Moral authenticity in the armed forces: what we can learn from Aristotle and Sartre

(This is from a talk given at St Cyr, France, 2008).

What can the military learn from two – what we may readily call – quintessential philosophers? Aristotle – the man of enormous intellectual capacity and breadth of learning, and Sartre – the verbose existentialist, influential playwright and intellectual? It may be countered, what can the military educationalists not learn from these men?

Of the many elements that can be taken from Aristotle and Sartre, I’ve chosen to focus on the moral authenticity of action: both of these philosophers emphasize the importance of presence – of being present to one’s thoughts and actions (en présence des pensées et des actions); both argued for a highly individualistic morality, although drawing different political conclusions. While Aristotle presents a political philosophy justifying the rule of some over others and Sartre rejects the arrogance, hypocrisy and cant of imperial policy, both philosophers share a common interest in living the good life – the moral life pertinent to man as he finds himself in the real world, rather than how he should find himself in the next, and both produce a morality that is invoked by society. Sartre in particular has an excellent analysis of the power of witnessing or looking upon another’s actions – a powerful analogy that extends Aristotelian thinking on responsibility and helps to explain the nature of embarrassment and shame when moral boundaries are transgressed; it is of particular use when considering the actions of the military, whose function is often, rightly, held at arms length from civilian institutions, but whose actions can fall foul of both civilian and military ethics. Sartre’s analysis reminds us that morally we cannot escape the intensity of transgressions, we cannot hide behind the pretence that others’ witnessing does not count.

Two things require immediate elucidation: individuality and authenticity. Philosophers present different views of human nature: for some, broadly termed collectivists, the individual is a mere cog in a machine: the life of the individual is nothing compared to that of the life of the group (nation, race, religion, or culture). Others reject collectivism and assert the primacy of the individual: your life is yours alone, it stands isolated from the group, as a distinct entity. And of course there are those who draw on both – communitarians, American style liberals, European social democrats, etc., who recognize the role that society must play in our formation and in the context of our choices and aspirations, while accepting the moral and political uniqueness of the individual. Given his investment in finding a balance (the Aristotelian “golden mean”) in many things, it is not surprising that Aristotle encourages the social-political vision, which modern communitarians have recently stressed. Sartre on the other hand tends to emphasize individualism over community – for him, the uniqueness of the individual shatters all pretensions to communal codes of conduct as antithetical to the individual. Yet community is not far removed from Sartre – he was, after all, a political animal: a man desirous of impacting upon political and social affairs and a man, nevertheless, whose ethic eventually retreats – after flying out into the realms of hyper-individualism – to the comfort of the Western canon of being nice to others as you would have them be nice to you.
Authenticity implies being sincere in your choice: but more than that. It assumes that you are fully aware of the context of the choice, and, to some thinkers, of its repercussions or its internal integrity.

There are three readings of authentic action, each of which may stand by itself as part of an ethical philosophy or which may in turn be synthesized: the first claims that authenticity means that being present – alive, awake – to one’s choices, that is all. Such philosophers tend to emphasize the passing nature of life and time, noting that we cannot live in the past, and the future is not ours either: no one lives in the future, and the past has gone, so all that we can do and think of exists only now. The second group emphasizes the importance of futurity. This recognizes that my choice now is aimed towards a future state of affairs and also that it will have effects, some desired, some less desired, some impacting on others and others impacting on the environment. Broadly speaking, this theory is what is known as consequentialist – of considering and being aware of the results of your actions: your choice in the present is inherently connected to consequences. The third returns us to the immediacy of an action but asks us to consider its inherent value or worth: some things, this theory claims, are right in themselves and this is irrespective of potential consequences, which must be discounted, for we cannot know all the effects of our action – this theory is called deontology, for it studies duties.

Military ethics tends to be dominated by a fusion of the latter two, and rightly so in many respects: duties involve following orders, maintaining a high standard of professional demeanour, equipment, physicality and intelligence – things that we can claim to be right in themselves, for these are the necessary conditions of being a warrior. But then acts create consequences – some of which can be deadly and destructive, tearing apart peaceful social fabrics both political and cultural. Accordingly, a balance is sought to create a more well-rounded ethos – one not tied predominantly to duty so that evil consequences might flow from dutiful obedience, and one not forgetting the necessity of dutiful action within a context of training or war. But this is where the two require an overseeing, overarching ethos that can only be drawn from the understanding that an action does take place in a now rather than a yesterday or a tomorrow. Others have emphasized the point explicitly of course, but what I wish to draw attention to are Aristotle’s and Sartre’s reading of this, so let’s take a look at what these two have to offer military education.

Man is a political animal, Aristotle famously wrote. This was both a reflection of his times and a prescription for how one ought to live. For the Greeks, the polis (as represented in an acropolis) was the centre of cultural and political affairs, it was also the symbol of being civilized: those without a state, Aristotle commented, are outlaws, barbarians. By definition, they are uncivilized. And here a parallel thesis is gently slipped in – one that was very familiar to the Greek mindset: such peoples as living without any state organisations deserve ruling, deserve to be controlled – they are naturally slaves, born to be ruled by the superior civilized political anthropoi, les gens politiques; actions towards barbarians rather than other citizens possess less moral import for Aristotle, whose justification of aristocracy was derived from the nobility of birth.
Most men and all women were not members of the polis: they were either freemen and women but not citizens, or they were slaves. Sartre, mocking the Aristotelian view, poignantly commented, “Not so very long ago, the earth numbered 2,000 million inhabitants, that is 500 million human beings, and 1,500 million natives.”

This indeed was the Ancient Greek view of the world: the citizen – famed in Athenian politics as the fundamental unit of its democracy – was male and born to a family of citizens. The male citizen was expected to bear arms, so a solidifying culture based on the primacy of the Hellenic peoples and their culture over all others infused their education and moral outlook and was intimately connected with the military. Aristotle not only expected these mutual relationships between people and their government but encouraged them and intellectually provided them with a justification that we still learn from today – whether or not we agree with the ideas he proposed. Accordingly, the morality of the citizen who is to partake in the life of the polis was centred on the assumption of racial and gender supremacy, a belief that has acted to justify the grossest and most diabolical actions against other people ever since, whether in the name of feudalism, fascism, Nazism, or varieties of Western imperialism.

In his ethical lectures, a more interesting and less politically oriented side develops: here Aristotle rejects Socrates’ notion that what one cannot do the wrong thing knowingly. Socrates argued that if one knows that it is the right thing, then one cannot do otherwise but the right thing. Instead, Aristotle rightly countered that a man may reject the right choice because of a weakness in his will: he knows what is right but is too incontinent or lacking in self-restraint – akratic – to follow through. “The incontinent man, knowing what he does is bad, does it as a result of passion, while the continent man, knowing that his appetites are bad, refuses on account of his rational principle to follow them.”

The analysis of ακρασια becomes the critical premise to his ethical philosophy: a man’s character is formed from his actions, working from a good grounding of habit forming education and training; but then on top of this, he has to make a decision that will be conducive to his overall happiness. All action ultimately aims at personal happiness (eudaimonia) he asserts, a deep and permanent state of contentment, a comfort with one’s self and one’s abilities and choices. True happiness is found in the contemplative life, for all of our learning, training, education, exercise, politics, and war are all means to other ends: we do all these things and many others in order to fulfil the highest potential that we are capable of – namely to think, to contemplate, and, for Aristotle, our happiness is properly found in the contemplative life of the philosopher. The happy man is a man who performs and who has performed virtuous actions; the two – virtuous character and happiness – are synonymous. Contemplation – the action of the mind – is the highest goal, but man must live on this planet and hence be prepared both for the exigencies of life and the chores that we must do.

It is in choosing the right thing that a man’s character is constantly being formed, thus he must be highly mindful of the nature of his action. Drawing from Aristotle, we can say that in whatever a man does, he ought to be focused. It is a principle that seems so commonsensical and obvious yet its implications for life both civilian and military are profound and unrelenting. Authenticity, I have argued in previous papers, implies being focused on the job at hand – whether it is in training, off duty, or in action: attention should be thoroughly focused on the contextual present and the expectations governing action and ambition; such expectations necessarily involve a moral context. But context is so critical: Aristotle notes that the right end is relative to the occasion but emphatically the choice made is voluntary. One is only acting under force when external circumstances remove any possibility of the agent choosing otherwise. On the other hand, if the agent is ignorant of the right action, then he can be described as acting involuntarily, in that should he come to know what are the better means or ends to aim for, he would not choose to act in a dissolute or cowardly manner.

Herein lies a thorny problem for to what extent is a man free to choose and hence be thoroughly responsible for his action? Aristotle assuredly rejects rationalisations and excuses that desire (rage at the enemy, say, or a desire to preserve yourself at the cost of others relying on you) causes you to act in such a way: Aristotelian education emphasizes the importance of controlling the appetitive element of our nature, of controlling emotional reactions and subjugating them to deliberation. In turn deliberation is pertinent insofar as it deals with the possibilities that we face, especially over uncertain outcomes, so deliberation is about means: a strategist does not deliberate about victory, but how victory is to be effected. In summary, “we first deliberate, select, and fix our desire according to the result of our deliberation.”

The only reduction in our freedom to choose and hence to be morally authentic is when our habits have become such that they reduce our capacity for deliberation. Character is the result of conduct, and careless living comes from living carelessly: once a man has begun to act carelessly, living according to desire and passion rather than to deliberation, then he loses the ability to turn his character around – wishing won’t make it so; indeed, Aristotle is emphatic that a man who thusly forms his character gradually becomes unable to reform it for the better. In a sense, he has lost his humanity, or rather the best that his nature could have offered.
It is at this intellectual precipice that Sartre chooses to leap. In Aristotle, the rule is that one should aim for the highest in human nature, but what of those who cultivate habits through a weakness of will that lead them away from the moral ends that Aristotle believes are proper for man qua man? They are responsible for choosing their actions from the beginning – for choosing to fight for the sake of fighting for instance, but does their moral authenticity thereby diminish and therefore does their moral value similarly reduce with respect to greater men, who do maintain the proper path? If we link this to Aristotle’s other thinking on the imperial nature of rulers and ruled, masters and slaves, men and women – namely the natural hierarchy that Aristotle claims for, then indeed, the man of morally dubious habits slips down the ranking, becomes increasingly barbaric. To avoid this is the critically vital purpose of education – to cultivate those habits through training and education that will best serve the higher ends that human nature is designed for, and, implicatively, to uphold the political status quo. Indeed such sentiments we find regularly find in the professional armies’ handbooks – to sustain an ethical framework which the soldiers are habituated in and which emphasizes the role of actions both dutiful and consequential.

Now, what I find interesting about Sartre is that he extends the Aristotelian theory of choice to produce one of the most cogent arguments for authenticity of choice, regardless of previous choices and disposing habits or poor training: Sartre rejects Aristotle’s claim in favour or the slippery slope analogy that governs those whose giving into pleasures or lack of deliberation gradually but perceptibly reduce their ability to reform themselves. He agrees though that man is free to choose – emphatically man is free to choose, no matter the circumstances.

Man is thrown into freedom, Sartre argues – his very being, once it exists, is not contingent upon other facts except that context in which he finds himself which is a product of both his previous actions and those of other people. Hence we have a similar recognition of the importance of context. But metaphysically, man, the individual, is inherently free: that is all that we can say of his nature – he is not determined by anything but his own freedom. The metaphysical term that he deploys is “for itself” or pour-soi. The for-itself, or what we may loosely translate as consciousness, has a significant role to play in Sartrean existentialism, but what we can draw out for our purposes here is that a man’s consciousness is free to determine itself in its next move. What has gone, has gone, but now I am free to choose my being – to be truthful, dishonest, cowardly, or brave. Habit forming behaviour drops out of Sartre’s analysis, as does the argument that human nature somehow determines what we do. Existentialism indeed is the theory that there is no such thing as human nature but that our existence is our very own creation.

In many respects this is far removed from Aristotle’s naturalistic theory of humanity, that our social standing and hence potential destinies are determined by our birth and hence status, but it links well with Aristotle’s theory of responsibility. Arguably, Aristotle presents a more well-rounded thesis on human action, for it is difficult to see how habit forming behaviour could easily be rejected without a massive psychological investment, but Sartre is right to focus on the ability for any consciousness to alter its perception of the world and to change its behaviour. Those who rely on what has gone before may do so authentically, Sartrean philosophy implies, but if one’s habits are used to excuse or to justify one’s actions now, then one acts inauthentically or in bad faith – that is, in rejecting choice one acts with moral dishonesty.

The soldier is thus free to determine his next move: this is a powerful implication. It is a burden – hence Sartre speaks of being thrown into the world, a world of immense moral burdens in effect, without excuse. But that does not imply that the individual is free to create his morality independently of others and to claim that his metaphysical individuality justifies a solipsist moral project. He cannot argue that he is free to impose his will upon another, to kill or to injure whimsically, for the recognition that others exist of similar sentience negates such an ethic.

One particular section that is highly illuminating for our present purposes is the chapter in his tome Being and Nothingness called “the Look.” Consider the perspective of an isolated individual. Everything that he looks out upon – the world and its facts – is his alone, he owns it epistemologically. He walks through the world as a pure consciousness choosing amongst the various paths available as he sees fit. Then he does something that nominally we call shameful, but in the absence of other people it has no such value – it is merely one action amongst many. But on looking up he sees another person, who has seen him, who is watching him. Here Sartre enters a phenomenological analysis of all that entails, which we may or may not agree with: everything our man has done till that point belonged to him – the view he possessed of the world was his alone, but now another comes along and takes possession of the objects that they view in common. For Sartre, this is a battle in itself, a war of mastery over the objects of the world, which most of us would not think twice about but when viewed with Sartrean eyes, the description possesses a poetic beauty that I would argue is particularly fitting for the military. For instance, the approach of the enemy changes much – changes the possession of the landscape and all of its meanings; the presence of a civilian or a reporter amongst a platoon; the arrival of an officer into the mess.
But there’s more to be learned: when the Other sees our man, he is now looked upon by another conscious initially as an object, as something possessed by the other’s consciousness, just as the Other is similarly an object viewed by our man.

Yet in the mutual recognition of consciousnesses a very different world is produced: the Other is not an object – he looks upon our man and judges him, hence the act becomes shameful. Or honourable if he did something commendable – it is only commendable in others’ eyes. It follows that human morality is thus social, just as Aristotle claimed, and the social aspect is deeply investigated by Sartre particularly with respect to the Look of the Other.

In an example from Being and Nothingness, he describes soldiers climbing through the undergrowth towards a house. The house possesses a possible presence, raising the possibility of being seen – each window potentially possesses an Other or Others, who are looking down upon the undergrowth, seeking for the soldiers, scanning the landscape and hence trying to take control of it from our soldiers: indeed the window, the house even, become representations of the possibility of the other: the house has the possibility of the Look, as does a movement to the left in the buses, or the sounds of footsteps on a nearby road; the soldiers try to avoid the Look as represented by the house, but its presence changes the epistemic landscape and the sounds of the footsteps alters the universe for the conscious: it is not that someone else is there, it is that “I am vulnerable, that I have a body which can be hurt, that I occupy a place that I can not in any case escape from the space I am in without defence – in short, that I am seen.”
The Other, he goes on to write, sees me as an object, but I am a consciousness, a pour-soi, so I am seen by another and this gives me my self, for the self, for Sartre can only exist socially – it is as if others provide our depth, give us dimensions (it is, as Aristotle said, political).

But this entails that I am no longer master of the situation, or rather one dimension – the existence of the Other and all that he or she thinks – escapes my universe of control. And what follows from this is that I cannot make the Other an object: to attempt to do so would be an act of inauthenticity, because I know that the Other is looking. For instance, Sartre writes, “if I am wholly engulfed in my shame, the Other is the immense, invisible presence which supports this shame and embraces it on every side; he is the supporting environment of my being-unrevealed.”

While Aristotle may be familiar to those interested in the intellectual side of war, Sartre is less so: the size and demeanour of his masterpiece, Being and Nothingness with its strange use of terminology and seemingly metaphysical flights may put off those who seek clarity and brevity in relevant philosophy. But Sartre may surprise: his analysis of Self and Other, of the rejection of any attempt to objectify the other actually underpins the great Enlightenment manifesto of moral equality and Kant’s “kingdom of ends” in which each person is treated as an end in him or herself and not as an instrument for others’ purposes; for, if I am reading Sartre correctly, on a metaphysical plane, I cannot objectify the Other, for I know that I am being looked at, not by a pair of robotic eyes, but by a sentient being whose consciousness helps to define my own presence and being in a way that alone I cannot. I look at the eye of my personal camera differently from the eye of a security camera. In turn, bringing it back to warfare, the soldier cannot evade the presence of the Other, whether a comrade or an enemy – his presence in turn defines the moral nature of the soldier, underlining his shame or his honour through recognition of his acts.

This recognition is what gives moral authenticity to social service – acts done in public view, whether they are represented by the war photographers or one’s comrades in arms. Yet there is much to learn from what in effect is the phenomenology of relations between people, whether they are peaceful or belligerent.
But perhaps the apparent mutual recognition of self and Other are not inherently equalising motions: one seeks to master the situation, to dominate the Other.

Pursuing this line of thought, in the power of the Look, we can set off on phenomenological descriptions of the nature of modern technology, whose aim is to remove the offending Look of the enemy, to create such distance from the Other that the Other is effectively objectified – rendered a motion upon a screen, a digitised entity denuded of personality that can be deleted whimsically. The moral distance – ever present in military commentaries since the advent of long range missiles – may now be said to be negated thoroughly by computerised warfare. This, however may be more descriptive of a Hegelian reading of the nature of the universe: Sartre prefers a solution that does not excuse such forms of warfare – the Look is as implicit as the eyes at the house to which our soldiers creep, and to deny the existence of the Other just because he or she has been digitised on screen is to believe inauthentically: the warrior remains responsible for his next action.

Ethical implications logically flow from Sartre’s position that are diametrically opposite to Aristotle’s. Sartre’s is a world of unique universes, the individual consciousnesses of our selves, relating with each other, a world of complete responsibility for oneself and no way of hiding the self from others once they look, once we know that the images are human. Sartre takes the Aristotelian musings on responsibility and tightens them, gives them fresh meanings, and most powerful implications. There is no excuse for our action, no excuse in obeying orders unless one fully and sincerely agrees with them, no excuse in acting shamefully, for the shame of failure in duty or in professionalism is indelible, no excuse that the enemy is far away, for consciousness – the recognition of consciousness in the putative objects fired upon – annihilates distance. The Sartrean quip that “you are free, you choose” becomes a highly valuable touchstone for any ethical teaching, and, as we have noted, it is complemented by his theory that rationalisations cannot be made, nor can one think that Others are objects either. They are conscious presences.

However, in twisting the Sartrean world of unique individuals back into the Aristotelian vision of moral responsibility, there is a level of inauthenticity that plagues the Aristotelian ethic which Sartre’s can – without recourse to overarching theological arguments improve upon. Namely, what I shall call “the internalisation of the look” by a group, which in effect is an attempt by a group of individuals to remove themselves from outside witnessing and to attempt to sustain a solipsist position by identifying the group as a single agent.

The military is a unique institution (similar to the that of the police) in that is possesses a political claim to justify the use of power. The links between the civilian and political world and that of the military are complicated and driven by underlying amalgams of political and judicial philosophies, but a commonality running through much just war analysis is the political and hence moral difference between the military and the civilian population – hence the just war code of jus in bello demands that soldiers actively discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate targets. But what if a curtain is drawn across the actions of the military, so it becomes self-governing? In many respects, as evinced in the historical rites and traditions of military activity, soldiers are removed from the normality of life into the world of codes of honour and good conduct. death, sacrifice; links between the two moral worlds are there but the concern is that the military (or politicians) sever the ties so much that the military act according to self-governing codes that may divert far from the civilian bedrock upon which they ought to founded.

A severance from the normal civilian codes is of course possible and probably not infrequent historically speaking, given the number of covert operations, many of which remain hidden from the civilian Look. The ability within a closed operation to sustain a cover-up depends on sociological and psychological factors, for some people are more accepting of maintaining military secrets than others, who may be more motivated by a moral high-ground. An Aristotelian may justify such a closure of facts concerning operations as being in the interests of the public interest – that disclosure would produce a short-term havoc or outcry and no long term good would come of it. Such justifications are consequentialist, but long-term results should not always be considered as more important than the ethics of actions and intentions now; that is where Aristotelian aristocratic justifications re-enter the picture: the nobility of those born higher up in the social hierarchy provides them with a greater moral right over others – they are said to possess moral trump cards and thus do not have to provide any justification for transgressing moral codes regarding those beneath them, for, the implication is, they are fully in their rights to do so and the transgressions are merely alleged.

In turn such thinking presents a justification of moral supremacy and the rejection of the external Look as belonging to an equal: just as Athenian citizens were not allowed to be disrespectful of anyone belonging to their class, so too can the military excuse itself from having to justify nominal transgressions against the enemy or against non-combatants whose status is deemed to be beneath either that of the serving military or that of their nation: for Aristotle, it was right that the Greeks ruled barbarians – this ideology of national supremacy does not disappear of course, for it motivates neo-imperialist ventures and even humanitarian interventions.

Such moves (creating a hierarchical ethical structure) for Sartre, would be inauthentic. He was a strong criticism of French imperialism and its foreign policy towards Algeria: for Sartre and for the egalitarians and humanist who reject Aristotle’s hierarchical morals, each person counts for one and no more than one (Bentham), and each person is to be treated as an end in himself and not as a means to another’s ends (Kant). Sartre was strongly motivated by the equalising function of the Other – imagine the presence of an enemy soldier, a civilian witness or a journalist. But in even in a small group of individuals who choose to perform a dishonourable action and who could keep the act secret and thus seek to internalise the Look, the fact that each has consciousness – pour soi – satisfies the Sartrean claim that none can deny the dishonourable nature of the act and so acts dishonestly and in bad faith in pretending that the egregious action is justifiable. In turn each person becomes the other’s conscientious mirror. Sometimes the hierarchical nature of the army is used to discount the authority of conscience, of reducing the power of another’s Look whether it is that of the enemy’s or one’s own comrades. An officer may command that the soldiers forget what they have done or seen, that they should accept the action as justifiable, or that they should not think about it: accordingly, the officer also acts in bad faith, demanding that his group ignore the reality of what they have done and so becomes a mirror like the rest of the group. But all it takes is a fine crack in the inwardly pointing mirrors and the outside world regains access: one soldier tells his story and the Look has its revenge.

The possibility of Others knowing what is happening is particularly high today. Modern observational systems are ubiquitous, or should be thought of as such – the camera is the Look brought closer; the web-cam, the mobile phone with camera technology, satellite surveillance even, all render the Other close, sometimes immediately close when action is watched in real time. The power of the net to disseminate images, commentaries, and blogs should not be underestimated. Perhaps, the web, so long as it remains unfettered as it should, will act to remind serving troops that the Look of the Other is never far off, and that attempts to discriminate against some witnesses as being morally inferior are headed off by the equalising power of communications technology: no longer, as police officers are finding out, is it the soldier’s word against a civilian, but the civilian’s power to capture the soldier’s actions and words for all to judge.

So, to conclude with a mildly prescriptive thought: while Aristotle’s views on honour, responsibility, and weakness of will often attract military philosophers, I will strongly propose that Sartre’s extension of Aristotelian thoughts on responsibility are also eminently useful for the military academies. Sartre’s analysis of the Look serves to remind us of the equalising nature of the Other’s presence and hence of his or her witnessing an action. Attempts to discount the moral value of Other’s perceptions fail and constitute acting in bad faith just as much as pretending the Other does not possess value at all. The account underlines the responsibility that soldiers possesses for ensuring their actions are morally authentic, that they know that any action is voluntary, even obeying orders, and that morally they remain responsible for their actions even if they seek to cover up malfeasances by pretending that the Look does not belong to another sentient being: in effect, there is no escape from witnesses, either of those affected, or the continued witness of the self that one day will return to civilian culture.

1 Kymlicka, McIntyre.
2 Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Humanism,
3 “The Wretched of the Earth,” in Colonialism and Neocolonialism, trans. Azzedine Haddour, Steve Brewer, and Terry McWilliams. Routledge: London, 2006
4 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1145a12
5 Aristotle, ibid, 1110a14
6 Aristotle, ibid, 1112a31
7 Aristotle, ibid, 1113a13
8 Aristotle, ibid, 1114b
9 Sartre, Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, p.252 ff
10 Sartre, Jean-Paul, ibid, p.257
11 Sartre, Jean-Paul, ibid, p.259
12 Sartre, Jean-Paul, ibid, p.269

Article by Dr Alexander Moseley
Added Sat, 15 Feb 2014 23:10

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