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The Ethical Warrior: What have we learned?

We can deal professionally, ethically, and legally with the criminals’ actions and still respect the intrinsic value of his or her life

When we went back to evaluate the content and impact of our series of articles on the Ethical Warrior for Police1 we were surprised to find that there have already been 12 and that it has been more than two years since our first one.

Time flies!

We began writing these articles with a simple question in mind: Would law enforcement officers (LEOs) who behave as “ethical protectors” be safer, healthier, and more effective?

What Have We Discussed?
Over the course of those 12 articles, we have explored various aspects of ethical warriorship. We defined the Ethical Warrior as: a protector of the life of self and others, all others if possible — and even our adversaries if we can. We discussed the philosophical underpinnings of the ethical warrior: the Dual Life Value of Self and others. We clarified our understanding of the meaning of the words “values,” “morals,” and “ethics,” and explored how the Life Value serves as the “true north,” pointing us toward life sustaining moral actions.

Our discussions also included the more practical aspects of ethical warriorship. How could law enforcement training be modified to encourage ethical protectors? We looked at the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) and its integrated mental, physical and ethical training approach. Leadership and tactics were also examined from an Ethical Warrior perspective. Most recently, we looked at the critical task of protecting our enemies, and how that relates to mitigating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What Have We Heard?
We have been blessed with lots of feedback. Most of it has been positive, some has been negative, but all of it has been instructive.

Perhaps the most passionate comments came in response to the concept of respecting the Life Value of criminal adversaries. They reflected a point of view that is seemingly very logical:

“I’ll treat criminal suspects/adversaries fairly, I’ll limit my use of force to the letter of the law, I’ll even call them ‘Sir,’ but I don’t have to respect them.”

Another reasonable reader said, “I respect victims, not criminals.”

Fair enough. And that perspective may be enough in the short run. But, we believe, over time not respecting the Life Value of our adversaries can cause problems for us and others. So, we’d like to expand on the discussion of this mysterious piece of the Ethical Warrior puzzle. It is the most counterintuitive — but, we would argue, it is also the most important.

What Do We Mean?
What do we mean by respecting someone’s Life Value? We simply mean that another person’s life has the same value as our life. We don’t mean a person’s criminal, anti-social, or violent behavior should be respected. We don’t mean that criminal actions should be excused because of socioeconomic or other environmental disadvantages, either. We only mean that it is important to acknowledge the value of every human life, and to protect that life if possible.

Not acknowledging the Life Value can cause problems in several ways. People know if you respect their life — they see it in your words and actions and they see it in your eyes. This goes for criminals too. They know you don’t respect their behavior, and most can live with that. But, if they think you don’t respect their life they will be more likely to disrespect you back and do what they can to make your job even harder.

Since repeat offenders are an unfortunate reality, they will also be likely to make the next encounter with the law more difficult. It‘s easy to see how this can lead to a downward spiral. The criminal might be on a downward spiral anyway, but do we need to make it worse? To the extent that showing respect for the Life Value of an adversary can make them more cooperative, we’ve made ourselves and our colleagues a little safer.

The most important piece of the puzzle is that being an ethical protector is better for us.

Protecting our psychological health is an important part of protecting our own lives. We are all part of one human race. When we make the judgment that certain behaviors can negate the Life Value, we make the value of human life relative. Quite unintentionally, we diminish the value of everyone else’s life including our own. We think this is damaging to psychological health. It is the seed of apathy and burnout.

For those who might insist on taking any argument to its logical extreme, we offer the following: If the authors propose that all human life should be respected, would they respect the life of people like Adolf Hitler and Charlie Manson? The answer is yes. Would we do whatever is necessary to bring them to justice, even if it meant lawfully killing them if necessary? Also yes.

We suggest that even the unspeakable evil behavior of these people does not separate them from the human race. We do regret that they wasted their valuable lives on causing unimaginable pain to others. And that’s as far as the respect needs to go.

We do not suggest that we have all the answers, only a framework that has proven to help protectors be more effective and healthier. Most readers understand the context of our contention that ethical warriorship is applicable to law enforcement. Like most things worth doing, being an ethical warrior or ethical protector is something we continually strive to achieve, while often falling short.

What Have We Learned?
In conclusion, we must be clear in stating the obvious: there is no need to respect or even remotely condone criminal actions. That perspective smacks of the very kind of moral relativism that we must avoid. What we are recommending, however, is a simple philosophical clarification: behavioral values are relative and are in a totally different category than the Life Value. We can deal professionally, ethically, and legally with the criminals’ actions and still respect the intrinsic value of his or her life.

Jack E. Hoban is president of Resolution Group International, subject matter expert for Combatives and Warrior Ethics for the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, and trains police officers in de-escalation skills.

Bruce J. Gourlie is a former U.S. Army infantry officer, a retired FBI Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge for Intelligence and currently the director of security in a large healthcare system.

Correspondence can be sent to both authors by emailing Hoban & Gourlie.