it was a rainy Saturday morning, the group of current SSP students attending was small – but this made for a very intimate and rewarding conversation across a range of difficult topics.

The workshop aimed to enable participants to address ethical dilemmas, maintain integrity, and be effective in their work during and after SSP. The focus was threefold: personal, in that it centered on the participant and his or her relationship to an institution policy or issue; practical, in that it focused on individual decisions and actions rather than theoretical or theological prescriptions; and normative, with a focus on what individuals should do rather than on what most people actually do. The workshop defined an ‘ethical dilemma’ as a choice between two rights or two wrongs, with the hardest choices emerging when available options are roughly on par with each other.

The metaphor of a boat at sea was useful to visualize the self in relation to commitments. Citing a model from Public Integrity by J. Patrick Dobel, competing commitments were grouped into three categories: personal obligations; institutional obligations; and prudential obligations. Contending with each of these types of obligations is necessary, and when one area is thrown out of balance, the ship begins to take on water. Conversely, achieving success in one of these areas can make an individual feel more competent in contending with the rest.

The workshop then addressed the unique nature of National Security work, emphasizing that it “heightens hard choices and ethical dilemmas, making them both more frequent and more difficult to resolve,” and can reduce the effectiveness of potential solutions. Part of this comes from the necessarily secret nature of much work in national security, which on an individual level can be isolating and can reduce personal resilience over time. The secret aspect of national security work can also create anonymity, weakening individual boundaries and diffusing responsibilities. Additionally, the stakes are often higher and outcomes are weighted heavily. Security clearances create high barriers to entry and exit from a career standpoint and may deter some from fully examining their actions. Finally, national security work and other forms of public service create the unique challenge of personal representation when embodying policy as a representative of a government agency or the federal government as a whole.

The remainder of the workshop was spent discussing specific case studies, considering how individuals in those scenarios were making decisions, and grappling with the choices that were made. Four methods of reasoning were used as a framework for discussion: reasoning from principle; reasoning from consequence; reasoning from duty; and reasoning from virtue. Some cases were historical, others theoretical, and some were posed by the SSP alumni based on their own personal experiences. Even within a small group, personal opinions and methods of reasoning diverged significantly. While disagreement in matters of opinion can occur often in a classroom setting, the issues discussed at the workshop often felt weightier and more personal. While these types of discussions can be stressful in many ways, the workshop facilitated an environment where voicing personal opinions, and listening to the opinions of others, felt more liberating than taxing.

In addition to excerpts from Public Integrity by J. Patrick Dobel, a number of other texts on ethics in relation to public service were discussed. Recommendations for further reading on these subjects include:

  • “The Inner Ring,” in The Weight of Glory, by C.S. Lewis
  • Exit, Voice, and Loyalty by Albert O. Hirschman
  • “Ethics for National Security Decisionmakers,” from Executive Research Project A191, National Defense University,by Beverly Lovelady
  • “The New Guerrilla Government,” from Political Science & Politics, by Rosemary O’Leary
  • “Moral Rationalization and the Integration of Situational Factors and Psychological Processes in Immoral Behavior,” from Review of General Psychology, by Jo-Ann Tsang
  • “14 General Principles,” U.S. Office of Government Ethics
  • “Table of Virtues and Vices,” from The Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle
  • “The Virtues,” Catechism of the Catholic Church
  • “Applying Virtue to Ethics,” in Journal of Applied Philosophy, by Julia Annas
  • “Unethical Rationalizations and Misconceptions,” from Ethics Alarms Blog, by Jack Marshall
  • “Expressing Loyal Dissent,” from Public Integrity, by George Reed
  • “Everybody Does It: An Analysis of a Common Excuse” from Public Integrity, by Alex Tuckness
  • “Staying In: The Ethics of Commitment in Office,” from Public Integrity, by J. Patrick Dobel
  • “Getting Out: The Ethics of Resigning From Office,” from Public Integrity, by J. Patrick Dobel
  • “Principles of Professional Ethics for the Intelligence Community,” U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence

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