Questioning Military #Professionalism

On a rainy day in January I was doing what I usually do in the month of January: preparing for my philosophy class (Military Ethics) by picking the brains of smart and experienced people on Twitter about the class topic for the day. Like all good ideas, I appropriated this strategy from fellow military ethicist Rebecca Johnson, who hosted a military ethics discussion on Twitter with the hash tag #METC. I posed some questions about whether the military was a ‘profession’ and if it was, how that shapes ethical values. What followed was an energetic discussion that I mostly moderated, without weighing in — as is my practice in class.

To provide some context for the other posts in this series that stemmed from my questions, I want to provide some context — in other words, why I think they are important and some of my own thoughts to further the discussion.

First, why think about the military as a ‘profession’ and what does that mean? I am not asking whether members of the military can display a sense of ‘professionalism,’ that is doing your job well and in accordance with certain basic standards. When I refer to a ‘profession,’ I have some quite specific traits in mind:

  1. A body of expert knowledge, on which basis,
  2. the public accords certain privileges in exchange for,
  3. an understanding that the members of the profession will self-regulate and,
  4. operate for the common or public good.

Historically medicine, law and the clergy were the main professions that fit this bill.

However, another piece here is that the ‘professions’ also have their own code of ethical conduct that is generated based upon the nature and identity of the profession. It is not happenstance that medical professionals claim, “Do No Harm” as an ethical principle; it comes from the very identity of their profession as healers. To talk about the military as a profession is to say that the ethical values (and not simply the laws and procedures to which military members are subject) are generated from the identity and nature of the profession, that is they are not merely contingent or happenstance, but evolve necessarily and organically from the nature of that profession. Loyalty and courage (for example), are not virtues or traits that might be replaced with any other traits; these are essential to being a member of the military and one cannot be a good member of the military and fulfill one’s role without them.

An implication here is that these ethical values do not change as technology changes or as the conditions in which the profession practices changes (even if application changes), because they are rooted in the basic tasks, function and self-regulated understanding of that community of professionals. This provides a certain kind of rootedness and consistency that we can observe across time, and to some degree across culture and context. Being a medical professional means to heal, to be a member of the clergy means to represent and bring the presence of the divine and administer the community of faith in ways that we can recognize as having a great deal of consistency.

In the discussion and subsequent postJill Russell raised an interesting point about whether all members of the military are truly members of the profession in this sense. It might seem that the officer corps and possibly non-commissioned officers fit this description, but what about the private on the ground or the lowest level of military member? Doesn’t it seem more like that they are doing a job, for which they are trained and paid?

I take the question to be a more prescriptive or aspirational claim: we ought to think of the military profession in this way; this is the best way to think of the military and its role in society.

Her point raises an important distinction that I think is critical to the discussion. In my view, to ask this question is not a matter of whether it describes some empirical reality of military service in the 21st century. If this is the question, it’s a short discussion and the answer is no, the military is not a profession. I take the question to be a more prescriptive or aspirational claim: we ought to think of the military profession in this way; this is the best way to think of the military and its role in society. But why does this distinction matter? What is at stake in this debate?

If we think about the military as a profession as an aspiration or prescription/goal towards which to work, we can acknowledge two things. First, that the development of the military as a profession, as with other professions, is a work in progress and that the community must continually reflect on their profession, discuss their identity, function and the ethical standards that go with that identity, as well as inculcate new members into this context. In this process, there must be room for questions, critical questioning and reassessing of this identity and the ethical values that derive from it.

Second, it means that the ethical values of the military are rooted and grounded in a way that is fundamentally different than the ethical values of other vocations or jobs, like business, fashion, or child care. If the military is a profession, then the ethical values of the military must be grounded in the nature and identity of the military as a profession.

As for the Professor, I am inclined to think that, the military is in fact a profession (aspirationally) with the trust of the public, tasked with protecting the American homeland and interests by bringing war waging expertise to bear on that function, having been given license to kill and destroy property (amongst other things). There are rigorous and specific requirements for admission and certification to be a member of the profession and the military largely self-regulates with its own justice system to which members are subject and its own ethical code. The new challenges which the military faces, the new contexts in which they wage war, necessitate on-going and critical discussions about the nature and identity of the profession and the ethical values that derive from the profession.


Dr. Pauline Shanks Kaurin holds a PhD in Philosophy from Temple University, Philadelphia and is a specialist in military ethics, just war theory, social and political philosophy, and applied ethics. She is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA and teaches courses in military ethics, warfare, business ethics, and history of philosophy. Recent publications include: “When Less is not More: Expanding the Combatant/Non-Combatant Distinction;” “With Fear and Trembling: A Qualified Defense of Non-Lethal Weapons;” and Achilles Goes Asymmetrical: The Warrior, Military Ethics and Contemporary Warfare (Ashgate, 2014).


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