Nick Bosio


…you don’t follow an order because you know for sure it’s gonna work out. You do what you are told, because your CO has the moral authority that says you may not come back. But the cause is just, and fair, and necessary.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  CWO Michael Garibaldi, B5 Chief of Security; Babylon 5[i]


Understanding the differences between legal and moral authority (or responsibility) is critical. Without this, military officers may believe the legal authority to give an order is a moral absolute.[ii] Military professionals may over-emphasise the commander’s responsibility to subordinates’ welfare at the expense of broader considerations. Although these are not mutually exclusive, balancing them is a crucial part of the profession of arms. Such decisions rest within a commander’s moral authority.

This article argues that moral authority is a vital part of command and leadership. The article first considers what moral authority is. Defining moral authority allows the article to develop a framework that illustrates how moral and legal authority relate. Using this framework, the article explains moral authority’s relationship with command and leadership. Leveraging the relationship between command, leadership, and legal and moral authority, the article highlights why bullies, despots, and toxic leaders become so powerful in organisations. Finally, the article draws some insights from the framework. One insight is a clearer understanding of the difference between moral authority and moral responsibility. Another insight is the need to include the concept of moral authority in military training, education, and doctrine. To understand why moral authority is important, one must recognise that legal authority allows a commander to issue an order, but not necessarily decide what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

Making Decisions –Legal Authority is not Necessarily Deciding What is Right

Authority and responsibility are foundational to the profession of arms. There is no denying that when a profession involves the study, direction, and use of controlled violence, the concept of authority is essential. The concepts of legal and moral authority (and responsibility) are also linked to moral injury.[iii]

Unlike physical injuries, moral injuries can affect both those who act (subordinates) and those that order the act (commanders).[iv] Prevention and treatment options include the spiritual, philosophical, ethical, and psychological.[v] However, all approaches recognise that a person’s understanding of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ has a part to play in their resilience to, or recovery from, moral injury. The question this raises is: who determines ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? Consider the following questions:

  • When is it ‘right’ to order a force to hold a position, no matter the casualties? Is it more ‘right’ to order them to hold until a trigger, even if that trigger increases the larger group’s risk?
  • Who dictates to an engineer when to enforce Australian Standards, use them as a guide, or ignore them completely – even if that may risk lives in the future, in or out of combat?
  • When does a logistician or technician break regulations and possibly risk lives to achieve greater speed or output? When should this happen in a combat or logistics zone? Does this question only relate to forward echelons, or is it relevant at theatre or national level?
  • Does a technical officer have more authority to say something is ‘right’ over a battlegroup or mission commander – even if the technical officer is the same rank or higher? If the answer is ‘no’, why?

The person responsible for answering these questions, in Australian Defence Force doctrine, is the military commander.[vi] However, doctrine is oddly silent on where this authority comes from.

The above questions represent different forms of ethical decision-making.[vii] ‘Ethics’ can be a problematic term. Some think ethics has more in common with legality than morality.[viii] Others view ‘ethics’ as interchangeable with ‘morals’. Meanwhile, academia sees ‘ethics’ as part of a broader field of study known as ‘moral philosophy’.[ix] This spectrum of views suggests that there is a need to define the term ‘moral’. This definition is important as ethical decision-making is based on moral concepts.

Moral Authority – What It Is

Ethics is often framed as the broader societal view of right and wrong. Meanwhile, morals are the views of what is right and wrong within the current situation. Therefore, morals are linked to the situational context.[x] Although wider societal ethics informs morals, the situation and context also shape moral considerations. In the above questions, all possible answers are probably ethical and legal. However, depending on the situation, not all possible answers will be moral. It is moral authority that allows a commander to decide which is which.

In the light-hearted academic paper “Hypocrisy and Moral Authority”, the authors argue that moral authority is about making moral judgements on behalf of the group.[xi] These judgements are made by interpreting the group’s broader ethics within specific circumstances. These situational judgements reinforce the importance of context in moral authority and morals more generally. Because of this context, the authors highlight that moral authority has parallels with, but not the same as, legal authority.[xii]

A Framework for Moral and Legal Authority – The Power to Judge on Behalf of the Group

Where legal authority grants coercive powers of enforcement, moral authority grants the power to determine what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ within a context.[xiii] These two authorities can overlap, with a judge being a useful societal role that illustrates such overlap in action (Figure 1). Judges hold both legal powers and the capacity to outline why a sentence is appropriate. In other words, judges explain why a sentence is both ‘legal’ and ‘just’.[xiv] By doing this, judges make both legal and moral judgements on behalf of society. Their authority relates to their position within society, meaning their position grants them authoritative power.[xv]



Using a judge to describe the interplay of moral and legal authority is a form of conceptual metaphor. A conceptual metaphor is a common way to explain how an abstract concept (authority) works by using a known idea (a judge).[xvi] In this case, the known idea is a societal role that most people would find familiar. Such metaphors help explain how legal and moral authority interact and work in the real world. Similar metaphors can help explain pure legal and moral authority in a way that makes practical sense. A jury is also a familiar role understood by most in society. Juries consider guilt based on the facts of the case. As such, a jury represents the idea of pure legal authority. Meanwhile, a shepherd helps clarify moral authority in practice. Shepherds are often stylised within society as people who show a ‘flock’, or a group, which path to take. Figure 2 illustrates these common societal roles and the overlap between moral and legal authority.[xvii]



The above figure provides a model that helps illustrate how the concepts of legal and moral authority interact. The model may also provide a framework to help practitioners picture how these concepts manifest in the real world. Such a framework can be expanded to include legal and moral responsibility. Expanding the model provides five benefits. First, an expanded model articulates how moral and legal power interact in all aspects of life. Second, the model provides an alternative way to understand command, management, and leadership. Next, an expanded model also allows readers to understand the difference between bad commanders and corrupt leaders. Understanding this difference underlines the anecdotal view that bad leaders are worse than bad commanders. Finally, the model reinforces a vital part of a commander’s role: to decide what is ‘right’ and ‘good’ about the mission, particularly when the mission may lead to injury and death.


Understanding the Commander –Moral-Legal Authority Interacts with Legal Responsibility


Within a few months of graduating from Duntroon in 1968, I found myself …fighting a war in Vietnam. …[A]t the age of 22 I was in very real, practical terms responsible for the lives and wellbeing of 30 other Australians. …[T]he stark actuality of that responsibility was initially very confronting.


General Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC KstJ; Governor-General of Australia[xviii]


To properly recognise a commander’s responsibilities to and for their troops, it is critical to understand the dual authority a commander holds. Commanders hold both legal authority for orders and the authority to make moral judgements on behalf of the group. Yet, discussions on command, leadership, and management are often heavily focused on only legal authority, influence, and control.[xix] Doctrine also highlights a degree of ethical responsibility.[xx] These points do not adequately explain why a commander can decide that something is ‘right/good’. Furthermore, doctrine, and to a lesser degree leadership theory, does not adequately capture reality. A commander may view an action to be ‘good’ in one situation and ‘bad’ in another. To appreciate this changing dynamic, it is necessary to understand how moral authority interacts with, and relates to, legal and moral responsibility. It is also important to understand how commanders and managers are different, even if both exercise a form of legal authority. To explain these differences, Figure 2 can be expanded to include legal responsibility, forming Figure 3.



In Figure 3, the contractor, manager, and commander help illustrate the interplay between legal and moral power. The idea of a contractor helps one to infer how pure legal responsibility may manifest. A manager best represents the overlap of legal authority and responsibility. A manager is a person that holds legal authority to direct action, and legal responsibility for resource usage.[xxi] The overlap of all three circles in Figure 3 exemplifies the ideal commander. Much like a judge, a manager and commander’s authoritative power manifests from their position. However, a commander represents the interplay between moral and legal power as they hold legal authority and responsibility, while also providing moral direction.[xxii]


Figure 3 also illustrates the multifaceted nature of the commander. Commanders decide both what ‘must’ be done and what is ‘right’ in the circumstances. In this regard, the commander is part judge and part manager. Commanders also act as shepherd to guide a group while also considering facts like a jury. Furthermore, commanders are legally responsible for their task and are empowered to ensure the task’s completion. This discussion represents the ‘pure commander’. Such a commander is a person who has full authority and legal responsibility, but is not necessarily morally responsible because it is the commander who outlines what is ‘right’.


Many military readers would pause at this point, ready to question (or worse) this statement. Such readers should, for no real-world commander is a pure anything! The contractor, manager, and commander in Figure 3 represent common societal stereotypes that help explain the theory. As such, they represent conceptual ideal-types that provide illustrative examples. As ideal-types, these examples highlight the common traits of the phenomenon, in this case legal and moral power, but do not provide perfect representations of the situation.[xxiii] Nevertheless, this framework, and its examples, may help practitioners understand what is meant by these different types of authority and responsibility.[xxiv] The remaining aspect of this framework is moral responsibility. Adding moral responsibility to the framework helps differentiate leaders from commanders.


Becoming a Leader – The Group Grants Moral Authority to the Individual


A leader may not hold legal authority, but they do have moral responsibility.[xxv] Moral responsibility is the concept of being responsible for one’s actions based on defined (by a moral authority) morality.[xxvi] The idea of a believer best represents pure moral responsibility. Such a person is only faithful to a set truth, no matter the legal consequences. When moral responsibility interacts with moral authority and legal responsibility (Figure 4), it is possible to discern an aspect of how leadership is exercised.



Figure 4 helps explain how a leader holds both moral authority and responsibility. Part parent and citizen, a leader is both a guide and a member of the group.[xxvii] Figure 4 correlates with Defence doctrine and leadership theory, which states that leaders are influencers.[xxviii] Leveraging the concepts of moral authority and responsibility, the framework also helps explain where a leader’s influence comes from. Unlike commanders who have authority due to position, leaders receive it from the group. In effect, the group empowers a leader to make moral judgements for the group.[xxix] This authority gives leaders influence to guide the group. This insight aligns broadly with social power theory.[xxx] The framework also provides another insight: the real danger of ‘bad’ leaders.


Moral and Legal Power Insights – The Real Dangers of Corrupt Leaders


Groups giving individuals the authority to dictate what is ‘right’ makes corrupt or unscrupulous leaders dangerous. Such leaders are not ‘bad’ in the sense that they cannot lead. Instead, the group – be it a unit, organisation, social, or cultural group – has empowered the individual to make moral judgements on their behalf. Although Hitler may be the extreme example of this, such people and groups exist at all levels. These types of leaders are ‘bad’ in the moral sense: immoral leaders with real power. Such leaders are different from ‘bad’ commanders.


Commanders that are incompetent or corrupt may also be ‘bad’. The bully often exemplifies how such bad commanders exert their moral authority. In this case, bad commanders, much like real-life bullies, attempt to enforce their position-based moral authority on others. Although bad commanders can be difficult to remove, their actions usually are apparent and may be challenged by followers, superiors, or peers. Bad leaders are more insidious.


Bad leaders are best described as a cult head. These leaders use the authority given to them by others to corrupt moral responsibility. Such corruption gives new meaning to the saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. The corruption also suggests that moral authority may need to be made more explicit in training and education.


Insights for Training and Education – Moral Authority within the Profession


Figure 4 provides a framework to consider the interactions between moral and legal power.[xxxi] The framework also highlights the ideal: a person that balances legal and moral requirements based on full authority. Although the military strives for this ideal, doctrine and training does not appear to acknowledge the importance of moral authority. Not considering moral authority in military training and education may lead to two concerns. The first, discussed above, is a failure to understand the relationship between such authority and the corruption of command and leadership. The second is to mistake legal and moral authority with moral responsibility.


Some have suggested that the ‘…most important duty of a military officer is to make sure that everyone under their command gets home alive.’[xxxii] This statement confuses legal authority and moral responsibility. The statement also fails to recognise the importance of moral authority. Instead, this article posits that the most important duty of a military officer is to exercise moral authority: deciding what is ‘right’ in each circumstance. This duty may include deciding that some people may not come home alive, but the reason for their sacrifice is right and just within the context of the operation. Moral authority exists in all circumstances: from barracks to military actions that may lead to death. Such dilemmas are a part of the military profession. Therefore, finding ways to explore these dilemmas before conflict should be a vital part of professional military education.


It is difficult to find information on the dilemmas of moral authority. Many military and political biographies do not tackle such issues. Autobiographies may discuss such matters, but most are written from the perspective of legacy, rather than future academic study. However, science fiction may be a useful medium to explore the difficulties associated with making moral decision on behalf of a command. Books such as Starship Troopers (the book), Thrawn (Star Wars), and the Gaunt’s Ghost series (Warhammer 40,000), to name a few, all explore the dilemmas of moral authority. Such dilemmas include balancing authority with a commander’s moral responsibility to their command, and legal responsibility to their superiors and the State. Preparing officers for these challenges is just as critical as their training in planning and technical decision-making. Recognising that a superior has a moral authority to direct a technical expert may be vital when time is short, stress is high, and lives are at risk.




In conclusion, this article explored the meaning and importance of moral authority. Moral authority was defined as the authority to make moral judgements on behalf of a group. In effect, moral authority provided an individual with the power to decide what was ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ within a given circumstance. The article built a framework that described how legal and moral power interact. This framework leveraged common societal roles (such as judge, jury, contractor, commander, and leader) to explain the real-world manifestation of these interactions. By exploring moral authority and its relationship to legal power, the article created an alternative framework to help practitioners think about command, leadership, and management. This framework also highlighted that moral authority is an integral part of command and leadership. By studying this framework, the article identified some key insights. One insight was that bad leaders might use moral authority to corrupt groups and undermine moral responsibility. Another was that current military training and doctrine does not significantly explore moral authority.


Moral authority, well understood, empowers command and leadership. Studying moral authority may help people reconcile their acts with their moral conscience. For without moral authority, commanders and leaders are nothing more than managers and citizens.



About the Author:

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Bosio is currently a Directing Staff at the Australian War College. In 2019, he was Chief of Army Scholar researching military and systems thinking. He was also the Commanding Officer of the 6th Engineer Support Regiment. His postings cover tactical, campaign and strategic positions in command and staff roles, both within Australian and on operations. In 2015, he was the Chief of Campaign Plans, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (Operation OKRA).




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Coleman, Stephen. Military Ethics: An Introduction with Case Studies. Oxford, England, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Eshleman, Andrew. "Moral Responsibility." In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Online 2014 Revised. Stanford University, USA: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 26 March 2014 2001.

Fry, Brentron, "Moral Injury and Sin - Who Repairs the Soul?," Australian Army Research Centre ed. Land Power Forum. Australian Army, 27 November, 2018,

Gagné, Learry "A Modern Interpretation of Machiavelli's Political Cycle." Canadian Political Science Review 5, no. 2 (2011): 127-35.

Isserow, Jessica, and Colin Klein. "Hypocrisy and Moral Authority." Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 12, no. 2 (2017): 191-222.

Kaurin, Pauline M., "Moral Injury in War: Is Prevention Possible?," Practicing Philosophy in Real Time. Wordpress Foundation, 27 May, 2019,

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———. "Sedition and Modernity: Division As Politics and Conflict As Freedom in Machiavelli and Spinoza." Borderlands E-Journal: New Spaces in the Humanities 6, no. 3 (2007).

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[i] “Walkabout”; Season 3, Episode 18; Babylon 5

[ii] An example of this is in Molendijk’s paper “The Role of Political Practices in Moral Injury: A Study of Afghanistan Veterans”. In this article, Molendijk outlines many issues of legal authority being viewed as a moral absolute at lower levels – leading to moral injury. Though Molendijk’s intent here is to highlight how legal and political context affects moral injury, it is useful to see the lack of distinction between legal and moral authority. See: Tine Molendijk, "The Role of Political Practices in Moral Injury: A Study of Afghanistan Veterans," Political Psychology 40, no. 2 (2019): 265-70.

[iii] Molendijk, "Political Practices in Moral Injury," 262-64.

[iv] The concept of authority figures receiving a moral injury is highlighting in the original work by Jonathan Shay who coined the term. See: Pauline M. Kaurin, "Rethinking Character (Part I of III)," Practicing Philosophy in Real Time, Wordpress Foundation, 19 April, 2019,….

[v] Brentron Fry, "Moral Injury and Sin - Who Repairs the Soul?," Australian Army Research Centre ed. Land Power Forum, Australian Army, 27 November, 2018,…; Anon, "Stoicism for Trauma Survivors," Daily Kos, Kos Media LLC, 29 June, 2015,…; Pauline M. Kaurin, "Moral Injury in War: Is Prevention Possible?," Practicing Philosophy in Real Time, Wordpress Foundation, 27 May, 2019,….

[vi] Only the ADF’s joint leadership doctrine is available open source. See: Australian Defence Force, ADDP 00.6 Leadership, ed. Australian Defence Force Warfare Centre, 2nd (PDF) ed., Executive Series, (Canberra, ACT: Department of Defence, 2018), 2.11-2.14.

[vii] This is touched on in ADDP 00.6. It is briefly discussed in the first and second chapter. Chapter Five also covers some aspects of this from a cultural alignment perspective. See: Australian Defence Force, ADDP 00.6, 1.9 & 2.13 (Operational Ethics), 5.1-5.5 (Cultural Alignment).

[viii] This viewpoint is reinforced by institutional “codes of conducts” and “codes of ethics” that are linked to legal responsibility (eg The Institute of Engineers, Australia). The following hyperlink provides is a useful quick reference:

[ix]. The view that ethics and morals are interchangeable, as well as a discussion on ethics as a field of study, is at: Stephen Coleman, Military Ethics: An Introduction with Case Studies (Oxford, England, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013), 1-4.

[x] This is derived from: Coleman, Military Ethics, 1-2 (Discussion on Ethics and Morals).

[xi] Jessica Isserow and Colin Klein, "Hypocrisy and Moral Authority," Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 12, no. 2 (2017): 195.

[xii] Isserow and Klein, "Hypocrisy," 195-97.

[xiii] Isserow and Klein, "Hypocrisy," 195-96; Australian Defence Force, ADDP 00.6, 1.4-1.5, 2.2-2.3.

[xiv] Isserow and Klein, "Hypocrisy," 195.

[xv] John C. Turner, "Explaining the Nature of Power: A Three-Process Theory," European Journal of Social Psychology 35, no. 1 (2005): 8.

[xvi] This conceptual metaphor is also an ideal-type (see later). A conceptual metaphor is where the mind, from a simplistic point of view, says: Abstract Idea B is Experience A; therefore, since Experience A has elements X and Y, map X and Y to Abstract Idea B. The idea of ‘judge’, as well as other examples, also forms an ideal-type, or a concept that can be used to illustrate the characteristics and elements of a phenomenon. In this case, the phenomenon that a judge helps illustrate is one of authority. See: Yeun Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bein Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton, New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press, 1992), 6-8; Zoltan Kovecses, Metaphor: A Practical Introduction, eBook ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002), 29-30; Matthew Lange, Comparative-Historical Methods, Kindle ed., ed. Chris Rojek (London, England, UK: Sage Publications, 2013), 39 (Ideal-Types).

[xvii] Isserow and Klein use a priest to describe moral authority. However, the concept of ‘shepherd’, lifted from predominately Christian metaphor and iconography, is probably more apt. See: Isserow and Klein, "Hypocrisy," 195, 204.

[xviii] Australian Defence Force, ADDP 00.6, 6.3.

[xix] This is a summary of the key points made in the first and second chapter of ADDP 00.6. There are some similarities, but not complete agreement, with social power theory. See: Turner, "Explaining the Nature of Power," 6-14 (Social Power and Leadership as Influence); John C. Turner, Katherine J. Reynolds, and Emina Subasic, "Identity Confers Power: The New View of Leadership in Social Psychology," in Public Leadership: Perspectives and Practices, ed. Paul Hart and John Uhr (Canberra, ACT, AUST: ANU Press, 2008), 66-67; Australian Defence Force, ADDP 00.6, 1.2-1.7, 2,2-2.4.

[xx] Australian Defence Force, ADDP 00.6, 1.4, 1.9.

[xxi] Australian Defence Force, ADDP 00.6, 1.6-1.7.

[xxii] Australian Defence Force, ADDP 00.6, 2.2-2.3.

[xxiii] Lange, Comparative-Historical Methods, 39.

[xxiv] The distinction between pure command and real-life where one is both commander and subordinate is discussed by Coleman, with reference to Case Studies 6.7 and 6.8. These highlight the legal requirements of commanders – specifically with respect to their legal responsibility for orders they make – vs the legal and moral views of subordinates. See: Coleman, Military Ethics, 137-45.

[xxv] Australian Defence Force, ADDP 00.6, 2.2-2.4.

[xxvi] This is a simplified explanation of the interaction between moral responsibility and moral obligation. See: Andrew Eshleman, "Moral Responsibility," in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Online 2014 Revised, Stanford University, USA: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 26 March 2014 2001).

[xxvii] The Polybain cycle demonstrates the combined legal and moral aspects of citizenship. Plato notes this requirement and recommends aristocracy to overcome the failings of civic virtue. Aristotle advocates for moral citizenship and stress the need for mixed government (monarchy supported by aristocracy and democracy) to ensure immoral civil action is limited. Machiavelli understands its effects on how governments change and the different styles of government. See: Niccolò Machiavelli, Machiavelli - The Collected Works, Apple ePub ed., The Big Ideas, (London, UK: Bybliotech, 2013), 220-22 (D, 1, II); Flippo Del Lucchese, "Sedition and Modernity: Division As Politics and Conflict As Freedom in Machiavelli and Spinoza," Borderlands E-Journal: New Spaces in the Humanities 6, no. 3 (2007): 4-6; Learry  Gagné, "A Modern Interpretation of Machiavelli's Political Cycle," Canadian Political Science Review 5, no. 2 (2011): 130-32; Flippo Del Lucchese, "Machiavelli and Constituent Power: The Revolutionary Foundation of Modern Political Thought," European Journal of Political Theory 16, no. 1 (2017): 4-6.

[xxviii] Social power’s three-process theory also reinforces leadership’s (or persuasion in the theory) links to influence. ADDP 00.6 outlines that ‘influence’ is a key part of leadership. The doctrine also provides a summary of key research in this area. See: Turner, "Explaining the Nature of Power," 5-8, 10 ; Turner, Reynolds, and Subasic, "Identity Confers Power," 66; Australian Defence Force, ADDP 00.6, 1.5, 1.11-1.14, 2.4-2.7.

[xxix] This deduction is reinforced by the work of a range of scholars. See: Turner, "Explaining the Nature of Power," 9-11.

[xxx] Turner, "Explaining the Nature of Power," 11; Turner, Reynolds, and Subasic, "Identity Confers Power," 66-67.

[xxxi] The diagram does not explicitly state what ‘x’ and ‘y’ are in the diagram. For completeness, ‘x’ would be Parliament – an institution that has legal authority to make laws based on its view of moral authority, grounded in its moral responsibility to those it represents. Meanwhile, ‘y’ is a Police Officer – a person with legal authority in the community, balanced by both moral and legal responsibility within the community.

[xxxii] This is a quote from Coleman based on his interviews with military officers. See: Coleman, Military Ethics, 133.