Transforming Military Ethics Education


  • To improve training in military ethics for defence personnel 
  • To increase public understanding of the ethics of contemporary conflict


Associate Professor Stephen Coleman, School of Humanities and Languages, UNSW Arts & Social Sciences 

Outcomes and impacts:  

  • An internationally renowned textbook promoting personal and collective responsibility in military ethics education used across three continents. 
  • Expert advice leading to an increase in public discourse about the adoption of non-lethal weapons in the altered landscape of conflict in the twenty-first century. 

Stephen Coleman’s Research Helps Prepare Defence Personnel to Make Ethical Decisions in Life or Death Situations

The technologies and geopolitics of warfare are rapidly changing, producing new ethical challenges in military training. Work undertaken by UNSW researcher, Associate Professor Stephen Coleman, has enhanced the ethical training of military personnel in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France and Australia.

Associate Professor Coleman has focused on ethical issues arising from the changing landscape of contemporary conflict since 2006. “In a broad sense my work considers issues faced by military personnel operating across traditional combat zones, in modern counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations, in peace-keeping, in unmanned combat, and in day-to-day non-combat operations,” he says.

His ground-breaking 2012 publication, Military Ethics: An Introduction with Case Studies, has been adopted as a key textbook and reference work for courses in military ethics at significant military institutions across three continents. These include the United States Military Academy at West Point, the French Military Academy at Saint Cyr and the Royal Navy in the United Kingdom.

The textbook is based on research with Australian and international defence force personnel. Unlike the alternatives, Associate Professor Coleman’s textbook takes a real-world case study approach that facilitates reflective discussion amongst junior and mid-career trainees about the life or death situations they will face.

This approach was driven by feedback from a diverse range of military personal to ensure the selected scenarios reflected realistic circumstances that trainees or military personnel are likely to experience, with the relevant contextual complexities considered. The key and vital impact of his work is that this training can be readily operationalised in the field when required. 

Instructors have lauded his approach. According to Dr George R. Lucas, Distinguished Chair of Ethics, U.S. Naval Academy, Coleman’s textbook has been invaluable in encouraging ‘problem-based learning’ based upon real-world cases, rather than students simply mastering an arbitrary body of ‘required material’.

Additionally, Associate Professor Coleman has intervened in public discourse and provided expert advice on the adoption of non-lethal weapons. His 2011 TEDx talk, The Moral Dangers of Non-Lethal Weapons (viewed over half a million times), led to Coleman receiving invitations to consult with the US Department of Defence Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate and the United Nations International Arms Regulation unit.