PhD Defence Miriam de Graaff

Moral Forces Interpreting ethical challenges in Military Operations

This dissertation increases our knowledge on ethical decision-making (EDM) in terms of moral assessment by examining how military professionals interpret ethically challenging situations, addressing both deliberate and unintentional psychological mechanisms that contribute to this process, the responses that are associated with moral assessment, and the relationships between them. In short, the following overarching, central question formed the foundation of this dissertation:

How do military professionals make moral assessments of day-to-day ethical challenges during military deployment and how does this process relate to individual responses to those ethical challenges? To answer this central question four sub-questions that define the focus of each study more specifically have been formulated. In each empirical study, different variables of interest that came forward as issues of interest from the review study are addressed. The review study is presented in Chapter 2.

Systematic Review of Moral Judgment Research within the Military. What aspects of moral judgment, and moral assessment in particular, have been studied previously in a military context, and what avenues for further exploration follow this systemic review?  In Chapter 2, a review study is described providing an overview of current empirical research conducted within a military context regarding moral judgment. A sensitive search of online databases was conducted and 33 relevant empirical studies published in ISI journals between 1985 and 2013 were identified. The systematic review revealed conceptual, methodological and contextual issues. Regarding the conceptual issues, the analysis of these 33 publications shows that the majority of the studies used a cognitive rather than an affective or integrative (combined) approach to moral judgment. As is the case with moral judgment research in other disciplines, the affective and the integrative approach are both relatively new and are increasingly receiving scientific attention. Moreover, within the cognitive approach, there has been almost no study of situational characteristics - i.e. specific features of the ethical issue itself such as moral intensity (for an exception, see Seiler, Fischer & Voegtli, 2011). Regarding the methodology used in these studies, the review shows that most research uses interviews or surveys about hypothetical situations to question military officers (e.g., Olsen, Pallesen & Eid, 2010) and/or includes case studies (e.g., Reger, Etherage, Reger & Gahm, 2008). The true events that have been studied, concentrated primarily on incidents (such as Abu Ghraib, e.g., Bartone, 2010) focusing on moral transgressions rather than on ethical challenges themselves. Lower-ranking servicemen, those who actually find themselves in combat situations and the operations themselves, are systematically overlooked in studies of moral judgment processes in the military. Furthermore, studies conducted in the U.S. military tend to dominate the field. Since over a period of almost 30 years, a modest amount of only 33 empirical studies could be identified, and taken together with the other insights, this study highlights the fact that further empirical research in this field is required.

 Moral Identity in Moral Judgment How do military personnel construct their moral identity in relation to the ethical challenges of military operations, and how does this relate to verbalized moral disengagement? In Chapter 3, a theoretical framework was introduced regarding moral identity and moral disengagement. Although moral character has been prominent in moral judgment literature, there has been almost no empirical study of moral identity (cf. Walker, 2004). We used Blasi’s (1983) self-model of moral functioning, as a starting point.

The model integrates moral cognition and moral personality in order to explain moral behavior (cf. Walker, 2004). It consists of three sub-categories: 1) the moral self, 2) the individual’s sense of personal responsibility, and 3) self-consistency (Blasi, 1983; Walker, 2004). Blasi argues that one’s moral identity is strongly intertwined with selective disengagement processes since individuals are prone to maintain their perceived self-integrity (Walker, 2004). This psychological mechanism of withdrawing from one’s personal standards of what is morally acceptable is referred to as moral disengagement (Bandura, 1999).

We explored the construction of the servicemen’s moral identity in relation to ethical challenges encountered in military operations. We also explored the relationship between moral identity and verbalized moral disengagement. Semi-structured interviews with 45 servicemen were content-coded and analyzed. The results point at three patterns. The first pattern shows that a higher ethical awareness of moral challenges in the situation (i.e. a stronger moral identity and a higher awareness of ethical challenges) evokes more justifications for one’s own behavior; this pattern was observed regardless of rank.

The second pattern we found suggests that leaders (officers as well as NCOs) display more proneness towards moral identity than their followers. This is reflected by significantly higher scores on all elements of moral identity. This can be explained by the fact that they receive more extensive ethics education than their subordinates. Also, the leaders’ sense of proactive personal responsibility is significantly higher, which arguably follows from the duties connected to their role. Moreover, leaders score higher on self-consistency.

The third pattern showed that critical self-reflection and self-assessment (measured in self-consistency) are relatively underreported even though moral identity is quite prominent in the servicemen regardless of their rank. These results may hint at the strong urge of individuals to maintain a positive self-image (Kaufman, 1974): When individuals are well aware of the ethical dimensions of the situations they find themselves in, they may also be more sensitive to their own roles in those situations. So, when their actions run counter their personal beliefs of being a ‘good person’ they tend to use response strategies like moral disengagement in order to maintain their sense of ‘good self’. That could point to a possible drawback of fostering a strong moral identity.

Emotional Reactions in Moral Judgment. What different types of ethical challenges are military personnel confronted with on a day-to-day basis during deployment, and how do these types relate to perceived emotions and the response strategies moral disengagement, numbing and relativism? The study described in Chapter 4 explored the association between different types of morally challenging situations during military deployment and response strategies (e.g. moral justification), and how they are fueled by emotions. To develop our theoretical framework, we integrated insights from research on moral emotions (e.g., Haidt, 2001), moral numbing (e.g., Lifton, 1973), ethical relativism (e.g., Whetham, 2008) and moral disengagement (e.g., Bandura, 1999). In this study, the same 45 narratives that were used in chapter 3 were content-coded and analyzed in terms of the type of interaction, the perceived emotions (i.e. other-condemning emotions, other-suffering emotions, other-praising emotions, self-conscious emotions) and responses (i.e. relativism, moral disengagement and numbing). Team-related challenges were described most, followed by local-cultural challenges. In terms of their responses, the participating servicemen indicated they experienced other-condemning emotions following a moral challenge most often and reported using relativism most often.

Moral justification, relativism and numbing showed a strong correlation with local cultural and work-related ethical challenges. Other-condemning emotions (i.e. anger, contempt and disgust) proved to have a mediating effect on the relationship between local cultural ethical challenges and relativism, and on the relation between moral justification and local culture/work-related ethical challenges. This study suggests that the contexts influence the specific response strategies that are evoked. The results also show that it is relevant to take notion of emotions, in particular other condemning emotions, as they shape military reactions to occurring ethical challenges.


Sensemaking Tactics in Moral Judgment. How is the moral intensity of an ethical challenge related to the likelihood of employment of certain sensemaking tactics in military professionals during military operations? In the third and final empirical study, reported in Chapter 5, we considered moral assessment from a unique integrative perspective: that is, we addressed specifically how individuals make sense of ethical challenges that differ in moral intensity, such as the harmfulness (to a larger group of people), the likeliness to occur, and the direct impact on or personal relevance for the decision-maker (Jones, 1991). For this, we followed the person-situation interactionist approach suggested by Treviño (1986) by exploring the sensemaking tactics in the moral assessment of a situation. The tactics that we used encompass four broad categories that are in line with existing research in this field: emotion regulation, forecasting, self-reflection, and information integration (cf. Brock et al., 2008; Thiel, Bagdasarov, Harkrider, Johnson & Mumford, 2012). Emotion regulation refers to the collection of tactics that deal with downgrading emotional overwhelming. Forecasting refers to the extent wherein individuals anticipate the consequences of different alternate actions. Self-reflection is the category that encompasses tactics that show active awareness of personal biases and moral reflection upon the situation at hand. The final category information integration refers to tactics that help individuals to collect and analyze available information such as seeking outside help.

Two prototypical ethical challenges (one low and one high in moral intensity) from military deployment – drawn from interview material of earlier studies – were selected and presented to 325 active duty military personnel in a questionnaire. The results show that less attention goes out to higher level critical thinking in the decision making process when the intensity is high. Also, those who had experienced more than one deployment, seemed to exhibit a certain degree of numbing as those servicemen consider the situations as less intense as their less experienced colleagues. These results seem to suggest that although servicemen need to give room for thorough consideration and deliberation when considering ethical challenges, this ‘capacity’ can be further enhanced. The findings described in this chapter add to those of chapter 3 pointing out the relevance of increased attention for individual reflexivity and critical thinking in situations that require such competencies.

Ethical Challenges. Upon completion of the empirical studies, we were able to make a categorization of morally challenging situations. As ethical challenges always involve an intrapersonal “clash” of values caused by an interaction with others, we categorized the ethical challenges described by the servicemen according to the type of ‘others’ involved in the situation. We could identify three broad types of morally challenging interactions:

  1. Ethical challenges as a result of interactions with individuals with a different cultural background (e.g., personal norms vs. norms of the local population, for example regarding punishment of children)
  2. Ethical challenges that are work related
    1. and have to do with one’s own troops, or unit (e.g., loyalty towards fellow soldiers vs. obedience to ROE or staff orders)
    2. or result from cooperation with coalition partners with different norms and standards (e.g., personal norms vs. others’ norms, for example regarding dealing with prisoners)
  3. Ethical challenges resulting from interactions with the home front (e.g., doubting what personal experiences to share in order to protect relatives)

Final remarks. To conclude, profound lessons from military operations in the past few decades have taught us that moral dimensions cannot be removed from the operational field (De Graaff & Van den Berg, 2010). It would be unrealistic to believe that military personnel do not encounter situations that are challenging in moral terms when they are involved in military operations where they find themselves in continuous social interactions with individuals from other cultural backgrounds, the home front and fellow servicemen. Moral competence is therefore not only desirable: it is mandatory. Consequently, gaining insight in how the initial interpretations of difficult situations come into being during an individual’s moral assessment is vital. The most important conclusions of this dissertation are that ethical challenges are present on a day-to-day basis for all military ranks, and that both individual and situational characteristics influence individual moral assessment. It is not as simple as ‘taking’ the moral high ground: this dissertation shows that moral assessment depends on more than just an on/off switch. It demands developing and nurturing individual moral competence in order for military personnel to learn to adequately deal with situations that they are not prepared for and where interpretations are influenced by psychological mechanisms such as moral disengagement, emotions or perceived moral intensity. I consider it an organizational duty for the military leadership to facilitate its personnel by noting lessons from previous deployments and to support servicemen both during deployment and afterwards when they are processing the often intense and sometimes tragic ethical challenges. Taken together, the studies described in this dissertation are one more step on the path to understanding the ethical decision-making process in complex environments.