Friday, June 02, 2006

New Military Ethics Program

The government announced that members of the military will take a new ethics training program. The timing of the announcement appears aimed at blunting the media coverage of the allegations of the murder of civilians in Haditha, Iraq. The timing of the development of the program, which occurred in the last couple of months, appears to be a response to the Haditha allegations before they became widely publicized.

Ethics training of adults rarely, if ever, improves the ethics of the trainees. Individuals learn their ethical principles earlier in life.

A few years ago amid concerns of low ethics among attorneys, Texas tripled the required annual ethics education for attorneys. There is no evidence that the increased ethics education has reduced the instances of unethical conduct by Texas attorneys. Even with the increased ethical education, a few lawyers steal from their clients and fail to do what they agreed to do. However, we all learned in our youth that stealing is wrong and breaking your promise is wrong. People prone to steal will do so with or without ethics training in adulthood.

Texas was not alone. Many other states also increased ethics education requirements for attorneys. Just as in Texas, there is no evidence that the increased ethics education has reduced the instances of unethical conduct by attorneys. The ethics education requirement gives the impression that something is being done, and it feels good and looks good to the public, no matter how ineffective it may be.

Whether we are discussing a profession or the military, ethics training will not change the ethics of the trainees. Members of the military know that murder is wrong. No amount of ethics training will suddenly make the few prone to do so less likely to murder innocents.

Screening the initial applicants will be more effective. Let me give you an example from my own experience. When I was preparing to take the bar exam many years ago (passing the bar exam is required before a person can practice law), I took a review course and sat near a small group of people from another law school for one session. I overheard their conversation. One of them had been caught cheating on a law school exam. Because of that, he had to request special permission from the Texas State Bar to take the bar exam. If the State Bar permits known cheaters to practice law, why should we be surprised when lawyers cheat in the practice of law.

Similarly, screening out applicants with known ethical problems will be more effective than an ethics training program. Also, since the allegations regarding Haditha concern what happened after the group leaders were put out of action by death and injury, an even greater emphasis on discipline in basic training might have a positive effect.

A military ethics training program is not the answer.

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