The Relationship of Risk to Rules, Values, Virtues, and Moral Complexity: What We can Learn from the Moral Struggles of Military Leaders

Journal of Business Ethics 179 (3):749-766 (2022)
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Leaders are faced with ethical and moral dilemmas daily, like those within the military who must span from large-scale combat operations to security cooperation and deterrence. For businesses, these dilemmas can include social and environmental impact such as those in mining; and for governments, the social and economic impact of their decision-making in their response to COVID-19. The move by Western defence forces to align their foundational principles, policies, and “soldier” dispositions with the changing values of the countries they serve are starkly illustrative of challenges faced by all leaders. While admirable, such changes face the apparent contradiction of enhancing individual moral agency within a hierarchical organization that maintain enforceable codes of conduct. Ethical leadership theory provides aspirational goals, but lacks empirically based guidance on how to implement policies that facilitate values-based behavior. Using a discourse theory analysis of a moral dilemma vignette with Royal Australian Air Force personnel, this research identifies important aspects of agency and subject position that must be addressed if such policies are to succeed. These findings show that the potential contradiction can be addressed by acknowledging the contrasting tendency to bureaucratic process by leaders at upper levels, while lower-level leaders address moral issues by incorporating their subjectivity and making a conscious deontological choice between humanity and comrade loyalty.



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David Rooney
Macquarie University

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