Teaching Ethics at the Coast Guard Academy with Lt. Tony Gregg

March 21, 2017

U.S. Coast Guard Academy, New London, Connecticut. CREDIT: Wikimedia/Public Domain

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders Podcast. I'm Alex Woodson.

Today I'm joined by Coast Guard Lt. Tony Gregg. Tony has been an active-duty officer for the Coast Guard since 2008. He has spent most of his career conducting counter-narcotics work, marine protection, defense operations, and search and rescue. His current assignment is instructor of moral and ethical philosophy for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Today is he calling in from the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.

Tony, thanks for joining us.

TONY GREGG: Thanks for having me, Alex. I appreciate it.

ALEX WOODSON: Sure. To start I'd just like to get a little background on you. I looked up your hometown of Sherman, Texas, on a map, and it's not very close to the coast. So what made you want to join the Coast Guard? How did you get involved?

TONY GREGG: You're right. I'm in the center of North Texas there in Sherman. I grew up fishing on the lake there, Lake Texoma, with my grandfather. My father previously served in the Coast Guard, my grandfather previously served in the Navy, so it somewhat runs in the family.

My intention when I joined the academy was actually to fly helicopters, so I applied to a number of the service academies and I picked the Coast Guard because I was most interested in their aviation program. And then, of course, in the four years that I spent here at the academy we went to sea quite a bit over the summers. I fell in love with that mission, and I thought, Hey, I'll give this a shot. I'll always have a chance to apply for flight school later on in my career. Every time that opportunity was presented I chose the next ship assignment, until finally I solidified myself as an afloat officer. So I guess that's a quick summary of how I got to where I am.

ALEX WOODSON: Do you know where the focus for your family in the Navy and the Coast Guard comes from?

TONY GREGG: I don't, per se. My grandfather joined actually when he was 17 on the eve of the Korean War. My father joined the Coast Guard just as the United States was getting more involved in Vietnam. I know my grandfather made a 26-year career. He actually transferred between the Navy and the Air Force before he ultimately retired to civilian service.

My father initially flew on the first wave of helicopters the Coast Guard had, our Sikorsky helicopters. And that was at a time when our aviation field was pretty small, so when advancing became difficult he transferred out to an equivalent civilian job and ended up working on surface-search radar, which is what landed him a job in Texas ultimately.

ALEX WOODSON: As far as your career with the Coast Guard goes, how did you get into your current role of teaching ethics at the academy?

TONY GREGG: I took this course as a cadet when I was here, and the instructor at the time was a rotating military faculty member, which is the position that I currently hold. It's a permanent tenure-track position here that's held by a civilian employee. He's been here now for the better part of 20 years, and he's my counterpart in teaching this course.

And then there's a rotating military officer that comes in on a rotating four-year basis. The officer that was in that position at the time encouraged me to pursue some of the topics that I found interesting. So I participated in a number of extracurricular conferences while I was here.

Once I graduated I continued to look for an opportunity to come back and teach at the academy, which was something that I always thought I would be interested in doing—the teaching element. This job opened up at a perfect time for me. As I was transferring from another unit, I put my name in to compete. I was fortunate and was selected as the primary candidate for the position. Once I got accepted to an acceptable graduate school program, I was offered the job here, a four-year job following two years of graduate school work at American University.

ALEX WOODSON: Is there something about ethics or moral philosophy that really draws you to that subject? You said you wanted to get involved with teaching, but is there a reason why you chose this specific course to teach?

TONY GREGG: I think the content to me was always interesting, at least. But now that I've done three operational tours and have had command of one of them, I've always had a focus on why it is we're doing what we're doing. The Coast Guard has as its core values honor, respect, and devotion to duty. I think understanding those and being able to ground those in a meaningful way has always been not only important, but as I said, interesting to me. To be able to participate in that conversation and that sort of development here for our cadets at the academy is really what got me excited about this job.

ALEX WOODSON: What is the overall objective of the course that you teach at the Coast Guard Academy, and why is this a requirement for students to take?

TONY GREGG: It is a core course, and that means that every cadet who graduates from the academy takes it, and we focus on our upper-class cadets. Second-class and first-class are juniors and seniors. The idea or the shared learning objectives that are institution-wide that we hit on in this course are communication; acquiring, integrating, and expanding knowledge; leadership; personal and professional qualities; and critical thinking.

The specific objectives of this course are twofold: One, there's a historical component of understanding what ethical theories exist; what are the arguments that support these theories, and what are the arguments against them. So that's one component. And then also applying these theories, so an applied ethics component. The central focus here is designed to help students develop their own moral voice, develop decision-making abilities, and gain appreciation for the place of reasoned argument in the treatment of ethical problems. So that's in a nutshell what we're trying to do with this course.

And it might be helpful to understand what we're not doing. So I am not giving my students an ethical code to live by. By and large these folks are 19-23 years old. They come to the Academy with their own set of values, which ideally align with the Coast Guard's. But that's the job of our admissions process, to adequately match folks with the missions that we pursue in the Coast Guard. So my job isn't really to teach them to be better people per se, but to understand reasoning, to understand how to apply their values to the problems that they're going to face upon graduation.

ALEX WOODSON: What have you found that your students are most interested in when it comes to ethics?

TONY GREGG: This is one of the things, I think, that makes the class so much fun, is that it really varies. This is my fourth semester and second year and my eleventh section. I have sections of students that range in size from 14-21, and they're always looking for something different.

So I would say that even though I've technically taught this course 11 times, every time is unique in many ways, and it's largely driven by the student cohort. So they're really looking for different things, and that's probably not surprising based on your own experiences and the people that you've met. But some folks want a really strict set of rules, they're drawn to ethical theories that deal with absolutes; and others are drawn to ethical theories that are more flexible, more understanding of circumstances, more understanding of relationships.

In general, I would say that what's unique about this group is that they're really interested in how these theories apply to their future job. Because we have such a heavy emphasis here on future career, they want to see how these theories will directly help them in the field, afloat, and in their future service.

ALEX WOODSON: What are some of the theories that you're teaching? Are there certain books, certain philosophers, that you're always going back to?

TONY GREGG: Sure. As I mentioned, our core values are honor, respect, and devotion to duty. So we do place a heavy emphasis on the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Aristotle—Kant speaking to the importance of respect and treating people with respect as ends in themselves, and emphasizing the concept of duty; Aristotle emphasizing the concept of character and how that's developed not just by acquiring knowledge of virtue but also by good habit. I think for me personally these philosophers influenced my thinking on ethics, because I have a strong conviction that moral decision-making requires practice. So those are two central figures in the course that we offer here.

Also focusing on utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill; social contract theory, Hobbes, Locke, and John Rawls; and then some contemporary criticisms of our theories of justice, either through Okin or Carol Gilligan, just to kind of give a quick synopsis or summary. One of the things I'll say is that we pack an awful lot into a short timeframe.

ALEX WOODSON: Just speaking specifically for the Coast Guard, is there someone at the Coast Guard, either someone who is there now or someone who has been there historically, someone that everyone looks up to as "this is our moral example that we have to follow"?

TONY GREGG: I would say that, one, I want to be cautious about speaking for the service. But certainly a name that is known by all Coasties is Signalman First Class Douglas Munro, and that name comes up throughout basic training no matter what program you're in.

So if you're in an enlisted accession program, or an officer program, Douglas Munro is someone who you are familiar with as evacuating Marines who came under fire at Guadalcanal and, despite almost absolute knowledge that he would lose his life in the process of landing under enemy fire, drives ashore to evacuate Marines from their position. So I think that's somebody that in terms of devotion to duty is a name that we all know and that we can all certainly, as a group of Coasties, rally behind that name.

ALEX WOODSON: What are some of the things that have surprised you in teaching the course? I know you said that each year you get a new group of students and they all have different focuses. So I guess two questions: what have you learned and what has surprised you in your teaching?

TONY GREGG: I think something that I didn't expect, that now that I've been teaching for a while that I have sort of observed, is that really most of what we're talking about and the content that we're talking about in class is not new to my students. Many of them are in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) backgrounds, and when they come to class they have an entry-level concern that, "Hey, sir, I do math, or I do physics, and I'm into engineering, and these concepts like the ethics conversations, they're hard for me to have because it's kind of out my discipline."

What I find most surprising is that most of the content that we talk about is probably not that foreign; not to them, not to the majority of folks. And what I mean by that is that we're talking about a set of rules.

So your parents since time immemorial have probably taught these three kind of rough concepts, that there are certain things that you just don't do because they're wrong. And there's a direct parallel to Immanuel Kant here. So they struggle through understanding exactly how Kant gets to this conclusion, but I think the conclusion for them, once we get there, is not that foreign. Or the idea that there are certain things that you don't do because they have really bad consequences, and understanding how John Stuart Mill and utilitarianism really frames our understanding of this. Or if your parents have said, "I'm going to make you do this because I think it builds character," that itself is not a foreign concept. Understanding how Aristotle gets us there is the challenge that they go through, but certainly not the conclusion.

So for me it's linking what these students come to the table with to the philosophy and the philosophers that we're studying. Making that connection is always a little bit different, it's always a challenge, but it's always rewarding when at the end of a segment my students are like, "Hey, I get this. I understood this all along, Sir. This isn't anything new."

And my response to them is, "You're right. For the most part this is not anything new. Hopefully what we're doing here in class is helping you understand why we teach these rules, why we all tend to believe in these theories, and why they're so convincing in the first place."     

ALEX WOODSON: Are there any other challenges that have come up over the last few years that stick out to you in your teaching?

TONY GREGG: I think one of the things that I've observed about this generation—and probably also as it extends into my own generation—is that there's a healthy resistance to ethnocentrism, and that's probably due to being students of politics and understanding how ethnocentrism has some particularly negative consequences. The challenge, though, is getting students not to ascribe to the complete opposite, or a completely relativist view of ethics, the idea that we really can't judge anything or anybody else except for our own views.

I think the promise of relativism is a nice one. It seems to promote an element of tolerance and acceptance. The struggle in the class is we can support tolerance, and should, but that doesn't mean that we can't reserve the right to judge other actions around the world that we perceive as immoral or wrong. What it does propose is that there's a really fine balance, and that it is really very difficult to do.

But there are certain rules that we can, and we perhaps ought to, ascribe as being universal, something that applies to all people, and violations of those shouldn't tolerated no matter where you are around the planet. That's not the same as saying that we should enforce our values on everybody, but I think it opens the door for more of a conversation, especially the possibility of some sort of global ethic that relativism tends to close the door to or tends to ignore the possibility of.

ALEX WOODSON: Yes. That sounds like something that people at a lot of different college campuses are talking about now. I'm just curious, are you in touch with any of the other military academies or any schools in the area, and teachers in similar courses?

TONY GREGG: I am. We have close relationships with the other service academies. In fact, I'm overseeing a project right now, cadets that are participating in a case study competition based on an actual series of events that's being hosted at the Stockdale Center at the U.S. Naval Academy. That's coming up here in just a few short weeks. We're always excited to participate and join interagency ventures like that to present how our institution looks at questions like this, to see how other institutions grapple with the same problem, and to see what we can learn from each other.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to wrap up, what's in your future? I think you said that this is a four-year assignment for you?

TONY GREGG: That's right. This is a four-year rotating job. I'm wrapping up my second year now, so two more. And then I'm hoping to transfer back to an afloat unit, hopefully going back to sea.

The service, the job that I'm in now, the tours of duty that I had prior to this, they've all been fantastic. Certainly not without challenges. The biggest of those is being away from home, obviously, for long periods of time.

But I think the Coast Guard's mission is a fantastic one. I think that what we offer the country is a truly invaluable service. I'm really proud to be a part of it, and I look forward to being a part of it for as long as I can.

ALEX WOODSON: Definitely. Well, thank you very much, Lt. Tony Gregg from the U.S. Coast Guard, thanks for joining us on the Carnegie New Leaders Podcast.

TONY GREGG: Thank you, Alex. I really appreciate this opportunity.

ALEX WOODSON: Thanks for listening.

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