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by Dr. Elizabeth Holmes

Ethical Decision-Making in the Fleet
Moral gray areas have to be navigated quickly and effectively in fast-moving combat situations. The stakes are often too high to let young officers and enlisted gain expertise through “on-the-job” training. As a leader, how do you enhance the decision-making abilities of your people so that they are better prepared to face ethical challenges in conditions where leisurely reflection is seldom an option?

Ethical decision-making is a structured process in which a person can recognize an ethical or moral issue, decide the best action to take, and act on it. Although there are many different ways to go about making ethical decisions, a set of common concerns include moving beyond a narrow self-interest, identifying the right thing to do, increasing benefits and decreasing harm, and relying on a reasoned, rational process.

Character and leadership development form the cornerstone at the United States Naval Academy, and the Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the Academy has embraced the new technology of interactive simulations as a way to teach ethical decision-making. Today’s young officers and Sailors grew up playing video games, and Navy trainers and educators have found that they respond eagerly to this learning medium.

Command Master Chief Petty Officer Kurt Smith of Naval Submarine Training Center Pacific (NSTCP) described how the digital age has shaped young sailors in an interview published in the spring 2008 edition of UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine. He pointed out that “the technical savvy of today’s recruits is quite impressive…. Nearly every Sailor has an iPod or DVD player in their bunk, and most are very computer savvy and can almost program the computers.”

The Stockdale Center has produced a DVD library of five simulations with a selection of moral dilemmas. The simulations show midshipmen, enlisted personnel and junior officers in situations that pose ethical dilemmas, and they demonstrate a systematic, logical process to help resolve these dilemmas. The realistic computer environment obliges participants to make hard choices and face the consequences of their decisions, but without real risk to themselves or others. By allowing participants to grapple realistically with universal issues such as fairness, truth-telling and dealing with inappropriate behavior, the simulations provide actual experience in ethical decision-making. The experience helps prepare them emotionally as well as intellectually for dealing with real-life situations—not unlike the way realistic combat training helps prepare Sailors for dealing with the stress of battle.


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As a leader, how do you enhance the decision-making abilities of your people so they are prepared to face ethical challenges in conditions where leisurely reflection is seldom an option?
Photo by Chief Petty Officer Josh Thompson.

How do these simulations work? Imagine that you are playing a character and immersed in a realistic world that you see on your computer screen. Your peers in this world look to you as a social leader. You’re presented with a situation that you sense has moral and ethical dimensions. Maybe there’s a party with underage girls present. Maybe you discover a possible sexual assault. Maybe your best friend is asking you to go along with a deception. Maybe your ambition places your future in jeopardy.

Whatever the situation, you’re faced with a series of decisions. Because the simulation is interactive, every choice you make spins the narrative off in a different direction. Each has consequences and changes the situation. You experience how your decisions affect the outcome. The first time you grapple with the scenario’s dilemmas, you do so instinctively, without guidance, hoping for a positive outcome.

ethical decison-making model

A tutorial accompanying the simulation then provides the guidance. Each of the simulations comes with a practical, step-by-step model that walks you through a decision-making process, going from moral awareness to moral action, i.e., from recognizing that a situation involves ethical issues to acting ethically.

After this tutorial, you have the opportunity to return to the scenario and experience it again, applying the steps in the tool to work your way through the dilemma.

Starting with Sound Theory
The Stockdale Center started to explore the idea of using interactive multimedia simulations to help develop courageous, ethical leaders several years ago. In collaboration with the Canadian Defence Forces, the Center researched the work of the late James Rest, professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, and Thomas Jones, professor of business management at the University of Washington. It then validated the research with populations of midshipmen and Navy chaplains. The model on the previous page is the framework used in the interactive simulations.

Prof. Rest pioneered a four-component approach to decision-making that combines cognitive-development, social, behavioral, and psychoanalytic perspectives. He asserted that, when confronted with an ethical dilemma, individuals move from moral awareness, the recognition of a moral situation; to moral judgment, the evaluation of choices and outcomes; to moral intention, choosing how one intends to act; and lastly to moral action, the actual behavior in the situation. A failure at any step in the process could result in a failure to make an ethical decision.

In the first step, there is gut-level recognition that the situation is morally charged. It arouses moral emotions like anger, fear, shame, or empathy. The decision-maker’s gut is answering the question: “Is there something wrong here?” Is a person, community, or ideal at risk? Is there a dimension of right and wrong here, or are competing values at work?

Assuming that the situation raises an ethical issue, then the next step is to weigh various rational options. The aim is to distinguish right from wrong and better from worse and identify competing obligations. The decision-maker is also weighing possible actions. He or she may ask questions such as:

• What action produces the most good and the least harm?

• What action respects everyone’s rights and dignities?

• What action treats everyone equally—or if not equally, then at least proportionately and fairly?

• How would I want to be treated?

• What kind of person will I be if I act or do not act in this situation?

The next step is to decide what to do or not do. Deciding what to do also means marshaling the courage to act, often in the face of great opposition.

Sometimes, people can recognize an ethical dilemma, decide “the right thing to do,” resolve to act, and yet not take action. If asked to explain a failure to act morally, they will often refer to the power of other people involved—anything from peer pressure to the anticipated disapproval of a superior. However, moral action means carrying out the moral decision in spite of opposition or possible consequences.

This fairly straightforward process is somewhat complicated by factors that may increase the moral intensity of the situation. Prof. Jones noted that specific characteristics of a situation increase its moral intensity, affecting individuals’ decision-making ability. He described six factors of moral intensity: magnitude of consequences, social consensus, probability of effect, temporal immediacy, proximity, and concentration of effect.

Research at the Stockdale Center found that four of the six moral intensity factors most strongly influenced decision-making—magnitude of consequences, social consensus, probability of effect, and proximity. Magnitude of consequences means how much an individual may be harmed by or benefit from the decision-maker’s action. Social consensus means how much a social group agrees that an action is good or bad. This social group could be society as a whole (which, for instance, expects people to abide by the law) or a smaller group like an individual’s colleagues. Probability of effect is the likelihood that the predicted outcomes and the expected level of harm or benefit will occur. Proximity refers to the nearness of the decision-maker to the individuals potentially affected by the consequences. Proximity can be a feeling of physical, cultural, social, or psychological nearness.

The Center has designed its simulations to emphasize those four factors.

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A traditional classroom setting may not be optimal for teaching ethical decision-making. Today’s young officers and Sailors grew up playing video games, and Navy trainers and educators have found that they respond eagerly to interactive simulations. U.S. Naval Academy photo

Creating a Realistic World
Finding a step-by-step process for decision-making is only half the story. To be effective, the simulations had to create worlds full of believable details and realistic situations that engaged participants. The Stockdale Center has worked in strategic partnership with Will Interactive, an award-winning producer of interactive educational technology, to combine ethical decision-making with a virtual experience in unique ways that draw participants into the worlds of the simulations.

Teaching with Simulations
Lt. Mitch Eliason—a nuclear-trained submariner who served in USS Los Angeles (SSN-688) and is now on shore duty as a leadership instructor at the Naval Academy—uses the Center’s library of interactive simulations. Having delivered, as he says, “many training and education evolutions to Sailors and midshipmen,” Lt. Eliason maintains that “the interactive simulations stand alone as the best way to grab the attention of the students and keep them engaged in the topic. Lessons of leadership and ethical decision-making are the most difficult to present effectively, and these simulations make it so easy.”

He especially likes the simulation entitled “The Weekend,” which focuses on ethical challenges arising from liberty. He noted that in a typical liberty briefing, a well-respected chief petty officer runs through the “do’s” and “don’ts” for the new port, but it’s hard to engage the crew, because all they perceive are endless restrictions. In contrast, the interactive simulations, “because they are so realistic and relevant, actually get everyone to think about the ‘why’ behind policies, so they buy in to what the command and Navy see as the appropriate conduct.”

All five simulations in the Center’s “Dilemmas” library have been used with more than 5,000 midshipmen at the Naval Academy. One simulation, Last Call, has been featured for the last four years in the Capstone Moral Leadership Seminars for first-class (senior) midshipmen. The simulations have been used for three years at the Naval Surface Warfare School in Newport, R.I. Several of the movies have been piloted at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and in the NROTC programs at Jacksonville University and the University of San Diego.

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The James B. Stockdale Center’s newest interactive simulation,
The Fumble, focuses on college athletes. U.S. Navy graphic.

Leaping into the Future
The Stockdale Center continues to work with Naval Academy faculty to find ways to regularly expose fourth, third, and second-class midshipmen to its library of interactive simulations. The Center’s newest production, “The Fumble,” which focuses on college athletes, may be used at other undergraduate institutions as well. The Center is also committed to exploring applications across the fleet. Staff members have discovered that the more they consult with different groups, the more demand they find for ethical decision-making simulations tailored to specific populations.

An ethical leader must be prepared to take all the steps from moral awareness to moral action in any situation that arises—and to do it as quickly as necessary. This requires experience, which is the essential foundation for all effective leadership because it prepares the decision-maker emotionally as well as intellectually.

The best experience comes from the real world, but the price of gaining it can be high. Pragmatic decision-making models can reduce the risk involved in gaining real-world experience by introducing decision-makers to the ethical dilemmas they will face before they have to encounter them for real. Simulation can help build the moral “muscle memory” required to handle high-stress, morally ambiguous situations at all levels of command, just as realistic combat training helps prepare Sailors of all ranks for the extraordinary demands of war.

Dr. Holmes, a clinical psychologist and retired Navy captain with 25 years of service, is director of assessment at the Naval Academy’s Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership.

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