Ten Principles of Ethical Conduct

By Captain Mark Vandroff, USN

I recently read Dale R. Wilson’s well-written piece “Character is Crumbling in Our Leadership.” I was left, however, wondering about a definition of ethical behavior. Lockheed Martin lists “Do The Right Thing” as the first of its three core values.1 This is a noble sentiment, but how does one determine “The Right Thing?” To be fair to Lockheed Martin, their ethics webpage, on which their value statement is clearly articulated, provides links to several different company publications with more detailed rules for the conduct of company business and training with examples of good and bad ethical behavior. 

The federal government, including the Department of Defense (DoD), provides much of the same. For example, the Naval Sea System Command (NAVSEA) is attempting to make its sailors and civilian employees more ethically aware with its “Anchor Yourself In Ethics” campaign.2  This campaign focuses on awareness of the federal government’s “14 Principles Of Ethical Conduct.”3 In both cases, leaders seem to equate ethical behavior with compliance with an established set of rules. While related to the concepts of rule sets and professional conduct, ethical principles are something separate. It would certainly be unprofessional for an Assistant Secretary of the Navy to show up to work at the Pentagon in flip flops or for his Military Assistant to have his warfare pin on upside down, but neither would be unethical. I know of a Major Program Manager who knowingly violated the contracting rule on unauthorized commitments. Because he broke this rule, needed repair work was accomplished on a Navy ship in a timely manner allowing the ship to begin it basic training phase on time. The commitment was later ratified by an authorized contracting official. The program manager did not benefit financially, immediately informed his chain of command, and in the end the government did not suffer financially. His action broke rules, including one of the 14 Principles above; however, I would find very few who would describe his conduct as “unethical.”

If ethics is not merely following the rules, what is it? A good working definition might be that ethics are the processes and principles used to determine if an action is right or wrong. Even the words “right” and “wrong” are problematic. Using them in this context assumes the existence of some universal standard against which an action may be judged. Theologians and philosophers debate the origins and existence of such a standard.  Practitioners take a different stance. As the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described pornography in “Jacobellis vs. Ohio,” they “know it when they see it.”4 Apart from following established rule sets, ethical action involves honesty, transparency, compassion, dignity, and courage. As the Chief of Naval Operations put it in his recent letter to Flag Officers, “Words about values, no matter how eloquent, can only go so far. My experience is that, like so many parts of our language, these words have become overused, distorted, and diluted. Our behavior, as an organization and as individuals, must signal our commitment to the values we so often proclaim.”5 The question that I believe the CNO raises is how to take noble ideals and from them craft a usable set of principles people can use to evaluate their actions.

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CNO Admiral Richardson’s letter on core values and attributes. Click to read.

Roughly 2,300 years ago, Aristotle wrote ten enormous volumes of The Nicomachean Ethics. While it remains an important work on ethics to this day, it does have a certain lack of brevity. 1,400 years later, Moses Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher who was heavily influenced by Aristotle’s writings, did have the gift of brevity. He synthesized the theological implications of the Hebrew Bible and all the attendant writings of several hundred years of revered Rabbis into 13 principles of faith. While his principles were praised by many and criticized by some, their very publication sparked a healthy and needed debate within the Jewish thinking of the day. In the spirit of both Aristotle and Maimonides, I offer the following 10 principles of ethical conduct. They are not rules but principles, ways of measuring the rightness and wrongness of a given act. They are designed to apply to all whose profession involves the common defense, not solely to military personnel. I offer these 10 principles to the Pentagon bureaucrat, the defense industry executive, the Congressional staffer, and the journalist whose beat covers national security as well as to the Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine. My hope is that a spirited public debate of these principles will lead to a healthier understanding of what constitutes ethical conduct.

1. Actions must align with the legitimate interests of the stakeholders.

Everyone in the world of defense acts in the interest of someone else, often multiple people and/or groups, and only rarely is it a direct supervisor. A journalist has a responsibility to the owners of their media outlet to produce publishable content and an additional, sometimes competing interest, to their readers to provide content that is factual and relevant. A DoD Program Manager has a duty to produce items of military usefulness to the warfighter and also has a responsibility to the American taxpayer. A stakeholder is the entity in whose interest a person is bound by their position to act.  (In the law, this would be called a fiduciary/principal relationship.) When judging the ethics of an action, ask first, “are these actions furthering the interest of one or more legitimate stakeholders?”

2. Conflicting interests of various stakeholders must be balanced transparently.

An infantry officer calling for artillery fire must balance the need to protect the soldiers under their command (those soldiers are one legitimate stakeholder) with the need to prevent potential civilian casualties (those civilians are the unwitting other legitimate stakeholder). A Service Chief will have to balance the need to invest in the equipment of tomorrow’s force with the need to fund the operations and maintenance of force he leads today. Many situations will have rule sets for the balancing of these interests, from Rules of Engagement in the field to the Federal Acquisition Regulation in a contract award.  Beyond merely following the appropriate rule set, the decision-maker must be open and clear with themselves, their chain of command, and possibly others outside their organization about who the stakeholders are and how he or she is balancing their interests.

3. The financial benefits of an office can only come from legitimate sources, and must be openly communicated to all stakeholders.

This principle covers the innocent gift, the outright bribe, and everything in between. In most cases, there are easily understood rule sets to govern this behavior. However, even in a complicated case, the main principle is to take no money or other item of value in a manner not clearly known to all the relevant stakeholders. As an example, many journalists will earn additional income working as a ghostwriter. If a journalist covering the DoD and the defense industry ghostwrites a book or an article for a DoD or defense industry leader, that journalist’s readers have a right to know about how that may affect his or her reporting.   

4. Gain, in any form, personal, institutional, financial, or positional, only legitimately comes through excellence.

It is fine for colonels to want to become generals. There is no ethical violation in a business wanting to maximize its profit. Investors are one of the key stakeholder interests an industry leader must serve. However, gain must never be achieved by trick, fraud, or exploitation of personal relationships. Gain is achieved ethically when a competitor outperforms the competition. For example, many large acquisition programs fund government activities outside their program that advance the state of technology with the intent of eventual incorporation into that program. An O-6 major program manager might be tempted to fund projects favored by an influential flag/general officer even if the potential for program benefit is relatively low compared to other possible investments in an attempt to win a friend on possible future promotion boards. This action would violate no rules. It would be unethical because the major program manager is using the program’s resources for personal gain instead of acting in the interests of the program’s legitimate stakeholders.    

5. Established rule sets must be followed unless they are either patently unjust or are interfering with achieving a critical stakeholder need that cannot be fulfilled by acting within the rule set. When violated, they are always violated openly and transparently.

This is the encapsulation of the “Rosa Parks” rule; the defense professional’s guideline for civil disobedience.  Rules exist for a reason. An ethical person follows established rule sets unless extraordinary circumstances compel deviation. When those circumstances exist, the ethical person does not break rules in secret, for that would defeat the purpose of exposing the unjust or mission obstructing rule. If a person is breaking rules without telling anyone about it, that person may be presumed unethical. 

6. When people have been placed under a leader’s authority, that authority may not be used for personal gain.

This covers the proper interaction of a leader with their team. The leader’s team exists for the accomplishment of stakeholders’ interests, not the leader’s personal interests. For example, commanders of large activities have public affairs staff. That staff is there to promote the public’s knowledge of the organization, not the Commander personally.

7. Respect is due to the innate human dignity of every person.

This principle forms the basis of all personal interactions. People may be tasked, trained, hired, fired, disciplined, and rewarded only in ways that preserve their inherent dignity. Because all human beings possess this dignity, its preservation crosses all racial, ethnic, gender, and religious lines. It does not preclude intense training, preparation for stressful situations, or the correction of substandard performance.  It does, however, require that no person be intentionally humiliated, denigrated, or exploited. 

8. The truth must be provided to any stakeholder with a legitimate claim.

It would be too simple, and even inaccurate, to proclaim a principle like “never lie.”  Both war and successful business often require the art of deception. As an example, it has always been a legitimate form of deception to disguise the topside of a warship to make it appear to be some other type of vessel. In a business negotiation, there are legitimate reasons for keeping some items of information private. However, stakeholders that have a legitimate claim on the truth must be given the full, unabridged access to the best information and analysis when requested. Other stakeholders, with a lesser claim, may not be lied to but do not always have to be answered in full.  As an example, a DoD program manager cannot tell a Congressional Defense Committee staffer that “testing is going great” when asked about testing on a program that is suffering serious delays. That program manager may tell a reporter, “I don’t want to talk about that” or, “I have confidence in the contractor” when asked the same question. 

9. Do not assume bad intent without evidence.

The unethical person judges others by their actions and himself by his intent. The ethical person judges himself by his actions and other by their intent. Ethical people will understand that there will be honest differences of opinion among even seasoned practitioners. Just because someone comes to a different judgment does not mean that person is less competent or under a bad influence. For example, an investigator with an inspector general organization is assessing whether or not a trip was legitimately official, to be properly paid for with government funds, or a personal trip on which business was done only incidentally, such that government funding would be unauthorized. The given facts could logically support either conclusion. The investigator may have a personal interest in a finding of wrongdoing because it would be a demonstration of the investigator’s own thoroughness. Nonetheless, an ethical investigator will decline to find wrongdoing when the facts support either conclusion.               

10. An ethical person does not stand idle in the face of wrongdoing.

Great thinkers, from Aristotle, to Sir Winston Churchill, to Maya Angelou, recognized courage as the primary human virtue, because it is a necessary precursor to all other virtuous acts. Theoretically, a person may be able to behave ethically without courage in an environment free from temptation. However, such environments don’t exist in the world of the defense professional. To be ethical, to follow the first nine principles, one must have the courage to do so even when such action might be unpopular or dangerous.

At the end of The (seemingly endless) Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observes that both virtue and laws are needed to have a good society.  Similarly, ethical principles are not a replacement for solid, well understood, and faithfully executed rule sets.  A wise ethics attorney once counseled me, “there is no right way to do the wrong thing, but there are lots of wrong ways to do the right thing.”   These ethical principles are, for our actions, like a well-laid foundation to a house.  They are the necessary precursor to a sound structure of ethical conduct.  

Captain Mark Vandroff is the Program Manager for DDG-51 Class Shipbuilding. The views express herein are solely those of the author. They do not reflect the official positions of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or any other U.S. Government agency.

1. Lockheed Martin Corporation, “Ethics – Lockheed Martin,” 6 July 2016.

2. Vice Admiral William H. Hilarides, “Anchor Yourself with Ethics – NAVSEA Ethics & Integrity,” Naval Sea Systems Command, 22 June 2015.

3. “The 14 General Principles of Ethical Conduct” 5 C.F.R §2635.101 (b).

4. Jacobellis v. Ohio. 378 U.S. 184 (1964).  The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.

5.Admiral John M. Richardson, “Message to Flag Officers and Senior Civilians,” Department of the Navy, 12 May 2016.

Featured Image: MECHANICSBURG, Pa. (June 1, 2016) Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) employees learn about Character from U.S. Naval Academy Distinguished Military Professor of Ethics Capt. Rick Rubel, guest speaker for the NAVSUP leadership seminar series. (U.S. Navy photo by Dorie Heyer/Released)

5 thoughts on “Ten Principles of Ethical Conduct”

  1. Great paper on a much oftentimes confused principle. I always learned that is was best to do unto others, only what I wished to have done unto me. In my case, that usually worked out.

    wmclaughlin52@gmail.com

  2. Too complicated, Captain, sir, and I might add it’s missing eternal worth in several places. To help correct that…

    I recommend you all please read Exodus 20:1-17 and Jesus Christ’s affirmation of it in the Gospel record (e.g., Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7; also Matthew 22:34-40). Mr. McLaughlin’s point above is found directly from Jesus Christ in Matthew 7:12.

    When invoked during the MIT Professional Institute course on leadership, in the exercise context of resolving the Shuttle “Challenger” post mortem, without prior disclosure to the class, I threw the Harvard-authored book away and kept to Jesus Christ’s instruction from the Sermon on the Mount. Not only did our group solve the ethical dilemmas inherent with that tragedy in record time, but the MIT professor in charge cited the outcome as the most principled example of ethical leadership she had ever seen in that class.

    By contrast: Look how much our culture and elected leadership disdain the ways of Jesus Christ, in its secularist arrogance adopting the sour examples of Biblical Scripture relegated to God’s justice — something even Thomas Jefferson trembled over. Forgetting God is the gangrene corroding our country’s leadership caliber today — completely seditious of “the Laws of Nature and Natures’ God” our own Declaration of Independence opens with invoked to justify our political independence taken too much for granted.

    To God’s Glory,

    DSE
    voveritasdse@gmail.com

    1. Dear DSE – Exodus 20:1-17 is my favorite part of scripture, since I believe the Decalogue to be the foundation of both the three great monotheistic religions and Western Civilization. However, I was looking for something else in this piece, which, I grant you, may in fact be impossible. I noted that the existence of “right” and “wrong” as objectively real is a theological issue. A person will regard themselves as bound to the Decalogue’s commandments to the extent that person believes they derive from Divine Authority. I did not wish to assume that everyone working in the defense industry shared that belief, so I tried to craft a set of principles of conduct that would at the minimum be widely shared among experienced practitioners. I agree this is a poor substitute for Divine authority and the world in general (and defense professionals in particular) would be better off if we all agreed to follow the Decalogue.
      All the best,
      Mark

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