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The Foundations of the Core Values in Western Ethical Theories

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The Foundations of the Core Values in Western Ethical Theories

The Foundations of the Core Values in Western Ethical Theories

Eric Wingrove-Haugland

Asst Prof of Morals and Ethics

US Coast Guard Academy

15 Mohegan Avenue

New London CT 06320

(860) 444-8368

44 Norman Dr, Gales Ferry CT 06335

I. Introduction

In the past few decades, the U.S. military services have initiated fundamental changes in their approaches to ethics, and the service academies have changed the way in which they teach ethics to future officers. The military services in general have developed "core values" which they require all members of the service to uphold. The service academies have developed academic courses in ethics which are required for all students. In this paper, I will argue that these two developments are complementary, in that the classical ethical theories which form the basis of academic courses in ethics support the specific core values of the military services.

Academic courses on ethical theory often focus on the disagreements and contrasts between various theories, in order to show students how these theories begin with different assumptions and result in different conclusions. A utilitarian and a Kantian, for example, would disagree regarding whether it is acceptable to use someone as a means to an end if doing so will result in benefits that outweigh the harm done to the individual who is used as a means. It is important for students to understand these contrasts in order to gain a clear appreciation of the ethical theories in question.

This approach, however, can easily lead students to overlook the very important fact that all of the major ethical theories agree to a very large extent regarding what actions are morally acceptable and what actions are not. As a result, students may emerge from such courses believing that ethics is all about competing theories and arguments, and that virtually any conduct can be justified by one theory or another. This, of course, is completely false; all of these theories agree on the morality of almost every action. The few instances of genuine disagreement which are sometimes highlighted for the sake of contrasting the various theories amount only to a small number of borderline cases. These cases are genuine ethical dilemmas with good arguments on both sides. Fortunately, however, they are quite rare; the vast majority of the ethical decisions which students of ethics will make do not represent genuine ethical dilemmas, in which different approaches to ethics provide different advice. Instead, they represent ethical temptations, in which all of the various theories provide the same advice and the challenge is not figuring out what the right thing to do is, but actually doing it.

As I will show, all of the traditional ethical theories agree regarding the core values of the various military services. Various ethical theories disagree regarding why the conduct which is prescribed by these core values is morally right, but they all agree that it is morally right. Similarly, different ethical theories offer different reasons as to why the conduct forbidden by these core values is morally wrong, but they all agree that it is morally wrong. The disagreements among various ethical theories concern only borderline cases in which it is unclear exactly how a core value applies to a specific situation.

The fact that all major ethical theories agree regarding that the core values are correct is important for several reasons. First, it establishes a strong moral basis for the core values themselves. These values were not simply established arbitrarily, by administrative edict; they represent a consensus, not only of the leadership of the military service, but also of the entire history of Western ethics. Second, it clarifies the role of the academic courses in ethical theories that are taught at U.S. military academies; these courses are designed to encourage students to think about why these core values are correct, and to provide students with various ways of resolving ethical dilemmas or borderline cases in which it is not clear how the core values apply. Third, it institutes a pluralistic pedagogical approach in these courses. Since all of the major ethical theories support the core values, students should be exposed to the full range of these theories. Instructors should not insist that all students accept one particular ethical theory, but should encourage students to adopt whichever of these ethical theories they find most convincing, or to create their own moral

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