Collective Responsibility and the Career Military Officer’s Right to Public Dissent

  • Chad W. SeagrenEmail author


Current norms among professional military officers that govern obedience and dissent strongly discourage officers from offering public criticism of policy enacted by civilian authorities, even if that policy is immoral, illegal, or unconstitutional. We identify a set of circumstances that create a moral imperative for an officer to take action and we leverage prevailing ethical guidelines to argue that in certain cases, even individual officers not directly involved in the execution of the policy have moral standing to offer public criticism of it. We consider the consequences of relaxing norms prohibiting public dissent and explore the trade-off between tolerating immoral policy and the likelihood of mistakenly criticizing appropriate policy. Finally, we offer evidence that current military-civilian relations in the United States are such that placing higher value on dissent would benefit professional military officers and may improve policy.


Dissent Military ethics Collective responsibility Civilian-military relations 



The author wishes to thank Stephen Trainor, John Bauer, David Henderson, Matthew Larkin, Melissa Martin, and John Chapman for helpful comments on and discussion of various concepts contained in older drafts on this topic. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. Government.


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© This is a U.S. Government work and not under copyright protection in the US; foreign copyright protection may apply 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graduate School of Business & Public PolicyNaval Postgraduate SchoolMontereyUSA

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