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Morals Under the Gun: The Cardinal Virtues, Military Ethics, and American Society

Bibliographic Content

James H. Toner


University Press of Kentucky

Kindle, Hardback (215pgs), Paperback (240pgs)

Synopsis from Author

James Toner argues that the cardinal virtues are and must be the core values of the military. By embracing these values, the profession of arms serves as a moral compass in an increasingly confusing age. Building upon a bold introduction, which includes what many will regard as a surprising view of military ethics, Toner examines the four cardinal virtues―wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice―and places each in the context of a compelling case study from recent U.S. military history.


He discusses the Flinn Case, the Lavelle Affair, a B-52 crash in Washington State, and the courageous actions of Hugh Thompson after My Lai. Morals Under the Gun connects ethics and moral theology with the armed services, demonstrating that the task of preserving virtue, both personal and professional, is a noble, if imperfectible, task.

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Morals Under the Gun Cover.jpg
To some it seems repugnant to suggest that the values and virtues of a hierarchical, authoritarian, conservative military can serve hortatory purposes for an egalitarian, democratic, liberal society. The fundamental purpose of the military - to wage and win war - is unpleasant to a society that prefers to avert its gaze from the things and thoughts of war… These things - and hard-nosed, well-drilled competence in military skills - are their stock in trade; for without them, they are but armed thugs, mercenaries without morals. If we say that they have nothing to teach us about virtue, the tragedy is rather that we implicitly say that we have nothing to learn. The nihilists will say that nothing is worth dying for when, in fact, what they mean is that nothing beyond their own skins is worth living for. (Pg 161)

Summary of Book from War Is My Business

Morals Under the Gun: The Cardinal Virtues, Military Ethics, and American Society by James H. Toner discusses the application of traditional cardinal values for the military and American society as a whole. The author served briefly as an Army Officer. Still, after he separated, his trek through teaching in academia eventually brought him to become a professor of international relations and military ethics at the Air War College. His catholic background and service to the church also shaped his beliefs, manifesting in his writings about ethics and morals. His audience, however, includes not just those of the Christian faith but other faiths and secular persuasions that he tries his best to bridge when discussing his perspectives. Additionally, as the book was published in the year 2000 AD, as I read, I constantly had to remind myself that Toner's perspective was shaped by an environment pre-9/11 and the Global War on Terror, so many of his concerns that he writes about were either improved upon or worsened in the past 23 years. For the sake of this review, however, we will stick with the more timeless aspects of ethical applications and how his thoughts apply to both the military and the business sector.


Toner primarily focuses on the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. He discusses their religious origins, application, and benefits to society, and what he sees as the burgeoning moral decay of a society where these virtues are increasingly archaic and intolerant. Finally, he discusses the importance that these values have to military service, how to foster these virtues for our officers and noncommissioned officers, and, as the quote alludes to, how the military can serve as a moral example for the rest of society to be looked up to.


To the extent that the men and women, the ladies and gentlemen, of the profession of arms model these virtues to the rest of us, they can and should serve as moral exemplars. Their creed, their profession, learned well and lived nobly, can and should be a source of moral inspiration for a society too often beset by moral bewilderment. (pg 167)

If ethics are simply moral principles that determine how one should behave and act within a certain setting, and the cardinal virtues themselves are general ethical standards for any profession, then being able to apply prudence, justice, courage, and temperance to both the military and business should simply require a bit of reflection. Here we will discuss Toner’s position on these four virtues, how they apply to the military environment, and what value they may have to business ethics.



An essential aspect of Toner's belief in being a moral individual, that is, doing what one ought to do, is the application of knowledge to differentiate between right and wrong. With life experiences and study, an individual achieves a better understanding of how the world works and how societies function. Through reflection, we can establish a set of principles and values that guide our actions in proper ways. At any particular time, the wise or prudent individual will assess their situation and understand what they should do. Doing what one should do is learned through experience and taught by trusted mentors, parents, teachers, friends, colleagues, etc. Often, however, the most important lessons are learned through hardship.


Genuine wisdom or prudence, I fear, comes to us, much as Aeschylus wrote, not in the homely sayings found at the bottom of pages in slick magazines, but through suffering. Prudence is purchased at a high price. We learn to be prudent through the heartaches and afflictions of living… (Pg 66)


In the discussion of ethics, most people can engage in good, moral, and just actions when the situation easily allows the individual to do so. When you know what you should be doing, actually doing it can produce a sense of contentment, even happiness, because conforming with our internal logic is an evolved survival mechanic. If you assess a problem, taking actions that align with what you should do to alleviate that problem improves your chances of survival. In the case of ethics, we are looking at the individual's survival within a social setting and aligning with what a person believes they should do concerning others: honesty, integrity, charity, selflessness, etc., to be viewed favorably. Seeing someone needing help and being able to render that help can make us feel good for that very reason. On the opposite side of the spectrum, to avoid feeling bad, we don't engage in activities that are bad, immoral, or unjust because that would make us perceived within society unfavorably.


The ancient Greeks declared that happiness consists in using our talents as they ought to be used. The shovel can cut; the knife can dig. But a shovel is not a cutting tool, and a knife is not a digging tool. Humans can impair their reason by drink or drugs, and we can lie, cheat, and steal. But we are “designed” to develop and to use our reason and to be honest. In doing what we should, we bring about our happiness. When I say that ethics is about “owing,” that is a shorthand way of saying that knowing and doing what is true results in our happiness. (Pg 67)


The problem with prudence is twofold; it has to be learned, and it implies a shared understanding of right and wrong. The first aspect should be apparent: young people with limited experiences, those without hardships, and those in unfamiliar situations may have difficulty determining what should be done. Specific actions may be seen as unethical within one culture but not your own, and even though you do what is expected of your people, you get punished by theirs. The second aspect comes from people's perceptions of precisely what should be done in a given situation, as experiences may teach different lessons and, in turn, shape people's concepts of right and wrong differently. But this leads us to our understanding of the following cardinal virtue.




The wisdom provided by prudence drives our understanding of the other cardinal virtues, and in the case of justice, it helps inform us of our obligations to others. Doing the right things and avoiding doing the wrong things in our everyday lives can be seen as morally correct. In a professional setting, these rights and wrongs differ slightly in relation to morals because there are professional and social expectations of proper conduct that come into play. Legal and regulatory requirements placed upon an individual or an organization change the moral dynamic into something unique: ethics. But both morals and ethics, internal and external compulsions to do what is right, are not about knowing what you ought to do, as is in prudence, but what you should do.


But the word “should” implies that there are things we must do, things that we have a duty to do. Ignore those basic duties, we can reason, and we will bear the burden of ethical failure and moral cowardice. But what duties are “basic”? There are principles or prescriptions regarded by some as prima facie (immediately plain or clear)… But any prima facie duty is a requirement only if there is no stronger prima facie duty. When duties conflict - and the conflict of duties is the very basis of military ethics - we must do what best satisfies all our obligations. This, in turn, is a function of judgment. [This], in essence, is that justice (doing what is right) is a matter of prudence. (Pg 78-79)


Toner speaks of what he calls "dueling duties" and that this is the heart of most ethical quandaries within the military. For professional militaries, we are compelled to follow the laws of war and armed conflict, reduce non-combatant casualties when possible, and only engage military targets. In this case, non-combatants are not intentionally killed or injured but are collateral to the actual targets that we want to engage. Additionally, ethics compels military personnel to support the mission of the organization above themselves and to safeguard the lives of their brothers and sisters-in-arms. Given these ethical considerations, dueling obligations can come into play on the battlefield when we can engage a target, such as a building housing enemy fighters but they are in close proximity to non-combatants. On the one hand, we can accomplish the mission and safeguard our personnel by bombing the target, but non-combatants are likely to be killed and injured. On the other hand, we do a direct ground assault, which allows our personnel to engage the enemy fighters in close combat precisely but risk suffering our own casualties to prevent non-combatant casualties. In addition, dead or injured buddies weaken the organization, making future mission accomplishment more difficult due to reduced combat power.



For Toner, applying courage implies continuously sticking to one's own moral principles in the face of external pressures that might compel them to deviate. Extenuating circumstances, in the eyes of the law and society, may forgive an individual for forgoing ethics if not doing so puts them at severe risk. However, doing an unethical act for fear of a negative outcome could be seen as cowardly behavior, such as pushing others out of the way to be the first to escape a burning building. While the law and society don't require someone to suffer or die for others, we do have professions whose ethics require them to assume additional risk. Military personnel obviously have to consider risks in the prosecution of their duties, including first responders. Still, even school teachers are expected to assume additional risks in protecting their students in the case of fires, natural disasters, and active shooters. Failure to act ethically in such matters could be seen as a dereliction of duties.


But one brave act does not make a person courageous. For Toner, courage is a pattern of action throughout one’s life. In regards to a person who leaps in front of a car to save a child, he states: 


He deserves great praise for doing a noble deed, but the single, unreflective act does not necessarily indicate the sustained quality of courage. Courage is character in action; it is a pattern; it is a settled disposition formed, fashioned, and developed over many years… Courage is not episodic but enduring; it is not a note but a melody; it is not a matter of a heroic minute but of a gallant life. (Pg 110)


Society benefits from individuals who can be relied on to do a good and noble thing when it is needed the most. A nation depends on its military to defend and protect its interests against threats, and as a result, it will put its personnel in positions where courage may be required to push through adversity to accomplish the mission. If society can nurture a culture that promotes bravery in the face of adversity, thereby fostering courage.




Temperance is about self-control. In the face of easy access to the enjoyable things in life: food, alcohol, sex, and leisure, avoiding indulging in these to excess not only speaks volumes as to the strength of will of the individual but also to their reliability and trustworthiness. Even the greatest saints of society have their temptations, their lapses into vice, but the person who can avoid slipping in this manner can be seen as more reliable than those who can't control themselves. They are more fit, physically and mentally, to accomplish tasks, meet objectives, and support their organizations than those easily swayed.


What we continually do is what we essentially are; correlatively, what we essentially are will express itself in what we continually do. The officer who is a personal degenerate either is, or will soon become, a professional degenerate. (Pg 137)


For the military, we are one of the few professions that punish private behavior. The private sector professionals, brokers, doctors, carpenters, etc., can be skilled and competent in their jobs, but when off the clock, they indulge in adultery and alcoholism. As long as they have sobered up and don't let their private life hedonism get in the way of their performance, they are viewed as acceptable. As long as the private stays private, many businesses can function effectively, and the individual can perform. But Toner believes that the private doesn't truly stay private because the impulses that drive an individual to behave immorally and lack restraint will eventually manifest themselves in a professional setting at the organization's expense and the detriment of the individual and all that work with them.


Military commanders, by regulation, have to be aware of their personnel's private lives to some extent. They conduct wellness checks on their barracks and homes to ensure they are not living in squalor. They are one of the first to be contacted in case someone makes the blotter for military police and local law enforcement. Excessive drunkenness or driving while under the influence of alcohol is punishable. Committing adultery is punishable. Being overweight is punishable, though the unit will assist in getting weight under control up to a point. Unlike much of the private sector, you are a Soldier, Marine, Sailor, Airman, Coast Guardsmen, or Guardian at all times, whether in uniform or not. This is not only to avoid besmirching these service members' respective Services but also because the nature of the military requires a certain level of readiness to be able to respond to the needs of the nation and communities. The enemy won't wait for you to sober up, and natural disasters won't delay their destruction of civilian lives for your hangover to go away.


There is an ultimate criterion by which to judge private tastes and personal actions: combat readiness and combat effectiveness. The profession of arms exists to deter and, if necessary, to wage and win wars. Actions of service members that detract from that imperative are intolerable. Drunkenness, gluttony, adultery, and similar sins - I will not shy away from the term - substantially depreciate and decrease combat readiness. Thus, their prosecution is not a matter of a commander’s “religious agenda” but of his legal responsibility to ensure that his command is ready for combat or for combat support operations. (Pg 139)

The important thing about identifying these cardinal virtues isn't that we need to ensure our military assesses each situation, even when under fire from the enemy and mere seconds away from death, but instead to foster the character of an individual that manifests these virtues through their natural inclinations. We don't necessarily need to avoid non-combatant casualties because God or society told us to, but because some aspect of who we have become compels us to. This is an element of "virtue ethics" that Toner describes within his chapter that discusses the character of the individual and its importance within the profession of arms.


Looking back upon the concept of dueling duties, the avoidance of non-combatant casualties while still seeking mission accomplishment and safeguarding friendly combat power will compel the leader to develop a plan that takes into account all dutiful considerations and weighs options. The individual that reflects these virtues in their everyday actions and in training is more likely to act properly when adrenaline floods their body and they need to act immediately. So, Toner suggests that character be honed to support this.


The development of character, a pattern of action that is characteristic of the nature of the individual, will require shaping by military leadership upon their respective services, and the author provides his suggestion on how to do it. While I discuss his suggestions, I will blend these military suggestions into their business applications in how business leadership can foster a moral character within their organization.

Business Applications of Morals Under the Gun

The value of fostering ethics for business should be apparent. In one aspect, it builds trust within an organization. Employees who believe their managers and executives operate within certain ethical boundaries can reduce the concern that scandals or cutthroat policies will derail a business plan. Just imagine the damage a blackmailer could do if they have dirt on a senior executive. Ethics shared amongst the lowest levels of employees will foster stewardship of equipment, effective and respectful engagement amongst staff and customers, and concern for the quality of their work.


In another aspect, trust outside the organization builds support from customers and clients that the business will do the right thing. An ethical company won't cut corners in ensuring their products are safe. They won't fail to inform or recall products they discover have faults, even if such a recall is costly. They won't take their customers for granted and strive to provide the best service for their value and will continue to support the customer after the sale as needed. Plus, the image of a company where the lowest levels of the workforce and the highest levels of management are unified in their values and support for the customer can breed a sense of confidence in the business's long-term survivability in the marketplace.


In order to foster an ethical environment for businesses, just as it would for a military organization, we can look to eight areas that Toner suggests. The intent of these areas is in the shaping of individual behavior within the organization to act ethically, not because they are required to do so, but because acting in such a way is natural to them. Employees and managers aren't respectful because they have to be, but because being disrespectful feels unnatural. They don't have integrity for fear of getting caught, but being dishonest feels demeaning to their self-worth. The ethical individual acts ethically, not because they are being watched or could get caught, but because such actions are foreign to them or they hold themselves up to higher standards. 


Toner’s Eight Recommendations:


  1. Create an environment of high ethical expectations within your organization through hiring and promoting. Hiring and promoting personnel with ethics as criteria for consideration will help display the business's direct intentions to its people, the marketplace and its importance in company culture.

  2. Reward trainers for new and existing employees who incorporate ethics training revolving around the cardinal virtues and their application within the business environment. Especially new people entering the organization need to be set off on the correct azimuth and set a precedent for those high ethical expectations. It will be these trainers that achieve that.

  3. Reward senior leaders and managers who inspire ethics in junior management. This will cultivate ethics as a foundational practice throughout all levels of the business and ensure that, as these junior leaders rise and spread throughout the business, ethical expectations spread with them.

  4. Organizations need to realign their values around the cardinal virtues. Many times, the values adopted by businesses are tailored to the apparent needs and jargon associated with their marketplaces, using terminology that is more appealing and apparently virtuous than actual ethical substance. This isn't to say that values adopted by business organizations are wrong, only that many times there are ethical gaps not covered by existing organizational values, and embracing and sharing the cardinal virtues amongst all organizations will cover these ethical gaps. The cardinal virtues, as Toner believes, are the foundation of all ethics; make them the standard.

  5. Develop a reading and viewing list of important books and movies that reflect the ethical principles that leadership hopes to instill. Leadership can use these books, alongside others that might discuss good business practices and inspire ingenuity, and expect or imply that their people should read and watch them and discuss them within the organization. It helps build an ethical environment through the historical examples of others.

  6. Teaching leadership principles, honed within the industry or external to it, principles common to any human endeavor should be fostered to help develop an ethical environment. This can come through a structured mentor program or from external organizations that come in and teach and train the organization.

  7. Heritage and history should be taught to put the business's place in the world into perspective. For long-standing organizations, discussing past leadership decisions, the good and the bad, helps develop a sense of continuity that extends beyond the here and now. The individual sees that they are but a new addition to the organization and have a part in shaping it. When they leave the organization, the business will continue to chart a course without them but, in some way, still be influenced by their decisions. For newer organizations, knowing they have a hand in the beginning of something with potential will help them understand that their decisions can create the initial condition of a great business that lasts generations.

  8. Ethical teaching moments should be encouraged. Even when the business or personnel make a mistake, we should be confident to discuss lessons learned and what we can do next time. Often, this comes from non-ethical situations, such as a failed product launch, a safety failure, or a terrible customer engagement, where people are more open about discussing corrective measures and implementing them. Be open to discussing ethical situations and scenarios, such as what one would do if one caught their colleague lying on safety reports or discovered someone copying signatures for clients so as not to bother them.


These recommendations aim to produce Toner's desired culture of high ethical expectations within a military organization. While he focuses on improving ethics within the armed forces, fundamentally, they are transcribable to any industry. Humans are the foundation of all organizations; after all, it isn't the machinery or the business accounts that are organized but the people. And they organize to accomplish a purpose. To ensure that purpose is achieved ethically, an environment that promotes ethics should be fostered. Toner's recommendations in Morals Under the Gun: The Cardinal Virtues, Military Ethics, and American Society may help.


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