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Experiences of moral conflict in the Defence industry: Interview insights

As part of my recently completed MSc in Organisational Psychology, I conducted a research project, for which I decided to study how people working for defence companies experienced the possible moral conflicts which come with being part of this industry. It was a topic very close to home, having made the decision myself, part way through this project, to leave my job with a defence company, for motivations related to moral considerations which I wrote about in a separate article.

In this article, I wanted to share insights gathered from the 15 interviews with defence industry employees which formed part of this study, and the key themes which came out, on the existence and nature of a moral conflict, how people were affected by it, and how they managed it. As my dissertation is still being marked, and while I assess potential options for my work to be considered for publishing, this article does not cover the full analysis I conducted, using a Foucauldian Discourse Analysis lens (anyone interested to learn more, please get in touch!); still, I hope that these interview findings will help shed a light on a phenomenon which, as we'll see, remains rarely talked about.

Is there such a thing as moral conflicts in defence?

The first area to explore is whether the assumption that working in defence can trigger moral reasoning or moral conflicts (see here for more info on these concepts) resonates with people. And it did, albeit in significantly varied and different ways. In the most prominent cases, the language used to talk about the way people thought about the industry's activities, and its impact on the world, brought out this conflicted feeling, with words and expressions such as "I put it in a box", "I make peace with it", or "I trick myself". This language was used when talking about mechanisms some people used to managed this conflict, or as one said, "shut down any of that thinking". What "that" and "it" is will be covered a little later.

"I put it in a box" / "I make peace with it" / "I shut down any of that thinking"

For others who would intrinsically not feel a moral conflict as acutely, its existence still manifests itself in other ways. They may feel genuine pride in the industry and full alignment with its purpose, yet still come across adverse views to remind them of the challenges existing against the industry, be it through the media, protests, professional networks outside the industry, or even friends or family with different views. Their own positioning towards the industry makes it easier for them to manage their exposure to such views, however still occasionally have to go through such thought process.

What contributes to the moral conflict?

Bearing in mind the defence industry's primary activities, which include the design, engineering and manufacturing of defence platforms, warships, fighter jets, and weapons, one might assume that the potential lethal side of these products, their use in the context of conflict and their part in the potential loss of civilian life would be a cause for defence employees to reflect and feel conflicted. And indeed it was, but only for a few of those interviewed in this study, and mostly those in regular close contact with the product. This corroborates some other studies relating to moral dilemmas, and the moderating role of the distance people feel between themselves and the issue. It is also a possible area of concern people were able to manage more easily, in ways I'll get back to later.

However, this same principle regarding the influence of distance didn't apply to the topic which was the overwhelming contributor to people's moral conflict: the defence industry's contribution to the global arms trade, and more specifically the provision of arms through UK contracts to countries with poor records in human rights, including gender equality and treatment of LGBTQ+ people, and / or countries involved in conflicts where motives and legitimacy are questioned, and which cause the death and displacement of large numbers of civilians. This often clashed with people's personal beliefs and actions in support of diversity, equity and inclusion, and general moral standards, and is an issue they found much more difficult to reconcile. There was a particularly noticeable dichotomy in the fact that some interviewees felt strongly about the defence industry's role in protecting national interests and freedoms, yet were unable to fit this involvement in the arms trade within this narrative.

What is the impact of this moral conflict on individuals?

The interviews revealed a wide range in the ways people were affected, as well as how deeply engrained this impact was in some people's personal lives. On one end of the spectrum, some interviewees had deep seated beliefs in the industry as a force for good in society, to the extent that they were able to distance themselves from any moral conflict, still understanding them as a possible phenomenon, but one only affecting others. Similarly, others admitted getting on with their job and not giving much thought to any of the issues mentioned above unless actively prompted to, either deliberately as a form of avoidance, or simply caught by the busyness of life in general.

More concerning was the personal impact felt by those who reported being more directly affected by moral conflict. For some, it was other people's views of their working in the industry. Examples ranged from people walking away from a conversation with one of the interviewees at a conference when realising that they worked in defence, all the way to another one losing touch with friends when taking up a job in defence, as these friends objected to the industry's activities. In a few cases, it affected people's sense of identity, as they were reluctant to share where they worked within some of their personal social groups. While some argued that they preferred in any case to maintain their professional life separate from their personal life, or that they weren't sharing where they worked for security reasons, others found it more challenging not to feel they could share aspects of their lives with others, for fear of their reaction, making them question whether this should make them reconsider where they work.

The influence of the Russian war in Ukraine

I started interviewing participants for this research just as concerns were mounting about Russia gathering forces at the Ukraine borders, and continued throughout the first two months following the Russian invasion. While it wasn't part of my line of questioning, the events unfolding simultaneously were brought up by almost all participants, albeit in very different ways, which typically aligned with, and reinforced, their position in relation to moral conflicts. Indeed, for those deeply supportive of the industry's purpose and contribution, this was a proof that no one should ever feel complacent about our own national security, and that the threat of other regimes was very real, and called for strong armed forces enabled by a robust defence industry, to deter possible aggressors, and defend ourselves should we be under attack. For many, this supported the argument that, while of course everyone would love a world with global peace and no wars or conflicts, this simply wasn't a plausible reality. For some however, it shone a light on what fuelled their moral conflict. Either because of the news of casualties and civilians, including children, losing their lives, bringing home the deadly consequences of the use of the products of the industry, even if those causing these deaths were the aggressors'; or, because they witnessed the boost that the conflict, and unsettled sentiments it triggered for national security, brought to the defence industry, which translated in increase in industry companies' share prices, and felt a deep unease at drawing a direct connection between the suffering of individuals falling victim of the conflict in Ukraine, and increase in profit that those in the defence industry may benefit from.

How do people manage their moral conflict?

Having seen the extent to which some people experience moral conflict at work, I was interested in understanding how they were managing it, and enabling themselves to carry on with their role, and find a degree of inner-peace and fulfilment. First, here too there are clear distinctions to be made. Those who shared their clear alignment with the industry's purpose and activities, and only reflected on moral conflicts occasionally when prompted by others relied on their belief and commitment to the industry to reinforce their position, and cited the defence of national security and maintenance of individual freedoms as ways to respond to challenges being made from a moral perspective - although it is worth noting that when the challenge focused on the arms trade and relationships with regimes having poor human rights records, finding a suitable response felt more difficult, required more thought, and tended to result on a view that it is best for a nation like the UK to be involved with these regimes, than another power opposing the Western world.

Interestingly, people's personal backgrounds also played a part in how they positioned themselves. Many, more than I had expected, shared having a connection of some sort with the defence industry, or armed forces, with relatives working in the industry or in the military, sometimes for a few generations, and even having personally had an interest in joining the military, which for various reasons didn't materialise. These connections tended to, understandably, strengthen people's ties with the industry, although they might also, for those who did not have these connections, make it feel like a more "exclusive" community.

Those admitting to thinking more frequently about the moral side of the industry they worked in employed a number of other mechanisms to make sense of it, and, as was said before, "make peace with it":

  • Focusing on the positive aspects of their roles, particularly for those in people-related jobs, and how these can make a tangible difference, away from the actual industry products - in providing people opportunities for jobs and development, or helping organisations adopt more efficient, inclusive or sustainable practices for example.

  • Stressing their lack of personal influence over, and distance with, the industry's strategy, decisions over deals being made, or markets to enter, etc., and putting their trust in the company leadership.

  • Expressing their thought that them being in their job or not would not make a difference to the output of the industry ("If I don't do it, someone else will")

  • Invoking the lack of alternative professional opportunities, either in their geographical area, or in their professional domain, and their main preoccupation of providing for their families, or developing their skills - with a view to only remain in the industry until they are in a position to move elsewhere.

  • Adopting the corporate discourse, and responses to some of those challenges, in relation to the benefits of the industry on society, the responsibility for some foreign contracts being with the UK government, and the industry's involvement being limited to the design and delivery of defence equipment, rather than their final use.

What role do defence companies play in supporting their employees' potential moral conflict?

A final point of interest in these discussions was to understand whether questions of moral conflict about the industry were ones which people were dealing with on their own, or were acknowledged and talked about within the industry. A vast majority of interviewees advised that these weren't matters which were being discussed, acknowledged or supported internally; the only few ones having experienced such discussions were those closest to the development and manufacturing of harmful products. Amongst the majority, some felt isolated in dealing with such thought process, to the extent of wondering whether they were alone in having certain thoughts and concerns about the industry, seeing colleagues seemingly very comfortable with where they worked, and not feeling it appropriate to raise any of these thoughts with anyone.

The question as to whether defence companies should more actively acknowledge and engage with the possibility of moral conflict for their employees was a divisive one. For many, there is an assumption that people taking up employment in the industry would have gone through this thought process prior to joining, and that signing a contract effectively confirms your understanding of the company's activities, and support and alignment with them. For some, it was a very binary approach of people positioning themselves as either for or against the industry. For others, it was a more complex process, which included a stage of discovery after joining the industry, enabling them to uncover some of its aspects which weren't visible or accessible from the outside; those who also dissociated their role from the industry, might have focused their decision-making process on how they would be able to apply and develop their subject matter expertise, rather than given too much consideration on the nature of the industry.

Whether it is in a company's interest to actively engage in discussions on the moral aspect of the industry was also discussed. For some, it felt counter-intuitive as it involved a company directly acknowledging the potentially negative consequences of its activities, and effectively addressing with employees arguments which challenge its existence or way of operating. This doesn't however mean that people wouldn't see some benefit in it, and many thought that it would be a welcome move forward for the industry, building on efforts which organisations are taking forward in relation to diversity and inclusion or mental health, in providing some genuine care and support for all employees, in all different ways in which their work may affect their personal lives and general wellbeing.

As indicated at the start, with this article I wanted to share some of the key insights I gathered from the interviews conducted as part of my research. I then went on to analyse these using a specific methodology and theoretical framework, and I hope to be in a position to share further about this extra step and additional perspective it provides at a later point. For now, I hope to have done justice to the 15 research participants who have very kindly given up their time, and shared their stories, points of view and experiences in a very open and honest manner, for which I remain extremely grateful.


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