A Hero’s Ethical Decision

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During the war in Afghanistan, a four man SEAL team was tasked with a reconnaissance and surveillance mission in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan. The SEAL team, led by LT Michael Murphy, was inserted into the mountainous region where they had issues with communications back to the operations center. Despite the communications problems they found a concealed spot in a wooded area above the village to survey from. While surveilling the village for they were spotted by a young goat herder.

At this point the team knew they had two choices: Kill the goat herder and continue the mission or let the herder go and abort the mission knowing that he will inform the Taliban leaders about their presence. LT Murphy ordered the team to let the herder go and abort the mission. As they suspected, the goat herder notified the Taliban of their presence and location. While the team was attempting to retrograde out of the area they were intercepted and outnumbered by Taliban forces. A fire fight ensued and all but one of the SEALs was killed in action. Marcus Luttrell was the “Loan Survivor” who lived to tell their story.

I chose this story because it outlines the ethical foundation set in us by the American culture. It also shows the ethical foundation of people from other cultures. The most obvious ethical dilemma in this situation was whether or not to kill the goat herder. This was a “no win” situation in the eyes of the team leader. To kill the goat herder was a violation of the rules of engagement and violated the ethical values of the team. To allow the goat herder to go free would guarantee that the mission would not be successful and would also expose the team to the risk of being compromised and killed. Unfortunately the latter was the decision and the outcome.

There were more ethical dilemmas in this situation that were overshadowed by the main point of the story. For example, LT Murphy had to make a decision to leave his cover and concealment while engaged with the enemy in order to get a satellite phone signal to call for immediate evacuation. He could have remained in cover until they were either found by the Taliban or the Taliban forces retreated due to darkness. His other option was to expose himself in a high clearing to get a signal. LT Murphy’s ethical values and warrior ethos wouldn’t allow him to risk the team to be captured. Thus, LT Murphy exposed himself in the clearing, got a satellite signal, and called for support. Unfortunately, he was mortally wounded in the process. He would die as a selfless hero in the eyes of Americans because of his ethics.

Later in the story, after three of his four team members were killed, Marcus Luttrell was evading capture. He made his way to a small body of water near the Afghan and Pakistan border. He was eventually found by a Pushton villager. At this point Marcus was near death due to his injuries and could have been left for dead or turned over to the Taliban for a reward. However, the Pushton man followed the Pashtunwali communal code of ethics called nanawatai. This means to provide forgiveness and asylum, or protection and refuge from one’s enemies at all costs (Banting, 2003). This is why the Pushton villager saved Marcus’ life and continued to protect him from the Taliban forces. The Pushton man’s decision to follow his ethical values of providing refuge to Marcus from his enemies, including physically fighting off the Taliban when they were searching for Marcus, resulted in his rescue by friendly forces and receiving treatment for his injuries (Luttrell, 2007).

The question is; what made that team of four elite operators make the decisions that they did on their final day on earth? Why did LT Murphy choose to expose himself to the enemy in order to call for help for the rest of his team? And, why did the Pushton villager risk his own lively hood to save the life of Marcus Luttrell.

When we, as learners, were in a pedagogical state of learning, we were learning at a rate faster than we could process the information. This means that we were building our information banks but not really reflecting on what was being stored (Craik, 2006). Now that we are adults, we are in a full andragogic state of learning. This means that we are self-directed learners. We are self-motivated and bring vast experiences to the learning environment. Our ethics were embedded in us at an early age. We learned the information and stored it for later retrieval. We rarely if ever reflected on it until we reached our adult age.

As adults we are now reflecting on that information and the information that is being learned now (Keiser 2013). This is what brought Michael Murphy, Marcus Luttrell, Danny Dietz, and Matthew Axelson to make the decisions that they did. They were acting on ethics that were embedded in them from an early age. This wasn’t a new concept for them. There wasn’t much question or debate about what needed to happen. They all agreed that they couldn’t detain or kill the goat herder even though letting him go would mean extreme risk for them. Even as highly trained warriors who are experts in neutralizing enemies, they knew to take this young man’s life was a violation of their ethics and values.

We could assume that at the time of this situation each of the team members asked themselves the five questions of ethical problem solving. The first question being; what benefits and what harms will each course of action produce, and which alternative will lead to the best overall consequences? This would have guided them down the utilitarian approach leading them to choose the solution that provided the greatest benefit and the least harm to all involved. We can assume that at the time the team thought that they could egress and evacuate before the goat herder could notify the Taliban.

If this would have been the case then the goat herder lives, all the members of the team live, and the only thing hurt is the mission being aborted. The second question that they should have asked themselves is, what moral rights do the affected parties have, and which course of action best respects those rights? This is the rights approach to ethics. They likely answered this question by realizing that the goat herder was a non-combatant and a minor child. Therefore this guides them to realize that the goat herder has a right to not be harmed or injured.

The next question was likely, which course of action treats everyone the same, except where there is a morally justifiable reason not to, and does not show favoritism or discrimination? This is the fairness and justice approach. This again would guide them to let the boy go. The fourth question would have been; which course of action advances the common good? This is the common good approach. Again, if their initial thought process was that they could extract before the boy could notify the enemy then they were looking at the common good of all involved. Finally, they would ask, which course of action develops moral virtues? This is the virtues approach.

This is more based on the character of the individual making the decision. This is where the team would have had to decide what to do based on virtues like courage, generosity, integrity, fairness, and compassion. This, of course, would not have been the formula to find the final solution. As we know the end result was not favorable. However, this method would have helped them to identify important ethical considerations.

Of the five approaches to ethics one sticks out as the most relevant in this scenario. That is the rights approach. Ultimately, not knowing the intentions of the goat herder, the team could not say with full certainty that the goat herder would cause them physical harm. Therefore, based on the rights approach, the goat herder still had his right to not be harmed. This is likely what led the team to let the goat herder go (Velasquez, 2015).

Respect, responsibility, integrity, competence, and concern played a role in the team’s decision. Despite the team being an instrument of war, they still maintained the respect for human life and the fact that the herder was just a boy. They didn’t act on their impulse to self-preserve, instead they spared the boy’s life when they could have easily silenced him and continued the mission. They knew that they had a responsibility to do the right thing even though they could have killed the boy and continued the mission. Their integrity prevented them making any other decision besides what they deemed to be ethically right. The team had the knowledge and competence of their standard operating procedures to understand how to act in the given situation. Finally, they had concern for the life of the boy who they spared. These five characteristics were the foundation for their code of ethics.

The team had a decision to make. LT Michael Murphy had a decision to make. The Pushton villager had a decision to make. Even the goat herder had a decision to make. It all boiled down to their individual core values and what they believed to be right or wrong based on what they learned from an early age and what they grew to value as the matured. The special operators spared a life that cost them their own. LT Murphy gave up his own life to save those of his team. The villager risked his life to save the life of a stranger and the young goat herder gave up the position of the team even though they spared his life. Four different people from different cultures and backgrounds made different ethical decisions that would save, change and cost lives for years to come. 

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A Hero’s Ethical Decision. (2021, Nov 29). Retrieved April 18, 2024 , from

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