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Question 194: Should a subordinate pretend to follow an irrational directive?

I am a military officer, currently an instructor in an intensive training program. Our orders are that we are to deal with any problems that arise. Yet my fellow instructors and I have no discretion about the program’s content and schedule, which are dictated in every detail by higher authority. We are to carry out the program on schedule, and at each stage we must grade personnel’s performance by set standards. Since any military force must operate regardless of weather, we are forbidden to delay or cancel any exercise, no matter how bad the weather happens to be, unless carrying it out would involve unacceptable risks to the personnel.

This set of requirements sometimes creates real dilemmas. For instance, one wretched day, with sleet falling and visibility limited to a hundred yards, we were qualifying trainees for their ability to hit targets two hundred yards away. They could not see the targets, and we could not see whether they were hitting them. We had only two choices: fail and pass. Failing some trainees and passing others would have been arbitrary and unfair. Failing them all not only would have reflected badly on our work as trainers but subjected the trainees to additional work and demerits, which few if any of them deserved. We passed them all.

Some day the lives of these trainees and their buddies could depend on their being able to do what the program is supposed to train them to do. Therefore, I think it is wrong to qualify anyone unless we are sure the individual can perform according to the standard. Under the circumstances, though, what could we do except qualify all the personnel?


This question calls for applying the exceptionless norm excluding lying and for the derivation of norms for the action of subordinates who are given irrational orders. In grading, one makes a statement about the quality of a performance. Under the conditions described, the questioner had no basis for making any such statement, and grading any trainee was a lie. In situations such as that described, the order to test and grade regardless of conditions not only is unreasonable but irrational in the strict sense, inasmuch as it calls for something impossible. The order ought to be changed. If it is not and the situation described recurs, the questioner may not lie, and so must refuse to give grades, regardless of the consequences.

The reply could be along the following lines:

I agree with you that it is wrong to qualify anyone unless you are sure the individual can perform according to the standard. It follows that it was wrong to pass all the trainees, and you should not have done that. Nor should you have failed them all or passed some and failed others, not only for the reasons you give but for a more profound one, drawn from the very nature of grading.

To grade a performance is to make a claim about it, namely, that it either meets a standard (perhaps more or less perfectly) or does not. The statement of that claim subsequently will be used by the person graded and others in making decisions. When conditions make gauging performance impossible, giving any grade whatsoever is making a false statement, which will mislead those who rely on it. Under the conditions you describe, the trainees’ ability to hit targets two hundred yards away could not be tested and graded. Thus, in giving a grade to each trainee, you deliberately made a false statement. No doubt, an ingrained habit of trying to comply with orders obscured the significance of what you did, but, perhaps without realizing it, you lied.

Someone might suggest you could have solved your problem and graded honestly by sending someone out to the targets to inspect them after each trainee attempted to hit them. Even if that was feasible, though, it would not have been a solution. Missing a target in those circumstances would tell nothing about a trainee’s qualifications, and hitting it would be a matter of blind luck, so that grades of any kind still would have been false statements.

A military training program can reasonably include orders to do certain things that seem unreasonable, such as pointlessly trek from here to there and back again, because personnel must learn to obey orders that will seem equally pointless. But no program can reasonably include an order that is, strictly speaking, impossible to obey, since such an order is irrational and self-defeating. And the orders under which you are operating are irrational in commanding you to test and grade even when that is impossible. True, any military force must operate regardless of the weather, and so a realistic training program must not let bad weather interfere with exercises that train people for combat by simulating it, unless conducting the exercise would involve unacceptable risks to the personnel. But simulating combat is not what testing and grading do, since actual combat involves no testing and grading. Therefore, this element of the program must be recognized as requiring suitable weather conditions, and the orders under which you operate must be amended to eliminate the irrationality that currently vitiates them.

What should you do? Since it is lying to give any grade under impossible conditions, and lying is intrinsically wrong, you must not do it. Instead, acting together with your fellow instructors, if that is possible, but in any case without delay, call this problem to the attention of the higher authority responsible for the irrationality in the orders—going through the chain of command and using appropriate procedure, of course—and request that the necessary amendment be made. Very likely, there was no deliberate abuse of authority, but merely a failure in foresight, and a reasonable superior will correct the mistake.

However, if your request is rejected or not answered by the next time grading is required but impossible, you must resist your habit of complying with orders and refuse to grade. If that results in some sort of disciplinary measure, use available procedures to vindicate your position, with the hope that authority at some level will acknowledge and correct the irrationality of your orders. If worse comes to worst, you must be ready to suffer harm to your career or a formal disciplinary measure that might be imposed on you.

Someone might argue that the dilemma you describe is not so important that you would be morally required to refuse to obey orders and suffer the consequences. That argument is not sound. As has been explained, pretending to grade when grading is impossible is lying, and even venial sins of lying are great evils.421 You do not have the option available to people whose actions, morally acceptable in themselves, contribute to another’s wrongdoing in ways that can be justified when necessary to forestall gravely bad consequences. Besides, in this case lying is no small matter, since, as you point out, the trainees’ ability to do the things for which you are qualifying them may someday determine whether they and others live or die.

Moreover, any organization, including a military force, is seriously harmed when irrational directives impede the cooperation essential for pursuing its purposes. Authentic obedience and loyalty require subordinates to call attention to such irrationality and, if necessary, resist it, rather than accommodate it by moral compromises allowing it to persist and even, perhaps, causing it to proliferate. In a situation of this sort, a Christian also ought to bear in mind that Jesus promised the kingdom to those who suffer for righteousness’ sake (see Mt 5.10).422

421. See John Henry Newman, Apologia pro vita sua, ed. Martin J. Svaglic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 221.

422. This question focuses on a kind of problem that arises at times, though in somewhat different forms, in every organization, including the Church. Even the most conscientious superiors, those careful not to abuse their authority, have limited insight into the implications of their directives and limited foresight about conditions that can make executing them impossible. Subordinates ought, of course, to presume that their superiors’ orders are to be obeyed, and should be prepared to obey orders that seem unreasonable, provided that is not morally excluded. Moreover, one must distinguish between cases in which obedience is impossible and those in which it is only difficult, calling for hard work and self-sacrifice; disobedience in cases of the latter sort must not be rationalized by calling the difficult “impossible.” But when orders really are irrational, subordinates owe it to their organization, those it serves, their fellow members, and even their superiors to call attention to the irrationality and resist it, not accommodate and perpetuate it.