Military orders are seen as non-optional when they are given. In other words, they cannot be ignored or discarded by those they are given to if the person does not want to follow them for any reason at all. They are not negotiable in any way, under any circumstances. But, are these orders always ethical? In some cases, it would seem as though these orders are not ethical. However, that depends on the person who has been asked to follow those orders and what he or she sees as being ethical. People have very different opinions about ethics, and they are more guidelines than rules when they are looked at by the majority of people. Because ethics are not completely static across a lifetime and because they can change from person to person, it is important to realize that ethics, as a concept, can have very different meanings for people. In that sense, following military orders that may be unethical is only a concern for a given set of ethics, and that set can be adjusted or rationalized to fit the context in which the order was given using virtue ethics.
For people who are willing to adjust their ethics to fit the situation or consider other options during that situation, ethics can be very fluid and can change drastically. Whether a person chooses to rationalize things out for a given situation, or whether that person just chooses to take a look at what he or she has done in the past and find a way to accept a new or different set of ethics as life changes and evolves, things can be very different in a situation that is uncommon or unexpected. The military is not something that is common to most people, and when someone joins the military and is expected to follow orders without question, it can become difficult for that person to handle the changes and the stress that comes with a readjustment of his or her ethical beliefs.
Virtue ethics is tied to Aristotle (Crisp & Slote, 1997). He stated that virtue is a state of character, and that virtue is not something that can be "pinned down" accurately because it means different things to different people (Darwall, 2003; Devettere, 2002). In other words, it is a static and situational concept to a large degree. With that in mind, it can be shown how it will apply to military orders that might be unethical. Whether they are really unethical at all is something that cannot be determined beyond the court of personal opinion. In other words, one person may find an order highly unethical, while another person may have no problem at all with the order in any way. That does not mean that one person is good and the other person is bad, or that one is ethical (or virtuous) and the other is not. It merely means that one person's ethics are different from the ethics of the other person. That can cause conflict in the military because one person may be perfectly willing to follow orders and another may not.
However, when it comes to ethics and the way they can change over time, virtue ethics is an excellent way to solve ethical problems in the military where the ethics of orders has to be considered. For example, people are taught for the majority of their lives that it is wrong to harm or kill other people. However, in war, it is sometimes necessary to kill other people because they are the enemy and are actively engaged in trying to kill others. In that sense, it may not be at all unethical to kill someone, even though that is very different from what has been taught to that person his or her whole life. Some will not feel as though it is a problem, and others will struggle with it. That could cause them to hesitate in their duties, which could risk their lives and the lives of others. They must rationalize the issue of the risk to themselves and others with the issue of potentially taking another life.
According to virtue ethics, people generally focus on the difference between pleasure and pain (Darwall, 2003). In short, they do things which cause them pleasure and avoid things which cause them pain. In the military, people must follow orders or they are severely punished. That will cause them pain, and it is something they want to avoid. On the other hand, following orders may cause them pleasure, or at least help them avoid pain. While they might not find taking a life to be pleasurable, they may enjoy the accolades they receive for their part in specific battles. There are medals and other commendations they can receive, which can make them feel important and valued. Following orders is also a valuable skill for someone in the military, because being able to do what one is told without question is what is needed on the battlefield when everyone is working together for a common goal.
Fewer mistakes are made by people who are unquestionably handling orders and who do not allow their ethical beliefs and opinions to override what they are told to do. By using virtue ethics and realizing that ethics are generally specific to the event or situation for which they are being required, people who are in the military and who are being given orders can follow those orders in good conscience and not have to worry about whether they feel it is ethical to do so. Understanding that the orders they are following are ethical for that particular time and place is a very important factor for anyone who is in the military, because they may be asked to do some things about which they do not feel comfortable. The more they can adjust their thinking to reflect the changing situation and the fluidity of ethics in difficult situations, the more valuable they will be as members of the military.
Of course, there are at least two sides to every argument. One of these is relativism, which states that there is no validity or truth to any point-of-view (Baghramian, 2004). In other words, absolute truths are completely impossible, and are totally nonexistent (Gellner, 1985). That is important to consider, since a person who is in the military may feel that he or she has absolute truths that come along with the rules and orders that are given. One could argue that these absolute truths are very important and that they are what are used when orders are given, but one could also argue that there are no absolute truths and, because of that, the orders that a person considers to be unethical should not be followed. To that end, however, is something really unethical if there are no absolute truths at all? Ethics and principles are considered to be relevant only in a very limited context. Truth is seen as being relative to a specific frame of reference. It could be argued that the military or the orders themselves are the frame of reference, but it could also be argued that the particular person's perception of what is ethical or not ethical is the frame of reference that should be used in that case.
By using the person's ethical beliefs and life experience as the frame of reference for ethical behavior, that person can say that he or she will not follow an order which is considered (by him or her) to be unethical. Since the orders being given are based on the beliefs of others and are not absolute truths, there is no reason why they should be followed. Logically, most people who join the military are very committed to their cause and they will follow orders because they believe that it is the right thing to do. However, there are also people who rebel against blindly following orders. That is especially true if the orders do not seem to have any purpose, or if they are found to be unethical by the person who was ordered to complete them. What is considered ethical, and what is considered truth, are very different from person to person and from situation to situation (Baghramian, 2004).
While the military is often very formulaic in regard to how things are handled, that does not negate the feelings and beliefs of the soldiers themselves. When they reach the point where they feel they can no longer accept the orders being given to them for whatever reason, they must resist the orders. Some people reach this point easily, and some never reach it, but most people do have a point at which they will say they have accepted enough. Beyond that point, they will not accept more orders because they do not feel the orders are ethical or that there is a truth to them that must be honored. By having the view that…