Defence Ethics and the Institutional Environment

67. The opening words of the Statement of Defence Ethics describe the reciprocal nature of the obligations flowing between the Canadian Forces and its members and the Department of National Defence and its employees. Both the institution and the individuals are linked through their commitment to a set of shared ethical principles and obligations. If it is true that Canadian Forces members and Department of National Defence employees have ethical obligations to their organizations, it is equally true that the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence have ethical obligations to their members and employees. In the case of public servants, the ethical obligations of the organization go beyond the strict terms of an employment contract, although they certainly include these contractual obligations. This is all the more true for military personnel who do not strictly have an “employment contract”, nor the benefit of periodically renegotiating their terms of employment either individually or through a union.

68. In this section, we take a closer look at the organizational responsibilities concerning ethics in the public domain, and how these affect military members and public service employees. In particular, we look at why the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence should be involved in the continued ethical growth of defence personnel and how the Defence Ethics Program Framework contributes to an environment that should foster that ethical growth.

Ethical Growth in the Institution

69. Although Defence Ethics makes similar demands of all personnel, it is recognised that not everyone has the same level of knowledge of ethics nor the same practical experience in dealing with complex issues that require giving proper weight to ethics. At the beginning of her book, Cases in Leadership, Ethics, and Organizational Integrity (1997), Lynn Sharp Paine deals with two widespread beliefs that affect attitudes towards the issue of ethical growth: (1) Ethics is learned in childhood; therefore, its too late once people are adults and in leadership roles; and (2) most of us are already ethical people; therefore, we don’t really need ethics education programs.

70. In response to the first belief, it is noteworthy that most social science researchers and practitioners today adopt the view that human development, including moral development, is an ongoing process that is lifelong. (Buskist & Gerbing, 1990) In particular, studies repeatedly reveal not only that adults demonstrate more change than younger people as a result of moral education programs, but that moral development continues throughout life. (Rest & Narvàez, 1994) As Lynn Sharp Paine points out, there is no denying that many of the fundamental attitudes we possess about right and wrong and toward other important ethical values are adopted in the early years of our lives. However, there is equally no doubt that few of us learn much during those years about the specific responsibilities of the roles we will occupy later on in life, like those in the military and the public service. As a result, she indicates that “ethical people will not only want to learn about the responsibilities of the roles they occupy, but they will want to improve their effectiveness in fulfilling these responsibilities over time”. (Paine, 1997) In that context, it is not surprising that research confirms the existence of an important link between ethics programs and ethical growth. For example, a 1994 survey by the Ethics Resource Centre Inc. on Ethics in American Business: Policies, Programs, and Perceptions found that 49 percent believed that their ethics in the workplace had improved over the course of their careers. The survey also found that this belief was strongest amongst personnel in companies with comprehensive corporate ethics programs.

71. In response to the second belief, it is quite correct to start with the assumption that most people possess basic human decency, but an organization aspiring to be a high-integrity organization cannot stop there. Research has shown that individuals relying on conscience alone can make very different ethical judgements about work and mission situations. (Paine, 1997) In an increasingly dynamic and multicultural society, this attitude will increase the risk of judgements that will be deemed unacceptable from the point of view of ethics and basic human rights. In addition, the assumption that most are already sufficiently ethical as adults for the ethical needs of the workplace does not adequately deal with the fact, pointed out earlier, that research consistently shows that contextual factors exert a strong influence on individual behaviour. Thus, research has found that organizational culture has been found to a major factor in corporate crime. (Paine, 1997)

72. In summary, the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence have organizational responsibilities concerning ethics in the public domain that include the need to develop ethics programs that contribute to the continued ethical growth of defence personnel.

The Defence Ethics Program: An Ethical Framework for DefenceFootnote 3

73. The Defence Ethics Program is a comprehensive ethics program designed as the organizational response to the requirement in government to continually practice ethics at both the individual and the collective level. Its aim and primary focus is to foster the practice of ethics in the workplace and in operations such that members of the Canadian Forces and employees of the Department of National Defence consistently perform their duties to the highest ethical standards. Although the design of the Defence Ethics Program predates the May 1995 Report of the Auditor General of Canada entitled Ethics and Fraud Awareness in Government, it is certainly consistent with its recommendations. In the report, the Auditor General stated the need for an ethical framework in government that would provide the basis for “enhancing and maintaining ethics in government”. In justifying his proposal, he stated that “a sound ethical framework in government is grounded on the principle that public service is a public trust”. This is all the more so in the case of defence which involves the potential use of the nation’s most destructive weapons and the loss of life and property on a large scale.

74. The Framework for the Defence Ethics Program is shown in Figure-1 below. The Ethical Framework contains the essential substantive and structural elements that constitute the program. From the point of view of substance, it shows that the defence culture is an important focus for ethics in defence. The vision of Defence Ethics for the defence culture is that “the Canadian Forces and Department of National Defence become organizations of integrity with highly internalised ethical values.” Accordingly, the aim of Defence Ethics is “that members of the Canadian Forces and employees of Department of National Defence perform their duties to the highest ethical standards”. The Ethical Framework also identifies a matrix of seven ethical processes that must be fully integrated within an ethics program to make it comprehensive.

75. From the point of view of structure, the Ethical Framework singles out the authority structure required to execute the program and its objectives and show that resources are necessary to accomplish these objectives. It should be noted that the Defence Ethics Program reflects a two-tier distribution of authority: a program authority and implementing authorities. At one level, the Defence Ethics Program Authority is responsible for many general administrative functions related to the program and for ensuring ongoing development of the program. However, it is the Implementing Authorities who are responsible for “implementing the requirements of the Defence Ethics Program within their areas of responsibility” and for ensuring that this is done “in a manner consistent with their organizational culture”. (Defence Ethics Program Terms of Reference) The two-tier authority structure for the program is made necessary because, in contrast a material acquisition program or a regular human resources program, an ethics program can only be implemented by giving overriding importance to the role of large sub-cultures in defence.

Culture Authority Structure Processes Resources Objectives
Vision Program Authority Expectations Personnel Implementation
Mission Implementing Authorities Leadership Training Awareness
Aim Ethics Advisory Board Training   Training
Values Ethics Co-ordinators Decision-making   Steady state
Policy   Ethical risks    


Figure - 1

Figure-1: Ethics Process
  • Individual is responsible for Expectations, Leadership and Improvement.
  • The CF/DND is responsible for Evaluation and Training.
  • The organization is responsible for Ethical risks and Decision-making.


  • The individual is responsible for fulfilling expectations.


  • The individual is responsible for leadership.


  • The CF/DND is responsible for training personnel to fulfil expectations.


  • The organization is responsible for decision-making.

Ethical Risks

  • The organization addresses and identifies ethical risks to ensure ethical integrity.


  • The CF/DND is responsible for using evaluations as assessment tools.


  • The individual is responsible for improvement.


76. Although all the elements of the Defence Ethics Program Framework are essential to have a viable ethics program, the core of the program is found in the matrix of integrated ethics processes. The “ethical processes” must be managed both separately and collectively. Figure-2 shows graphically how these processes are interrelated and unified. The integration is carried out in the individual, in the organization, and through their interaction with each other. The following provides a description of each process and how it fits into the whole.

77. If one process could be considered the lead process, then everything would be said to start with the processes that generate expectations. Expectations do indeed drive all the other processes in an ethical framework. That is the reason that the cornerstone of the Defence Ethics Program is the Statement of Defence Ethics. The Statement of Defence Ethics clearly states core ethical expectations. It declares that the “special responsibility for the defence of Canada” is “fulfilled through a commitment by the Department of National Defence and its employees and the Canadian Forces and its members” to honour the stated set of ethical principles and obligations. It focuses everyone’s attention on three essential ethical principles (respect the dignity of all persons, Serve Canada before self, Obey and support lawful authority) and on six ethical obligations (integrity, loyalty, courage, honesty, fairness, and responsibility). It is important to stress from the beginning that expectations related to compliance and its mechanisms must always be based, at a minimum, on the ethical principle “respect the dignity of persons,” both in their formulation and in their application. Nothing can damage an organization’s ethical spirit more deeply than ethically flawed compliance practices. Notwithstanding, enforced compliance may be necessary for a variety of reasons. For example, some individuals may willingly resist adopting new practices that are more consistent with our democratic values because these new practices represent a break with past practices and traditions. To illustrate, let’s consider the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which has become the highest law in the land only since 1982. The Charter has formalized ethical expectations that are an integral part of a liberal democracy. New regulations and policies flow from the Charter which prohibit certain types of behaviours in the workplace that had previously been considered acceptable, tolerated or ignored and left unchecked. In many cases, the new policies and regulations include mechanisms necessary to enforce compliance. An example of these changes is provided by the new policies and regulations protecting individuals from workplace harassment. Finally, urgency and military field operations often create situations where enforced compliance may also be required because there is no time available to allow an individual to acquire the understanding that will satisfy him or her prior to action being taken. But in all cases, it is expected that the formulation of policies and regulations and compliance with them will be carried out in a spirit that fully respects the ethical principles and obligations of the Statement of Defence Ethics.

78. Formulating expectations is a necessary first step in setting up an ethics program, but it is far from sufficient to have a strong and healthy Defence Ethics Program. A committed leadership is required to carry out the publicly declared statement of ethical expectations. Whether charismatic and transformational or transactional, leadership openly practises the ethical principles and obligations of the Statement of Defence Ethics. It accepts to be held accountable in terms of these ethical principles and obligations. Leaders understand that individuals and organizations cannot be moved to action without motivation. From that point of view, compliance-based practices that fuel a kind of “negative” motivation do have a role to play, but they cannot come close to fostering “positive” ethical attitudes that develop personnel of integrity. Leaders serve as models for practices that cultivate value-based “positive” motivation, practices that must be seen as an integral part of any organizational approach to building an organization of integrity. It is mainly through positive motivation that leaders build a climate of trust and fairness. Finally, as a minimum, every leader should integrate within his or her leadership approach the three elements of a mini ethics program: Awareness of Expectations, Ethical Risk Management, and Voice.

79. Processes that provide training go hand in hand with decision-making processes. A committed leadership cannot make personnel responsible to fulfil expectations without providing them with the necessary tools and skills. One of the time-proven means of developing skills is through training. However, expectations, leadership, and training can only provide a context and a basis for action. The ultimate aim of these efforts is ethical decision-making that translates into action in accordance with the highest ethical standards. The Defence ethical culture is constituted by its organisation and its personnel. The health of defence culture in a liberal democracy depends on the quality of the decision-making. Yet, human situations are so complex that there are usually many ways of taking action. Choosing the most appropriate ethical course of action can benefit from using ethical decision-making methods. Although some methods can be quite intricate, many simply involve general rules of thumb. We acquire skill in the use of these methods through experience and education. In selecting the best course of action, it is mandatory that defence ethical principles and obligations be given priority. There is no doubt much that can be gained from working out in advance, to the extent possible, why certain actions are preferable and in what way they are ethically justifiable. For that reason, it is particularly important to include in training practice scenarios of potentially difficult ethical situations, since it is often the case in many operational situations that the proposed course of action will probably produce harm and there is usually little time then for reflection.

80. Ensuring the ethical integrity of an organization does not end with managing well the set of processes that lead to decision and action. There must be feedback loops that allows the organization to monitor its ethical health and strength and to maintain its ethical integrity. Feedback can be initiated either by the individual or by the organisation. The first feedback loop deals with avenues that will ensure that ethical risks are identified and addressed promptly. The sources of this loop can be either individual or collective. Both the individual and the organization can only benefit from functioning in an environment of healthy disclosure. Individuals must possess effective mechanisms to protest what seems ethically unacceptable behaviour that will undermine and weaken ethical integrity within the organisation. In practice, solid, judicious and morally strong protest will only exist in an environment of trust, fairness, and care where individuals are free to exercise their moral voice without fear of reprisal. In addition, the Defence Ethics Program recommends the implementation and practice of regular ethical risk assessments by leaders at all levels. For this purpose, periodic gatherings at the local level that focus specifically on ethical issues that personnel believe need to be addressed are of special importance. Other ethical risk management mechanisms include audits and reviews.

81. A second feedback loop deals with various means for evaluating the ethical climate of the organisation. This kind of feedback is usually initiated by the organisation. For example, the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence use assessment methodologies consistent with the norms of social science research as means of measuring nationally and locally the effectiveness of defence ethics initiatives.

82. An ethical framework’s feedback loop is incomplete without processes that ensure that improvement takes place. When disclosure of unethical conduct falls on deaf ears, when compliance mechanisms are weakly administered, and when the results of ethical risks assessments gather dust, whether singly or together, these systemic faults spell ethical disaster for a government organization in a liberal democracy. However, when people experience that changes are produced as a result of voice and of ethical risk management feedback mechanisms, be they policy, regulatory, or program changes, then and only then do people believe that the other processes – expectations, leadership, training, and decision-making - are working well and responsibly.

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