Chapter II: Honor and Glory

by Adam J. McKee

Honor is a very broad concept, composed of many facets of the Warrior Way.  It escapes easy definition.  Yet, define it we must because it is a critical element of Bushido.  Bushido holds that dishonor is worse than death.  This noble view is not unique to Bushido.  In the Christian tradition, the Bible tells us that the Apostle Paul said, “for it were better for me to die, than that any man should make my boasting void” (1 Cor. 9:15).  Across time and across cultures, honor is serious business.

One reason that a definition of honor is difficult is that the term is commonly used in two senses.  In the first sense, it is a quality or characteristic that one has.  In the second sense, it is something that you do or show to someone else.

We consider showing honor to someone else under the heading of respect (see Chapter 7).  In this sense, honor simply means demonstrating the value of your relationship with other people.  This sense of the term is epitomized in the biblical mandate to “honor thy mother and father” (Exodus 20:12).

In the sense of a personal characteristic, we can view honor as an outward manifestation of rectitude or integrity.  That is, honor is the perception of others that we will do what is Right in all situations.

We can approach the definition of honor by looking at various facets of it.  Nitobe (1979) viewed it this way:

The sense of honor, implying a vivid consciousness of personal dignity and worth, could not fail to characterize the samurai, born and bred to value the duties and privileges of their profession….A good name—one’s reputation, “the immortal part of one’s self, what remains being bestial”—assumed as a matter of course, any infringement upon its integrity was felt as shame, and the sense of shame (Ren-chi-shin) was one of the earliest to be cherished in juvenile education.  “You will be laughed at,” “It will disgrace you,” “Are you not ashamed?” were the last appeal to correct behavior on the part of a youthful delinquent.  Such a recourse to his honor touched the most sensitive spot in the child’s heart, as though it had been nursed on honor while he was in his mother’s womb; for most truly is honor a pre-natal influence, being closely bound up with strong family consciousness.

The violation of that dignity is what produces dishonor, and it must be guarded against at all cost.  Should dishonor befall the samurai, whether by his own act or through that of another, it must be rectified.  For Nitobe, the sense of shame seems is the “earliest indication of the moral consciousness of the race.”  He clarifies the importance and tragedy of it by referencing the biblical Book of Genesis: “The first and worst punishment which befell humanity in consequence of tasting ‘the fruit of that forbidden tree’ was, to my mind, not the sorrow of child-birth, nor the thorns and thistles, but the awakening of the sense of shame.”

Honor, then, was a life and death matter for the ancient samurai.  The desire to keep a good name could lead to bloodshed.  Nitobe (1979) describes how this need to preserve honor was balanced by other virtues:

In the name of honor, deeds were perpetrated which can find no justification in the code of Bushido.  At the slightest, nay—imaginary insult—the quick-tempered braggart took offence, resorted to the use of the sword, and many an unnecessary strife was raised and many an innocent life lost.

Nitobe recounts the story of a well-meaning citizen who called the attention of a bushi to a flea jumping on his back.  The citizen was promptly cut in two.  Fleas are parasites that feed on animals, and it was an unpardonable insult to identify a noble warrior with a beast.  Nitobe regards this story as patently false, but uses it to illustrate three points about the Samurai.  First, such stories were used as a tool to strike awe in the people, thus making them easier to rule.  Second, such stories suggest that abuses were really made of the samurai’s profession of honor.  Third, a very strong sense of shame was developed among the Samurai.

This second point deserves some consideration.  Nitobe regards it as wrongheaded to take the abnormal case of a Samurai acting unethically as an indictment of the entire system of Bushido.  He goes so far as to make the comparison of blaming the horrors of the inquisition on the teachings of Christ.  I extend this comparison to point out that the unethical behavior of a few well-publicized police officers should not be taken as an indictment of the entire system of professional ethics within law enforcement.  Law enforcement is an ethical profession, but some cops are not professionals.

Honor versus Face

In both the traditions of the East and the West, men have perpetrated acts of great stupidity and cruelty in the name of honor.  The modern Guardian must take care not to confuse honor with face.  The thing to understand is that honor comes from within, and no force from without can undermine your personal honor.  Face, on the other hand, has to do with keeping up appearances.


Honor and glory among traditional warriors are born of self-sacrifice.  While the mode of sacrifice may be somewhat different, the requirement that Guardians make sacrifices is no different today than it was in ancient times.  The modern Guardian may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.  More often, however, the sacrifices that modern Guardians make are matters of comfort and convenience rather than matters of life and death.  The lesson of Bushido is that if we must choose between dishonor and suffering, we will always choose suffering, even unto death.  This does not mean that we can act with timidity and cowardice and justify it as self-sacrifice.

Delattre (Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing (3rd. Ed.), 1996, p. 100) points out two dangers associated with not upholding this Guardian tradition of self-sacrifice:

First, officers who are more determined to avoid suffering wrongs than inflicting them may act preemptively—Do unto others before they do unto you!  They may use force precipitously, act with prejudice toward suspects and others, and behave vengefully toward anyone they believe disrespectful.  Second, officers who view suffering wrong as shameful may be unsettled by abuse that is best ignored…. Public life requires a thick skin and an awareness that a person’s honor is not besmirched by the misconduct of others.


This text takes a view that is at odds with much of modern scientific explanations of human behavior:  I have unapologetically taken the view that we, as human beings, have free will.  Free will means that our behaviors arise from the decisions that we make.  Certainly, social forces push us in certain directions.  Children who are constantly exposed to bad examples are not likely to develop good character.  Still, we hold each individual responsible for his or her actions.

Today, we live in a culture of blame.  Nobody, it seems, takes responsibility for his or her own actions.  True Guardians are bold enough to admit that most of the time, the bad things in their life resulted from choices they made.  You are not a product of your upbringing, your genetics, or your destiny.  Your behaviors are a product of the choices you make.  What this means in practical terms is that you are accountable for your actions.

While this truth can be sobering and hard to internalize, looking at it from another perspective can be empowering.  Realizing that you are in control of your destiny can help you realize that you are also able to shape your own destiny.  You can mold yourself into exactly what you want to be.  Stephen Covey makes this his first of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:  Be proactive.  Proactive is the opposite of reactive.  Reactive people wait for something to happen, and then they respond to it.  They allow their environment and their circumstances to dictate their behavior.

Anyone that has studied community policing or problem-oriented policing knows the problems associated with reactivity.  You get into a grind and seldom accomplish anything of importance.  The prescription for police departments was to become proactive.  The logic of this was along the lines of the old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  When applied to people, the reactive mindset can be identified by the language the person uses.  The proactive person can be identified this way as well.  A proactive person uses proactive language.  They say things like “I can,” “I will,” “I prefer,” and so forth.  A reactive person uses reactive language: “I can’t,” “I have to,” or “if only.”  Reactive people believe they are not responsible for what they say and do.  They operate on the assumption that they have no choice.

Proactive people tend to divide the world into what Covey referred to as circles.  The innermost circle represents the things in the world where you are in direct control.  This is a very small circle and is comprised largely of your own behaviors.  A much larger circle can be referred to as your sphere of influence.  This broad circle represents things that you cannot directly control but have an influence on by virtue of your professional authority, your social relationships, and your people skills.

To be effective, this is where you should focus most of your energy.  Outside of this sphere lies the rest of the Universe; this is the place where you have no control or influence.  To spend effort in this sphere is a waste of your energy, yet many of us focus a large amount of our emotional energy there.  As an individual police officer working the streets of an American city, you have no influence on international drug trafficking, national firearms regulations, or the decisions of the Supreme Court.  Once you have cast your vote, forget about such things, and focus on areas where you have influence.

Pursuit of Excellence

People of superior knowledge and ability are honored.  Excellence, however, does not come easy.  You must work hard for it.  You must spend your time wisely, as Taira Shigesuke suggests:

…the official duties of the warrior caste are generally well defined, so you should learn about them while you have no office yourself.  Whenever you meet able and experienced officers present at a gathering, leave off useless conversation and inquire into such things that occur to you as might be useful tips for the future.  Question repeatedly, listen carefully, and remember everything.  Borrow old manuals of procedure and protocol, even illustrations, and make copies of these for future reference.  Thus if you absorb the general outlines of the duties of the various offices, then whatever office you may assume at any time it should be easy for you to perform (Cleary, 1999, p. 16).


By diligence, I mean giving proper care and attention to the tasks of a law enforcement officer.  This translates into giving your best effort in every aspect of your duty, not just the parts that you like.  On patrol, this often means verifying what you think to be true.  For example, you pass by the local elementary school and notice a door propped open and a light is on.  You think, “Probably just the custodial staff working later than usual.”  Diligence requires that you stop, ask questions, and make sure.

Taira Shigesuke considered diligence for the warrior thusly:

For warriors, it is essential to keep the spirit of combat in mind twenty-four hours a day, whether walking, standing still, sitting down, or reclining, never forgetting it….Since you are a professional warrior and wear a sword at your side, you should never forget the spirit of combat at any time (Cleary, 1999, p. 13).

Another aspect of diligence is always striving to behave ethically.  As Taira Shigesuke observed:

As long as it is realized and accepted that warriors must comprehend right and wrong, and strive to do right and avoid wrong, then the way of the warrior is alive.  Right and wrong mean good and evil.  Right is good and wrong is evil.  Ordinarily people are not totally devoid of understanding of good and evil, right and wrong, but they find it boring and tiresome to act rightly and strive for goodness.  Acting wrongly and behaving badly is fun and familiar, so they drift toward things that are wrong and bad, and it becomes tiresome for them to do right and foster good (Cleary, 1999, p. 18).


There is an unsettling truth that many cannot accept about policing, and thus they cannot serve as officers for very long.  If we think of policing as a war on crime, then we must accept that we are sworn to fight a war that cannot be won.  At the risk of straying into metaphysics, the war against crime is essentially a war against evil.  At every time and place in history, there have always been evil people that required good people to stand against them.  I hope that the social sciences will advance to the point that the power of evil in our society can be severely diminished, but I do not believe that we will ever be entirely rid of it.  As line officers, we must find joy in fighting individual battles with honor.  To focus on the larger war is folly.

Thus, Bushido leaves us with an important maxim:  Never accept failure.

Continuous Improvement

The Code of Bushido admonishes novice Samurai that “Warriors stand in a position above the other three casts, and are supposed to be professional administrators, so they need to study and gain an extensive understanding of the principles of thing” (Cleary, 1999, p. 6).  The lesson to the modern Guardian is that if you want to excel in your career, you must embrace the idea of lifelong learning.  The academy is only a beginning, not an end to your professional learning.

This idea is not unique to the ancient samurai culture of Japan.  It is echoed in modern western writings.  Seven Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen Covey makes “Sharpen the Saw” his seventh habit.  This means “Preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have—you.”  What Covey means by this is having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.  The basic idea is to increase constantly your ability to deal with the challenges around you.

Different aspects of this habit require different behaviors.  Sharpening your physical saw means getting adequate rest, exercising, and eating right.  Sharpening your mental saw requires such behaviors as learning, reading, writing, and teaching.  Sharpening your emotional saw means making meaningful connections with other people, not just other cops.  Sharpening your spiritual saw means attending to your religious convictions and allowing yourself time for the deeper things of life.  All of these things should sound familiar as part of Bushido.

Tsunetomo Yamamoto viewed the time of peace after the civil war period as the ruin of the samurai and the death of Bushido.  He viewed the samurai as becoming soft and unable to adequately perform the duties of a warrior.  “Now that the time is peaceful and quiet, our society is on its way to becoming luxurious; it is unprepared for the ways of bow and arrow; it is becoming proud.  Accordingly, there arise many blunders…This is a discredit to the clan both within and without” (Stone, 2001, p. 8).  If we exchange the samurai’s bow and arrow with a firearm and handcuffs, this passage describes many veteran officers who are “short timing” to retirement.

An important method of self-improvement is to pay attention to what experienced officers have to say.  This does not mean that you should listen uncritically, but you should listen.  Tsunetomo Yamamoto explained it this way:

When you hear a veteran talk, listen to him carefully, even though he may tell you what you already known.  In due course, as you listen to the same story ten times and twenty times, the moment will come when you suddenly understand the point you have been missing….So don’t explain away these stories as just the tedious talk of old folk; rather, think of old people as the experienced ones (Stone, 2001, p. 55).

Tsunetomo Yamamoto understood the importance of constant improvement.  He wrote:

Your life is something you build every day.  You must convince yourself that you have surpassed yesterday.  And tomorrow you must feel that you have surpassed today.  In this way there is no end to your mastery (Stone, 2001, p. 21).

This idea is also explained by a quote from Hyogo Narutomi in Yamamoto’s Hagakure:

To win is to overcome your own side.  To win, your own side must overcome itself.  To win one’s self is to overcome the body with the mind.  Unless you train your spirit and your body everyday to such an extent that there is none comparable to you among the tens of thousands of samurais on your side, it will be impossible for you to defeat your enemies (Stone, 2001, p. 75).

Thus, Bushido leaves us with an important Maxim:  Maintain the skills of your profession to the best of your ability.

Humility and Self-restraint

As the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics dictates, “I will … develop self-restraint…”

A large proportion of living an ethical life is the practice of self-restraint.  One important facet of self-restraint is not doing what you have the power to do.  This means that a particular behavior is not ethical merely because law and policy permit it.  Another important facet is not doing what you have the right to do.  Just because someone has the right to do something does not mean that it ought to be done.  Often acting ethically means that we cannot do what we want to do.  Often, ethics requires that we do less than we are allowed and more than what is required.

Nitobe explains the limits of self-restraint as follows:

Discipline in self-control can easily go too far.  It can well repress the genial current of the soul.  It can force pliant natures into distortions and monstrosities.  It can beget bigotry, breed hypocrisy, or hebetate affections.  Be a virtue never so noble, it has its counterpart and counterfeit.  We must recognize in each virtue its own positive excellence and follow its positive ideal, and the ideal of self-restraint is to keep the mind level….

Self-restraint and force

Much of self-restraint, especially when it comes to the use of force, is when our sense of justice tempers our courage.  The just officer will never use force that is not justified by law and our departmental philosophy.  We all know that circumstances can nearly always be interpreted to justify more force than is actually necessary and that we can “get away with it.”

In practice, this means we will only move forward along the use of force continuum when circumstances clearly warrant the use of more force.  If reasoned persuasion will work, then threats are unethical.  If threats will work, then physical restraint is unethical.  If chemical sprays will work, then drawing pistols is unethical.  If anything else would work, then using deadly force is unethical.

Note that self-restraint does not call for timidity and irresoluteness.  These are just words that sound better than cowardice but mean the same thing.  Restraining your conduct because to do so is just is honorable.  Restraining your conduct because of threats or intimidation is shameful.  Many officers have seen the derision that comes to an officer who succumbs to intimidation and gets “punked down.”  Right or wrong, this expectation of courage in the face of intimidation is a very real part of the police culture.  I believe that force is often employed for this reason.  That is, force is often used to prevent perceptions of cowardice among other officers.  This way of thinking is obviously wrong.  Over time, an officer whose courage is tempered by justice will always earn the respect of his or her peers.

Thus, Bushido leaves us with an important maxim:  Never strike an unjust blow.

Showing Weakness and Pain

Every veteran officer knows that criminal predators can sense weakness.  This is how they select victims of assaults.  This same perception of weakness determines if they will offer resistance to law enforcement authority.  This is not to say that an officer cannot express grief or physical or emotional pain; to do so would be unhealthy.  It is, however, important that this be done in private or in the confidence of a trusted few.  To show physical or emotional pain in the public eye is not the Way of the Warrior.

Thus, Bushido leaves us with an important maxim:  Never show weakness or pain.

Maintaining Composure

The true Guardian maintains composure in the short term and in the long term.  These are different skills.  Maintaining composure in the short-term means calmness and self-control in the face of immediate danger or affront.  Maintaining composure in the long term means not letting negative emotions like resentment and self-pity consume you.  The idea is to respond to every situation with cool reason and never let emotion get the upper hand.

Thus, Bushido leaves us with an important maxim:  Never lose composure.

Honor as Honesty

Many formulations of the term honor take it to mean honesty and intent to follow through.  The Law Enforcement Oath of Honor, for example, is taken on the individual’s personal honor:  “On my honor, I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character, or the public trust.”  This text treats the critical subject of honesty as a separate topic.


As we discussed previously, the Samurai always kept death in mind.  When we accept that it is human nature to die, then we can focus on living life to the fullest.  We are admonished by Bushido to make the most of every day because we may not get another.  Carpe Diem!  Taira Shigesuke viewed fame in this way:

For those who died ignominiously and those who died gloriously, the pain when they handed their heads to the enemy was no different.  Realizing this, the true attitude of a warrior is to determine that if you are going to have to give up your life anyway, you may as well die heroically, startling enemies and allies alike, regretted by employers and commanders, an honor to your posterity for all time (Cleary, 1999, p. 53).


Courage is a quality so necessary for maintaining virtue, that it is always respected, even when it is associated with vice.

Samuel Johnson


Courage is a moral quality; it is not a chance gift of nature like an aptitude for games.  It is a cold choice between two alternatives, the fixed resolve not to quit; an act of renunciation which must be made not once but many times by the power of the will.

Lord Moran

The Law Enforcement Code of Ethics says, “I will … maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn, or ridicule.”  The Code also dictates that you “…enforce the law…without fear…”  This does not mean that you should act in a reckless way.  Recklessness does not demonstrate courage; it demonstrates a lack of wisdom and concern.  This tells us that courage and recklessness are not the same things, so what then do we mean by courage?  Courage, like many of the virtues previously discussed, has several facets that must be explored.

The Conquest of Fear

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms.  It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton


Courage does not mean the absence of fear.  It means doing the right thing despite fear.  There is nothing wrong with feeling fear.  Actually, it is a gift that we should cherish (see De Becker, 1997).

Thus, Bushido leaves us with an important Maxim:  Never show fear.

The Courage to Do Right

Without belittling the courage with which men have died, we should not forget those acts of courage with which men … have lived.  The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy.  A man does what he must—in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures—and that is the basis of all human morality….  In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience—the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men—each man must decide for himself the course he will follow.  The stories of past courage can define that ingredient—they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration.  But they cannot supply courage itself.  For this each man must look into his own soul.

John F. Kennedy


When you see what is right, have the courage to do it.

Confucian Analects

Many equate courage with doing what must be done in a clearly dangerous situation, such as when an officer is required to deal with an armed and dangerous suspect.  A less glorious type of courage, however, is part of the Bushido Code.  “…courage is not something that only appears when you put on armor, take up weapons, and fight in combat.  The difference between the courageous and the cowardly can be seen in everyday life” (Cleary, 1999, p. 22).  This everyday courage means doing what ought to be done despite any discomfort that may cause.  This means that the true Guardian will conduct him or herself in accordance with the Bushido Code and seek to extol its virtues.  You must heed the law enforcement oath of honor in this respect: “I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for their actions.”

Nitobe (1979) put it like this:

In his Analects Confucius defines Courage by explaining, as is often his wont, what its negative is. “Perceiving what is right,” he says, “and doing it not, argues lack of courage.”  Put this epigram into a positive statement, and it runs, “Courage is doing what is right.”  To run all kinds of hazards, to jeopardize one’s self, to rush into the jaws of death—these are too often identified with Valour, and in the profession of arms such rashness of conduct—what Shakespeare calls “valour misbegot”—is unjustly applauded; but not so in the Precepts of Knighthood. Death for a cause unworthy of dying for, was called a “dog’s death.”  “To rush into the thick of battle and to be slain in it,” says a Prince of Mito, “is easy enough, and the merest churl is equal to the task; but,” he continues, “it is true courage to live when it is right to live, and to die only when it is right to die”—and yet the prince had not even heard of the name of Plato, who defines courage as “the knowledge of things that a man should fear and that he should not fear.”  A distinction which is made in the West between moral and physical courage has long been recognized among us.  What samurai youth has not heard of “Great Valour” and the “Valour of a Villain?”

This single virtue, then, demands adherence to other virtues.  Some of these may not seem at first glance to be part of the Warrior Way.  For example, Taira Shigesuke admonishes the novice warrior to study literature, keep up the practice of martial arts, avoid personal luxury, and to scorn the waste of money (Cleary, 1999, p. 23).  All of this is to be done in the name of valor.  How does this relate to courage?  It is best to consider this question by thinking about the corresponding vices.

To be lazy and neglect training and practice demonstrate cowardice through an unwillingness to take the more difficult path.  Who would not rather lounge in a recliner watching a ball game (perhaps drinking beer) in place of rigorous defensive tactics training or endure the boredom of keeping up with recent court decisions that dictate the proper conduct of officers?

Shigesuke also applies the virtue of valor in avoiding certain places.  “Anywhere forbidden by the regulations of his employment or disliked by his parents, he will avoid going even if he wants to.  He will give up those things that are hard to give up, just to avoid displeasing his employer and parents” (Cleary, 1999, p. 23).

The Guardian is also admonished to keep fit, moderate his diet, and avoid excessive drinking.  This is because the duty of the Guardian requires good health.  Thus, the Warrior Way demands that we do the hard work necessary to stay fit.  This is not for reasons of personal vanity but because it is our duty to remain strong.  To grow fat and lazy is regarded as a form of cowardice.

Shigesuke’s admonishments about following the dictates of our employer have clear implications for the modern police officer if we expand the idea to encompass the major duties that we previously discussed.  To consider this, we must recall the major duties that we have.  First, we owe a duty to Heaven.  This duty, for most religions, has many moral implications.  It may also dictate that we perform religious duties, such as attending church on a regular basis.  The particulars of this duty will vary from faith to faith, but it is the nature of religion to create a duty.  Our psychological health and self-respect can be greatly impaired if we fail in these important duties.  These reasons also demand that we pay attention to our duty to ourselves.

The ancient writers on Bushido frequently wrote on the subject of filial piety—honoring and caring for our parents.  For the modern Guardian in western society, this can be taken as underscoring the importance of family.  Few things can be more shameful to the Guardian than putting himself or herself before family.  To “rest up” at the expense of spending quality time with your children is cowardice.  To work extra hours all the time out of loyalty to your agency comes at the cost of your duties to your family.

Remember that the Way of the Warrior dictates that we attend to all of our duties; we do not have the freedom to select based on what we would rather be doing.  Many times those of us who focus too much on work are not actually acting out of duty; we are acting out of passion or the thrill of it.  Action driven by duty is noble; action driven by a desire for exhilaration is cowardice and often leads to neglect of duty.

When considering obligation to country, most of us immediately think of military service, and we think that the obligation to the country is small for the law enforcement officer.  This thinking does not stand up to reflection.  We must remember that everything that is noble about our state and local governments comes to us from an ideology that is common to all Americans.  Values such as the rule of law and the freedom and dignity of all people are enshrouded in the Constitution of the United States.  Most of us have sworn an oath to uphold this constitution.  To ignore the constitution out of expediency is extreme cowardice.  As the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor dictates, you must “always uphold the constitution, my community, and the agency I serve.”

Our courage is frequently called upon to fulfill our obligation to our employer.  We are obligated to respect our agency.  Stemming from this obligation is the obligation to show respect for the leadership within that agency.  To spread gossip and discontent about the leadership shows a lack of loyalty and a lack of courage.

Another aspect of the courage to do right is the courage to act.  Many times when ethical dilemmas arise, we do not know what is the right thing to do, so we do nothing.  This is cowardice.

Thus, we see that courage is the antidote to cowardice.  This applies to valor in the face of physical danger, but it also applies to cowardice of a more insidious kind.  For, as Delattre put it:

Cowards betray their obligations and forsake other people because they are inordinately concerned about their own survival, be it physical or occupational.  They do not rise to their duties, because they fear the consequences.  Failure to control fear, rather than fear itself, makes them cowards.  They fear death more than dishonor, fear losing their jobs more than failing in their duties, fear suffering harm more than causing harm to others by their neglect or flight (Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing (3rd. Ed.), 1996, p. 42).

Whistle Blowing

As children, we learn very early that to be a “tattletale” is disgraceful.  In the adult world of police work, officers who snitch can become social pariahs.  Because these officers are generally considered disloyal, it has been common to characterize them as traitors, snitches, weasels, squealers, or rats.  As children, we learn this from our peers who which to avoid the consequences of their actions and adults who want us to develop the social skills to make our own way in civil society.

Disclosures made to address a grievance that we could have handled ourselves are indeed cowardly.  Whistle-blowing causes damage to the individual reported and to the department as a whole.  For whistleblowing (i.e., making scandalous behavior public) should be viewed as a last resort.  In addition, the wrongdoing must be sufficiently serious to warrant disclosure to the public.  An important ethical consideration is why you want to disclose the wrongdoing.  If your motivation is to right a wrong, then you are on firm ethical ground.  If your reasons are personal (such as a personal vendetta), then you are standing in ethical quicksand.

Being a “tattletale” is far different from disclosing serious wrongdoing by others.  In the case of serious wrongdoing by peers, it is cowardly not to disclose the misconduct.  Personal honor dictates that you endure the contempt of those who would hide immoral or criminal conduct.  In this conflict of loyalties, your loyalty to your agency and the public demand that you suspend your loyalty to a single officer or group of officers.

This can be a difficult task when an entire department is corrupt.  Corruption in one form or another can be expected from time to time in every department.  As Sherman observed, “Most police departments have members who commit corrupt acts from time to time.  Only some police departments, however, become corrupt police departments (1978, p. 32).  When they do, great courage is required to resist it.  The dangers of reporting misconduct within a corrupt department can be very real, and retribution is a distinct possibility.

Deciding to Use Force

In the fast-paced world of police work, you will be called upon many times to make a decision as to whether you will use force against a citizen, often in a split second.  There is a seeming paradox in this decision:  Sometimes it will take courage to use force, and sometimes you will require great courage not to use force.  According to the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, you must perform your duties while “never employing unnecessary force or violence.”

A persistent problem with using force, especially in today’s high-tech world where everything done by everyone is subject to video recording, is that the average citizen has no understanding of the proper use of force.  They do not understand how much force is needed and under what circumstances force is authorized.  As Delattre (Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing (3rd. Ed.), 1996, p. 63) suggests, the best solution to this will probably be the education of the public by the police, schools, and public officials.

It is critical to remember that fear is not shameful, only cowardice.  To conquer fear is the essence of bravery.  Note that fear can be good, so long as we take care to fear the right things.  For the Guardian, it is always good to fear things that will bring shame.  By forcing a situation to be confrontational, you have failed in your duty to protect the public, yourself, and other officers.  Because of this, there is shame in being boastful and swaggering.

Deliberately provoking a suspect to resist is shameful.  Likewise, using force against a suspect that has already been subdued is petty and shameful.  As Taira Shigesuke remarked, “To abuse someone he sees cannot fight back is something a valiant warrior simply would not do.  Someone who takes to what valiant warriors reject is called a coward” (Cleary, 1999, p. 35).

Often, the rectitude of using force can be easily determined by examining our motivation to act.  To take action for a high purpose is noble; to take action in the name of self-indulgence is dishonorable.  Officers do not have the right to punish, only to protect and apprehend.  To use force beyond this is a breach of the public trust.

Deciding to Kill

Nothing stands to test the physical courage of a Guardian like a gun battle, except perhaps the aftermath of killing another human being.  It has been a constant theme of this text that ethical decisions should be considered and reached before the need to act arises.  That is, for most conceivable circumstances in your day-to-day duty, you should know the ethical course of action and plan to take it.  This precognition is critical in the decision to take another human life.  Before you take up a weapon, you must be absolutely sure of your moral right to use it.  Without this moral certitude, you make yourself extremely vulnerable to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—a mental condition that can destroy you and your family.  I encourage every Guardian to read Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s (Grossman, 2004) excellent book, On Combat.  Among other critical knowledge for the Guardian, he details the psychological costs of lacking moral certitude at the decisive moment.

You must realize that murder is wrong, immoral, and sinful.  However, justifiable homicide is honorable, moral, and without sin.  Almost every major culture and religion in the world supports this view that the blood of the wicked may be spilled to protect the innocent.  The criminal law of the United States and other common law countries supports this view.  If you cannot embrace this view and know it to be true, then you are no Guardian.  If, after the incident, you can honestly say that by taking a life, you saved a life, then you are on high moral ground.


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