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The Trivigno-Syse Debate Two Years On: Who Is the Happy Warrior?

Cover Image for The Trivigno-Syse Debate Two Years On: Who Is the Happy Warrior?

(Image: A section from the Bayeux Tapestry. Source: Wikimedia..)

[T]here must be arms, for the members of a community have need of them, and in their own hands, too, in order to maintain authority both against disobedient subjects and against external assailants.

Aristotle, Politics VII.8, 1328b7–10.

It has been said that time is a strange dimension, and so it is. Unbelievably, it has already been two years since I helped organize the debate between Franco Trivigno and Henrik Syse on war and virtue (I thought of the title as a subtle nod to Tolstoy’s War and Peace), which was held at the University of Oslo on February 5, 2019. In this essay for the student journal Filosofisk supplement, I share some of the background for the debate and offer my own point of view on the disputed question: Can there be a virtuous warrior? Since “happiness” (eudaimonia) is defined by Aristotle as “activity of soul in accordance with excellence” or virtue (Nic. Eth. I.7, 1098a16–17), we may restate this question in line with Wordsworth’s famous poem: Can there be a happy warrior?

A Virtue-Ethical Debate on Just War

The idea for the debate came to me while I was reading Trivigno’s 2013 book chapter “A Virtue Ethical Case for Pacifism” and Syse’s 2003 book Rettferdig krig? Om militærmakt, etikk og idealer (Just War? Military Force, Ethics and Ideals). Since these scholars shared a virtue-ethical foundation but differed somewhat in their views on just war, I considered them a perfect match for the debate. Both did very well, but I remained unconvinced by Trivigno’s argument for so-called contingentpacifism, which he defines as “a very strong presumption against the use of military force” (2013, 86). This argument is based on the premise that military training is harmful to virtue and therefore immoral, whereas I agree with Syse that it is at least possible for a soldier to be trained to kill without it compromising his or her moral character.

After thinking about the issue for a while, I have gone back to Trivigno’s original argument to see if I can poke some holes in it. This essay is the result of that effort, although it does not try to argue exhaustively against every claim Trivigno makes. I share the broadly “neo-Aristotelian virtue ethical perspective” (2013, 89) from which Trivigno writes in his chapter, and so I take very seriously the charge that a practice or institution is harmful to virtue—not least because I also happen to share the “virtue political principle” that he presents as follows: “states should refrain from putting its citizens in situations that are likely to hinder eudaimonia” (2013, 94). If military training is always and everywhere an example of this, I think states should refrain from putting their citizens through it. In this essay, I suggest that it is not.

Marshall’s “Men Against Fire” Thesis

Trivigno begins by arguing on empirical grounds that “the vast majority of humans, excepting psychopaths, possess a deep-seated psychological resistance to killing,” that this has something to do with feelings of empathy toward others, and that military training since World War II has aimed at overcoming this resistance to killing (2013, 87). In this part of the chapter, Trivigno mainly points to the 1947 study Men Against Fire, where Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall claims to have discovered that a majority of American soldiers in World War II did not fire their weapons during combat—and says that this is generally true of most soldiers throughout history. I call it the Marshall-Grossman thesis, since it was expanded upon in Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s 1995 book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (which is also cited in Trivigno’s chapter).

However, Marshall’s figures have been controversial ever since they were published. As John Chambers points out, their reliability is cast into doubt by Marshall’s somewhat unsystematic methodology (2003, 113; 119). During his after-action interviews, Marshall would ask soldiers to relate their subjective experiences of the battle. He listened intently but took very few notes, suggesting that his later reconstruction of the combat action was based more on his own impressions during the interview than on specific details. After his death, no attempt to quantify the percentage of “men against fire” reported in his book through statistical analyses was found in any of his papers or notebooks. The question of whether deadly force was directed toward the enemy was not even one which Marshall systematically posed to every soldier; it just happened to come up in some of his interviews.

Moreover, there are possible explanations other than an empathic resistance to killing for why some soldiers did not fire their weapons. Chambers mentions “the kind of terrain, the nature of particular circumstances, the types of weapons, and the trajectory of a soldier’s time in combat” (2003, 119) as some of the variables. Speaking from personal experience (with training, not a real firefight), there is not always a good reason for every soldier to fire their weapon in a combat situation. This could be due to something so simple as the terrain and the placement of soldiers making it difficult even to get a clear view of the enemy, and one of the most basic gun safety rules learned by soldiers is that you should know what you are shooting at (so as not to accidentally hit someone you do not intend to).

The Role of Empathy in Virtue Ethics

But Trivigno’s main argument for contingent pacifism is not ultimately based on the Marshall-Grossman thesis, and its truth value is not dependent on the truth value of this thesis. Trivigno claims that, after Marshall’s findings during World War II—whether or not they are reliable—military training has aimed at “developing a willingness to commit deadly violence,” which has presumably led to a greater number of soldiers firing their weapons during combat (2013, 87). This shows us that the exact percentage of soldiers who are willing to kill enemy combatants is not what Trivigno’s argument stands or falls on. Rather, it hinges on these two claims: that “the resistance to killing is a manifestation of empathy,” and that empathy is “psychologically important in the development and maintenance of virtue” (2013, 89). It is not clear to me whether Trivigno also thinks it is necessary.

If these claims are true, they are true regardless of how many soldiers fire their weapons during combat. Even if (as I suspect is the case) Marshall’s figures are exaggerated, so that there were fewer “men against fire” during World War II than he claims, Trivigno’s main problem is with soldiers overcoming their feelings of empathy in order to kill people. If the Marshall-Grossman thesis turns out to be false, that would presumably mean only that this problem is bigger than first assumed. For Trivigno, any kind of military training that aims at “effective killing already involves moral harm to the soldier” (2013, 91). This is so because it weakens empathy, and empathy plays a role in the development of virtue because it enables us to afford “others and their prospects for flourishing due consideration in [our] moral perception and deliberations about what to do” (2013, 90). I certainly think it is important to consider the “flourishing” (eudaimonia) of others.

However, as Paul Bloom argues in his 2018 book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, it is a mistake to view empathy as an absolute good. Empathy is an emotion—defined by Bloom as “feeling what you believe other people feel” (2018, 4)—that can motivate morally right action, but it is not necessary in order to act rightly. Imagine that you see a child that is about to drown. Should you not help the child regardless of how you are feeling, or even if you are not feeling anything at all? As Bloom puts it: “You don’t need empathy to realize that it’s wrong to let a child drown” (2018, 22). In other cases, empathy can lead to immoral action or inaction: “Making children suffer temporarily for their own good [such as making them go to the dentist] can be impeded by empathy” (2018, 35). Much more could be said about this; I recommend reading the book.

Because empathy can be used for both good and evil, Bloom concludes that it is a poor moral guide. We should let our actions be guided not by emotions, but by reason—by what we know, not just feel, to be right. This also happens to be Aristotle’s view. In Book II, Chapter 5 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that emotions “may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right time, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right aim, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of excellence” or virtue (1106b20–23). Emotions are in themselves morally neutral, but if we want to be virtuous, we need to habituate ourselves to feel the right emotions at the right time.

The rightness or wrongness of an action is not determined by how we feel—on the contrary: how we should feel is determined by the rightness or wrongness of an action. Plato makes this clear in his program for the moral education (paideia) of children and young people. A person who has been properly educated will “praise fine things” and “be pleased by them,” but will “rightly object to what is shameful” (Rep. III, 401e–402a). Moral education has to do with the right channeling of emotions, so that there is a “general concord of reason and emotion” (Laws II, 653b). If reason tells us that killing is the wrongthing to do in a situation, empathy might rightlyprevent us from doing it. But if reason tells us that killing is the right thing to do, then empathy might wrongly prevent us from doing it.

Development of Virtue in Military Training

In the first section of his chapter, Trivigno criticizes military training in the post-World War II era for strategies that are used to overcome the empathic resistance to killing in soldiers. As a former soldier myself, I would like to examine his description of these strategies. The first is to develop an automatic “quick-shoot reflex” in soldiers, so that they will shoot to kill without thinking in combat situations. The second is to use euphemistic language like “targets” instead of “human beings” in order to stop soldiers from thinking about what they are actually doing. The third is to dehumanize the enemy by emphasizing cultural and/or moral distance between “us” and “them,” thus giving soldiers a feeling of being morally justified in killing. According to Trivigno, all of these strategies are different ways to create “moral disengagement” among soldiers (2013, 88–89).

I want to suggest that things are perhaps not so bad in the world of military training as Trivigno makes them sound. As Syse pointed out during the debate, the Norwegian Armed Forces has a program of military ethics education that is based on the core values of respect, responsibility, and courage. All soldiers are given some instruction in these values by a military chaplain, and those who wish and are able can choose to sit an exam on ethics and military force. I did, and I wrote about the just war principles of proportionality (only use as much force as necessary) and distinction (distinguish between combatants and non-combatants). This shows that there is not a complete lack of ethical reflection in the armed forces. See the 2010 textbook that is used in this course, Etikk og militærmakt (Ethics and Military Force), edited by Nils Terje Lunde and Janne Haaland Matlary.

At least in the case of Norway, then, the charge that military training makes soldiers “morally disengaged” is not well founded. As Syse suggested, again during the debate, it is possible that members of the armed forces are more engaged with the moral implications of military force than the general public. During my brief time there, I did not experience any attempt to cover up the fact that soldiers are trained to kill other human beings. In fact, some soldiers were called out for not taking it seriously that this is at least partly what the military is for. Yes, drills were used to make our shooting more effective, and to prevent us from being paralyzed by emotions like fear—and possibly, as Trivigno might say, empathy. But we were never taught to despise our enemies or to take killing lightly; it was always the last resort.

Military ethics education is seen as important in other countries, too. Matthew Beard writes that the “aretaic” aspect of just war theory (the moral character and virtue of those involved in war) has recently received greater focus in military training, in addition to the “deontic” aspect (the jus ad bellum and jus in bello principles governing military action) that is more commonly associated with just war theory (2014, 274; 276). Beard hopes that the liberal arts can help us train virtuous soldiers, and Nico Vorster quotes another author as rightly noting that “rules of conduct will not suffice if it is not molded by virtues” (2015, 56). Vorster singles out the virtue of charity (which is emphasized by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas) as important (2015, 60; 64). Soldiers should be motivated not by hatred for the enemy, but by love for the good.

Trivigno is also concerned with whether military training to overcome the resistance to killing can be “fine-grained” enough to avoid atrocity—in other words, whether soldiers will be able to resist killing non-combatants when they have been trained to kill combatants (2013, 91–92). This is an important concern, which is taken up in Book II of Plato’s Republic. Socrates asks whether the strong “spirit” (thumos) of the guardians will cause them to attack the citizens as well as the city’s enemies (375b). It seems like it will, until an analogy is drawn with dogs: A dog will attack strangers, but not those he knows. And Syse points out that “the dog can also obey a command from his own master(s) not to attack strangers” (2010, 113). If even a dog can obey such a command, then surely a human being can learn to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate targets.

Socrates and His Band of Happy Warriors

In a fascinating article from 2005, Mark Anderson points out the much-overlooked fact that Socrates was a hoplite (a “citizen-soldier”) who fought in the Peloponnesian War against the Spartans. Judging from Alcibiades’ description of him in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates must have been fighting on the front lines. It is not as if he was dragged into it against his will, either. According to Anderson, Socrates was so eager to become a hoplite that he probably had to borrow money from his wealthy friends to pay for the equipment, since he could hardly afford it with his stonemason’s salary. He concludes: “However Socrates came by his arms and armor, he voluntarily chose his way of war” (2005, 283). Socrates was a warrior. If he was virtuous, we know that there can be a virtuous warrior, since there has been at least one.

It should be pointed out that Socrates’s military career was not part of some unreflective youth that he left behind to become a philosopher when his thinking matured. As Syse points out, most of Plato’s dialogues—where Socrates is the main character—are set “right before, during or right after the Peloponnesian War” (2002, 36; cf. 2010, 104). Anderson mentions the Charmides dialogue, which begins with Socrates’ return from the Battle of Potidaea in 432 BC, and the Laches, where Socrates discusses the virtue of courage with two Athenian generals, which is set sometime after the Battle of Delium in 424 BC (2005, 285). There was considerable overlap, then, between Socrates’ military career and his career as a philosopher. He is presented in Plato’s dialogues as concerned with the just treatment of enemies (Alc.109c; Rep. V, 471a–c), but not as a pacifist.

There might be other virtuous warriors, too. Nancy Sherman has shown, in her 2007 book Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind, that the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and others continues to have an influence on military training. It has also helped individual soldiers to remain calm (or, as calm as possible) and collected in potentially traumatizing situations. A famous example of this is Vice Adm. James Bond Stockdale, who put the virtues of Stoicism into practice as a prisoner of war at the “Hanoi Hilton” in Vietnam. See his 1993 book describing that experience, Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior. Stoicism is often seen as a suppression of all emotions, but it can be interpreted more charitably as a way to order our emotions in the pursuit of virtue—not too different from Aristotle’s view as explained above.

Conclusion: Peace and Goodwill among Men

In this essay, I have offered my own point of view on the question of whether there can be a virtuous warrior. My conclusion is that there can be, if we accept that there are some instances in which it is not wrong to kill (a view that was clearly held by Plato and Aristotle, the fathers of virtue ethics). Empathy is not an absolute good, which means that there can be situations where it is necessary to overcome its resistance in order to act rightly—which is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for acting virtuously. I have not argued exhaustively against every point Trivigno makes, but tried to stake out a direction for this discussion in the future. Lastly, those who disagree over whether war is a necessary or an unnecessary evil should at least be able to agree that “peace and goodwill among men” (Laws I, 628c) is the greater good.


Anderson, Mark. 2005. “Socrates as Hoplite.” Ancient Philosophy 25 (2): 273–289.

Aristotle. 1984. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by W.D. Ross, revised by J.O. Urmson. In The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes, 1729–1867. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Beard, Matthew. 2014. “Virtuous Soldiers: A Role for the Liberal Arts?” Journal of Military Ethics 13 (3): 274–295.

Chambers, John. 2003. “S.L.A. Marshall’s Men Against Fire: New Evidence Regarding Fire Ratios.” Parameters 33(3): 113–121.

Plato. 1997a. Laws. Translated by Trevor J. Saunders. In Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper and D.S. Hutchinson, 1318–1616. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997.

———. 1997b. Republic. Translated by G.M.A. Grube, revised by C.D.C. Reeve. In Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper and D.S. Hutchinson, 971–1223. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Syse, Henrik. 2002. “Plato: The Necessity of War, the Quest for Peace.” Journal of Military Ethics 1(1): 36–44.

———. 2010. “The Platonic Roots of Just War Doctrine: A Reading of Plato’s Republic.” Diametros 7(23): 104–123.

Trivigno, Franco. 2013. “A Virtue Ethical Case for Pacifism.” In Virtues in Action: New Essays in Applied Virtue Ethics, edited by Michael Austin, 86–101. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vorster, Nico. 2015. “Just War and Virtue: Revisiting Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.” South African Journal of Philosophy 34(1): 55–68.