April 19, 2013
From the emergence and increasing use of unmanned or “remotely-piloted” vehicles to the advent of cyber war and conflict, the development of new and exotic military technologies has provoked fierce and divisive public debate regarding the ethical challenges posed by such technologies. I have increasingly come to believe that the language of morality and ethics has served us poorly in this context, and presently serves to further confuse, rather than to clarify or enlighten us on how best to cope with the continuing development and deployment of seemingly-exotic new military technologies.
There are numerous reasons that justify this concern. Segments of the public involved in these discussions harbor distinctive and incompatible—and sometimes conceptually confused and unclear—notions of what “ethics” entail. From individual and culturally-determined intuitions regarding right conduct, through the achievement of beneficial outcomes, all the way to equating ethics merely to legal compliance, this results in frequent and virtually hopeless equivocation. Moreover, many scientists and engineers (not to mention military personnel) tend to view the wider public’s concern with “ethics” as misplaced, and regard the invocation of “ethics” in these contexts as little more than a pretext for technologically and scientifically illiterate, fear-mongering, nay-saying Luddites who simply wish to impede the progress of science and technology.
Why insist on invoking fear and mistrust, and posing allegedly “moral” objections to the development and use of unmanned systems, instead of defining clear engineering design specifications and operational outcomes that incorporate the main ethical concerns? Why not require engineers and the military to design, build and operate to these standards, if they are able, and otherwise to desist, until they succeed? Why engage in a science-fiction debate over the future prospects for artificial machine intelligence that would incorporate analogues of human moral cognition, when what is required is far more feasible and less exotic: machines that function reliably, safely, and fully in conformance with applicable international laws—such as the law of armed conflict (LOAC) when operating in wartime. And why insist that the advent of cyber conflict is a “game changer” that ushers in a new mode of unrestricted warfare, in which all the known laws and moral principles of armed conflict are rendered obsolete, when what is required is merely appropriate analogical reasoning to determine how the known constraints extrapolate to these novel conditions?
I propose initial outlines of a framework for identifying and fostering productive debate over the acceptable ethical boundaries regarding novel technologies. First, I survey the state of discourse surrounding the ethics of autonomous weapon systems and cyber warfare. Next, I discuss how attempting to codify the emerging consensus on ethical boundaries for a given technology can focus the conversation on unsettled areas more effectively than vague moral discourse. Thirdly, I offer a set of Precepts for the development and operation of autonomous systems, and invite discussion on their accuracy and degree of comprehensiveness. Finally, I suggest how this methodology and many of these individual precepts apply toward the regulation and governance of other military technologies as well.
George R Lucas, Jr.
Professor of Philosophy & Public Policy, Global Public Policy Academic Group, Naval Postgraduate School
Distinguished Chair in Ethics, Stockdale Center, U.S. Naval Academy
George Lucas is Class of 1984 Distinguished Chair in Ethics in the Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the United States Naval Academy (Annapolis), and Professor of Ethics and Public Policy at the Graduate School of Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School (Monterey, CA). He has taught at Georgetown University, Emory University, Randolph-Macon College, the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, and served as Philosophy Department Chairman at the University of Santa Clara in California. He has received research fellowships from the Fulbright Commission and the American Council of Learned Societies, and has served three times (in 1986, 1990, and 2004) as director of National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institutes for College and University Faculty.
A Summa cum Laude graduate in Physics from the College of William and Mary, he is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Omicron Delta Kappa, and received the Sigma Xi Research Award in 1971 for his work in intermediate energy particle physics, published in The Physical Review (1973). Professor Lucas received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Northwestern University in 1978.
Lucas is the author of five books, more than forty journal articles, translations, and book reviews, and has also edited eight book-length collections of articles in philosophy and ethics. Among these titles are Anthropologists in Arms: the Ethics of Military Anthropology (AltaMira Press, 2009), Perspectives on Humanitarian Military Intervention (University of California Press, 2001), Lifeboat Ethics: the Moral Dilemmas of World Hunger (Harper & Row, 1976), Poverty, Justice, and the Law: Essays on Needs, Rights, and Obligations (UPA, 1986), The Rehabilitation of Whitehead: An Analytic and Historical Assessment of Process Philosophy (State University of New York Press, 1989), and The Genesis of Modern Process Thought, which was named an "Outstanding Academic Selection" in 1983 by Choice. His essays and peer-reviewed scholarly articles have appeared in The Journal of Philosophy, The Journal of the History of Philosophy, the Journal of Military Ethics, the Journal of National Security Law & Policy, the International Journal of Applied Ethics, the Journal of Religion, the International Philosophical Quarterly, Smithsonian Interdisciplinary Studies, the Review of Metaphysics, the Transactions of the C. S. Peirce Society, Soundings, Process Studies, The Owl of Minerva, Tijdschrfit voor filosofie (Louvain, Belgium), and Ruch Filozoficzny Kwartalnik (the oldest philosophy journal in Poland).
Dr. Lucas is also co-editor (with Capt. Rick Rubel, U.S. Navy, retired) of the textbook, Ethics and the Military Profession: the Moral Foundations of Leadership, and a companion volume, Case Studies in Military Ethics, both published by Pearson Education (New York, 2004). These texts are used in core courses devoted to ethical leadership at the United States Naval Academy, the United States Air Force Academy, and at Naval ROTC units at over 57 colleges and universities throughout the nation.