Ethics and new defense technology

“What did you dream? It’s alright we told you what to dream.” — Pink Floyd, “Welcome to the Machine”

Recently, there have been two trends, which when combined have a potential disconcerting impact for the future. First, with the rise of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers and educational opportunities, there has been a move to limit or cut the study in, and of, traditional liberal arts disciplines such as history, English and philosophy. The idea seems to be that STEM fields do not require the understanding of something as “soft” as culture or ethics.

At the same time, there is very clearly a move toward increasing dependence on, and use of, emerging technology. Some include advanced technology in everyday activities, such as the imminent emergence of the “Internet of things.” Some, however, include more efficient weapons on battlefields, in naval combat and in the air, quite frankly continuing the process from war being a human endeavor to one melding humankind and machines into mechanized warriors. Indeed, the U.S. military is proudly designing the Iron Man “suit.” This suit is the play thing of a fictional billionaire playboy superhero, but may eventually be deployed as part of a “boots on the ground” strategy.

{mosads}In other words, there seems to be a disconnect between emerging technologies and the understanding of makes humans human. P.W. Singer‘s influential book, Wired for War, discussed this dichotomy at some length. Illah Nourbakhsh, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, makes a fundamental point: “It’s silly not to talk about [the ethics of military funding and how their inventions are used]. … You can’t shield yourself from the repercussions. We need the leaders [in robotics] to talk about it, to bring in the ethicists.”

If anything, there needs to be a conscious choice to meld the understanding of STEM fields and ethics. This would be to accept the basic premise that what we do or could do with technology and, by extension, creating material systems that structure social relations, should be considered alongside the question of what we should (or should not) do. In other words, when engineering the future, there is such a thing as better or worse outcomes and that should be considered on the front-end of innovation and policy.

To be sure, I am not alone in this feeling. Loretta Jackson-Hayes, a chemistry professor at Rhodes College, eloquently defended the liberal arts in The Washington Post last week. According to Jackson-Hayes, “if American STEM grads are going lead the world in innovation, then their science education cannot be divorced from the liberal arts.”

As the United States and, quite frankly, the rest of the world, continues to sprint headlong into more efficient military weapons, ethical considerations are necessary to formulate the best national security policies and responses to security threats.

Eugene Spafford, a Purdue University professor of computer science and, by courtesy, professor of philosophy, suggests that a fundamental (even if an admittedly too simple) question may help to recognize right and wrong. Spafford argues that “we can judge the ethical nature of an act by applying a deontological assessment: Regardless of the effect, is the act itself ethical? Would we view that act as sensible and proper if everyone were to engage in it?”

But ethics in war also matter, in terms of their impact on the outcome of conflict. The My Lai Massacre and the egregious treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, among too many examples, had disastrous effects on the view of the U.S and its military, both domestically and internationally. It is a fool’s errand to develop weapons with no thought regarding the ethical use of those weapons. The erosion of the United States as a pillar of human rights would be too strong to ensure its influence across the globe.

In conclusion, to quote an unnamed retired army officer in Wired for War, “Warfare on some levels will never be moral, but it can be more moral” (my emphasis). This goal, it seems to me, matters to the United States as we move toward a more technologically advanced security system.

Gibson is an associate professor of political science at Westminster College in Missouri and a National Security Network (NSN) fellow. The views expressed here are not necessarily the views of NSN.

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