I’ll soon quit writing about honor and integrity, but the news just keeps coming in.
This week, as everybody knows, marked the end of the policy called “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT). Enacted back in the early 1990s, it was an unhappy compromise — pretty much from everyone’s perspective — between those who wanted to continue the prohibition of gays and lesbians serving in the U.S. military, on the one side, and those who wanted to allow them to serve, on the other. It didn’t allow them to serve openly, but it ended the active seeking out of gay servicemembers by military authorities. Under DADT, you wouldn’t be asked about your sexual orientation when you enlisted, joined the ROTC, joined the National Guard, or applied into the service academies. And as long as they didn’t know about your sexual orientation, you’d be safe. (One problem was that someone else outing you counting as “telling” and would lead to a discharge.)
The end of DADT does seem just to me. I haven’t encountered a strong correlation between courage and patriotism, on the one hand, and sexual orientation, on the other. I admire the commitment and the courage of anyone who chooses to risk his or her life for others. But since I’m not even a U.S. citizen, you may reasonably tell me to mind my own business. I will: this post is not about whether DADT was a good or fair policy.
What this post is about is the way in which individuals can come in conflict between their various roles. On Tuesday this week, when DADT ended, the New York Times reported on an Air Force officer, 1st Lt. Josh Seefried, who was going to come out publicly at 12:01 a.m. Probably lots of other servicemembers did just around then, too, but Seefried had been an influential advocate against DADT under a pseudonym until then, and that’s the interesting thing for our purposes. The fact that the Pentagon had actively if surreptitiously sought contact with Seefried even before, not to fire him but to have him consult them on ending DADT is an interesting bit of political irony. Still, under U.S. law, it behooved of both Seefried and the Pentagon brass not to be open about Seefried’s identity, lest the military be forced to fire him.
The narrow issue, for our purposes, is this: I take it as given that when Seefried took his oath of office, he was sincere in serving honorably. And by all accounts, he did. And even though we aren’t quite as uptight about lying as the early moderns, who dueled over accusations of lying, I also take it his honor as an officer was to be truthful toward the institution in which he served. But that very institution, at least on one (my) reading, was the very force for his bit of dishonesty — advocating against the DADT under a pseudonym. That’s the complicated thing here. You don’t have to agree with me on DADT, you don’t have to agree with me on seeing Seefried as acting extra-honorably to appreciate the general difficulty: how to think about the conflict between the honor you have by virtue of being a part of an institution and that very institution requiring you compromise that honor?
I had meant to write about how Immanuel Kant’s influential 1794 essay “What Is Enlightenment?” helps us think through this problem, but it actually doesn’t. So we’re on our own.