UI professor helps to develop an ethics course for the U.S. Navy

The course will be part of the newly launched US Naval Community College for enlistees around the world.


Picture of Professor Jovana Davidovic taken by Roeland Verhallen. (Contributed)

Marco Oceguera, News Reporter

Associate Professor of Philosophy Jovana Davidovic has played an important role in the effort to modernize the U.S. Navy and prepare it for future military challenges by helping develop a Navy Ethics course alongside some of the top ethics and philosophy researchers in the nation.

The ethics course development is part of a larger national initiative taken up by the Navy to establish a U.S. Naval Community College, which would allow Navy sailors and certain Marines and Coast Guard enlistees across the world to work toward their college education while deployed overseas.

The U.S. Naval Community College piloted this year with around 500 members after the release of the U.S. Navy’s 2020 Education for Seapower Strategy report, a comprehensive report which analyzed every piece of the Navy’s education curriculum and recognized the strategic necessity of education for maintaining a U.S. military advantage in an increasingly competitive world.

Davidovic specifically said that the increasing importance of technology and artificial intelligence in military contexts is another driving reason for the emphasis on education within the Navy.

“The military is very much aware that they need AI capabilities going forward,” Davidovic said. “We’re fighting against the Great Powers and what we need is technology and cyber knowledge.”

Davidovic said she will also be at the Naval Leadership Center next year to help develop guidelines for AI ethics in the Navy.

Currently, only Navy officers and other higher-up officials within the Navy receive ethics training and education. Lower-ranked individuals, including sailors and other enlistees on the frontlines do not currently receive that same education. This leaves them less equipped to make difficult moral decisions, Davidovic said.

Davidovic added that the moral trauma caused by war and mortality is an often overlooked yet significant issue for enlistees and can potentially be mitigated with the introduction of a Navy ethics course.

“It’s not just psychological trauma,” Davidovic said. “There is also a term called moral injury, which is an injury to the moral self and the values you have, which is also part of who you are and what shapes you.”

Michael Skerker, professor in the department of leadership, ethics, and law at the U.S. Naval Academy was also involved in developing the ethics course. By providing sailors and other lower-level enlistees with the same ethics education that is provided to officers, Skerker said he hopes there will be a more common understanding of morality within the Navy.

“I hope that in the future this [course] can help sailors make better moral choices and engage in moral deliberation,” Skerker said. “So, if they see a colleague doing something that they think is wrong, they will have the skills to confront them with a sort of common language.”

Skerker said that the course is designed differently from a standard ethics or philosophy course at a university and is tailored to apply specifically to situations faced by military personnel.

Bradley Strawser, an associate professor of philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, echoed these statements by highlighting the unique ethical dilemmas that exist in military contexts.

“A 20-year-old enlisted sailor on a ship in the Indian Ocean is facing some different ethical challenges and questions than a 19-year-old taking community college classes,” Strawser said.

Strawser said that the ethics course will become a core piece of the curriculum that all sailors will eventually be required to complete.

Davidovic added that while the Navy is facing a new reality where even lower-level enlisted individuals will need to have more education to participate, there are motivations beyond the strategic benefit that increased education has for strengthening U.S. Navy capabilities.

The ethics course and wider U.S. Naval Community College initiative also provides greater opportunity for enlisted individuals to pursue an education while serving overseas, opening the door to new opportunities beyond the military.

“The Navy, in the long-term, wants every single enlisted person in the Navy and Marines to be able to get the equivalent to an associate degree,” Davidovic said.