What I Have Learned Teaching Ethics to Midshipmen

By Bill Bray

For nearly three years now, I have taught “Ethics and Moral Reasoning for the Naval Leader” to sophomore midshipmen (“youngsters”) at the U.S. Naval Academy, my alma mater. This is a core requirement for all midshipmen and course instruction is a collaborative effort. One of five philosophers on staff teach ethical theory on Mondays, and in the remaining two classes of each week active-duty or retired officers teach case studies and foster seminar-style discussions.

What I often wonder—and am often asked—is if this formal ethics course at least correlates to better ethical behavior and decision-making by midshipmen and Naval Academy graduates in the fleet. That is the Academy’s stated reason for the course: to “prepare future officers for the difficult moral decisions that they will have to make during their careers.” Otherwise, it would be hard to justify the course as core. Anyone can memorize ethical concepts and become casually familiar with the thinking of some of the greatest ethicists, ancient and modern. Just doing that will make one better at trivia, but it will not make him or her a more ethical leader.

The age-old question of whether virtue can be taught needs no reexamination here. Socrates believed as much, which is good enough for me. The more direct question concerns this course and if it, and similar college-level courses taught elsewhere, does, in the aggregate, produce more ethical leaders. This is not a question that can be definitively answered, given the multitude of factors for which any long-term analysis would have to control, never mind the challenges of collecting valid data. In fact, academic attempts to determine the efficacy of ethical instruction have not been encouraging, although some recent studies have shown some positive effect.

Many valid questions cannot be proven to empirical satisfaction. This is one of them, and merely claiming the course at least cannot hurt is insufficient. It should give these future officers some knowledge about the philosophical tradition of ethics and moral reasoning they did not already have and inspire reflection on how they would navigate ethically fraught situations—those in which the right decision is not immediately clear and require leaders to slow down and deliberately consider all aspects of the situation.

History of the Course

Ethics and Moral Reasoning for the Naval Leader was put into the service academies’ core curriculums following the December 1992 electrical engineering cheating scandal at the Naval Academy by members of the Class of 1994. West Point and the Air Force Academy teach the course to seniors, closer to their commissioning. The Naval Academy teaches it to sophomores on the premise that it is better for them to consider this material before they enter junior year and commit to the minimum service obligation after graduation (referred to as “two-for-seven night”, meaning they have served two years as midshipmen and are committing to seven more years of service—two more as midshipmen and at least five as a commissioned officer).

The 1992 cheating scandal forced some collective introspection among both Navy and Naval Academy military and civilian leaders. After several investigations, all outlined in a January 1994 Naval Inspector General report, ultimately 133 midshipmen were implicated (about 15 percent of the class). Nearly 30 were expelled. It remains the worst cheating scandal since the Academy adopted its Honor Code in 1951. In addition to implementing the Ethics course, following the scandal the Academy revised the Honor Code. Of note, in 2021 the Naval Academy experienced another cheating scandal, this time in Physics, that implicated 105 midshipmen, all sophomores (approximately half were taking the Ethics course at the time they cheated on the Physics final in December 2021; the other half took the course in spring 2022). Twenty-eight were separated.

While the 2021 scandal was disappointing, it did not receive the press coverage the 1994 scandal generated. Yet, it would be fair to ask how this could happen again, especially with midshipmen who were taking the Ethics course at the time. On the other hand, one of the biggest incongruities with the origin of the course and its stated goal (at least since I have taught it) is that it is not designed to prevent midshipmen from cheating on their exams. They should already know not to do this! While the course was borne of an academic cheating scandal, cheating is a clear right-vs.-wrong issue. As such, I do not think the 2021 Physics cheating scandal reflects directly on the course’s purpose or efficacy.

A better measure of the course would be how Naval Academy graduates since the late 1990s have fared in the complex and often ethical gray zones of military operations, particularly combat operations. To prepare midshipmen for the challenge of making the best ethical decisions in these situations, the course must assume midshipmen are not liars and cheaters. No such study exists, however, or probably could exist in the near future.

That leaves only the observations I and others who have taught the course can offer on how midshipmen perform in the course—how they receive and interact with the material, and what that may mean for their future as commissioned officers.

Course Structure

The course includes four blocks of instruction: Moral perception (two weeks), moral deliberation (five weeks), moral excellence (five weeks), and Just War Theory (three weeks). Moral perception concerns how to better recognize morally fraught situations, as they often are not clear initially. This section includes reading on how people from different cultures often view the same issue differently, as religion and culture shape moral perception differently.

During moral deliberation, midshipmen are instructed in a sequential process (roadmap) to navigate decision-making in morally complex situations, including those that include an ethical dilemma. They should consider the following factors in turn: moral constraints, consequences, character/virtue, and special obligations. They are introduced to, among other things, Immanuel Kant’s three formulations of the categorical imperative (moral laws or duties that bind all of us—the due respect, universalization, and mere means tests), common rationalization and socialization strategies people use to justify unethical behavior, Thomas Aquinas’ Doctrine of Double Effect to help determine if a decision with both good and bad consequences should be taken, the concepts of waiving and forfeiting rights, and justice and equity. Case studies include the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, collateral damage estimations in bombing missions, and considerations of justice and equity in administering nonjudicial punishment.

Consequential reasoning is introduced next, with some cautionary reminders that even the best consequential outcomes cannot override clear moral constraints. Among the cases studied, the midshipmen read commentary on the mid-2000s U.S. debate surrounding the use of enhanced interrogation (torture) techniques on unlawful combatants (today’s midshipmen had barely been born yet). The special obligations discussion includes voluntary and involuntary special obligations and a reading on Constitutional ethics—what the oath really requires in terms of balancing one’s duty with personal views and beliefs. Critically, how an officer should resolve a conflict between his or her deeply held personal belief (conscience) if they find it in conflict with the requirement to follow a legal order.

Character and virtue deserve their own four-week block. When the scope of the 1992 cheating scandal became apparent, some contended the root of the problem rests with American society—it was producing less ethical midshipmen. This claim is unprovable, and always struck me as reactionary and a version of buck-passing. The bulk of this block focuses on how to cultivate virtue (for Aristotle virtue [excellence] involved knowledge and habit, with a heavy emphasis on habit—virtuous people repeatedly do virtuous things). The midshipmen are reminded that in considering how to make the best ethical decision in a difficult situation, they should think beyond just what is technically acceptable to how the decision will reflect on their character in the long term. How do they want to be remembered? No one thinks of virtue as a transactional or transitory trait. When we think of virtuous people to emulate, we do not think they are virtuous at certain times but not others, or in certain situations and not in others.

Just War Theory—what is commonly referred to now as the traditional theory—include the principles of Jus ad Bellum (justice of war) and Jus in Bello (justice in war). The history of U.S. warfare presents countless case studies for this section, both good and bad. This may seem rather elementary to a college philosophy major, but hardly any midshipmen were introduced to just war concepts in high school and moreover will be far more likely to put philosophical theory into professional practice.

Three Types of Ethics Students

In addition to being asked about the course, Naval Academy graduates from my generation (around my 1988 class) often ask my general impression of the midshipmen today. The question is often, though not always, freighted with generational bias, the implication being that today’s midshipmen are not as tough, not as patriotic, etc. I find no evidence of this, however. On the contrary, I find the quality as high as ever. These are some of the best and brightest young men and women the nation has to offer.

That said, while most of my students have been excellent as far as completing the coursework and writing good exams, they vary when it comes to what they bring to the class in terms of genuine interest and engagement. To broadly frame this variety, I can identify each student I have taught into one of three types: a cynic, a calculator, or a seeker.

Cynics comprise, thankfully, a small group, but I have had at least one in each section. Cynics believes the Ethics course is largely a waste of time. Ethical decision-making is mostly common sense, and midshipmen either have that or they do not. Cynics do the minimum amount of course reading and only superficially participate in class discussions. Cynics do not seem to appreciate the fact, demonstrated repeatedly in case studies, that good officers regularly fail to recognize ethical blind spots in making weighty decisions. They are convinced that will never be them.

Calculators form the next biggest group, although still slightly in the minority (again, thankfully). Calculators are transactional students—what do I need to do to get an A in this course? Calculators do more of the reading and participate more regularly in class discussions. But they tend to do so less out of a genuine interest in the material, and more in the interest of checking the boxes needed to get the highest grade possible. They want the discussion to give them the “right” answers to ethical dilemmas, so they can deliver them back on tests and papers. The process of working out the best decision in ethical gray areas is far less important than knowing what the right answer is. Calculators occasionally ask for their papers to be reviewed in draft form, to see if they are indeed “on the right track.” They prefer short, discrete exam questions to long essays that are scored heavily on how they apply what they have learned in thinking through the problem. They often give feedback that the course is graded too harshly. If they can get an A in an engineering class, there is no way they should get anything less in an Ethics course.

Seekers are the best students, although they do not always get the best grade. They are less concerned with their grade-point average and class standing and far more with the immense leadership challenges they will face in just a few short years. They read well. They bring great energy and curiosity to the class discussions. They are not afraid to speak their minds on sensitive topics. They are humble before the awesome responsibility that awaits them. They appreciate that Ethics is not a science. There is rarely certainty. There is almost always complexity and ambiguity. They recognize their chosen profession will demand nothing less than their best judgment.

I have enjoyed the privilege of teaching and knowing all my students, but the seekers keep me coming back. I cannot wait to get to class to hear their thoughts on a reading assignment or a video shown in class. Their papers are not pro forma—they often read as if the student is bearing the burden of the choice herself. Seekers are reflective and thoughtful. Many are deeply faithful. All respect different viewpoints and backgrounds, religious and secular. Much more than wanting to avoid mistakes, seekers want to be better.

This three-tiered classification is hardly rigorous and certainly not set in cement. Some students display characteristics of a seeker and a calculator. Many will (hopefully) grow, and with maturity become seekers. Some will experience an ethical “close call” as a young officer and find in it an epiphany they take to heart in becoming seekers. Regardless of the journeys these midshipmen take, all will face difficult ethical choices as officers. Some will be of the life-and-death variety. Many will be immensely consequential, especially for those who choose to make the Navy or Marine Corps a career and ascend to command.

Whether better studies someday shed more light on the efficacy of ethics instruction, I believe the Naval Academy’s Ethics course reinforces the seekers and plants seeds for growth in the other students. Someday, in the crucible, these future officers will have to rely on their knowledge and character to make the best decision in an agonizing situation. When that moment comes, they are on their own.

Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain. He is an adjunct professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Featured Image: ANNAPOLIS, Md. (May 18, 2020) The United States Naval Academy holds the fourth swearing-in event for the Class of 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Kenneth D. Aston Jr/Released)

2 thoughts on “What I Have Learned Teaching Ethics to Midshipmen”

  1. This constructs a solid case for giving midshipmen the opportunity to think deeply about questions of ethics and how complicated they can be. Kudos! Completely agree these are some of the brightest, most talented students as a group.
    I hope always to remain a seeker too!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.