The Voices of War

75. Dr Pauline Shanks Kaurin - On Obedience And The Fine Line Between Hero And Villain

VOW 75 | Obedience


Today, I’m speaking with Dr. Pauline Shanks Kaurin who is a Professor of Professional Military Ethics at the US Naval War College where she specialises in military ethics, just war tradition and applied ethics.

She is the author of ‘On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for Military, Citizenry and Community’, which is a book we discussed today. As you will find out, the subject matter this book addresses goes to the core of what it means to be a soldier and to be a citizen. Some of the topics we covered are:

  • Military ethics as the link between international relations and philosophy
  • Defining obedience
  • Discussion on ‘choice’ and moral responsibility
  • Impact of mis- and disinformation on agency
  • Trump, ‘Oath Keepers’ and obedience
  • How bias and heuristics impact responsibility
  • The cases of Ehren Watada and Stuart Schiller
  • The idea of ‘disciplined disobedience’
  • When epistemological worlds collide
  • Training for ‘critical obedience’


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Dr Pauline Shanks Kaurin – On Obedience And The Fine Line Between Hero And Villain

My guest is Dr. Pauline Shanks Kaurin, who is the Stockdale Chair and professor of Professional Military Ethics at the US Naval War College, where she specialises in Military Ethics, Just War Tradition and Applied Ethics. Her publications include, When Less is Not More, Expanding the Combatant, Non-Combatant Distinction with Fear and Trembling, A Qualified Defence of Non-lethal Weapons and The Warrior, Military Ethics and Contemporary Warfare: Achilles Goes Asymmetrical. Additionally, Pauline was a featured contributor for The Strategy Bridge and is published in Clear Defence, The Wavell Room, Newsweek, War on the Rocks, Grounded Curiosity, US Naval Institute Proceedings and Just Security, as well as a variety of academic journals.

She’s also the author of the book I finished titled On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for Military, Community and Citizenry, which is the topic of our discussion. As you will find out, the subject matter that this book addresses goes to the core of what it means to be a soldier but also what it means to be a citizen. Both, as we’ll find out, I infuse with certain rights and responsibilities, which are critical to the functioning of our democracies but are rarely discussed. Pauline, thank you very much for joining me on the show.

Thank you so much for having me. I’ll say upfront that I’m here in my capacity and not representing the views of the Department of Defence, the Department of Navy or the US Naval War College. I’m super excited to be here and super excited that you read my book.

Firstly, thank you for clarifying that. Also, as far as the book is concerned, I showed you the number of tags I’ve got in the book. I’m probably around 30, which ought to be indicative of what I thought of the book and its importance and how many subjects it covers that are critical to understanding what it means to be a soldier but also the roles and responsibilities of citizens. I feel it’s one of those books that I’ll keep going back to time and time again because each chapter has almost its own book within it that one could explore and unpack in a lot more detail. Thank you for writing it.

I wrote it for people to read who are not just academics. It’s very gratifying that people who are not philosophers are reading it. The tags in the book may also be your points of rebuttal which is fine too, as philosophers. We like that.

They’re not rebuttals. They’re questions. I’ve sent you a couple ahead of time. Certainly, a couple of questions that were inspired by key points in the book the least that it resonated with me. Maybe before we dive into the obedience idea and what it means, maybe we can find out a little bit about you and what motivated firstly, you’re entering into Philosophy. Why Military Ethics? Where does it come from for you?

My journey is not a linear journey by any means. My father was an Air Force non-commissioned officer. He was a missileer. I grew up watching war movies and arguing with my father about whether air power was supreme. I thought it wasn’t and he thought it was. I learned to argue and debate things pretty early on. I went to college thinking I was going to go to law school. I got to college and was in the honours program.

The first class was a Philosophy class, ancient Greek Philosophy. I got into Philosophy in that way. In my third year, I took a Philosophy of Law class where we talked about action and intention and mens rea. Also, at the same time, I had been interested in international relations but I couldn’t decide which of those I wanted to do.

In my senior year, I did a Foreign Policy semester at American University in Washington, DC. It was my version of the study abroad. My dad wouldn’t bring me to go overseas. We said, “You can go to DC. That’s freshly a foreign country anyway.” I got there and did a wonderful internship but discovered that wasn’t my vibe. I decided to go to graduate school. In Philosophy, I went to the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg for my Master’s and then went to Temple in Philadelphia for my PhD and took a Military Ethics class there.

It wasn’t until I took that class that I realised how Philosophy, International Relations and my interests fit together. That’s how I got into Military Ethics. I always enjoyed Philosophy but there were pieces of it that were too abstract for me. I enjoyed International Relations but there were pieces that weren’t conceptual enough for me. Military Ethics is a natural blending of those two somewhere in an Aristotelian means.

Maybe it’s obvious to some but why is Military Ethics a link between International Relations and Philosophy?

Military Ethics asks questions about the morality and the ethics of things that we do in international relations, specifically around questions of war, when we engage in war and when we ought to engage in war. At least when I was in college, Classical Realism held sway. This was in the late 80s or early 90s. I’m betraying my antiquity here. It was the end of the Cold War. Classical realism was still very much what my professors were teaching. There was no discussion of ethics and international relations. Military Ethics was the place where the two can have conversations with each other. They don’t always have conversations with each other.

Military ethics is a link between international relations and philosophy because it asks questions about the morality and the ethics of things that we do in international relations, specifically around questions of war. Share on X

One of the areas that I’m particularly interested in, especially that I teach at the War College, is what’s the intersection between strategy and Ethics. I spent last term teaching in our Strategy and Policy class and doing what I call ethical experiments, trying to get my students to think about Ethics and strategy. They were good sports. It was interesting. It’s a melding of two different disciplines. At least two for me. I’m not the kind of person that can settle in one place. I like to go back and forth. If you read the book, there’s a lot of Henry the 5th in one chapter and then there’s some discussion of Aristotle and then there’s Hume. There’s some moral Psychology. I was never good at focusing.

That’s what gives your argument depth because you straddle a number of topics. It won’t resonate with one stream of thought or one school of thought. Even in this last answer, you’ve straddled 3 or 4 ultimately domains, whether it’s around politics and might is right. How we linked that to strategy and how we then infuse ethics to go then and fight the war. It applies right from the macro to the micro.

In my view at least, that was the strength of the book because you can link the power of the state, the duty and responsibility of the state, to the power of the soldier, the duty and responsibility of the soldier. I’m conscious that both of those words, duty and responsibility are complex in themselves. Maybe we can dive into the actual book. What is the main thesis of your book? Whom is it written for?

My Achilles book was written for an academic audience and it was my scholarly track record for fifteen years, different papers and things that I have written. This I wrote from scratch. It was written for more of a lay audience. It was written more for military practitioners, people who were interested broadly in national security, people who were interested in Philosophy and mainly for my students.

VOW 75 | Obedience
On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for the Military Citizenry and Community (Standford Studies in Jewish History and Culture)

Obedience was something that kept coming up in many of the classes that I taught when I taught undergraduate. Obedience always seemed to be coming up and was something that students were interested in. When I started thinking about writing this book, it was 2015 and 2016. We were in the midst of the presidential election and all kinds of interesting things were coming up. I also taught Army ROTC and participated in their program at this institution. I had Army cadets who took my Military Ethics class.

Lots of these kinds of questions were coming up. It was to engage some of these questions in a deeper way. When I looked around, there weren’t a lot of philosophical treatments of obedience outside of religious obedience. There are some treatments around civil obedience and disobedience. There’s a huge literature on that but there wasn’t a lot of literature thinking about what exactly is obedience. In particular, when is it morally justified? The thesis of the book is that for obedience to be a virtue and it’s not always a virtue, it has to be justified in certain kinds of ways. I use just war criteria like legitimate authority and some other criteria to try to suss out under what conditions is obedience a virtue.

How is it related to other virtues like loyalty and discipline? What does this look like in practice? How do we figure out what the right thing to do is? Ultimately, I come down to the idea that obedience is negotiation. It’s not an either you’re obedient or not. It’s a range. There’s a range between obedience, disobedience and lots of stuff in between. That it’s not just a virtue for the military. We have to think about this in the civilian context. I use Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of community of practice. Certainly, the military is a community of practice.

What does that mean for those who are yet to read the book?

A community of practice is essentially a group of people who are bounded by a shared history, values, sense of norms and sense of practices. That could be the US Army, Naval War College, religious community or Rhode Island, where I live, as a political community. It could be the United States of America or Australia. There are different kinds of communities of practice and sizes but they share some history and value, a sense of what it means to be a member of that community.

That changes over time. What it means to be an American is different than it was at our founding. There is this sense of belonging to this community. Part of what I was trying to get at so much of the literature and obedience focuses on it as an individual question. Am I going to be obedient to the dress code at the Naval War College or not? It misses an important piece, which is that obedience is not a virtue that one can practice in isolation.

By definition, obedience involves other people. When I tell my kid to go clean his room, whether he’s obedient or not, there’s a community of practice. It may just be the two of us implicated there. Obedience is one of these interesting virtues. We would say it’s not just self regarding thinking about myself but it’s other-regarding. It involves other people too.

Obedience is not a virtue that one can practice in isolation. By definition, obedience involves other people. Share on X

How obedience is embodied in a particular community and practice dictates their behaviour. In many ways, in my mind, I hear it almost as a subculture or habits of a particular social group, whatever that social group might be. It could be a football club to a unit in the military. It’s the norms, practices and symbols that are carried and embraced by that particular social group. That’s all part of how they contextualise who they are and who they’re not, how they set themselves apart from someone else.

It’s not quite American football season yet but I’m a Seattle Seahawks fan and that’s how I identify. I live in Patriot’s country, unfortunately. There are very different ways of being between the two football clubs, as there are between American football clubs and regular football. You all would say regular football. Obedience can’t be understood apart from those communities. In terms of the military, that’s the military profession. In terms of the citizenry, that is probably going to be our political and social communities. Those play a part too. It’s not just what the individual thinks.

Can we define obedience to set a starting definition of the term? We’ll explore a little bit more into whether it’s a virtue or the negotiation loyalty differences between these different terms that you unpack in the book.

The working definition of obedience at the beginning of the book is that obedience is the intentional and voluntary carrying out of orders or commands given by a commander or other authority figure who represents legitimate political authority in action. That’s one of the just war criteria. It has to be intentional and voluntary. It has to be in something in response to some commands or orders. Those orders have to be issued by some kind of legitimate political authority relative to the context.

VOW 75 | Obedience
Obedience: Obedience is the intentional and voluntary carrying out of orders or commands given by a commander or other authority figure who represents legitimate political authority in action.


When I tell my kid to go clean his room, I’m the legitimate political authority in my house. That’s where I start. We have to move into thinking about what makes obedience a virtue. When is it morally justified? The arguments about practical reasoning and negotiation are designed. The first half of the book is flushing out, “What does obedience look like? When is it a virtue?” The second half is, “How would this work in practice? How do we figure out when we should obey and whether we should obey to what degree?” I talked about some case studies where people, in one case, engaged in mutiny and how that was a negotiation around the bounds of obedience.

This was a French in World War, was it?

The French mutinies on the Western front. This is interesting because they renegotiated command authority. You can’t fight a war if people won’t fight.

It’s the idea of leadership. If you are not leading anyone, then are you a leader? It’s the same kind of thing. If no one’s obedient to you, then do we have obedience? One of the flags, the number of times I’ve put flags in the book, is this idea of intentional and voluntary. The reason those two particular words strike me is because of my particular era of interest or something that I’ve explored in the show a number of times before. To what extent are we as autonomous as we’d like to think that we are? I spoke to Jessica Wolfendale about her book on War Crimes.

She does talk about the situational and then the dispositional account of how the environment can shape us. She explained in the book that yes, the situation matters but so does the personality, character and the person that will ultimately produce behaviour. For me, intentional, involuntary, if I can shape someone’s behavior by creating certain conditions and circumstances, to what extent can I then say that it was their volition that they did something?

We know through a number of experiments whether it might be obedience. You mentioned Milgram’s obedience research. To what extent did those people flick that switch or turn that knob to the lethal electricity intentionally involuntarily. 60% or 62% of them, did in a long case, at least. Some opening thoughts on that, maybe.

I wrote this book very fast within the space of a year and a half.

Given the density and depth of the book, it was amazing.

It was written from scratch. I sat down and said, “I’ll write a book about obedience.” One of the things that I would clarify is if I could go back and rewrite it, which is implicit in the book but it’s not made explicit. There are many things that we think of as obedience that I want to argue are not obedience. Compliance is not obedience. I choose voluntary and intentional very intentionally. Part of what I’m thinking about is I’m sorry that we have to digress through Aristotle.

Compliance is not obedience. If we're going to reify obedience as a virtue, it needs to be voluntary. Share on X

I’m a philosopher. In book three of Nicomachean Ethics, for those of you at home who want to look it up, he distinguishes between voluntary and mixed actions. Involuntary actions are those that come from the agent. Mixed actions are where there’s some influence, pressure or something in the environment that gets the agent to do something that they wouldn’t ordinarily do but it still comes from them.

It gives a famous example of the ship’s captain. He’s sailing into a storm. If he doesn’t throw the cargo overboard, the ship’s going to sink. Under normal circumstances, the captain would not be throwing cargo overboard but because of these circumstances, he chooses to do so. We would still say, “It wasn’t a coerced action. It wasn’t an involuntary action. He was still making a choice.” Many of our actions in Military Ethics probably are more in the mixed realm, which worries me when it comes to obedience. If we’re going to reify obedience as a virtue, it’s got to be voluntary.

I think of a lot of what we do. I work for the government so we have to do all these required training. Left to my devices, that is not what I would be doing with my free time. I still choose to do it. I sit down and put on my calendar, say I’m going to do my required training. It’s more of a mixed action. With my actions there, I wouldn’t say they’re obedience in the full sense. That’s more like compliance. I use some examples from Tim O’Brien’s writing from the things they carried. He tries to decide whether he is going to flee as a candidate to evade the draft.

He ultimately decides not to because, as he describes it, the path of least resistance. I argue that action is not obedient. Passive obedience is the term that I use, which is more like some kind of compliance. There’s a range of behaviours. What I’m interested in is the kind of obedience that we would want to say is a virtue and that you have a moral obligation to engage in. I want a very narrow definition of obedience because I don’t want compliance. On the other hand, I don’t want something where people are coerced. If I hold a gun to someone’s head and say, “You’re going to do that,” and they do it, that’s not obedience.

This is where it becomes interesting in my view. We don’t have to get into the debate of free will. I did have Gregg Caruso on who’s a noted free-will skeptic. I tend to subscribe to the similar view that I’m a product of everything that’s come before me. I didn’t make a choice of any of that. I didn’t choose where I was born, which language I speak, my circumstances or the people that I met who gave me an opportunity as much as I voluntarily did at that instance or at least. There’s a difference between you volunteer and voluntary but choice, to me, is a difficult word because I don’t necessarily agree that choice comes into it.

It’s what thought pops up in my mind, which I don’t control. That will ultimately determine the decision I make voluntarily. Where this becomes a challenge for me is because of the information that I have, the environment that I’m infused in, the community of practice that I’m a part of and the embodied norms and behaviours that I’m co-creating and embodying and a part of. Also, I’m consuming and belonging to. It’s very difficult to demand of me such power and strength to be able to step outside of all of that.

It’s the weight and the burden of my previous history in myself, my life and everything else to step outside of that and look at whether it’s the right thing to do to be obedient or not in a particularly given setting. Unless I’ve had prior experience, I’ve hit previous bumpers that have made me think about these things. This is why I like these conversations because hopefully, there will be bumpers for someone as they’re reading that maybe Ethics and these types of discussions are important for what they do in their day-to-day life. I wonder how you view choice and the power of the environment and interacting with a person and everything they embody.

I think back to Aristotle’s view about mixed actions, I tend to be what flossers call a soft determinant. There are lots of influences in our environment but it’s not the case that we have no choices. I liken it to a salad bar. You don’t control what’s at the salad bar. Once you walk up to the salad bar, among the choices that you’re given, you can construct the salad in a certain way and not in others.

Is there not a reason that you’re doing that? There’s a reason why you like tomatoes and not cucumbers.

It might be. I tend to be on the soft determinants side because I also think human beings are unaccountable. I might walk up to the salad bar and say, “I like tomatoes but today, I’m going to try cucumbers, even though last time I had cucumbers, I got sick but I’m feeling rebellious now.”

There’s the reason and the course. Where did that come from?

It could be like, “I feel like doing this today.” There are lots of influences in our environment. This book came out in 2020. The conversation about disinformation was not in the same place when I was writing in 2016, 2017 and 2018. There was a conversation about disinformation and there was disinformation going on but people weren’t obsessed with the epistemology theory of knowledge in the way that they are in 2022, which is great as a philosopher. I’m super excited to do that. Lots of epistemologists have jobs that they didn’t have before. We do have to reckon with that. If we’re going to say people are morally responsible, then that requires something like an agency.

You notice the language in the book isn’t, “Did they choose this? Did it come from them? Are they the agent? Are they the causal originator of the thing?” I spend a lot of time undergraduate dealing with action theory, thinking about determinism and all that stuff. That stuff gives me headaches. The agency is a more productive way to think about it because then we could go in and look at the agency and say, “Are there influences? To what degree do those influences interfere with someone’s agency?” I have a kid and I would say some things in his environment are such that he’s not quite a full moral agent yet with regard to certain things.

In other things, he is because he’s learned how to step back and step outside. If we’re going to have a moral responsibility, we do have somewhat of a moral obligation to tend to our epistemology. Many people either don’t want to do that. It’s a very difficult thing to do, especially if looking at your epistemology involves questioning or coming to terms with beliefs that are central. I hold what’s called a coherence theory of truth. We’re epistemological conservatives. We have lots of beliefs and for most people, they fit together. We have a universe of beliefs that all fit together. Some of them may be super wacky to other people.

For you, that makes sense.

VOW 75 | Obedience
Obedience: We have a universe of beliefs that all fit together. Some of them may be super wacky to other people. But for you, that makes sense.


They all fit together like the leopard shoes are the centre of my epistemological conservatives along with the steak. If my friend who’s a vegetarian says to me, “Do you realise all the harm that comes from your steak eating,” I take this on board and rethink that commitment to steak being the centre of my epistemological universe. The problem is it isn’t just one belief in isolation. It’s connected to other beliefs. It’s not changing out an end table in your living room, but it’s changing out your entire kitchen. You got to recalibrate everything.

That’s a pain. It’s disorienting and existentially traumatic. People are not going to do that. That’s a real question but we can still have agency. It may be a more limited kind of agency but we still have some agency. We calibrate responsibility to the level of agency that people have. The ship’s captain, we’re not going to hold him to the same standard of responsibility for losing the cargo as we would. If there had been no storm, he’s like, “I wasn’t feeling this so I decided to throw it overboard.” We’re like, “We’re holding you responsible for that one.”

There are no mitigating circumstances. I’ve argued this in other places as well. The agency is a complicated notion. It’s not as simple as you either have agency or you don’t. Like with obedience, it’s arranged. My teenager comes home late from he was supposed to be home at a particular time. I say to him, “I was about to call the cops. What’s up?” He was like, “I didn’t check my phone and I lost track of time. We were having a great time.”

Are those mitigating circumstances? Kind of but they’re ones that he could have addressed. They weren’t outside of his control or it wasn’t peer pressure. It wasn’t something that I could look at and say, “You’re a teenager. Your frontal lobe is still developing. You’re still trying to figure things out. You just didn’t check your phone.” He says to me, “I knew if I checked my phone, then I have to know what time it is.”

The thought didn’t pop up in his mind.

It popped up and he is like, “I’m not going to do that because if I know what time it is, then I might have to change my behaviour and I’m having a good time. I don’t want to do that.” That’s a different situation than if his phone was dead and he couldn’t check the time or a lot of peer pressure. His friends said, “No, we want you to stay.” We would’ve had a conversation about how you deal with peer pressure and what are the consequences of that. There are different ways to think of agency.

The private first class, the youngest enlisted person in the military, has agency but not the same kind of agency that a general or flag officer has. We have to think about this in a more nuanced way. I wanted an account of obedience that was also going to be nuanced. It’s either obedience or disobedience. I didn’t want to call a virtue what is compliance. Compliance is not a virtue. This is an attempt to have a more nuanced account. That means that it’s messy.

What it does is what it should do. It should invite us to wrestle with these questions. This is why I say this is a book I’ll keep coming back to because I love the fact that you’ve got the case studies in the last chapter and then the questions. Talk about professional military education. You could grab a platoon or a company, a battalion and get to chew these.

That was quite intentional. This seems like a topic whether you’re a civilian or military. This is a question that always came up with my undergraduates, trying to think about where the lines are here. What would you do in X, Y, and Z situations? These are difficult situations. The book debuted in March 2020, as we were locking down for COVID. My grand book tour wasn’t going to be that grand, but I was going to go to DC and hang out with some friends.

It ended up by Zoom, but then on May 20, 2020, the Lafayette Square happened. Our General Milley marched to Lafayette Square with President Trump. You had these protests. Some people called them riots. We have all of these questions about was the military is going to be called to put down political protests and so on. All of these questions happened. When the first round of calls came for shows like yours, what people were interested in was chapter nine, which is on civil-military relations, which is something I dabble in.

It’s not a central area but the issue along with the issue eventually of vaccinations. Should members of the military obey the order if they’re commanded to get the COVID vaccination? They’re commanded to get all kinds of bazillions of other vaccinations. This became a big issue. It was interesting what I had in mind when I was writing the book, but then events overtook me. After it was already in the can and I couldn’t change anything, then all this stuff happened. January 6th, 2021 happened.

It’s one of the questions I alluded to, at least. It was a little bit later in the piece I wanted to address it. We are talking about obedience and a little bit about the idea of misinformation and disinformation, the way I understand obedience. Unless it’s blind obedience, which is what we don’t want, your book makes that very clear. We don’t want live obedience. We want intentional and voluntary.

In other words, my agency matters. I’m not merely a tool of the state that can be wielded in whichever way the state wants. When I say I, anybody that’s in a military uniform. We had this almost paramilitary in the US. It’s not almost. It is a militia, as they would like to call themselves oftentimes better armed than the local police force. The president then says, “Stand back and stand by.”

In their world and lived experience, the only information they have, the only bubble they embody and the only community and practice they live with are the one that tells them that the state is oppressing them. The state will take your elections and put chips into your arm. The state is a cabal of child molesters. If that’s all they know and then even the president says, “Stand back and stand by,” can we say that they’re disobedient? Are they obedient? Where’s the line?

I don’t think it’s an either-or here because there are two things. First of all, we could ask not just what they believed but what they had the capacity to know. It’s one thing. If you believe X, Y and Z are the case like that, everyone should wear leopard high heels. Maybe I hold that belief and I orient my world around it, which I do take a look at in my closet.

You embody that in your practice.

I’m also fully aware that there are, in principle, other views. I could, if I so choose, access those views. I think they’re wrong. I’m aware that they’re there. There’s an important question with disinformation. I don’t have a good answer to this. Maybe Clint Watts, who is a smart guy on disinformation in the United States, could help us with this. There are some people who are in that bubble who are aware that there are other views, and they think they’re wrong. They choose to ignore them, in which case then, their actions that come about as a result of being in that bubble are still a choice.

There’s this famous example of you getting drunk, getting in a car and hitting someone. The question becomes, “Did you choose to get drunk?” If you did, then that action may be mixed, but it still came from you. Whereas if someone slipped you some drugs or something and you weren’t aware there was alcohol or that you’d been drugged and then you got in the car, that’s a different thing. The group of people who don’t know they’re in a bubble and don’t have access to any other information, there probably is a group of those people. It’s probably small. We have to treat them as a different case. This is the cult mentality.

There are other people who are like, “I like this particular worldview because I don’t like liberals. They make fun of me, and I don’t like them. They make me feel bad.” I’m choosing to be part of this community of practice, even though I know there are other communities of practice. One of the points that the book makes is that we are members of multiple communities of practice at any given time. With that comes moral obligations to tend our epistemological house.

Sometimes we decide, “Where I’m living, it’s leopard shoes. I don’t care about the zebra people and people who say you shouldn’t wear flats but I’m still aware that there’s another view.” That’s why we have to look at the agency that way if they were to see and they did not have access. It’s very powerful when the president of the United States says something because we’re supposed to be able to trust, at least to some degree, our political leader. That one is a special case but it impacts the agency.

To go back to the dismantling of the cognitive dissonance we would experience, yes, there might be competing theories but the fact that I need to sort out the framing of my thinking, my sense of belonging, my group identity and the identity of my community of practice, it’s very easy to discard those. It’s exactly what’s happening. They’re part of the conspiracy. The facts. We know alternate facts very well. Also, the halo effect or halo bias. We can talk about President Trump as an example where it doesn’t matter what he did.

He said it himself. He could kill someone or shoot someone, and Fifth Avenue wouldn’t lose a single voter or along those lines. That’s because he recognises that the good that people perceive in him overrides anything else he might do. It’s because of this bias that ultimately exists almost non-voluntary. We have to admit that’s where bias sees him in many ways. It’s my cognitive heuristics that make my life easier by not having to wrestle with all these various inputs that are coming in.

I would push back a little bit. There’s a small group of people that might have what Aristotle called unforeseeable ignorance, which renders their actions involuntary. You’re responsible for your epistemological choices. I choose that leopard high heels are the bomb. They are the greatest sense of life bread, which I would never as an ethics professor do, but if I decided to commit murder on the basis of that belief, I’m responsible for that. I don’t get to say, “I have this belief that anyone who doesn’t wear leopard high heels is wrong.” I chose that belief.

In your experience, have we found that people think like that? Do people sit there debating, discussing or cognitively making choices to believe?

I don’t think they’re not in a philosophical sense of, “I will sit down and reflect.” I’m from Montana, which is a more conservative state. Many people are more conservative politically. Some people made a choice a long time ago to be conservative. They see this as whoever the conservative standard barriers, they’re going to go with whoever that is.

We see that in Australia as well a lot.

There are other people who like when Trump came on the scene. They found him entertaining. They thought he was cool, and he had this rap from the ‘80s. There were lots of different reasons why people might be attracted to, whether it’s Oath Keepers or The Three Percenters. We have lots of those militia groups in Montana. The Unabomber was hanging out in Montana for a while.

There were lots of reasons people adopt views. Some of which are complicated, but to say that they don’t have any choice. We might have different reasons for adopting a view, but some people might say, “I wasn’t crazy about Trump, but I don’t like how liberals talk down to me. I don’t like people looking down on me because I’m not comfortable with X, Y, and Z.” Disinformation is serious, and you’re right about the bias and heuristics. Part of what we teach at the war college is to unpack what your biases and characteristics are.

My experience has been that a lot of people, it’s not that they’re uncritical. It’s that they’ve made a decision. They’re aware of things. It’s like the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial. People pick sides to be like, “I know Johnny Depp did all this stuff, but I like The Pirates of the Caribbean, so I’m going to be in Camp Depp.” There are all kinds of complicated reasons, and I’m nervous about saying that just because you were the victim of disinformation, you don’t have any agency or responsibility for the actions you take based on that disinformation. There are different levels of responsibility.

You could have the person that is clueless and consumed all this stuff and who was radicalised online. We see those. They get so pulled in that we would say, “In some sense, they’ve lost their certainly epistemological agency. If they’re acting on the basis of being essentially brainwashed, that changes the picture of responsibility.” If I decided to join the Oath Keepers because I want to usher in the next Civil War and I’m consuming all of this stuff, and I’ve made that intentional choice, we should hold that person responsible.

I don’t mean to be confrontational. That’s not my intention.

It’s a great question. How responsible can we hold people who have consumed or have been exposed to or influenced by disinformation? There’s a range of influence and agency. It’s like, “Did you take the first drink? Things then got out of hand or did someone slip you a mickey in your drink and you had no idea that you were intoxicated?” Those are very different cases and there are all kinds of cases in between. The disinformation thing isn’t something I talked about in the book but it’s something that I’m glad you brought it up.

It does impact that agency question how we think of to what degree is obedience voluntary. There’s certainly a lot of literature on this like war crimes literature and Holocaust literature about to what extent. Chris Browning, who wrote the book Ordinary Men, was my colleague at PLU when I first got there. It’s a great book if you haven’t read it. It raises this issue about the influence of ideology and what it can do to ordinary people who said, “I buy this and I’m going to do heinous things.”

VOW 75 | Obedience
Obedience: Disinformation impacts the agency question how we think of to what degree is the obedience voluntary.


I have a personal connection as an ethnic Bosnian whose arguably ethnic group, not myself was targeted for genocide. I’m trying to wrestle and I’ve spoken to people who were directly impacted by it to try and understand how is it that good people come to do evil things. I talk about war crimes a lot because nobody’s born a war criminal. When I spoke with David about this, he brought up the fact that I forgot his name, the sergeant in the Royal Marines and his circumstances. He was the one that executed an Afghan Taliban prisoner. It was used as his defence, not merely mitigating circumstances.

He was fatigued. He didn’t receive all the right training. His father had passed away, either before he deployed or while he was on deployment. His cognitive state was deeply affected by his environment. He was used to turn over from murder. In other words, his crime was diminished. It was used as a defence, not merely as mitigating circumstances, which is a powerful recognition, a relatively new one, that we can even talk about these things. That’s the point you’re making. This is all post-politics, a post might as right, post the CNN factor, where we get to see things and as civilians, get to reconcile with what we see on our TVs of our soldiers doing in our name.

It’s very difficult to recognise that my social group can do evil things. For all the various biases that we know of in-group versus outgroup and everything my people do is good, just and righteous and the others aren’t. Obedience, by its definition, is intentional, voluntary and legitimate authority. It is so deeply infused in how I conceptualise the world around me. This is the reason I brought in Trump and the Oath Keepers because, ultimately, we can say it was intentional, voluntary and by the absolute most legitimate authority in the country.

Here I want to maybe ask you about Ehren Watada, who chose not to go to Iraq, in 2003. He was a second lieutenant at the time. He was then court-martialed. It’s only post-realisation and the general global opinion shifting that this was not a just war and that Iraq might have been a mistake. Chilcot review in the UK explicitly says it was not. It was groupthink. We need to stop and think about it next time. What was it about him that nudged him into disobedience, given that everybody else was like, “We’re going.”

It was a super interesting case because where I taught during that time was next door to a Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which is where he was stationed. I was teaching ROTC cadets. This was the subject of some energetic conversations for a couple of years in my class. At the time, while there were people, like myself, who were opposed on record, opposed to the second Iraq war, I opposed it on just war grounds.

He did as well in his defence.

He said, “I’ll go back to Afghanistan. You can deploy me to Afghanistan because that’s a just war but I won’t go to Iraq.” I never talked to him but my sense from the reports, conversations and people who knew him was that this was a principled stand. The fact that he was willing to go back to Afghanistan demonstrates that so this wasn’t like, “I don’t want to deploy.” He’s like, “Send me to Afghanistan. I’m not going to Iraq.” That raised an interesting question about what information was he basing that judgment on.

Chapter seven in the book is about prudence, what Aristotle calls practical reasoning, this capacity to think about and not in a platonic wisdom kind of way but in very practical deliberation. What are the relevant factors in the case? What do I need to think about to get to a judgment that this war is immoral and I shouldn’t deploy? That piece and capacity that we have to think about things and for him to step outside became clear later. There are other people who agreed with him but who weren’t willing to take the same stand for career reasons, pure pressure reasons and lots of not wanting to disappoint their mom reasons.

Were they disobedient?

The interesting question is if you know something’s wrong or you think something’s wrong and you do it anyway, how are we to think about that? From the perspective of the US military at the time, he made a voluntary, intentional choice. In the book, I talk about the range between obedience and disobedience. He was out there. He was explicitly disobedient. He made public pronouncements to say, “I will not go.” He’s not like my teen. I tell him to clean his room and he’s slow rolling it and passive aggress but I didn’t hear what you said much.

That’s somewhere in between Watada. It was like, “I’m not going.” He was in the newspapers. I would say that was explicit disobedience. Looking at that, I would say that was justified disobedience. The thing about if you’re going to be disobedient, first of all, you have to be willing to take the consequences, which he did. In this case, you have to be able to articulate the reasons for your disobedience to your community of practice.

If you’re going to be disobedient, first of all, you have to be willing to take the consequences. Share on X

This is a slippery slope for me. This is where it gets tricky for me.

In his case, there were two communities of practice. One was the military, the profession. The other was the broader civilian community for whom he works. Everyone in the military works for me and will not be persecuted, the citizenry that’s employed by the state and the citizens. If he’d gone to Iraq, he would’ve been doing what he was doing in my name. There are two audiences. If you’re going to be disobedient, my argument is that you have to try to rationalise it, explain that or articulate that to the community of practice in question.

It may be the case. I don’t remember if I talk about this in the book. Colin Kaepernick and his NFL protest was an interesting case. Once again, multiple communities of practice to which he’s appealing multiple audiences. In some of those audiences, he was persuasive. Others he was not. There were consequences. The NFL, notably, was one of the audiences he was not able to persuade. There has to be this attempt to make that articulation in terms of the shared values of that community of practice. Watada made his articulation in terms of the standards and the norms of the military profession, in particular just war principle.

Based on the knowledge and research he did in preparation to deploy, he read and got exposed to information that made him question the dominant narrative of the community of practice that he’s a part of. When I transfer that onto the Oath Keepers or whatever other groups in the US or the vax hesitant community, I’m forced to apply the same lens to them. With my biases and understanding of the world, I have no choice but to shake my head and go, “What are you thinking?” I have to step back and go, “This is what they’re reading and seeing. This is the way they view the world.” The Oath Keepers are the Ehren Watadas of Free America in their view. That’s where my issue is.

My question would be, “Could we say that the Oath Keepers attempted to articulate their position to the broader political community of practice, to persuade people before they engaged in violence?”

If they’re getting members, they must have.

That raises this interesting question. Milley talks about this notion of disciplined disobedience. He says, “The tricky part with discipline disobedience is you have to be right.” We can only judge if this was a good act of disobedience after the fact. We look back and say, “Ehren Watada got it right.” We’re looking at it saying, “No, the Oath Keepers got it wrong.” Is it possible that in 20 or 30 years, we will have a different view?” You’re right. This is why people get nervous about books, obedience and disobedience.

The tricky part with discipline disobedience is you have to be right. We can really only judge if it was a good act of disobedience after the fact. Share on X

I have to emphasise that I love the book.

I’m enjoying this immensely, but there is a danger to both obedience and disobedience. We have lots of cases of Jim Jones and other cult leaders who get people to do heinous, awful things. Ordinary Men is another example where we get people to do things or people disobey laws and then hurt other people because God told them to do it and their inner voice told them to do it. Part of the book is to try to have some check on whatever the epistemological universe is that you are in. You take the judgments that you acquired and then you have to test that against your community practice.

It could be the community practice is wrong too but at least we have some checks. That’s where the negotiation thing may come in. Professions change over time. Political communities of practice and religious communities of practice change over time. I want to leave the space for that negotiation but there is danger. I also don’t want to mitigate that. At the same time, we want people to disobey when they’re asked bad stuff.

Eddie Gallagher should not have done what he did. He committed war crimes. My dissertation was on the My Lai Massacre from the Vietnam War, where Lieutenant Calley’s troops killed upwards of 500 people and engaged in other heinous behaviour. His commander’s response that went in the trial was, “I didn’t know what Calley was up to.” You should have. That gets back to that. It’s not just what you know but what are you supposed to know.

That’s why this is so important because there’s a mirror. I’m a visual person. The way I see it in my mind forces the reader to put a mirror on their behaviours and biases. The biases, embodiment, symbols and subcultures, when they put on, in this case, a uniform, everything that comes with that applies to them in their lived experience as part of that unit and a particular community of practice. That’s a difficult thing to do and to do so honestly because of all the baggage that we carry, all the biases that we carry and all the kind of evolutionary byproducts of why we even have biases, it’s a lot to wrestle with but it does putting the mirror on is step one before you can start looking at someone else and understanding someone else.

One of the things I think about in the last few years is there are things that have happened that I’m not sure about. When I go back and look at the book, what I think about what I wrote, if I had to rewrite it now, how I would think about it the compliance issue.

To ask you on that then, while we are on Watada but Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Scheller, who very publicly went on LinkedIn. He had an outburst for a number of minutes about the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, accusing the higher-ups. There’s an entire saga that goes from him being ultimately discharged or fired. Many of his supporters, if you read the comments on LinkedIn, which is meant to be a professional platform rather than a Twitter-like platform or Facebook, it gets emotional, deep and serious very quickly. Two camps emerge. One is in favour, and that is the right thing to do and stand up.

“You’re a hero. Thank you, sir.” All of these kinds of notions of glorifying what he’s done. There’s the other side. The other side is saying, “If you had some issues and challenges with the command, you should have done it appropriately from inside the system. You were a disgrace to the uniform. You’ve disgraced yourself.” It’s going to be years from now that we determine whether he’s a hero or villain, just like Watada, but ultimately he’s being disobedient.

At least on that end of the spectrum, we have lots of these examples. Not that I’m equating Scheller and Hugh Thompson from the My Lai Massacre, but Hugh Thompson was not a popular dude at the time. It’s only many years later.

Give us context as to what Hugh’s role is.

Hugh Thompson was the helicopter pilot at the My Lai Massacre. He sets his helicopter down and tells his gunner to train their guns on Calley’s troops, the American troops that were massacring and sexually assaulting non-combatants in this village and says, “If they don’t stop, shoot them.” It arguably was perhaps disobedience but for sure was disloyalty, arguably saving quite a few lives. Later, he was commended for that but he was not a popular dude at the time. Calley, who was in command at My Lai at the time, was reified. People said they were railroading him. You’re raising this interesting question, whether it’s Scheller, the Oath Keepers or the anti-vaxxers, about these judgments we’re making are based on our epistemological worlds.

What do we do when we disagree about epistemology, the basic facts of the matter, the worldview or whatever it is that we use to make these judgments? I try to address that in the book, but it’s a complicated thing. At least in the United States, maybe in Australia as well, a lot is made of political polarisation. People need to go read the federalist papers and the hot sheets at the time of the American Revolution. Political polarisation is not a new thing. People have always disagreed fundamentally about deep stuff.

The question of how we navigate obedience given differences in worldviews or what we think the right thing is, whether it’s vaccines or going to war, getting out of a war, gun control, abortion or whatever it is, these are very difficult things to navigate, but I do think we have to step back. I’m not willing to call uncritical compliance, passive obedience or blind obedience a virtue. I don’t think that’s what moral people do. Moral people do wrestle with these things. They may make some wrong choices and lose the argument too.

Blind obedience is not a virtue. That's not what moral people do. Share on X

In this business of appealing to your community of practice, arguably, Colin Kaepernick lost part of the argument. Maybe he’s going to be persuasive in the long-term, but in some sense, we could say, at least at the time, he seemed to lose the argument. That’s part of it. He attempted to make an appeal. It wasn’t just, “This is what I’m going to do and I’m not going to tell you why.” Part of being an ethical person as opposed to a moral person is the ability to articulate your reasons.

VOW 75 | Obedience
Obedience: Part of being an ethical person as opposed to just a moral person is the ability to articulate your reasons.


I couldn’t agree more. I also wholeheartedly agree that blind obedience is not a virtue. I also have to then come back and say, “Was I then blindly obedient when I deployed on my operations? Were all of those people that went to Iraq, blindly obedient? Are they not virtuous? Should they be part of some collective punishment because, by that definition, they have some moral guilt in contributing to an unjust war, even if they might be afforded justly?” It begs the bigger question, “How do we then prevent that from happening the next time around? How do we equip and educate our soldiers and officers?” We can’t expect them all to be philosophers, nor do we want them to be. We can’t afford

No, because we got to get stuff done.

I do want to, as we lead out of this discussion, land on some ways on how we train for this kind of reasonable challenge. That’s why you conclude the book with critical obedience. How do we train for that? How do we instil that quality in our soldiers and officers?

While this is important for soldiers and officers, it’s also important for civilians, not just for the soldiers. If the Iraq war was an unjust war, I’d bear the ultimate responsibility for that. That isn’t just on the soldiers. In terms of training, I love the Brits and the reasonable challenge idea and critical obedience. This is practice, which is why there are questions at the back of the book and case studies. What you do is gather your people around it and talk about some reasonable scenarios that you might face or that you think are going to going to happen. You do what the stoic says, “We’re going to pre-rehearsed evils. We’re going to think about those situations before we get into it.”

Where are your lines? Getting into a situation is a bad time to think about where your red line is. You want to think about your red lines in advance. Everyone’s training schedules are jacked. This could be a 5 or 10-minute discussion max, or you watch a movie where there are these issues. There are lots of great pop culture movies where these issues come up. My favourite awful one is Tears of the Sun with Bruce Willis. It has these kinds of issues. Watch the movie, talk about it with your mates and let’s think about these things.

The more practice people have at thinking about these issues, maybe with small issues, that habituation is practice and then it gets easier. It’s not ever easy but when you go into combat, I’m assuming. My students tell me I’m right about this. They don’t understand you like a firearm and say, “Good luck with that.” No. You get trained, and you have to take it apart. You have to practice it, do all the stuff and drill. We do all kinds of drills in the military. You got to do moral drills too. It’s the same thing.

I did find it interesting that you brought up the stoics who, if my reading of and memory serves appropriately, they were hard determinists.

That’s another book. The next book is The Stoic. That’s a different kind of problem. They did believe in rehearsing, thinking about bad things that could happen to you so that you could learn to calibrate. They’re worried about emotions. Calibrate your emotions and judgments. That’s something that we can do in training environments. Have conversations. There are some things you don’t want people to disobey.

I talked about the difference between a garrison and combat contact but there are things where the situation has changed or there’s something going on where we would’ve wanted someone to speak up. We want someone to say, “Why are we doing this again?” That’s important and to be able to tell the difference between the two. When to ask the question, to mount the reasonable challenge, when it’s not time for a committee discussion, as Princess Leia in Star Wars said.

The way I visualise it in my mind is this idea of bumpers. It’s very difficult for me to expect somebody to know something that they have never encountered when they don’t know what they don’t know. How can I hold them accountable or judge them for that if it’s outside of their reach?

I would say, “Did they have any capacity?”

Everybody has the capacity, especially with the internet. Arguably, everybody has the capacity to go and read about just war.

It’s moral imagination. I’ve never been in combat. I think a lot about it. I talk to people who have read poetry, watched movies and try to figure it out. I talk about this in the book. That moral imagination is something that can help us bridge the gap. You have to have a disposition. Be willing to have the disposition to do that. There’s what you don’t know, but then are you aware that there’s stuff that you don’t know? I’m aware that I have a limited amount of knowledge about combat, so I try to fill in my gaps. If I thought, “I read this one book once. I’ve got it. Full Metal Jacket, I’ve got it covered. Let me tell you what combat is like,” you’d be looking at me going, “I don’t think so.”

I say this publicly in the show a number of times. I’ve never fired a gun in anger. I’ve never been a combat officer or soldier. I can certainly empathise. I’ve been on the receiving end of various forms of munitions as a civilian, but it does. All of that plays into the same discussion of what they could have done and should have known. It’s a tricky one, which is why these types of conversations hopefully can reach a number of people to at least invite them to go and look for things. The reason I say this is just because someone can. I’ve got a lot of friends and peers in the special forces community. I know for a fact that they would love to be able to sit down and read and discuss these things.

It’s just not part of their everyday experience to have the capacity to do so, purely because their jobs are such that there’s no time, unfortunately, and there’s never enough of them. Everybody wants something from them, and they have to embody an idea as a self-protective mechanism for the jobs that they have to do. They would love to be able to sit down, read, talk and have these kinds of discussions and this type of discourse. Unfortunately, their lived experience and their community of practice don’t embody that as the norm, as one of the behaviours that they have the capacity to do, which is a challenge.

Except I find it hard to believe that any special forces units fail to do after-action reviews or what we call hot wash in the Navy. That’s a place to have these conversations, even if it’s only 30 seconds, 1 minute or 2. I understand the time issue, and this is maybe a good place to pull the strands together. My question is, what moral obligations do we have around our epistemological commitments in the universe? What do I have an obligation to know? What is my obligation to be aware of my biases and heuristics if I’m going to live in the leopard shoe bubble? What are my moral obligations around that?

Certainly, I can choose that but there are moral obligations that go with that. If I choose to be a member of a religious community of practice, they’re moral obligations that come not just to my other community members but to people outside of that community that maybe my community of practice has harmed. We’re pushed back to that disinformation epistemology question, which is not as prominent in the book as it would be if I were writing the book, given the last years in American politics and international events.

On that note, I want to emphasise once more how much I’ve enjoyed it. In many ways, I’m envious of your students because this is the density of your discussions. I’m slightly envious of them having the time to enjoy these discussions. I do believe that this is one critical part of it. It’s to make the time, whether it is in a hot wash or an AAR-type arrangement, to discuss not just the tactics but the ethics of particular circumstances of mission operations, both for the military.

I do want to stress I wholeheartedly agree with the civilian aspect, which is something that I did want to touch on. We’ve broadly covered it. I’m also conscious that we jumped around a little bit. I’ll throw it over to you if there are any final comments you want to make in case you didn’t make some points that you wanted to make.

Thank you for the conversation, for reading the book so closely and for such great questions and the things that you’re raising and very gently pushing back on important questions. I value the conversation, especially people who don’t have time to read will listen to the show and at least start thinking about some of these issues. At the end of the day, I wrote the book because my students asked me hard questions about obedience. In some way, this book is inspired by them and a gift back to them. Also, as a parent with two boys, in the dedications, I dedicate the book to Mac and Trevon. When you’re a parent, you learn a lot about obedience and disobedience.

These are life questions that we’re navigating. I hope people will read this and at least be aware that maybe there are some questions they should be asking themselves. Certainly, these are the kinds of questions my students at the War College wrestle with, which is tough all the time. They ask good questions, and they’re hard. In the United States, we are seeing these hearings around January 6th, 2021. We’re wrestling with trying to sort all of this out and what it means. These are not easy questions, so hopefully, people will find the conversation useful.

On that note, Pauline has been fascinating. I knew it would be, but it has certainly surpassed my expectation. Thank you so much once again for the time you gave me.

Thank you for having me.


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