|Inaugural Director of Vann Ethics Center Will Seek to Prepare Students for Real World Dilemmas
April 20, 2009
Contact: Bill Giduz
Davidson College has appointed David L. Perry as the inaugural Director of the Vann Center for Ethics and Professor of Applied Ethics. Perry will join the Davidson faculty on July 1, following six years as professor of ethics at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, where he taught courses for military colonels and their civilian counterparts on ethics and warfare, strategic leadership, and critical thinking.
| David L. Perry|
The Vann Center for Ethics is being established through a gift from Jim and Lee Vann. Jim Vann is a 1950 graduate of Davidson. The center’s mission is to bring sustained focus to ethical decision-making and integrity of action, and to promote inquiry and reflection on moral issues that range from local to global.
Perry’s responsibilities will include teaching at least one course in ethics each semester, organizing extracurricular lectures and discussions on ethical issues, and working with faculty and staff to integrate ethical concerns across the curriculum.
His first academic offering for the fall 2009 semester will be a class on “Ethics and Warfare.” In his course syllabus Perry stated, “War is a peculiar human activity that can bring out some of our best traits such as courage and self-sacrifice, but can also elicit tremendous cruelty and suffering. That makes it a prime candidate for ethical scrutiny.”
Perry has compiled much of his 20-plus years of scholarship on ethics in war and foreign intelligence operations into a new book from Scarecrow Press titled Partly Cloudy: Ethics in War, Espionage, Covert Action, and Interrogation. He has also published more than 40 articles on a broad range of ethical issues. Prior to his work at the Army War College, he taught biomedical ethics, business ethics, and other courses in philosophy and religion at Seattle University and Santa Clara University, and was a management consultant in corporate ethics at the Ethics Resource Center in Washington, DC.
He earned a B.A. in religion magna cum laude from Pacific Lutheran University, and A.M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His dissertation, “Covert Action: An Exploration of the Ethical Issues,” included interviews with many former CIA officers.
Below are excerpts from a recent conversation with Perry:
It looks like you’ve been writing almost exclusively about the ethics of warfare since 2001. Was it an interest of yours before that, or was it sparked by 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
|Jim '50 and Lee Vann, benefactors of the Vann Center for Ethics at Davidson|
I’ve taught ethics and war for nearly 10 years, but have been interested in the subject for more than 20 years. As a religion major in college, I studied mostly biblical criticism and modern theology. But in looking toward a career, I thought ethics would maintain my interest more than systematic theology, and I've never regretted that decision. One of the things I liked about my doctoral studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School was the school’s interdisciplinary approach. In my program we studied both religious and philosophical approaches to ethics. It was a wonderful educational experience.
I’ve been fortunate to have worked in many different areas of ethics during my career. From 1993 to 1999, I taught a wide range of ethics courses at Seattle University, especially medical ethics and business ethics. From 1999 to 2002 I had a hybrid position at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, somewhat like my new position at Davidson in that I both taught courses and organized extracurricular campus forums. The religion department there particularly needed me to teach an ethics and warfare class, which allowed me to develop a whole course on that subject for the first time. I also began corresponding with another ethicist named Martin Cook, who was then teaching at the Army War College. When he got an offer in 2003 to teach at the Air Force Academy, he suggested I apply for his job and recommended me for it, so I was selected to replace him.
I’m also indebted to Martin for recommending me for the Davidson position, as did Shannon French, an ethicist formerly at the Naval Academy who now directs the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Martin Cook is about to begin a new job as well at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. Both Martin and Shannon have greatly influenced my interpretations of the just-war tradition.
Is your new book, Partly Cloudy, a culmination of your studies in the ethics of warfare, or just a look at part of the subject?
The book may actually seem more like an anthology than a continuous or unitary argument, since earlier versions of various chapters were written for different audiences. Some chapters, such as those outlining the histories of the CIA and KGB, grew out of my doctoral dissertation on ethics in foreign intelligence operations, but a chapter on interrogation was developed quite recently, in part from reflections on detainee abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The core of the second chapter on comparative religious ethics and war came from material I taught at Seattle University and Santa Clara University. But the 9/11 attacks led me to comment more specifically on the problem of total holy war in the Abrahamic traditions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Chapter three on Shakespeare’s Henry V also originated in lecture notes for my ethics and warfare class at Santa Clara, relying to a great extent on the scholarship of Theodor Meron. A chapter on anticipating and preventing atrocities in combat originated from that same course, where I asked my students to reflect on the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. I revised those notes for an article in 2006 for Armed Forces Journal about how seemingly normal people can end up committing atrocities, drawing on Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority, as well as the work of Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson identifying similarities between humans and chimpanzees in terms of their aggressive violence.
Is it an outdated notion to try to fight and kill ethically to prevent terrorism, when apparently terrorists have a totally opposite interpretation of ethics that encourages suicide and civilian murder? Is there any evidence that the ethical conduct of war is more successful than the alternative?
One of the key principles of the just war tradition is non-combatant immunity, which dictates that warriors shouldn’t directly target people who aren’t directly threatening them. Babies are always noncombatants, but so are most adults. It’s vitally important ethically to understand and hold fast to the idea that people have a basic prima facie right not to be killed, which can only be forfeited or overridden in extreme cases. That’s also a key premise of our condemnation of terrorism, i.e., the indiscriminate killing of innocent people. The fact that terrorists don’t respect noncombatant immunity doesn’t undermine the principle itself. We have an obligation not to lower ourselves to the terrorists’ level of behavior, because if we do we’re implying that no one’s life is sacred anymore.
After 9/11 some people suggested we launch massive airstrikes in Afghanistan to take out everyone, basically to level the country. But of course many Afghanis had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. Innocent Afghanis never forfeited their basic prima facie right not to be killed. Moreover, if our forces had indiscriminately killed Afghanis, we also would have logically undermined the moral status of our own citizens. We would have become no better than the terrorists we condemn. Even if no laws of war existed, or if we scrapped those treaties and started from scratch, there would still be a fundamental ethical principle prohibiting indiscriminate killing.
It’s difficult to say whether ethical conduct in war is always more likely to achieve victory than unethical conduct. Of course, if “victory” is equated with total annihilation of one’s enemy, then even nuclear war would be “proportionate” to that end. But both ends and means in that case would be immoral. There have been occasions when America used pretty questionable war tactics to achieve its goals, such as the firebombing in World War II of German and Japanese cities, which set the stage for the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the one hand those tactics apparently contributed to our goal of inducing the Germans and Japanese to surrender, but there may have been more humane ways to achieve that goal without also incurring horrific losses on the part of our own troops. We’ll never know for sure, because we can’t rerun history to see what happens if we choose differently.
But in Iraq and Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, I think it’s clear that when we have lowered our ethical standards, things have gotten worse in terms of our strategic objectives. The harsh treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib, for example, almost certainly swelled the ranks of insurgents, increased violence against our own troops, and prolonged the war. If we had treated those detainees humanely from the beginning, we may have been able to achieve security and stability sooner, and saved the lives of many of our troops and the lives of innocent Iraqis. General David Petraeus was right to remind us that we have to win hearts and minds in counterinsurgency, which requires more than simply using violent methods.
How frequently in your teaching at the Army War College have officers argued with your positions based on the fact that you’ve never served in the military yourself?
A few officers have entered my classroom wondering what I as a civilian “humanities guy” could possibly teach them. But I’m fairly sure that in the vast majority of cases I’ve eventually persuaded them that moral philosophy can provide genuine, practical insights for them to use in their command roles. I should add that most American officers have had at least some education in the ethics and laws of war, initially at the academies and ROTC, later in mid-career schools. And the Army requires annual refresher training on the laws of war, and incorporates applications of those laws into rules of engagement in combat zones. So when they reach a senior service school like the Army War College, it’s not their first exposure to ethics by any means.
On rare occasions I’ve heard colonels complain that upholding the laws of war hampers our war efforts and is pointless against enemies who don’t respect those laws. In effect they echo the view of General Sherman, “War is cruelty and you can’t refine it.” But that way of thinking is seriously mistaken. War can and must be “refined” ethically. Our country needs its officers and soldiers to uphold the laws of war, in part because when they don’t, they undermine our war aims.
The contemporary laws of war also reflect ancient traditions of military chivalry and humanity shared among most of the world’s religions and cultures. And they’re not some foreign imposition on our national ethic, they’re logical expressions of it. Furthermore, the laws of war have been affirmed in international treaties signed by U.S. presidents and ratified by Congress, and thus have the full force of federal law under our Constitution. Humane treatment of all enemy combatants is the legal obligation of our military personnel, even when some of our enemies don’t reciprocate.
And in fact, the vast majority of American soldiers and officers have absolutely no desire to harm innocent people. Some of the colonels I’ve met at the War College are the most morally admirable leaders I’ve met, period, in any profession. It’s amazing how their character and leadership skills and techniques have enabled their troops to uphold their honor even in extremely stressful cases.
I don’t want to minimize the wrenching nature of the dilemmas our military personnel sometimes face against insurgents and terrorists. But there are good reasons for insisting that our soldiers maintain high ethical standards even in those situations.
Do you feel in general that ethical behavior in society is gaining ground, or losing ground? Does the fact that we seem to be immersed in an era of declining resources have any effect on societal ethics?
Economic trouble brings obvious risks for people who are barely surviving, and who may think their only options are to break the law to gain a living. I’m probably not in a position to say whether ethics in America is improving or declining overall. But surveys give us mixed messages in any era of history. We see some evidence of people behaving unethically today, but we also know of many other people doing good deeds. Note also that the unethical conduct we’re paying for now in the banking and mortgage industries arose primarily during a boom time, not during hard times.
I do think society has improved ethically in some aspects in recent decades. Certainly race relations are much better now than they were in the past. Our views on the status of women have improved as well, thankfully. So our public affirmations of equality and justice as American birthrights are much closer to reflecting reality than they used to be.
Some of my 40-something students at the Army War College believe that young people today are overly obsessed with themselves and have little sense of community service. But I don’t think young people are any less engaged today than in the past, and they may even be more concerned about things like environmental protection and fair trade. Fifty years ago those initiatives barely existed. Davidson students certainly seem to care about people well beyond their immediate friends, as evinced in their overwhelming participation in community service. I’m very optimistic about the values of many of our young people today.
It seems that teaching professional military people who have first-hand experience with the dilemmas and questions you teach would be tremendously exciting. Why would you give that up to come teach undergraduates at Davidson?
My current students are certainly different in many respects from undergraduates, and the academic calendar at the Army War College is very different from a semester system like Davidson’s. Each class at the Army War College consists of 340 officers and civilians who are divided into 20 seminar groups that stay together through a long core curriculum from August to March, after which they finally take some elective courses. Teams of three faculty members rotate in each group teaching the core subjects.
Because our students are mostly officers who have been in the profession for 20-plus years, and most have been deployed in war zones, the nature of our discussions is often very different from those in the undergraduate classroom. We also benefit every year from having 40 officers from foreign countries. Experienced officers bring a lot of professional insights to the table, but some are very set in their ways and it can be hard to get them to consider new ideas.
The Army War College is a very important school with an important mission. It’s a good thing that its students are required to wrestle with ethical issues at this level before they go to a higher level of command, and I’m proud of my small contribution to that endeavor. But some of the ways in which the core curriculum is developed and taught there have been very frustrating to me, and I’ve had limited opportunities to teach ethics, my specialty.
I had previously taught undergrads for 10 years on the west coast, so I know how fulfilling it can be to work with younger minds. And Davidson is one of the most amazing academic communities I’ve encountered. The combination of serious scholarship by smart students and faculty and devotion to great teaching is superb. I’ve just visited for a few days so far, but I’ve also found it to be an incredibly friendly and collegial community as well.
In 2002 you wrote articles on “Challenges in Teaching Ethics to Undergraduates.” Do you plan to reread that a few times before arriving on campus? What are some of the challenges you’ll face?
Some of the challenges in teaching ethics to undergrads surprisingly also show up among my middle-aged officers. Some people young and old have a tendency to offer knee-jerk, absolute responses to ethical questions, or at the other end of the spectrum, to assume that ethics is fundamentally relative to cultures or individual preferences. Part of my vocation is to help people at any age come to grips with the drawbacks inherent in such unreflective approaches to ethics, and to provoke or inspire them to explore more sensible approaches.
One of the challenges in teaching undergraduates is to make vivid to them some of the ethical issues that they are likely to face in their future professional lives. I typically get at that in the classroom through compelling articles and case studies, as well as an occasional film and guest speaker. But obviously it’s one thing to imagine such dilemmas as an 18-22-year-old, and quite another to have wrestled with them personally as a 40–year-old. That suggests one of the most important missions of an undergraduate ethics program—helping students anticipate ethical dilemmas that may arise in their lives so that they’re better prepared to deal with them responsibly when they occur.
What is your vision of the Vann Center’ for Ethics role in campus life?
First, I’ll be responsible for teaching some courses in ethics. I’ll begin this fall with a course on “Ethics and Warfare.” For the spring of 2010 I’m considering teaching ethics in business or sports. Second, I’ll be assisting other departments to develop or enhance the ethics components of their courses and programs. Third, the center will host forums on campus outside the classroom to discuss a wide range of ethical issues. A fourth goal of mine over the long term is for the center to sponsor research and publications in ethics by faculty and students, many of which we’ll post on our Web site. We might even be able to stimulate book-length anthologies of essays by Davidsonians and others. Finally, I hope to write op-ed pieces occasionally and serve as a resource on ethics to the media.
Ethics has been alive and well at Davidson College since its inception, including but going well beyond its Honor Code. So I don’t remotely imagine myself as “bringing ethics” to the school. Rather I see the Center primarily as a creative catalyst for analysis, reflection and discussion on important ethical issues, and a facilitator of interdisciplinary dialogue on the teaching of ethics.
You have been an avid musician in the past, singing in church and professional choirs, and playing trumpet in the symphony orchestra. Are you still active?
I haven’t been active musically for a while, but a couple of people I’ve met at Davidson are already trying to recruit me for the choir! I haven’t sung for 10 years now because I was with two great choirs in Seattle during the 1990s that spoiled me. But I look forward to getting back into practice at Davidson.
I’m pleased and honored to have been appointed to this new position. In every respect it’s a dream job for me, but I honestly think that I’m also very well suited for it. I’m extremely grateful to the faculty and administrators who selected me for this wonderful role, and look forward to getting started in July.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.
Posted By: Bill Giduz