What Everyone Needs to Know About Ethics

    As the Navy and the Naval Leadership and Ethics Center (NLEC) build the future of Navy leadership training under the CNO’s Leadership Continuum construct, each community is bridging the gap through training on the subject to ensure treatment of leadership and ethics is a permanent and ongoing conversation. I have the great privilege to speak to students attending the schoolhouses in the Center for Service Support Domain regularly on the subject of ethics. This edition of the Newsletter provides an opportunity to share what we strive to inculcate in our students, establishing, or in some instances reinforcing, the ethical baseline and decision making process expected of those who have raised their hand and taken the oath.

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Foundations

    Officers, enlisted personnel, and civilians share a common bond in the U.S. Navy–we took an oath and solemnly affirmed to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; and that we will bear true faith and allegiance to the same. This oath binds us from the start and makes us members of a time honored profession … the Profession of Arms. As members of this elite profession, certain things are expected. We are trusted to be experts in the profession of arms and in our specific fields. We operate with lethal force and are expected to prevail under conditions of extreme adversity … in peacetime, crisis and war. We build winning teams to deliver on this expectation and believe warfighting first accurately captures our priorities. We are regularly asked to perform complex missions and must be ready to perform, together with those we lead, anytime and anywhere. These expectations from our nation demand a trust in leaders to make right decisions … decisions based on a strong ethical foundation.

The Basics

    Ethics are standards by which an individual should act based on values. We in the Navy have three Core Values … Honor, Courage, Commitment. When we speak of values, we must remember that not all values are ethical. Honor and integrity are ethical values; happiness is not. Ethical values relate to basic fundamentals of what is right and wrong and take precedence over non-ethical values when making decisions. All Navy personnel should carefully consider ethical values when making official duty decisions, and I would argue, when making all decisions, professional and personal, on duty and off. Remember, we’re members of our profession 24/7/365.

The Primary Ethical Values

    One does not have to research too far to find the ethical values we are to exhibit, espouse and practice. They can be found in the Joint Ethics Regulation and are:

• Honesty–truthful, straightforward and candid

• Integrity–being faithful to one’s convictions

• Loyalty–fidelity, faithfulness, allegiance

• Accountability–accept responsibility for actions

• Fairness–open-mindedness and impartiality

• Caring–compassion is essential

• Respect–treat others with dignity

• Promise Keeping–only make commitments you are authorized to make; and keep them

• Responsible Citizenship–civic duty to exercise discretion

• Pursuit of Excellence–Competence is only the starting point; strive beyond mediocrity

    The above values dovetail with Honor, Courage and Commitment. Honor speaks to honesty, integrity, fulfilling one’s obligations, and accountability. Courage is described by decision making in the best interest of the nation and Navy without regard to personal consequences, and adhering to higher standards of decency and personal conduct. Commitment is described with words such as respect, dignity, and exhibiting the highest degree of moral character, technical excellence, quality and competence in what we have been trained to do.

What are Ethics?

    With the Navy Core Values and principal ethical values as our guides, a quick discussion of what ethics are not, and what ethics are, is in order. A recent survey asking what ethics means resulted in the following responses:

• Ethics has to do with what my feelings tell me is right or wrong

• Ethics has to do with my religious beliefs

• Being ethical is doing what the law requires

• Ethics consists of the standards of behavior our society accepts

• I don’t know what the word means

    The survey concluded the meaning of “ethics” is hard to pin down and the views many people have about ethics are shaky, and therefore many don’t like to discuss ethics. Addressing the survey responses provides the following for consideration.

• Feelings–Being ethical is clearly not a matter of following one’s feelings. A person following his or her feelings may recoil from doing what is right. In fact, feelings frequently deviate from what is ethical.

• Religion–Nor should one identify ethics with religion. Most religions advocate high ethical standards, but if ethics were confined to religion, then ethics would apply only to religious people. But ethics apply as much to the behavior of atheists as to the devoutly religious. Religion can set high ethical standards and can provide intense motivations for ethical behavior. However, ethics cannot be confined to religion nor is it the same as religion.

• Law–The law often incorporates ethical standards to which most citizens subscribe, but laws, like feelings, can deviate from what is ethical. A couple of examples include U.S. pre-Civil War slavery laws and the old apartheid laws of South Africa.

• Whatever Society Accepts–In any society, most people accept standards that are, in fact, ethical. But standards of behavior in society can deviate from what is ethical. In fact, an entire society can become ethically corrupt. Nazi Germany is a good example of a morally corrupt society. If being ethical were doing “whatever society accepts,” then to find out what is ethical, one would have to find out what society accepts. To decide what someone should think about (place your favorite debatable topic here), you would have to take a survey of American society and then conform your beliefs to whatever society accepts (by simple majority or a preponderance of society). But, the lack of social consensus on many issues makes it impossible to equate ethics with whatever society accepts. If being ethical were doing whatever society accepts, one would have to find an agreement on issues which does not, in fact, exist.

    So, what, then, are ethics? First, ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues.

Standards

• that impose reasonable obligations to refrain from rape, stealing, murder, assault, slander, and fraud;

• that enjoin virtues of honesty, compassion, and loyalty;

• relating to rights, such as the right to life, the right to freedom from injury, and the right to privacy;

    Such standards are adequate standards of ethics because they are supported by consistent and well-founded reasons. Secondly, ethics refers to the study and development of one’s ethical standards. As mentioned, feelings, laws, and social norms can deviate from what is ethical. So it is necessary to constantly examine one’s standards to ensure that they are reasonable and well-founded.

    So, ethics means the continuous effort of studying our moral beliefs and moral conduct, and striving to ensure that we, and the institutions we help to shape, live up to standards that are reasonable and solidly-based. Which returns us to the direction that we must constantly strive to exhibit and use Navy Core Values and principle ethical values in our conduct and decision making.

Ethical Decision Making

    The Joint Ethics Regulation describes a 10–step method to making tough decisions. Virtually everyone makes job related decisions. Some may seem more important, but all should be preceded by consideration of ethics. Decisions may have no ethical ramifications, but some may require in–depth ethical analysis, and some may have clear cut ethical rules that apply. Where ethical rules exist, the decision is simple and compliance is the key. All hands must abide by ethical rules codified in our various instructions, regulations and directives … even when no one is watching! But for those tough decisions, the following steps are recommended.

•Define the Problem

• Identify the Goals

• List Applicable Laws/Regs

• List Ethical Values at Stake

• Name All Stakeholders

• Gather Additional Info

• State Feasible Solutions

• Eliminate Unethical Options

• Rank Remaining Solutions

• Commit and Implement

    You may wonder why some of the above are italicized. In teaching decision making, and to avoid any attempts to memorize all 10 steps, I simplified into four steps: Know (when you’re in an ethical dilemma); Research; Seek (advice); Commit (to your decision).

    The above fundamentals and decision making process is taught from the newest Sailors (Apprentice Schools and the Supply Corps Basic Qualification Course) through ‘C’ Schools, the Supply Officer Department Head Course (SODHC) and the Senior Supply Officer Department Head Course (SRSODHC).

    In the Advanced Management Program (AMP), I have the opportunity to teach and discuss classical decision making frameworks. Students elect the framework they feel is best to tackle an ethical decision process they are confronted with and then brief their classmates. AMP currently challenges their students in this manner and the feedback received has been very positive.

    In closing, I ask all to make ethics and right decision making a permanent and ongoing conversation so we teach those who will follow in the great traditions we have had the opportunity to be a part of. As Rear Adm. Jonathan Yuen, Commander, Naval Supply Systems Command and Chief of Supply Corps, recently stated in a speech I had the opportunity to hear, our task is to “teach our future leaders to embrace our core values of ethical decision making, integrity, accountability, and respect for all. If ever there was a time to emphasize moral excellence, this would be the time. Moral excellence must be a constant theme throughout all that we do and say.”

By Capt. Mark Murphy, SC, USN, Commanding Officer, Center for Service Support (CSS)