—EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 2.9.13–14
When I was in the ACSC leadership Department we spent an inordinate amount of time—as a team—pondering how do we add an experiential aspect to our leadership curriculum. This is something I ponder when it comes to ethics.
We use that word all the time—ethics.
It would seem that if we asked someone… are you an ethical person?—the obvious answer is—OF COURSE I AM! … probably true–until you are not.
Simply defined—ethics is moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.
Many times we struggle with even thinking about ethics—it has all become so muddied now. What ethics/principles? Who’s principles? Jesus’s, Moses’s, Aristotle’s, Buddha’s? And ultimately, we are all probably pretty bad at ethics—we struggle with it daily, but we don’t want to admit it.
Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.
Ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime.
Three major areas of study within ethics recognized today are:
Meta-ethics, concerning the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions, and how their truth values (if any) can be determined
Normative ethics, concerning the practical means of determining a moral course of action
Applied ethics, concerning what a person is obligated (or permitted) to do in a specific situation or a particular domain of action
We glance at the news—and everyday it seems we see some sort of ethical issue—in the military there are several firings a week for individuals that violate the military ethics system. Just recently there were several commanders fired and yet another massive cheating scandal at the US Air Force Academy. I think the question comes down to—how do we learn, practice, and train for ethical behavior—or is it just too much of a mess now to even try?
We have come a long way using a new augmented, virtual reality tool in our Leadership Department—where we can immerse the student in an environment where tough decisions must be made, but what about ethics? How can we educate, then practice, and train on ethics… we can use our MRLx tool to some extent—but it seems Epictetus was pondering the same issue a millennium ago. It is not simply about learning—we can read Plato, Aristotle, The Bible, all day long—but we must find a way to practice and train.
Very few people can simply watch an instructional video, take a lesson on line, or in person, hear something explained and then know, backward and forward, how to do it. Most of us actually have to do something several times in order to truly learn.
One of the hallmarks of military training, the martial arts, and athletic training of almost any kind is the hours upon hours upon hours of monotonous practice. For a pilot it can take a decade to really know, understand, and excel at his/her craft. An athlete at the highest level trains for years to perform movements that can last mere seconds—or less. The two-minute drill, how to escape from a chokehold, the perfect jumper. Simply knowing isn’t enough. It must be absorbed into muscle memory and the body. It must become part of us. Or we risk losing it the second that we experience stress or difficulty. How can we do this for ethics?
It is true with ethics and all philosophical principles—we can’t just hear something once and expect to rely on it when the world is crashing down around us. Remember, Marcus Aurelius wasn’t writing his meditations for other people. He was actively meditating for himself—practicing, learning, training. Even as a successful, wise, and experienced man, he was until the last days of his life practicing and training himself to do the right thing. Like my son Max—as a black belt, he shows up at the dojo every day to rock and roll; like a professional athlete, Marcus Aurelius still showed up to practice each week—even though others probably thought it was unnecessary.
How can we do this for our future leaders? How can we do this for ourselves?