Ethics professor helps midshipmen face tough choices Admiral says, 'Basics of ethics and morality are not understood'


ANNAPOLIS - Virtue. An old-fashioned word, scarcely heard these days. It looks strange, projected on a screen in this U.S. Naval Academy classroom on this unseasonably sweltering spring morning.

"Virtue: good, excellent states of character, good functionings of a person in the circumstances of human life," it says on the screen.

The professor enters. The midshipmen rise and stand at attention. "Good morning," she greets them. They slump back into their seats, uncomfortable in their dark uniforms in the hot, still air.

The teacher is Nancy Sherman, distinguished professor of ethics. The course is "Moral Reasoning for Naval Leadership."

Although adherence to a high ethical standard always has been expected of its midshipmen, the Naval Academy during its first century and a half saw no need to offer a course in the subject or employ such a teacher as Sherman.

But during the 1990s, a series of scandals tarred the reputations of the service and the school. When the Navy decided to restore the luster to that old military value called honor, it chose Sherman for the job.

Aristotle at the academy

The topic of this day is Aristotle - a name rarely mentioned at the academy before Sherman arrived last year.

"What is character?" she asks.

A midshipman raises his hand. "It defines an individual," he replies.

"A person of good character feels compelled to do the right thing," says another.

"Character has to be exercised," says another. "It's not just something you have."

A slender, intense woman in a gray business suit, Sherman stalks the room as she lectures, up and down the stairstep aisles, into the rows of seats, pulling responses from the midshipmen.

"What are some virtues?" she asks.

As the midshipmen name them, she writes them on the blackboard: temperance, courage, generosity.

"We used to be able to take for granted a basis in ethics from a church background, a school background, a family background," says retired four-star Adm. Bud Edney, who served as the academy's commandant from 1981 to 1984. He teaches a leadership course and leads a couple of the discussion groups that Sherman has created as part of the course.

"But we've seen spikes - whether in the fleet or spikes of student activity here - that indicate that the basics of ethics and morality are not understood. Or if they're understood, they're not taken seriously," Edney says.

The Tailhook sexual harassment scandal of 1991 is the most widely known of those spikes of recent naval immorality, but there have been others that hit the academy even harder.

A cheating scandal that began with the theft of an electrical engineering exam in December 1992 ended with the expulsion of two dozen midshipmen and lesser punishments for 47 others.

In 1995, 24 midshipmen were charged with using and dealing drugs. In 1996, a midshipman was charged with molesting a child, another with assaulting four of his female schoolmates. Another was indicted on a charge of running a car-theft ring.

A few months ago, a former midshipman from Texas, Diane Zamora, was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. One of her classmates was expelled because Zamora told him of her crime and he did not report it. But it was the cheating scandal - and the congressional hearings it provoked - that eventually brought Sherman, Aristotle and other ethical theorists to Annapolis.

"I was here in 1994 as part of a group that was brainstorming in the wake of that scandal," she said, "and it occurred to me that there wasn't any ethics being taught. That seemed peculiar. Most universities have some version of an ethics course. ... But there was no course here to clarify the core values - honor, courage, commitment - for which the Navy stands."

Sherman, who was teaching philosophy at nearby Georgetown University, wrote a syllabus and taught a pilot course at the academy the following year. When two benefactors then endowed a permanent ethics chair, the academy selected her as its first occupant. In January 1997, the Naval Academy became the last of the service academies to make ethics a core course. Now it's required of all midshipmen in their second year.

"It was obvious that a lot of the immorality in society was occurring in the Navy, too. It's good to discuss these things and get them out in the open," says Midshipman David Diestro, 19, of Pensacola, Fla.

A well-known philosopher

At 46, Sherman is a well-known philosopher in scholarly circles. She earned her Ph.D. at Harvard and taught at Yale for seven years before moving to Georgetown in 1989. She has published two meaty volumes - "The Fabric of Character: Aristotle's Theory of Virtue" and "Making a Necessity of Virtue: Aristotle and Kant on Virtue" - and more than 30 journal articles on ethics and moral psychology. She has won a number of scholarly awards. She also is a wife, and the mother of two teen-agers.

She took a leave from Georgetown to be the academy's first ethics chair. After her term expires next year, the academy will name a new visitor to fill the post each year.

In many aspects, "Moral Reasoning for Naval Leadership" resembles any survey course in ethical theory at any university. The midshipmen read from the works of utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill, from Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, the Stoics, the Bible and the scriptures of some non-Judeo-Christian religions, and they discuss their readings in class.

But Sherman's lectures lead them beyond the theories of the great thinkers into real-life ethical dilemmas that military commanders have faced, or that the midshipmen may face in the future:

Ethics and war

Is it permissible to do anything and everything to promote a good outcome of a war? What is ethical behavior toward prisoners of war? Is it ethically or morally right to kill civilians if doing so might bring a war to a speedier end? If an enemy uses humans to shield chemical weapons plants, is it ethically permissible to bomb them?

"We integrate a lot of case histories into the course," Sherman said. "We discuss Ollie North, who falsified testimony and lied and took it upon himself to break the chain of command and authorize certain illegal actions. We discuss the My Lai massacre. These midshipmen weren't even born when that happened. They have no memory of Vietnam. So it's imperative that we teach some history as well."

Her course is about honorable and dishonorable ways of being a warrior. Many of her students come to the academy with a Rambo mentality, she says. "They come with a real eagerness to become a warrior and to have the glory of being a warrior. But they aren't reflective about the other aspects of being a warrior - all the restraint that's required, all the hard choices that officers have to make. Many of those choices will have moral implications."

'Shouting is not enough'

"They have to learn that just standing tall and shouting is not enough to persuade anyone of the rightness of an officer's choices," Sherman says.

Some, perhaps most, of the midshipmen seem to be listening. One of them, Barnet L. Harris II, 20, from San Jose, Calif., says "Moral Reasoning for Naval Leadership" is "essential for leaders who have to make decisions of life and death."

"The enlisted personnel will be counting on us to get them through war," he says.

Sherman lectures to all midshipmen third class - sophomores - once a week. She also trains instructors in other departments who, like Edney, lead the midshipmen's twice-a-week ethical discussion groups, in which the transitions are made from Aristotelian or Kantian theory to real-life ethical or moral problems.

Most of the academy faculty are senior naval officers assigned to Annapolis for a two- or three-year tour of duty, after which they return to their regular jobs with the fleet. Typically, they don't have philosophy backgrounds. "But they have lots of experience," Sherman says. "Lots of experience dealing with ethical dilemmas and command choices that have moral ramifications."

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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