The United States military is facing a host of ethical issues today. A number of allegations in recent months regarding questionable ethical behavior -- as well as that which is decidedly unethical -- have afflicted nearly every segment of the armed forces including the Navy, Air Force, National Guard, and the Marines. Moreover, these instances of amoral and immoral behavior have also been widely reported in the media, which is affecting public perception of this branch of the country so that the public's view of Army leadership's unethical conduct is a snapshot of the ethical problems facing the Army today. Allegations have involved a host of offenses including bribery, cheating on examinations, sexual assaults, inebriation, drug use, unwarranted behavior in combat situations, and others. This paper will illustrate a number of different dimensions of this situation, including the need for ethics at both an individual and organizational level, issues with both lower level and upper level personnel, ethical concerns during times of war and of peace, and an integration of personal ethics with that at a system wide, organizational level. Today organizations strive to be viewed by the public as the greater good, using their influence and power to elicit positive change. When the ethical values of the Soldier aligns with the ethical standards of the Army that synchronization establishes a shared value system guiding the organization through conflict or peacetime.
The most rudimentary level of ethics occurs at the individual level. Therefore, in order to curb unethical behavior and to circumscribe its effect within the larger organization of various branches of the military and this unit as a collective, it is necessary to identify the various stages in which ethics becomes important for a person, as well as the psychological effects of both ethical and unethical decisions. An individual is certain to face ethical dilemmas throughout the various stages of his or her life, and in doing so can consider a variety of ethical perspectives to assist with this process. There are essentially two different aspects that define the notion of an ethical dilemma. An ethical dilemma occurs when a situation arises in which either a person is not sure as to what the proper course of action is to maximize right and minimize wrong, or a situation in which the course of action that maximizes right and minimizes wrong is conflicts wit someone's inclination (U.S. Army, no date, p. 7). Such situations develop over the course of an individual's life once he or she matures to the age in which he or she is able to discern right from wrong and encounters situations that challenge is or her conception of right and wrong. Additionally, there are several different ethical theories that one can utilize to assist with ethical dilemmas. Consequentialism, for example, is the branch of ethics that believes that although there may be areas of moral relativism, the results of an action ultimately determine whether or not it is ethically defensible. Deontology, however, posits the viewpoint that some practices and courses of action are inherently ethical, and should always be followed regardless f the result. Utilitarianism is another ethical perspective that is somewhat a hybrid of the aforementioned perspectives and propounds the viewpoint that the course of action that is most defensible is that which produces the greatest utility or common good.
It is worth noting that these various aspects of ethical dilemmas that are faced throughout the different stages of life become somewhat simplified when applied to military personnel, and to military leadership in particular. The military is an organization that has a clear code of ethics and highly specific rules and regulations for conduct and for a number of situations that its personnel regularly encounter. Therefore, there are rarely ethical dilemmas in which military personnel do not know how they should ethically act -- perhaps the most ambiguous of such situations involve combat and instances of war. Outside of combat situations, the principle type of ethical dilemma military representatives face is that which juxtaposes what they know they should do with that which they are inclined to do. Therefore, when analyzing the psychological impacts of ethical or unethical decision-making, the ramifications become similarly lucid. Those who engage in ethical behavior in the military can rest assured that they are acting in accordance with the highest virtues of their organization and of their country. From a personal perspective, it is important to realize that empirical evidence supports the fact that "Hypothesis 1: Ethical leadership has a positive effect on follower moral identity….Hypothesis 2: Ethical leadership has a positive effect on follower psychological empowerment" (Zhu, 2008). The implications of these hypotheses -- each of which was validated by the evidence utilized in Zhu's article (2008) are that the effects of ethical decision-making lead to a feeling of self-worth and positivism for the individual. Conversely, although the individual may enjoy the rewards of unethical behavior, psychologically the individual is still aware of the fact that he engaged in unethical behavior. Morally, that person knows he or she has done wrong. However, there is a penchant for such a person to engage in similar acts of behavior due to the perceived benefits of such an action -- especially if he or she has not been caught for the breach of ethics. Thus, unethical behavior can actually provide the stimulus for continued unethical behavior.
Again, since the military is such a tightly-knit unit which values cohesion and solidarity over individuality and autonomy, it is vital to evaluate the effect of ethical influences on individuals. These influences frequently take the form of a group dynamic in this particular context, which can greatly determine the way one's personal values contribute to one's actions. Due to the overwhelming reliance on a chain of command and the general camaraderie that accompanies most military personnel and which intrinsically differentiates them from civilians, the phenomenon in which a mob mentality may prevail is a very real component of many of the ongoing ethical issues the armed forces is facing. Johnson (1974) describes this integral aspect of the military as the loyalty syndrome, in which
This is the practice wherein questions of right or wrong are subordinated to the overriding value of loyalty to the boss. Loyalty…can become all consuming. It also becomes dangerous when a genuine, wholesome loyalty to the boss degenerates into covering up for him, hiding things from him, or not differing with him when he is wrong (p. 37).
It is interesting to note that there appears to be quite a few of the more recent ethics violations in the armed forces that have actually involved the complicity of superior ranking officers. On the one hand, the unofficial code of ethics in which military personnel stick together and rely on one another in times of adversity and non-adversity presents a particular problem facing the military with its military issues. However, there are a number of other instances in which military leaders who have been involved with the service well beyond the decade-plus war theater in Afghanistan and Iraq have facilitated unethical behavior, in addition to merely propagating it. Prior to the recent developments in which there have been widespread media reports of unethical behavior in the armed services, such situations involving military leadership were rarely reported. When assessing the fact that military leadership may also be flawed from an ethical perspective and actually causing some of the immoral behavior among subordinates, it appears that
The more troubling ones are the upper-ranking officers who have presumably been squared away for 20-plus years, doing what they're doing and then are failing in these embarrassing ways involving alcohol, sex and money…there's something going on at the that level that…is new (Bowman, 2014).
Such a statement suggests the very real and disturbing possibility that military leadership is actually contributing to the ethical problems facing the armed forces today.
Since such behavior is regularly reported to the mass media today, it is essential to examine this effect on the overall organizational culture of the U.S. military. From an outsider's perspective, the impact of the media would appear to have little sway over the way that the organizational culture of the military functions. What the media's sensationalizing of the events of impropriety involving armed forces superiors and subordinates does, ultimately, is help to create a climate in which the public will clamor for change. In fact, to best alleviate such a situation before it takes place, the military would do well to address these issues on its own -- which is exactly what it is doing. Due to these instances of unethical conduct, there has been a concerted effort on the part of individuals in the Pentagon to attempt to restructure certain facets of the military's culture to address these problems. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has publicly urged the leaders of the respective branches of the military to take corrective action to curb these ethical problems. Additionally, "the Pentagon has picked…