CREDO workshop photo of Chaplain Ferguson. 

Ethics is about making the right choices consistent with sound character, good conduct, and core values.  For that reason, ethics is one of the most timely and paramount topics for the military today.  The overall success of war-fighting is critically compromised without the inclusion of ethics in day-to-day operations.  The moral failures represented in headline news undermine the heritage, the credibility, and the esprit de corps of the Fleet Marine Forces. Whether the issue is a CO’s resignation over inappropriate relations with a subordinate, an NCO’s complicity in a hazing incident, or a junior Sailor’s conviction for a DUI, a renewed emphasis on ethics is essential to mission readiness, heightened morale, and healthy homes.  

To that end, in his powerful book Moral Issues in Military Decision Making, Anthony Hartle identifies the core values of each military service as one among many sources (U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, UCMJ, Just War Tradition, faith, etc.) that provide guidance in ethical dilemmas. While some theorists reduce ethics to a matter of subjective preference or moral relativism, a quote attributed to Albert Einstein reaffirms the foundational quality of moral principles: “Relativity applies to physics, not ethics.”  In attending scores of NJPs, I never once met any service members who didn’t know that they were violating our core values. They knew their actions were wrong, but they didn’t think they would get caught. Suffice it to say, our core values in the Navy, for instance, supply us with a moral compass to help navigate the highest standards of ethical behavior. The Sailor’s Creed accentuates the prominence of the Navy core values: “I proudly serve my country's Navy combat team with Honor, Courage and Commitment.”

Honor demands unwavering transparency in our public and private lives, responsibility for our actions on base and in the community 24 hours a day, respect for the dignity of each human being, and the highest decorum of professionalism in our Chain of Command.  In a word, honor means being a person of unshakable scruples and irreproachable character.  The famed UCLA Coach John Wooten remarked, “The truest test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”  Yet in a day of ever pervasive social media, someone is always watching.  In reaching the right choices by being honorable, we need never fear who is watching.   

Courage is the strength to be an individual of integrity, even in the face of personal and professional adversity.Courage may entail standing up and speaking against what is morally wrong whether that is discrimination, fraternization, or an unlawful order.  Courage is saying what people need to hear and not necessarily what they want to hear.  Courage is refusing the path of least resistance and enduring the hardships of mission accomplishment on deployment and in garrison.  Admiral Nimitz observed in the Marines’ offensive at the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II:  “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Applied to contemporary settings, uncommon valor might mean among other things: telling the truth despite the consequences, being loyal to friends and family without betraying bedrock principles, putting others before one’s own personal interests, and making wise decisions for long term gain in spite of short term sacrifices.  Many years ago, a sage Master Chief advised the graduating class of ITs that when we have a choice at the crossroads, the most difficult path is generally the best decision.  From the words of old, it is the straight and narrow path that leads to life.  The American poet Robert Frost added, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”  In ethical quandaries when we must choose between competing courses of action, the best choice is usually the one marked by sacrifice and delayed gratification.  In agreement, Helen Keller noted, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”  

Commitment is the execution of orders, excellence in job performance, perseverance under duress, and a dogged attitude. When it comes to lawfully directed tasks, commitment does not back out, back up, or back down under pressure.  Commitment adopts a spirit of unstoppable determination as exemplified in the motivational quote by Lieutenant General “Chesty” Puller at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War: "They are in front of us, behind us, and we are flanked on both sides by an enemy that outnumbers us 29:1. They can't get away from us now!"  This is the moral power of commitment to adapt and overcome insurmountable odds.  Virtually nothing can stop us if we have commitment.  Not marital discord, financial difficulties, alcohol abuse, or personality conflicts on the job can get the better of us if we have honor, courage, and commitment working for us.

In a word, the core values of the Fleet Marine Forces leverage the necessary moral fortitude to meet the challenges of headline news in the military today.  The reinforcement of these virtues in training evolutions, sea stories, and battlespaces promises the recovery of our moral focus.  The spirit of the Marine Corps motto Semper Fidelis emphasizes that we are to be “always faithful” to honor, courage, and commitment in making the right choices for the right reasons at the right times. And standing by those reasonable and responsible choices reflects a strength of character and a discipline of action that support the priority of ethics in the military.  The Navy Ethos upholds the priority of ethics with the simple but unforgettable norm: “Integrity is the foundation of our conduct.”  The ancient philosopher Socrates in Plato’s Republic reminds us of ethics’ relevancy then and now: “We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live.”  Ethics assumes the minimal baseline of the law yet exceeds the basic standards of common decency and informs “how we ought to live” in accord with the noblest ideals known to humankind.  Living every day with honor, courage, and commitment is the inspirational calling of ethics that will unquestionably make for a better Profession of Arms and thus a safer world.

*CREDO was established in 1971 as a Navy program facilitated by Chaplains to help enhance the quality of life for military members and their families through effective life skills and strategies by way of inspirational retreats, workshops, and classes.

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