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Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership
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Facilitation and Outreach

Recent Notable Events


Psychology, Neuroscience, and Military Ethics Workshop

5 April 2019

 The Stockdale Center sponsored a workshop on 5 April 2019 at the Naval Academy on the potential implications of research in moral psychology and neuroscience for military ethics.  The event was organized by Commander Kevin Mullaney, professor at the Naval Academy, and Professor Mitt Regan, professor at Georgetown Law Center and a Senior Fellow at the Stockdale Center.  Center Director Dr. Joseph Thomas welcomed the participants with introductory remarks.

 Considerable work in recent years has shed light on the non-conscious processes and systems in the brain that influence ethical perception, decision-making, motivation, and behavior.  Four guest scholars presented findings from their research on these topics.  These were:

Professor Tony Jack of the Philosophy Department at Case Western Reserve University, and Director of the Brain, Mind, and Consciousness Laboratory there;

 Professor James Woodward of the Philosophy Department of the University of Pittsburgh;

 Doctor Gary Klein, President of ShadowBox Training, one of the pioneers of a naturalistic rather than rational choice approach to expert decision-making based on observations of experience; and

 Lt. General, Dr. Robert E Schmidle Jr., USMC (Ret.), Professor of Practice, School of Politics and Global Studies, Arizona State University

 Professor Jack discussed “opposing domains” theory, which suggests that humans typically rely on two distinct neural processes.  The first involves impersonal, abstract, logical reasoning, while the second involves social, empathic, and emotional reasoning.  These domains are regarded as opposing because engagement in one process tends to dampen simultaneous engagement in the other.  Many aspects of moral judgment rely on the second process, which suggests that ethical training and instruction could benefit from incorporating both logical and emotional components to be fully effective.

 Professor Woodward discussed research indicating the importance for moral behavior of activity in a system in the brain that conducts “emotional processing.”  This region synthesizes inputs from various parts of the brain based on the situation that an individual confronts.  It then generates an emotional signal that moves behavior toward the alternative course of action likely to provide the most rewarding emotional outcome.  He discussed the potential for incorporating ethical outcomes into this process, so that an individual anticipates negative emotional outcomes from unethical behavior and positive outcomes for ethically appropriate conduct.

Dr. Klein discussed the psychological dynamics involved in learning from experience, which generates decision-making models that depart from conventional prescriptions for optimal decisions.  He pointed out the crucial role that experience plays in generating perceptual patterns that serve to filter experience, by focusing only on cues relevant to the goal that is relevant in a given situation.  Experienced practitioners in all fields non-consciously rehearse the probable outcomes of different courses of action, and move intuitively to the one that is most likely to be effective.  The group discussed the potential for experiential training to help cultivate the capacity to do this in scenarios with ethical implications.  Michael Sears of the Stockdale Center, for instance, is working on developing virtual reality programs that provide immersive experiences in a variety of settings.  

 General Schmidle emphasized the powerful ways in which an individual’s sense of self, and of appropriate behavior, is shaped by members of groups with which an individual identifies.  We take our cues in ambiguous situations from how others act, a process that reflects the way that everyday practices form a small group culture.  This culture generates a distinctive moral outlook that can reinforce or undermine larger moral values.  There was extensive discussion of how small-unit culture in the military reflects this process.

 Finally, Professor Mullaney discussed the role of different layers of the self and how they interact to generate individually meaningful experience.  He described how at some point an “autobiographical self” emerges that is able to reflect upon its own experiences, and make choices that further a coherent narrative of identity that provides a guide for action.  Thus, an individual can perceptually represent himself or herself as a unique actor with a distinctive identity.  The group discussed how the idea of the profession of arms can provide an important source of such identity for members of the military.

 Professor Mullaney and Regan are engaged in an ongoing research project that aims to synthesize and assess the increasing body of work on the relationship between psychological and neurological processes on the one hand and ethical judgment on the other.  The scholarship in this field increasingly emphasizes the close relationship between cognitive and emotional processes in shaping responses to situations with ethically salient features. Professors Mullaney and Regan have published one article on this topic in a 2019 volume of the Journal of Military Ethics, and plan to explore further how military ethics training might draw on insights from this research.  The workshop reflects the Center’s commitment to draw on the latest research in all disciplines that provide insights into ethical leadership


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