Category Archives: Military Ethics

Ethical Theory…

First, a definition — ethical theory is kind of like a formula for ethical behavior or to make ethical decisions… when you APPLY it to a problem.

There are more or less four kinds of ethical theory — theories that look at consequences, theories that look at motivations,  holistic theories that ask ‘what are the elements of being a good person’, and contractual theories.

Consequences: — (or consequentialism) — look at the outcomes of the theory, is the result of the action going to make something “better”.  Better can mean either improving a situation by increasing “good” — OR, decreasing “bad”.  The most commonly discussed consequentialist theory is utilitarianism.  It defines “good” as more or less pleasurable.. so, an action is good if it overall increases pleasure or decreases pain.

To make a decision based on utilitarianism, you simply need to look at all the possible pain and pleasure coming from the action, then do the thing that provides the greatest net increase in good/ decrease in pain.  Note, this MAY be different from the ‘greatest good for the greatest number of people’… because, an action may be very good for a small number of people…

What this theory does well is to help a person choose between existing options to do the thing that will do the largest possible net good… so, it tells you which particular action is the best.

Motives — (deontology, Kant.. for the most part) — asks, is the person’s motive or reason for action good.  Kant’s reasoning works like this — The only absolutely reliably good thing is a good will — or good motive.  He then developed the Categorical Imperative as a test to see if a person’s motive for action (or will.. ) is a good one.

To make a decision based on motives, Kant’s Categorical Imperative requires that, if others knew your motives, they would agree to the action — and, it asks if you would want to live in a world in which others acted as you want to act?  This is generally speaking the “universal” formulation of the Categorical Imperative.

Kant continues to give other examples of his Categorical Imperative — one of the really important ones is the means/ ends formulation — which directs you to always treat others as an ends, and never as ONLY a means.  Translated, you should not use people to get what you want — you should not withhold information that would make them disagree with the “plan” (i.e. lie to them) — because, what you’re doing is ignoring the fact that they’re an autonomous person (one who has the ability to make decisions about their own life).

You can see how this is a version of the universal formulation — if the action you wanted to take were “universal” — including knowledge of your motives, would that be acceptable?

What Kant’s theory does well is to eliminate possible actions  — the problem is that it does not suggest one course of action as the “best”possible thing to do.  To narrow down the one course of action among all the permissible ones (the ones that pass the Categorical Imperative), you may use any criteria you’d like.

Holistic theories — The general idea here is to ask what a “good” person does?  So — for example, a virtue theory would ask what a good person would do in a particular circumstance?  The answer, is that they would be virtuous, and a list of virtuous characteristics would follow.  Feminist ethics of care are similar, in that they ask what a good person would do, and the answer centers around making good choices for their family and those in their immediate circle of care.

Contractual — These are theories that are more or less ‘good is what we agree is good’ — kinds of theories.  One major kind of contractual theory is the Social Contract theory — in which, whatever the society deems to be ‘good’ IS good.  Nothing is good objectively, in that there is nothing about the action itself that can determine what is or isn’t ‘right’.

Another version of the contractual theory are the multitude of professional codes of conduct.  So, for example, legal ethics centers on what it means to be a “good” lawyer.  That may include NOT breaking a client’s confidentiality if they tell you they’re guilty etc.

Both holistic and contractual theories are often said to be ‘incomplete’, in that they depend on another theory about what is or isn’t right to come to a final decision about the permissibility of an action.  On the other hand, they tend to capture how we, as human beings actually DO decide what’s right.


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Virtue ethics, the mean and habit..


Aristotle had a pretty simple concept — to be a good person, you should do what good people do… but, what’s that?

To get more precise, he introduced the concept of the ‘mean’ between extremes.  So, to be a virtuous person, you should choose the middle path between excess and deficit.  For example, if you want to be courageous, you should figure out what falls between being a coward and what is foolish… to be honest, you should choose the action between being too blunt and dishonesty.

The thing is, this turns virtue ethics into a theory that is relative to the person.  For me, it would be foolish to run into a burning building without the proper training — and for a trained firefighter NOT running into that building (given the right circumstances and equipment) would be cowardly.

As for habit — the key here is to understand that one virtuous moment doesn’t make you a virtuous person.  Instead, you need to adopt the virtuous habits.  That means being reliably virtuous, because that’s the way you ARE.  You don’t have to think about whether to be honest, you just are.  You live your life trying to follow the virtuous path.

This leads to the question of whether you can step on and off that path — and that’s a good question.  It seems to me that nobody will be virtuous all the time.  We’re human beings, we have faults.  Sometimes we tell lies because we can’t face the implications of telling the truth.  Sometimes we’re cowardly because we’re afraid we can’t do the courageous thing… but, at the end of your life, if you’ve overall been a virtuous person, I think that’s what counts.

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Oh, the uses of drones…





Maybe it’s ok, if not more than a little creepy, for Amazon to want to use drones to deliver us a book or something, BUT — it’s an entirely different thing when the military wants to use drones to deliver death.

The advantage to drones is obvious, our military members wouldn’t be in harm’s way while hunting bad-guys.

The problems come when it’s pointed out that a) there is a communication lag between the operator and the drone OR b) the operator is in harm’s way.

With the communication gap, come the problems… bad guys, especially when the drone closes in, can easily move out of the target range and a “good” guy can move in and get killed.  At this point, we’ve violated the most important just war principle, non-combatant immunity.  That’s a bad thing.

It’s also the case that drones are likely to desensitize us to the costs of war, real costs that have kept us out of wars in the past.  Now, if we can send a machine in to do the killing, we don’t have to calculate whether or not our soldiers ought to be involved in the conflict — i.e. whether resolving that conflict can justify the inevitable loss to our side.

For those reasons, perhaps the military should leave the drones to Amazon — although, I’m under no illusion that is going to happen.



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More about Virtue Ethics… what the heck is a virtuous person anyway?

Thinking Cat (1)

It’s possible that virtue ethics is the first western philosophical ethical theory… that doesn’t make it good or bad, just that people have been thinking about what makes a good person good for a long darned time.

So far the theories have looked at pretty specific formulas to determine what is or is not ethical… is it permitted by the categorical imperative (see Kant), is it for the greatest overall good (utilitarianism), or is it part of the social contract (Hobbes and Rawls) — the tricky thing about virtue ethics is that it isn’t a one-time thing, it’s a lifelong pursuit..

So — the problem with virtue ethics is that it’s kind of circular.  A good person acts like a good person.. huh?

W.D. Ross has a more modern look at virtue ethics.. he says: (from here…)

Ross gives a list of seven prima facie duties, which he does not claim is all-inclusive: fidelity; reparation; gratitude; non-maleficence; justice; beneficence; and self-improvement. In any given situation, any number of these prima facie duties may apply. In the case of ethical dilemmas, they may even contradict one another. Someone could have a prima facie duty of reparation, say, a duty to help people who helped you shift house, shift house themselves, and a prima facie duty of fidelity, say, taking your children on a promised trip to the park, and these could conflict. Nonetheless, there can never be a true ethical dilemma, Ross would argue, because one of the prima facie duties in a given situation is always the weightiest, and overrules all the others. This is thus the absolute obligation or absolute duty, the action that the person ought to perform.

Let’s unpack this for a minute…

The general idea, according to Ross, is that moral problems are situations in which two or more of  your duties are in conflict — so, you don’t know what to do.. Ross’ idea is that people who want to be good and find themselves in a quandary, consider these factors and then decide that one takes precedence over the other.

The thing is — the one that doesn’t get chosen doesn’t go away — instead, a good person will try to act in accordance with both — but give the chosen one preference.  The overridden value leaves a “residue” — and that residue guides actions.

This theory is the basis for my dissertation on the ethics of warfare.. The general idea is that when fighting a war, we must choose one of the duties over another — and then we should fight while trying to also support the other duty.  In war, the duty that generally gets overridden is the duty of non-injury (duh!!) — BUT, we ought to fight wars so that we minimize injury.

Ross also thinks that, as thinking beings, we reflect on our actions and use those reflections to guide future decisions as to which duty to prioritize.


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Starting to “do” philosophy..


Here’s the thing, philosophy isn’t easy — it just plain isn’t.

What it is, is a systematic way of looking at the world.  It’s based in arguments (which are a connected series of statements intended to support a proposition..) — not “fights” like you may have with a friend etc.. So — to understand a philosophical work of any kind, you need to figure out what the argument is.

Philosophy grows because philosophers make arguments, other philosophers object to those arguments, and then either the original philosopher or his pals formulates a response to the objection.  From there, the response becomes the new argument under consideration, objections are formed etc.. We’ve been doing that for a long, long, long time — SO, in order to understand philosophy, you must understand arguments.

Most of the time, the first step in figuring out an argument is to figure out what the proposition is — i.e. what the conclusion is — i.e. what the author is trying to persuade you to believe.  Sometimes this isn’t easy because philosophers can be pretty obscure writers — other times it isn’t easy because it seems too simple.  It also isn’t the case that there’s a standard position for a conclusion within an argument — often it’s at the beginning, sometimes it pops up in the middle or the end.  The key to it is looking for something that indicates the purpose of the article — like “I intend to prove that __________” or, conclusion indicator words that mean the same thing as “therefore”.

Once you’ve identified the conclusion, look for the supporting evidence, observations, etc.. that form the premises of the argument.  They may be simple or complex — and it may be the case that you have to piece them together from the narrative in the article.  There are also likely to be implied or assumed premises, so make sure that you keep an eye out for them as well.

Once you’ve figured out the argument, it’s a good idea to write it down.. then go back and read the article again.  At this point, you should be evaluating the argument — do the premises make sense (i.e. are they true, from your perspective)?  Do they support the conclusion that they’re supposed to support?  Could they support an alternate conclusion that’s the opposite of the conclusion they’re supposed to support?

Finally — you should take a few minutes to think about objections to the argument.  Of course, if you find a glaring logical hole in the argument when you evaluated it – that’s a good place to start.  The thing is, there aren’t all that many philosophers who get published with glaring logical holes — so you’ll need to think about the argument further.

A good place to start is to ask yourself whether or not there are solid counter-examples to the premises given?  Often premises are in the form of observations, so are there observations of the world that contradict those offered in the argument?

Another good place to go is to ask what would happen IN /TO the world if we fully accept the argument as true?  What would happen if everyone accepted the theory offered?  Would that be a good or bad thing for the world?  What would happen in particularly challenging instances, would there be counter-intuitive results?

Finally, objections can usually be found in competing theories — and there are always competing theories — so, looking there is often a good source of objection.

The thing is, you need to keep in mind that just because there ARE objections to an argument, it doesn’t follow that the argument isn’t a good one.  Philosophers are objectionable people –we’ll fight about nearly everything — in fact, a recent New York Times article described philosophy as an intellectual combat sport, so — don’t think that that just because objections exist, that the theory isn’t plausible.

Also keep in mind that the process of philosophy includes both understanding the arguments AND evaluating those arguments — so formulating objections is crucial to understanding the argument in the first place.

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What I’m thinking.. war…


As you might guess, I think about war often — the natural result of the fact that I wrote a dissertation about it AND the fact that we, as people, keep waging war.

Recently it’s come to light that the US has been committing acts of cyber-war.  It seems that the actions fall into defensive and offensive actions.  The justification given by the administration is that such attacks can prevent attacks on US networks and impact on-the-ground kinds of wars by attacking networks of all kinds, including telecommunications and electric grids.

The fact of the matter is that we live in a modern world, with modern conveniences we rely on to continue our way of life — and so do others around the world.  Offensive and defensive cyber attacks can prevent threats from becoming real — all without risk to soldiers.

The problem with cyber-war is that it can — has — and probably will — impact non-combatants.  If the power goes out, a population that relies on electricity will find that their life is significantly disrupted.  The inability to use telecommunications disrupts life on a pretty basic level etc.. The implications are clear.  The question is whether those impacts rise to the level of a violation of non-combatant immunity?

Taking cyber-war a step further, what if the impacts of an offensive cyber war crashed a local or national economy?  It’s hard to argue that persons who lose jobs and homes as a result aren’t harmed — but, do those harms rise to the level of violations of non-combatant immunity?

The thing about cyber-war is that it seems sexy and no-risk — at least to the individual persons launching the attacks.  They live in comfortable places not impacted by the results of those attacks.  The cyber-war seems clean, but since the goal of any war is to impact persons, the question isn’t whether or not someone is at risk, but simply where will the persons at risk reside?

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cyber war

The US is dong cyber warfare, duh!!

This isn’t exactly news, a couple of years ago the just war conference I often attend had cyber war as a topic..– although the extent of the program is news, as is the idea that the cyber war unit is getting more resources..

Reading the whole article, I don’t see any mention of the problem of non-combatant immunity… They say that the attacks comply with US law, but not that they directly consider the impact on non-combatants.

The article quotes one comm prof from Utah who says something like ‘rhetoric will lead to real war’… umm–dude, cyber war isn’t just words, it’s action taken via the internet which has REAL impacts on REAL human beings…  that’s what war looks like.

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June 8, 2013 · 6:21 pm