By Aaron Bazin
Looking at how strategy and ethics intersect is not an easy task. There are many ways to look at both subjects, and one could spend a lifetime reading and reflecting upon all the finer points. Every person has their own way of looking at the issue of ethics, but ultimately each strategic thinker must responsibly apply ethics address the challenge at hand.
There are many questions a strategic thinker routinely asks, but the ethical questions are not often enumerated. To come up with some of the major ethical questions strategic thinkers should ask themselves, their teams, and those they advise, we must begin somewhere. We can justifiably assume that the typical strategic thinker is focused on identifying the morally correct course of action for practical application in the real world, or applied ethics. If we can assert that this is the case, the basic first-order question that all strategic thinkers continually wrestle with is this:
What should we do?
There are a wide-array of ethical lenses we can use to practically address this question. Fieser (2015) has described many of the ethical models philosophers ponder. If we combine our first-order question with these models, we can distill sub-questions that the strategic thinker can use to apply the major ethical models in a practical way. These questions are as follows:
▪ According to the precepts of eternal and immutable law, what should we do? (objectivism)
▪ According to what we individually think is right and wrong, what should we do? (individual relativism)
▪ What does our culture suggest that should we do? (cultural relativism)
▪ What is best for us? (egoism)
▪ What is best to display benevolence to others? (altruism)
▪ What do we feel is right emotionally? (emotive)
▪ What is right not taking into account emotion at all? (rationalism)
▪ What is our duty? (male-modeled morality)
▪ How should we act caringly in this situation? (female-modeled morality)
▪ What should we do based on what we would want done to us? (normative)
▪ Based on the traits that we wish to live by, what is proper? (virtue)
▪ What should we do to maintain a balance in our actions and avoid extremes? (golden mean)
▪ What is our duty to a higher power? What is our duty to ourselves? What is our duty to others? (Pufendorf’s duties)
▪ How can we uphold the rights of others? (moral rights)
▪ What action would treat others with dignity? (categorical imperative)
▪ Are the consequences of action more favorable than unfavorable? (consequentiality)
▪ What should we do based on rules and laws? (social-contract)
▪ What action would best benefit society? (social benefit)
▪ What action would assist others who cannot otherwise assist themselves? (paternalism)
▪ What action would prevent or reduce harm to others? (principle of harm)
▪ What action would acknowledge individual freedom? (principle of autonomy)
▪ What is fair to do? (principle of justice)
Obviously, these questions are very general in nature. If the strategic thinker is to make any use of them at all, they must go deeper. As the contextual nuances of each strategic problem differ, one should carefully consider the specific parameters at play in each case. To this, the strategic thinker must also add what they know, what they believe, and yes, even what they feel.
Asking and answering these questions is not easy, nor should it be. Strategic problems are typically complex and adaptive troublesome in and of themselves. Looking at strategy through an ethical lens can add to this complexity, but is absolutely vital. Arguably, if we fail to use some sort of ethical compass to guide our strategic thinking, then we have already lost our way.
Aaron Bazin is career Army officer with over 20 years of leadership and management experience operating at the highest levels of the Department of Defense (DoD), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), U.S. Central Command, and within the institutional Army. Operational experience includes deployments to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Qatar, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan, and Kuwait. This post is an adapted portion of his new book, Think: Tools to Build Your Mind.