The two words “morals” and “ethics” have originally the same meaning, “morals” being derived from the Latin “mores” and “ethics” from the Greek “ethos”. The meaning is identical: custom. Moral and ethics are what we are accustomed to do when we act responsibly as men of honour.

However, in many modern languages, morals tend to deal with concrete questions and cases, whereas ethics deal with the principles or main lines. We will start with ethics in this sense of the word.

Good and evil

When we teach ethics we wish to train people’s consciousness of good and evil. We may use other terms as well, as negative and positive, creative and destructive, but the reality that is intended is identical. All the sets of terms have one common characteristic: they are terms of relationship. They do not stand for themselves, they only get their meaning by being terms of realities above and below themselves. When we speak about something as good, this term has a substance only when related to a supreme or highest good.

Let me take a political example. In Finnish politics national independence has for a long time been the supreme good. All that serves national independence is thus good. All that undermines national independence is evil. During the Second World War volunteers from Finnish-speaking groups inside the Soviet Union and from the Baltic States were recruited to form what was called Heimopataljoona. This was, from a Finnish point of view, good as it served the national independence of Finland. In the armistice agreement of 1944 the Finns were however obliged to extradite Heimopataljoona to the Soviet Union. The Finnish army and police executed this. The armistice agreement and its execution doubtless served the national independence of Finland. It was thus something good, whereas resistance or assistance to deserters from Heimopataljoona should be considered as evil. This view was, however, not commonly held in Finland. Many did help soldiers from Heimopataljoona to pass the Swedish border.

Why did they do so? They did it because national independence is not a sufficiently important value to be the supreme good. There is something above national independence, which spoke to the consciences of many Finns and made them act contrary to the interests of national independence. It became clear to them that we have a responsibility for those who are our brothers-in-arms, that we may not betray those who have risked their lives for us. If we do this, we will lose our human dignity and then everything will be meaningless, including national independence.

What then is the supreme good above such values as national independence? The question of the supreme good is the most difficult of all philosophical questions in the history of mankind. Adam Smith would say material well-being and personal liberty; Karl Marx would say class-less society. When we view these answers, it becomes clear, that they all are at the same level as national independence, and this level is not superior enough. There is in man an inner compass, which untiringly seeks something above: God. Indeed, it is in the long run unimportant what rules or regulations we enforce, if the inner compass does not show the direction of the supreme good. It is not necessary that all men should have God in view to act rightly, but the inner compass must show the direction of truth, goodness and responsibility, that is, the direction of the Supreme Good.

The moral direction and rules

During the history of mankind many sets of rules have been formulated in order to make concrete the signals of the inner compass. The most well-known are the Ten commandments, where the first three deal with the  relationship to God and the seven following with relationships amongst people. In both cases it should be a relation of respect. The Ten commandments were summarised by Christ in the Golden Rule: “All you want men to do to you, you should do to them.” The Golden Rule has penetrated deeply into the mind of Western culture. It is the pattern on the most elementary rules of military conduct, such as:

Always notify your subordinate if you must cancel his orders; Never give orders to anyone who is a subordinate of another; Never correct a subordinate in the presence of others; Never protest of the conduct of a superior in the presence of others. The first two of these rules have to do with authority. No officer would accept to have his authority undermined, which is what happens when a superior cancels his orders without his knowledge or when another officers interferes with his field of authority. The second two rules have to do with honour.  It may be necessary to correct a subordinate or to protest against the behaviour of a superior, but when this is done in the presence of others the person is humiliated, and humiliation implies a loss of honour.  No officer would accept to be deprived of his honour, neither can we expect that men who have been humiliated should act well together in the field.

Let us test how this rule works in the case of Heimopataljoona. If Marshal Mannerheim, President of Finland, had been a soldier of Heimopataljoona, he would not have wanted to be expelled to the Soviet Union. Was his signature on the armistice agreement thus immoral? Here we enter into one of the most crucial ethical questions. Mannerheim was as Supreme Commander responsible for the lives of the soldiers of Heimopataljoona. As president he was however responsible for all people of Finland. If we suggest, that the armistice agreement would not have been reached without the expulsion of Heimopataljoona, the result would have been an occupation of Finland, with consequences for the entire nation. Mannerheim chose the lesser evil – the expulsion of Heimopataljoona – to avoid the occupation of Finland, which to his view was the greater evil. In the case of Heimopataljoona, he did not act according to the Golden Rule, in the case of Finland he did.

To take such a decision is a heavy step, and before it is taken it should always be remembered that it will bring a heavy burden of guilt to those who make the decision and are served thereby. This burden of guilt is something for which new generations will have to atone for long time, if unity and confidence between those affected could ever be reached.


Another formulation of the basic moral attitude may be expressed thus: “Life becomes meaningful to the extent that it is a life for others.” A life totally centred one’s the own ego becomes empty of meaning. It would make no difference if this life had not been lived. It does not contribute anything to the rest of the world. The meaninglessness of such a life may in the end become apparent even to the person in question himself. This rule is, however, not only adequate with respect to life as such; it has also validity in view of every single decision or action. I will mention one example from the Vietnam War. Mr Bruce Kittleson, who has been training army chaplains in Estonia, told me that his father had once been ordered to shoot North Vietnamese prisoners. Mr Kittleson Sr. was at that time a master sergeant. He refused to shoot them and went all the way up to the division commander until it was agreed that his refusal was correct. His motive was that he and his subordinates were not terrorists but soldiers.

The difference between soldiers and terrorists is that the soldier uses a restricted measure of violence to establish or save law and order in or between nations, whereas the terrorist uses unrestricted violence in order to create fear that leads to subjection. No doubt, an execution of the prisoners might have passed unnoticed due to the chaotic situation, but Mr Kittleson Sr. took the conflict with his superiors nevertheless. A conflict with superiors is a serious matter in all organisations, including the military. Mr Kittleson Sr. disregarded this difficulty. His own situation mattered less to him than the lives of the prisoners, who had recently been his enemies. His decision not only saved their lives; it was also a contribution to the re-establishment of international law within his unit. “Life becomes meaningful to the extent that it is a life for others.


Let us now test the decision of Mr Kittleson Sr. with respect to a second rule: “Good actions grow out of good intentions.” In this case Mr Kittleson’s intention was good and courageous. In another case the intention might have been evil; if – for example – a sergeant major recognises that his platoon-commander has given an unlawful order and the subordinate notifies his superiors in order to injure the platoon-commander. On the other hand good intention is not enough; good judgement and knowledge must guide it. Later, Mr Kittleson Sr. was sent with paratroopers to rescue the American prisoners in Hanoi. The action was successful in every respect, except that the prisoners had been removed from the camp were the paratroopers were landed. The intention of the supreme leadership was no doubt good, but it lacked verdict and knowledge and the action brought no result but the loss of brave men.


The third test is the following: “A good action has the characteristic  that the consequences are good if all act in the same way.” This rule applies very well to the case of Mr Kittleson Sr. If all subordinates refuse to shoot prisoners of war the consequences can be nothing but good. It also applies to the Hanoi action, making clear that actions without proper intelligence are evil, however good intentions are. If all in responsible position should make their decisions based on insufficient information support, the consequences cannot in all cases be good.


The fourth test is this one: “Good actions are exemplary.” They are worthy of imitation. Again we find that this rule applies to Mr Kittleson’s decision. It may be used as an example of responsible soldiership in any training all over the world. Whenever a soldier comes into a situation like that of Mr Kittleson, he may remember and follow his example.


The previous rule leads to the fifth: “Good actions are inspired by good examples.” This means, that good actions are more than imitated, they are impressed by the spirit of exemplary persons, such as Mr Kittleson Sr. Actions that are but imitated often lack solidity and endurance. The spirit of good actions is an inner power, which enables people to adapt ethical rules to new situations and act morally.


The sixth ethical test may be expressed thus: “Family, friends and descendants can be proud of a someone’s good action.” This is clearly the case with Mr Kittleson’s refusal to shoot the prisoners. When it comes to the Hanoi action the failure of secrecy and intelligence is embarrassing to friends, family and descendants of those responsible, that lives of brave men were risked for nothing, due to inadequate intelligence. If the question is raised, friends, families and descendants cannot be proud, rather they must admit the mistake or try to defend a weak cause.


The seventh test is related to conscience, i.e. the common knowledge of good and evil: “A good action is in accordance with your conscience.” The word “conscience” signifies that which we know together – about good and evil – a knowledge that we have in common with all men and with God. Conscience is, however, a delicate and sensitive, just as a compass. If the signals of conscience are ignored, they become weaker, and if many men with weakened or silenced consciences act together, their lack of inner compass is likely to become the ethical norm. This was the case with Mr Kittleson’s superiors below the division commander. Why then was Mr Kittleson himself not affected by this silencing of conscience? An apparent answer would be that he was a convinced Christian and had managed to retain his relationship to God – the Supreme Good – even in the chaotic circumstances of the end of the Vietnam War.

But how are we then to judge the actions of Finns, who assisted soldiers of Heimopataljoona to escape? We have already reflected on the ethical dilemma of Marshal Mannerheim, who had or may have believed himself to have the choice between co-operation with the Soviet Union or occupation. If we assume this to be the situation, his signature on the decision to expel Heimopataljoona may in a very difficult way have been in accordance with his conscience. He chose the lesser evil to avoid the greater, thereby putting a burden of guilt on himself and on his nation: the betrayal of faithful brothers-in-arms. But the individual Finns, who did not share his total responsibility for the nation, were in a situation where they could follow the demands of their consciences to assist those who had risked their lives for Finland. The next dilemma is nonetheless, that if this attitude had been generally accepted and all the soldiers of Heimopataljoona had escaped, the authority of Marshal Mannerheim would have been so severely undermined, that the value of the armistice agreement might have been questioned. The case of Heimopataljoona shows how extremely difficult ethical questions may become on the level of great responsibility. This does not mean that ethical reflection is meaningless, it rather underlines how necessary it is and that responsibility always follows decisions and actions.

Responsibility denotes response. I must be able to respond, i.e. to answer for my decisions and actions. I have always to respond before superiors and subordinates, before ancestors and descendants, before friends and foes, before my own conscience and before God. Responsibility is the backbone of ethics and moral decisions.


The ethical dilemma of Marshal Mannerheim was extremely difficult, the ethical question put to Mr Kittleson Sr was principally clear in principle but in practice difficult due to the chaotic situation and the lack of support from his superiors.

We will now see the matter from the viewpoint of a superior who notices unethical attitudes and actions among his subordinates. Every organisation that values ethical standards, i.e. human dignity, is aware of how necessary it is to have a system of signals that denotes what the organisation perceives as good and evil. This system of signals goes all the way from words of recognition or rebuke to distinguished honours or punishments. Even on low levels a system of ethical signals must be in function in order to develop the ethical standards of the unit. Otherwise the ethics will quickly decay.

We shall now deal with three ethical examples from the viewpoint of the superior, who has a major responsibility for the ethical standard of the unit.

  1. At a rapid deployment battalion (24h), the doctor, captain A, the officer second-in-command, major B and a vehicle are noticed to have disappeared when the first meal is served 7 hours after mobilisation has started. After three hours they appear again. The commander summons them, and it turns out that they disliked the food and have had a good dinner at the local inn. How is the incident to be dealt with by the battalion commander?
  2. The repair troop has got two sets of special tools for armoured vehicles. One of them has been lost. The company commander has not been able to get it back. He calls for the assistance of the battalion commander. When he arrives he finds the soldiers remarkably indifferent to the loss. What should the battalion commander do?
  3. A company commander finds that a platoon commander has registered himself for ten hours service. He has not been in service during that time. What lines of action are appropriate?
  4. The psyops-specialist from the regional headquarter, captain C., is sent to train the  cadet-company of the regiment. The cadets have asked for this training. The company commander has ordered a car from the transport-unit to pick him up at the railway-station 20 km away at 7.05. The commander of the transport unit protests about the order to the battalion commander, who cancels the order without letting the company commander know. When capt C. arrives at the railway station no car is there. When he calls the regiment he is told to take the bus, which leaves at 11.30. Then the time for the psyops-training is up. Capt C. returns to the regional headquarters.  The next day two fathers – reserve officers of the regiment – make inquiries about the incident.  How should the company commander act in relation to the battalion commander?


In treating case 1-3 three stages of correction should it be observed:

  1. The superior commander should have all possible facts. He must be well prepared and solidly convinced of his own judgement of the case. His sources of information must be trustworthy. He must be calm, have time and be well balanced. Correction in anger is likely to create new problems and undermine the authority of the commander.
  2. His first task is to convince the men in question of their mistake. In doing so, he can use the seven tests of ethics given above.
  3. Open or close the door. If the commander is successful in convincing the men of their mistake, the door to future reliance and status should be opened. Not the mistake, but that happens after the mistake indicates the quality of a man. If, on the other hand, the men are convicted but refuse to be convinced of their mistake or try to deceive the commander with false information, the door should be closed. The battalion commander can not leave the lives of his men into the hands of an officer or doctor that he cannot trust. If he has no choice but to continue with a doctor or second-in-command who has proved to be unreliable, he will have to make clear to them that they will be closely supervised, and that they will have to exert all their resources to win the confidence of the commander and the men anew.
The author is Dr and former chaplain of 12th infantry brigade and 2nd Engineers.


[1]  Lecture hold at  Baltic Defence College, Tartu, 2001

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