Ethics in the British Army
: Between Violence and Restraint

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Over the last 30 years, a discourse surrounding ethics has emerged in the British military which has recently been defined as a corporate ethics in the form of Army Core Values. The emergence of, and connection between these codified, corporate ethics and soldiers’ values in everyday life and combat situations is poorly understood. This research will begin to shine a light on this relationship, taking the British Army’s infantry as its example. It will offer an historical overview of the emergence of a discourse of ethics, with particular attention paid to the tensions between an ethics of killing or violence and an ethics of restraint. It will argue that this embrace of ethics is closely tied-up with processes of state making through the legitimation of state violence, and war making through the legitimation and restraint of that violence by those that enact it.
Through 22 semi-structured interviews and observations conducted with the cooperation of a British infantry company, it will explore how these Core Values are tied up with what Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘symbolic capital’, shaping and guiding combat conduct via a soldier’s specific place within their social relations and providing sources of moral legitimation, ex-ante and ex-post, for activity in the context of warfare. It will claim that, arising from this focus on values, we must look at the formal and informal social processes by which values come to be ‘adopted’ by junior soldiers, and subsequently contribute to shaping their ethical conduct in combat. It will argue that the army’s adoption of its corporate ethics relies on an underlying ethics of recognition. Additionally, through a focus on the intuitive and embodied habits that Bourdieu draws our attention to through concept of habitus, it will argue that ethical conduct in combat ought to be considered as much a form of skilful, practical coping, as it is a critical act of reflection.
Date of Award23 Jun 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorWill Atkinson (Supervisor) & Paul Higate (Supervisor)

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