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What Are Military Ethics?

By Haven Esme
Updated May 23, 2024
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Military ethics are a broad set of codes and standards, both written and understood, that military members are expected to uphold. They are usually designed to guide soldiers’ actions in battle, their decision-making in the field, and their interactions with others both in their chain of command and at home. Actually defining these standards can be a little bit tricky since they tend to vary a lot by country and military. Most militaries publish their “official” codes and train their personnel when it comes to how the standards are meant to be lived into. They can include everything from leadership standards and the value of human life to appropriate sexual contact and other interpersonal details between soldiers and regimental members. Violating the code, even just in perception, usually leads to some sort of disciplinary action.

Where They’re Learned

In most cases, servicemen and women learn about the ethical standards that apply to their service as soon as they enroll in the military. During military training, often called “boot camp,” there are certain ethical guidelines that are reinforced and instilled in members. Ideas about responsibility, honor, trust, accountability, and loyalty are some of the most common.

Service members learn what these ethics mean to their military, and in most cases are required to abide by them to remain in active duty. Sometimes the standards are clearly set out in a list or other tabulation that new recruits are required to memorize and repeat on demand, but the implications are usually much more profound and wide-sweeping than simple facts to be recited. In most cases, the goal is for these principles to actually govern and shape behavior. Military ethics are usually designed to become a part of military life and become habitual standards that servicemen and women live by.

Why They Exist

One of the main reasons that militaries enact ethical standards and guides is to create uniformity not just in what soldiers do, but also when it comes to why they act at all. Codes are typically established is to help servicemen and women adhere to a single, defined standard of integrity, to ensure that conduct is legally admissible, and to promote trust among members. In many places ethical standards are captured in “creeds,” which are poetic sayings that repeatedly remind a solider of his or her necessary duties. Military creeds are considered dogma, which means that they are authoritative and are not to be disputed. Creeds are also meant to serve as a reminder that military members have an obligation to never disgrace their uniform or country.

Consequences of Violation

Ethics violations are usually treated pretty seriously by military officials, though of course a lot of this depends on the nature of the wrong-doing as well as its impacts. At the very least, the person who committed the infraction is usually subjected to reprimand; in extreme cases, he or she may face administrative consequences and may even be expelled from service. This is usually the case even if the violation wasn’t technically illegal: within the military, the code often serves as law, and violations may be treated by military courts with the same sort of reverence and weight. If the ethic that was violated also results in criminal misconduct, disciplinary action may extend into the military justice system and military members may be held accountable for any criminal activities that resulted from their action or inaction.

Jurisdictional Differences

It’s important to understand that military ethics vary from country to country. A military's ethics often reflect the same ethics of the society or nation that the military is a part of. For example, in the United States Army, the core values or ethics that members abide by are loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. These ethics form the acronym LDRSHIP, or “leadership.” This standard is by no means the same everywhere, though. Some codes of conduct that may be considered acceptable in an American military may seem unethical to another’s nation’s military system, and vice versa.

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Discussion Comments
By StormyKnight — On Jul 22, 2011

@waterhopper- Kudos for bringing out such a touchy topic area. My opinion is that it is not an ethical issue regarding gays or lesbians being in the military. I don't really think that has anything to do with military ethics.

However, I do think that they are making our nation look like one that discriminates by making the whole gay and lesbian soldier thing a big deal. I will leave it at that so to not stir the pot any more than we already have.

By WaterHopper — On Jul 21, 2011

I certainly don't want to cause a stir or be out of line in any way but I do have a concern about the military ethics. I'm not really sure that it is actually an ethical issue but it is still one of concern. Our country, with it's excellent morals and ethics, wants to tell gay and lesbian people that they cannot serve their country. In my opinion (and this is just MY opinion), that is wrong and unethical.

If an individual is willing to possibly give up their life serving our country, why does it matter what their sexual orientation is? I'm not saying that I am for it or against it. However, I am against the military making that decision and still calling themselves "ethical" and "just". The military, of all people, should stand behind the constitution in every area.

By KLR650 — On Jul 21, 2011

@Charred - What you said about your brother reflects back on how seriously ethics are taken in the military.

You said he could get a very high clearance as a civilian. I would bet this means he had a high clearance when he was in uniform as well, and those guys take their clearance very seriously.

One wrong move, even a DUI or a very small thing like a couple of bounced checks or getting caught in a bar fight can cost you your clearance, and with it your job. They go through their whole careers knowing that they have to conduct themselves to a certain standard every day, no exceptions.

This kind of mindset is what makes them so prized by employers. They have to live their ethics every day, and if they were not able to do that they would be gone before they ever got to the employer.

By Nepal2016 — On Jul 21, 2011

@hamje32 - You are certainly right, not everyone agrees on what morals and ethics should be. I think an even bigger problem that is one of basic human nature. You can teach ethics to a group of people and some people just aren't going to get it, and some will just go through the motions when somebody is watching.

This can get problematic when you have officers and their men wandering around in the field with the kind of destructive power that a military unit has. That is why standards have to be tightly maintained, and problems need to be dealt with really quickly.

By parkthekarma — On Jul 20, 2011

@Mammmood - I agree with you that retired military personnel are in high demand for leadership positions in private companies. I know I always like to hire them. For me, it is the combination of the "get it done" attitude and the ingrained sense of ethics.

My only issue with some of them is that some people who have been used to firing off orders for the last 20 years and having people instantly obey sometimes have a rough time adjusting their delivery style to a civilian audience. This doesn't happen too often, and for the most part I am very happy with my ex-military employees.

By Esther11 — On Jul 19, 2011

It has certainly been true throughout history that military codes in other countries have been different than ours. Some of the countries involved in World War II had very different codes of behavior.

Sometimes in past and present times, the military codes of other countries were similar to the ethics of the population as a whole, and some were quite different. I'm glad that today we don't embrace the philosophy of "anything's fair in love and war."

I'm really proud of our military personnel. For the most part, they adhere to the high standards of moral and ethical behavior, which makes our military successful.

By BoniJ — On Jul 19, 2011

I agree that our military needs to have strict codes of behavior. In their training, they first need to be taught so that they understand exactly what it means to be honest, responsible, loyal etc. In their upbringing, these ethical words may have had a somewhat different meaning.

Memorizing creeds is a good way to help the military remember the traits they need to adhere to. They need to have them well ingrained, because during a tense, critical crisis, they have to know what to do, quickly.

One trait that I question is courage. This trait can be defined in many ways. I don't know the specifics of military behavior code, but does courage mean you are required to throw yourself in front of your fellow soldier to save him when you would surely die?

By MrMoody — On Jul 19, 2011

@hamje32 - I don’t think that we can come to an agreement on some of the divisive social and moral issues.

However, I do believe in the basic social contract, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I think we can form a decent public policy using that as a basic framework.

As to your point about relativism, this is a philosophy shared by a few in our society but not the majority. I think that for all practical purposes it can be shoved aside.

By hamje32 — On Jul 18, 2011

@Charred - While I agree with the basic gist of what’s been said so far, I’d like to point out that the study of ethics can be a thorny one plagued by individual biases.

I don’t think that anyone would disagree with the importance of trust, loyalty, honor and other basic military codes. However, the fundamental question of what is right and wrong opens up a can of worms.

In the last few decades, some people have advanced the idea of situational ethics, arguing against absolute values and saying that right and wrong depend on the situation. I don’t personally believe that, but relativism is very much a core conviction of these people.

That’s why the study of ethics in public policy is rarely black and white. How do we come to an agreement?

By Charred — On Jul 18, 2011

@Mammmood - Yes, ethics and business are two fields of research that should be wedded in my opinion. I never majored in business so I don’t know how much they focus on ethics as part of their curriculum of study, but I’m pretty sure it’s a core component.

As to your point about the military graduates being sought out in the business world, I have a real world story to that effect.

My brother worked in the military for quite some time, doing some super secret stuff which for obvious reasons I won’t get into. When he left the military, he was in demand by IT companies that needed workers with top secret security clearance.

He was able to get the highest clearance possible from what I understand and remains in good standing with his firm. A degree can’t buy you that kind of trust.

By Mammmood — On Jul 17, 2011

I have tremendous respect for the military and the high ethical and moral standards to which they subscribe. Personally, I think that these military ethics should pervade all of our society in every way. All of our legislation should reflect a strong ethics policy.

There’s simply nothing about the ethical standards of the military that wouldn’t benefit society as a whole. But I do understand that in the military you work with a microcosm of larger society, a small group of people who are involved in life and death struggles. There’s no room for compromise or dilly-dallying.

I also think that’s the reason that people who graduate from the military are so highly sought after in the business world, especially in companies where an ethical business is a top priority.

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