By Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado
Four questions on ethics and technology about ethics and technology:
- Is it a cause for concern that technology increasingly makes people remote from the consequences of their actions?
- Is war becoming a 'war game' played by people in air-conditioned rooms thousands of miles from the front?
- Does this, therefore, make war an easier option for political leaders?
- How should we introduce ethical issues into modern technology-based training?
The first three questions are rhetorical, expecting the answer ‘yes’. The fourth is practical, predicated on assent to the first three. I, however, shall treat them all as real, reserving the right to withhold assent. Before exercising that right, I shall reveal the assumptions behind the first three questions, to which assent is assumed by the fourth.
The first three questions imply both assumptions and concerns about the effects of technology on war, and recourse to war by politicians. It is assumed that politicians have too easy recourse to war. It is assumed that they do so because technology makes war an easy option. It is implied that this is bad. It is assumed that ethics make war a harder option. So it is implicitly proposed to make politicians’ recourse to war harder, by introducing ethics into technology based training, presumably that of warriors. It is assumed that I agree with all the foregoing assumptions, share the implied concerns, and agree with the proposal. On that basis, I am asked how to implement the proposal.
To answer questions such as these, one should in any case, as a matter of general principles, examine their assumptions in terms of fact, consider their concerns in terms of values, and evaluate their proposals in terms of means and ends. Are things really as the questions assume they are? Is it good, bad or indifferent if they are? Will the remedy proposed to prevent them from being so work?
These questions are addressed to me, a cultural historian, and presented as questions about ethics and technology. Ethics and technology are elements of culture. I have a theory of culture, partly outlined in NSL 5, 6, and 7. By that theory, culture is a tool-kit for human survival, increase and pleasure. Ethics and technology are among its tools. The context of these questions is war. War is also a tool of culture. Therefore, since these questions are addressed to me, and all concern culture, I shall answer them in the light of my theory of culture.
This means asking: ‘Would introducing ethics into technology based training of warriors serve the purposes of culture: human survival, increase and pleasure?’ Any answer to this question will depend on how one defines humanity. This means defining ‘us’. In this case, ‘we’ are the ‘we’ of the last question: the writers and readers of NSL. I shall return to this point later, but suffice it for now to say that defining ‘us’ involves eliciting agreement among diverse parties: ‘una concordia ex diversitate’, as Pope Gregory VII wrote in quite another context to Hermann of Metz, in 1076. (Reg. viii. 21, p. 450.)
Eliciting any concord out of diversity involves identifying the constituents of that diversity. Here it also means developing my theory of culture to show what concord it elicits of whom, where and when, how and why. Therefore, before I seek to answer these four questions on the basis of a concord my theory of culture elicits, I shall first develop my analysis of these four questions’ assumptions, concerns, and proposal. Then I shall frame some further questions raised in turn by such analysis, and consider diverse possible answers to those further questions. Those answers will identify the diversity whence I must elicit concord, on whose basis to answer these four questions.
Analysis of these four questions’ assumptions, concerns, and proposal. Distinction between different types of assumptions: factual, ethical, practical.
Clearly, given the last question, the response expected to the first three is ‘Yes’. It should be a cause for concern, it is implied, that technology removes people from the consequences of their actions. There are two assumptions here: one factual, the other ethical. The factual assumption is that this is so; the ethical, that it is bad. The factual assumption is debatable, since some technologies arguably bring people closer to the consequences of their actions. Others, however, may do the reverse. One must therefore specify which technologies are meant. The first question as framed seems to mean those which allow an agent to act, without directly, unmediatedly, experiencing in person the consequences of his or her actions. The ethical principle behind the ethical assumption is that people should know the consequences of their actions.
This, by some accounts is the fundamental principle of ethics. Ethics are rules for what to do in given cases. Knowing what is the case precedes deciding what to do about it. By such accounts, ethics develop from observing actions and their consequences. Ethics involve choosing one set of consequences over another, so choosing actions suited to achieving them. Therefore knowing the consequences of actions is a basic requisite of ethics. The first question as framed assumes that removing people far from the consequences of their actions, so diminishing their knowledge thereof, leads to results that should concern one.
One such result is that war is becoming a war game, played by people in air-conditioned rooms thousands of miles from the front. Again, the factual assumption is that this is so. And again one must ask, not only if this is indeed so, but what is meant here by ‘war game’. One kind of war game is collective simulation of war by warriors in training as practice for the real thing, often in the form of field exercises. Another is solitary or interactive gaming, often with computers, simulating war for individual, reciprocal or collective entertainment. These forms may of course overlap. The most effective training is often coterminous with entertainment. Whichever form is meant here, the reference to air-conditioned rooms suggests computer gaming, rather than field exercises, unless these be conducted on computers. Either way, concern is implied that something real, war, is coming to be viewed as a mere game, because of the ease, safety and comfort with which technology facilitates its waging. The ethical assumption behind this concern is that it is bad to confuse real war with war games.
Such confusion causes concern, presumably not just from a desire neatly to distinguish categories, in this case reality from games, but because of the assumed practical consequences of such confusion, in the case of war. It is assumed that confusing real war with war games makes real war an easier option for political leaders. Again the factual assumption is that this is so; the ethical that it is bad.
Another assumption may also be involved here: that politicians should not be allowed to make such easy choices. Let us call this assumption political. This raises the question of whether this concern is ethical - that war itself is bad and should be prevented - or political – that recourse to war by political leaders should not be made too easy. Choice between these alternatives requires discussing the reasons for one’s preference. These will involve the ethics of war and the praxis of politics.
We shall come to these later, but let us remember, in answering these four questions, to distinguish ethical concerns from factual or political, or indeed from practical, concerns. For the last question ‘How should we introduce ethical issues into modern technology-based training?’ is practical, not ethical, though it concerns ethics. It asks how, not whether. It assumes that we share the previously implied ethical concerns, and approve the proposed practical remedy. Do we?
Answering the fourth, practical question depends on one’s assent to the factual assumptions and ethical concerns of the first three. Analysis of these factual assumptions leads to lack of factual certainty.
We must ask and answer this question, because before considering how to introduce ethical issues into modern technology-based training, we should, logically, decide whether to do so or not. Our decision will depend on three factors: whether we accept the question’s implied factual assumptions as true; share the ensuing ethical concerns; and think the proposed practical remedy will work.
Regarding the first of these three factors, I must admit I do not know. Does technology, in fact, make people remote from the consequences of their actions? Is war, in fact, becoming a mere war game? Is this, in fact, making it an easier option for politicians?
While all these assumptions are plausible, I cannot certainly affirm that any is true. I can say what might constitute proof that it is true, but I do not myself possess any such proof.
Proof that the factual assumptions are true must come from close observation of cases that put them to the test. Such, in the context of warfare, would be reliable accounts of the frequency of war, and of the effects of technology on the experience and behaviour of warriors, and of politicians who deploy them; moreover not just so of modern technology on modern warriors and politicians, but of technology as such on both, throughout history. For the drone is but successor to the spear.
Has technology – in the form of spear, blowpipe, bow and arrow, pistol, rifle, cannon, missile, aeroplane and drone - made warriors remote from the consequences of their actions? Certainly, it has made warfare at a distance, rather than with fisticuffs, daggers, swords or cudgels, possible. But has distance in battle prevented warriors from experiencing war’s consequences: survival, injury, death, gain, loss, victory, defeat? Has it made them less aware of the consequences of their actions for the enemy? Or has technology – in the form of film, television, telephone, computer, also used in weapons - not perhaps enhanced their awareness of such consequences?
Conversely, has diminished awareness of the consequences of their actions, if this is indeed the case, made war a mere war game for warriors or politicians? What, in any case, both in past and present, would transformation from real war to a mere war game mean, in theory and in practice? Again, has technology, allowing not only warriors’ physical remoteness from each other, but also the public’s awareness of remote events, in fact made war an easier option for politicians?
These are some of the questions, answers to which would constitute proof, one way or another, for the factual assumptions here in question. I can answer only one: what it might mean for war to become a mere war game, at least in theory. The essence of games is that they follow rules. War, conversely, usually involves the suspension of normal rules, and often, despite the existence of laws of war, which are often ignored, the absence of any rules at all, at least in one’s behaviour towards the enemy. So, for war to become a war game would mean that war would be waged according to rules agreed to and observed by warring parties, and not, as now, by all possible means, evading rules or ignoring them. This, however, should not cause concern if war were becoming a mere war game, since it would amount to introducing ethics into warfare, something implicitly proposed by the last question. Perhaps the reverse transformation would be likelier to cause concern. If war games became real war, as when children playing ‘war’ find and use real weapons, unwelcome consequences might ensue. Likewise if an unsupervised computer gamer at play were able to fire real weapons. Yet in any case the question of what war becoming a war game, or a war game becoming war, might mean is not a factual question, but theoretical. Answers to factual questions on this subject must come from history, literature and journalism.
I shall consider such sources later on in this discussion. But the answers they afford also tend to be subjective and divergent. Therein lies their diversity, out of which I must seek to elicit concord. So, lacking agreed objective answers even to the factual assumptions behind these four questions, I must proceed, in answering these questions, on the basis of those assumptions’ plausibility, not of their factuality.
The second factor affecting our decision, whether or not to introduce ethics into technology-based training, is whether or not we share the implied ethical concerns. Our answer to this will depend on our views of ethics, technology and warfare. These, given the readership of NSL, are bound to be diverse. These answers in turn will condition the third factor affecting our decision: our opinion as to whether introducing ethics into technology-based training would hinder politicians’ recourse to warfare.
Lack of factual certainty threatens continued discussion. Decision to continue despite lack of factual certainty. Promise to find a way to do so.
Given our initial factual assumptions’ lack of certainty, let alone our own diversity, we are unlikely to be able to answer these consequent questions certainly. Should that prevent me from addressing them? No. While that might satisfy some readers, who are free to stop here, it might disappoint others, who may wish to continue. I shall therefore despite the lack of factual certainty regarding those assumptions discuss diverse views, both agreeing and disagreeing with those assumptions. I shall propose a way to transcend, if not reconcile them, so as to be able, at least, to answer the last question: how to introduce ethical issues into technology based training. In so doing, I shall provide an example of the sort of concord my theory of culture seeks to elicit.
The fourth question, because it is practical, not conceptual, should be the easiest to answer. Doing so may encourage us to attempt to address the rest. Assuming that practical question can be answered, the next will be conceptual, and far less easy to answer: Which ethical issues are there to be introduced? Addressing this will lead me to address, if not quite to answer, the rest of the four questions.
Analysis of the four questions’ ethical concerns leads to diversity of ethical opinions, again threatening continued discussion.
Now the four questions as framed clearly imply that we should introduce ethical issues into technology-based training. One may agree or disagree with this opinion.
Of those who agree, none, I suppose, thinks that these two sets of entities - ethical issues, and technology-based training - have any special affinity, categorically demanding any such introduction; all, rather, probably think that ethics have broad relevance, including to technology-based training. Some may think that ethics are relevant to everything; that ethics do, or should, inform not only technology-based training but every aspect of human life. Some may believe in god-given ethics. Others may be philosophically convinced of the existence of opposing universals, good and evil, calling for and generating ethics, in order to actualise choice between them. Yet others, believing in neither, may still consider ethics a useful, even necessary fiction: a noble lie. Finally, some may see ethics as tools of culture: man-made rules whereby to play the game of life.
Of those who disagree with these assumptions, some may be ethical nihilists, others ethical compartmentalists. The former reject ethical values altogether. The latter, while avowing, or at least not disallowing, ethical values, think that ethics have no place in technology, or in training based upon it. For compartmentalists, ethics may have a place somewhere - pulpit, lectern, or bench - but technology is a means to an end. It is amoral, concerned only with efficient, cost-effective pursuit of goals. Choice of such goals may concern ethics, but is not technology’s business. So teachers of technology, subjects based upon it, or simply using it, should leave ethical matters, whatever they may be, to teachers of ethics, and pursue excellence only in their own respective subjects.
Against this view, however, if one avows any ethical values at all, one may argue that technology and ethics interact in practice, so raising ethical questions, indeed problems, for technologists and teachers, begging ethical answers or solutions. The implied example of a drone pilot killing people by remote control is a case in point. If pilot, employer, or both, avow any ethical values at all, and if these include the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’, meaning people, then pilot and employer have an ethical question to answer and an ethical problem to solve.
The pilot’s or employer’s ethical question to answer may take the form: ‘How can one reconcile killing people with acceptance and observance of that commandment?’ The ethical problem for each to solve, individually or institutionally, will be deciding what to do in the absence of any satisfactory answer to that question.
No such dilemma confronts ethical nihilists. Ethical nihilism, discussed sympathetically in some of Nietzsche’s texts (e.g. Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, Zur Genealogie der Moral, Also sprach Zarathustra, Der Antichrist, Der Wille zur Macht) and elsewhere, countervails ethical universalism, which holds that ethics are relevant to everything. Nihilists think ethics are relevant to little or nothing, since ethics’ claim to universality is bogus. For nihilists, ethics merely serve a given point of view. Their alleged universality is delusory: self-deceiving, or deceiving others. Either way, ethical norms are merely self-interested claims or opinions. Their imposition involves using power, whether hard, coercion, or soft, persuasion. Leaving coercion for later, let me consider persuasion.
For nihilists, ethical persuasion is achieved through deceit, involving conceptual mutation and projection. Conceptual mutation works through grammatical shift. Optative propositions expressing wishes become imperatives stating commands. Projection shifts responsibility. Ethical imperatives are ascribed, not to those whose wish is their source, but to an alleged absolute authority, personal or impersonal. ‘Would it were so’ (because we think it behoves us) becomes ‘Let it be so’ (because some authority, God, the Good, the State, the Market, or whatever, says so). As usual, Jane Austen has something pithy to say about this: ‘How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!’ (Persuasion 2.15.1)
How, then, are we to answer the logically prior question: whether or not ethical issues should be introduced into modern technology-based training? If we do not acknowledge any absolute authority, religious, philosophical, political or economic, yet still wish to address these four questions, what view of ethics are we to assume, in order to justify doing so? In particular, how are we to frame our answer in such a way that it will make sense even to a nihilist, though it may yet fail to persuade one?
Why, some may ask, should we be so nice to nihilists? There are two reasons, one general, the other particular. The general reason is that in discussing any subject, involving any set of assumptions, one should always, as a matter of methodological principle, consider their opposite, if only to help one formulate, define and defend one’s own position. The nihilist critique of ethics is the most trenchant and radical available, and any discussion of ethics must either rebut it or include it among plausible theories for consideration. The particular reason to be nice to nihilists here concerns the context – war – of the four questions, and ethical nihilism’s special relationship to war. I shall soon discuss that relationship further.
Way to forge sufficient concord from diversity to allow us to continue to discussion and answer the fourth question: a working hypothesis.
The way to include not only ethical nihilism, but also religious belief and philosophical conviction, among one’s potential theoretical models, lies in framing a working hypothesis: something one agrees to pretend to consider, in order to pursue discussion. This means finding the highest common denominator of assumption. That is the most demanding level of assumptions that all concerned can agree to pretend to consider.
One may, for instance - citing no authority but reason, allowing that no values need be absolute, and admitting that all may be relative, depending upon one’s point of view, itself determined by who one is, which is in turn a matter of chance - nevertheless assume that we – whoever ‘we’ may happen to be - agree to abide by certain rules, and that these are to affect everything we do, including technology-based training.
In game theory, such an assumption would state the rules of a cooperative game. My theory of culture holds that culture can itself be seen as a game, cooperative for those defined as ‘self’, competitive as played with ‘others’. Therefore any consensual cultural act, such as discussing this matter here and now, can be conducted according to the rules of a cooperative game.
I propose we adopt such an assumption about ethics, merely as a working hypothesis, for the sake of argument, in order to allow us to address these four questions. To do so, we need not yet agree who we are, how to define ourselves, or by which rules to abide. Adapting algebra to work with an unknown quality, rather than quantity, we need only assume that such agreement exists. I note, by the way, that a similar hypothesis underlies the theory of the social contract. I shall return to this point later, and show how the conscious and critical adoption of working hypotheses can help elicit political concord in society, regarding matters of war and peace, among others.
Let us therefore assume, for now, only that we – the ‘we’ of the last question – agree to constitute a collectivity, and to abide by certain rules, or ethical values. These will affect everything we do, including technology-based training. We leave for later – not much later, for we shall find that they arise fairly soon – the questions of who ‘we’ are, and what those rules or ethical values are. For now, it suffices to assume that we accept that there will be such a set of rules, and agree that they are to be introduced into technology-based training. So now, having overcome so many obstacles of logical procedure, it would appear that I can, in good logical conscience, at last answer the fourth question: How?
Yet before doing so, there remains one final hurdle. It is not logically procedural, but political and ethical. Most national military academies throughout the developed world, including those of the USA, UK, and other NATO allies, already include ethics courses in their curricula. These are geared to instilling military ethics, and provide instruction in the values of the military profession. These values may be summarised in the motto of the West Point Military Academy: ‘Duty, Honor, Country’. Since the fourth question implicitly proposes introducing ethics into technology-based training, presumably of warriors, it is clear that these are not the ethics it seeks to introduce. This means that once we have answered the practical question of how to introduce ethics into technology-based training, we shall have to address the conceptual question of what ethics there to introduce.
The answer to the fourth question: How to introduce ethics into technology-based training.
There are two levels of problems to be solved, in seeking to introduce ethics into technology-based training: practical, and conceptual. Let us start with practical problems, though we shall find that they soon become conceptual. The main practical problems are logistical: how to organise and implement the introduction of ethics into technology-based training. In considering these problems, I note that technology-based training may occur in many subjects, not all of which are themselves necessarily technological.
In terms of paedagogical logistics, there are two options: teach ethics as a separate subject, or integrate them into other subjects. Now ethics are already taught as a separate subject, at least in philosophy courses, including those taught with information technology. So the last question, simply by virtue of being asked, implies a preference for ethics’ integration, at least into other subjects.
This preference may reflect any or all of three qualms. Ethics are not always taught in institutions offering technology-based training. Even if they are, but separately, students in other subjects need not always take ethics courses. Even if they do, they may not always relate them to their other subjects.
The first two of these three qualms can in theory be addressed purely logistically. Ethics can be taught where they are not. They can be made obligatory. But in practice the question arises: who shall cause them to be so? Unless education is subject to the enforceable command of a coercive educational authority, absent in many of the more technologically advanced parts of the world where such training is likely to take place, it may prove very difficult to introduce ethics into institutions providing technology-based training. It may be easier to do so in an authoritarian state. But do we want such a state to dictate which ethics are taught to our technicians? Moreover, outside authoritarian states, much technology-based training takes place outside institutions, using technology to breach the walls.
Thus is seems likely that introducing ethics into technology-based training cannot, outside authoritarian states, be achieved by coercion. The alternative, therefore, if one wishes to persist in the attempt, is persuasion.
Assuming that we – whoever ‘we’ may be – are already persuaded, we must persuade an educational institution, an online course designer, or both, that ethics should be introduced into the curriculum. In some cases this can be done by invoking ethical values themselves, if they happen to be shared with potential persuadees. (This raises the question, shelved for now, of what those values are.) In others, it can only be done by an appeal to persuadees’ notion of their own self-interest. We shall have to argue differently in each case, depending on that notion’s shape. On the one hand it will be shaped by pride and shame; on the other by greed and fear.
Let us assume that this is done. Next, if ethics are taught separately, we must persuade students to take the course, and do the coursework. The same conditions apply. If they share our values, we can appeal to those. Otherwise, we must appeal to their notion of their own self-interest. Though shaped by the same factors, pride and shame, greed and fear, its shape will differ from the institution’s or online course designer’s, and will differ for different students, or for diverse sets among them.
Persuading students will therefore prove complicated, and there are far more students to persuade than institutions or online course designers. Clearly, from an ethical persuader’s point of view, it will be easier to introduce ethics into technology-based training if ethics are integrated into subjects students will anyhow choose to take. Integration eliminates one whole level of persuasion. But from the persuadee institution’s point of view, it may be easier to institute separate ethics courses where they do not yet exist, than to rewrite textbooks and change or retrain teachers.
Either way, whether ethics are taught separately, or integrated into other subjects, their introduction into technology-based training will bring costs. These may be greater or lesser, one way or another, depending on variables like students’ fees, curriculum developers, teachers’ pay, classroom use, and the purchase or rental of intellectual property, if new courses are designed. Unless those who bear the costs are co-religionists, fellow ideologues, or otherwise tribesmen of ours (and maybe even if they are) we shall have to persuade them that the costs are worth it: that introducing ethics into their curricula will bring them benefits, in kudos, cash or exam results, equal to or greater than the costs.
We see, therefore, that solving the practical problem of introducing ethics anywhere at all involves persuasion, and that persuasion involves appeals to shared ethical values, or to self-interest. These are linked, and act together. Such appeals, and the choice or balance between ethical values and self-interest, are the very stuff of ethics themselves. So now, because we must consider this very stuff, we shall pass from the practical into the conceptual realm.
Transition: Answering the fourth question – how to introduce ethics into technology-based training of warriors - leads to considering what ethics to introduce. This leads to consideration of various views of war.
Let me do so smoothly by addressing, still in practical terms, the last cited of three possible qualms; one which could not be addressed purely logistically: that students may not always relate ethics courses taken separately to their other subjects. Yet another argument for integration is that ethics in practice differ in detail for each subject, and should thus be taught bespoke, tailored to that subject. This argument, though practical, brings us into the conceptual realm, since such tailoring will necessarily involve the matter of the subjects in question, and so the ethics relevant to them.
Now we cannot here consider every subject to which ethics may be relevant. So let me, in addressing these four questions, confine myself to the context wherein they are framed: that of war. We have observed, above, that military ethics in the form of ‘Duty, Honor, Country’ and the like are already taught in military academies. But the fourth question implicitly proposes nonetheless to introduce ethics anew into the technology-based training of warriors, signalling that those are not the ethics it proposes there to introduce.
This means that we must now, having considered the practical problems of introducing any kind of ethics anywhere at all, address the question of what ethics there to introduce. We must perform a quasi-algebraic operation, and inform our unknown quality. And in order to do that, we must know what ethics of war are available, to see if any fit the bill. Now we must remember that the task in hand is specifically finding ethics of war to teach technological warriors. These are a subset of warriors in general. Thus we need general ethics of war, which may be modified to suit technological warfare. To find general ethics of war, we must look at views of war in general, or war as such, not only in terms of ethics, but of other aspects.
Searching for ethics of war to teach technological warriors: review of diverse attitudes to war. The difference between aesthetic and ethical views of war.
I shall therefore undertake the search for general ethics of war from diverse points of view of war as such. These will range from those seeing war as an end in itself, to those seeing war as a means to an end; those espousing ethical values such as ‘Duty, Honor, Country’, and the like, to those proposing ethical nihilism. I mentioned earlier nihilism’s special relationship to war. War has a special place in nihilism’s view of ethics, for reasons I shall presently discuss. War is also diversely considered by warriors, philosophers, priests, politicians, plutocrats or oligarchs and poets. I shall return to nihilism’s view of war after we see what some of these other sorts of people think. Let me begin with poets.
Epic poets, ancient and modern, have sung of arms, and of the man who bears them, from diverse points of view. Take the Iliad, Ramayana, Aeneid, Golden Ode, Beowulf, Nibelungenlied, Chanson de Roland, Cantar de Mio Cid, Heike Monogatari, Orlando Furioso, and Os Lusiadas, to name but a few. War provides poets with a chance to show, not only duty, honour, and love of country, but also heroism, valour, loyalty, ingenuity, luck, and other qualities granted positive ethical value by the cultures generating them.
Some epics sometimes query such values, implicitly or explicitly, but doubt comes to predominate only very recently. Pivotal in this change of attitude is Tennyson’s The Charge of The Light Brigade.1 Published in mid-nineteenth century, it honours the nobility, but laments the folly of war. By the second decade of the twentieth century, Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est,2 quoting a Horatian Ode 3 saying ‘it is sweet and right to die for one’s country’, calls this dictum ‘The old Lie’. Quite a turnabout.
We shall return to this turnabout presently, since it is implicit in the four questions and proposal, but first let me continue reviewing diverse views of war.
For politicians, priests, and plutocrats or oligarchs, war is a means to an end, and the end justifies the means. For politicians, if they are realists, and honest, the purpose of war is to seize, hold and enjoy, or if necessary to defend, power and its fruits, whether within a given society, or by one society over another: to lord it over others. Usually, however, politicians are not honest, even if they are realists, and prefer to state their purposes publicly in ethical terms. These may be framed for them by priests or secular ideologues. Crusade or Jihad is war in God’s name. The English, American and Spanish Civil Wars, the American, French, Russian and Chinese Revolutionary Wars, World War II and the Cold War, were supposedly fought over political ideology.
But, according to one theory, most wars, indeed, all wars, including or especially those ostensibly fought over religion or political ideology, are actually fought over material resources. Religion and ideology, stores of ethical value, are used to define who ‘we’ are, in order to marshal ‘us’ to fight against ‘them’, for the benefit of plutocrats or oligarchs. Thus the only real winners of wars are plutocrats or oligarchs, who do not often share the risk of loss of life, limb and livelihood with the rest of us. Realism, or honesty, consists in admitting this. Note the similarity of this argument to that animating ethical nihilism. Both hold that deception, including self-deception, is involved in proposing ethical values, especially those used to justify war.
We owe that view of war to philosophers; not, however, to nihilists, but to Marx (‘Die Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850’, Neue Rheinische Zeitung,1850, ‘Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte’, Die Revolution, 1852, ‘Der nordamerikanische Bürgerkrieg’, Die Presse, No. 293, October 25, 1861, ‘Der Bürgerkrieg in Frankreich’, Adresse des Generalrats der Internationalen Arbeiterassoziation, 1871), and Engels (Der Deutsche Baurenkrieg, 1850); and before them, if plutocrats or oligarchs be played by tyrants, to Plato (Republic, VIII, 567A).
Thus we see a divide, on the one hand, between the view of war expressed by poets, focusing mainly on ethical values and personal qualities, together with their corresponding emotions, and that of politicians, priests and philosophers, focusing more on the means and ends of war, whether ostensible or real. This divide roughly corresponds to the difference between aesthetics and ethics.
Ethics tell us what thinkers think; aesthetics what feelers feel. Ethics are rules for what to do, or excuses for what has been done. Aesthetics articulate feelings and emotions, including those about ethical values and personal qualities. Attitudes to war embody both: emotional response to given cases, and reasoning what to do, or why it has been done. Both contribute to forming views of war.
Our task in searching for ethics of war is complicated by the interplay between aesthetics and ethics, emotion and reason, more so if reasoning is false or deceitful. Yet the task of eliciting concord between diverse opinions cannot rely on reason alone. No concord lacking an emotional component will bind strongly enough to form a basis for action. So we must both distinguish between aesthetic and ethical views of war, and learn how to combine them.
Sources of ethics of war: religion, philosophy, law. Different approaches to the ethics of war.
Most ethics of war derive from religion or philosophy. Yet we cannot approach our task from the viewpoint of a single religion or philosophy. For not only does our diversity, and that of our potential pupils, the politicians-cum-warriors, preclude such an approach, but the wars we are likely to fight, indeed are fighting now, are between people of different religions and philosophies. No ethics of war acceptable to all actual or potential adversaries is likely to derive from any one – least of all the UN and its declarations.
We can, so we may think, turn from the pulpit or the lectern to the bench. Laws of war are recognised by most states, though not by all. These could be updated to cover modern technological warfare, including drones. This would save us searching through all culture for ethics to teach warriors. There is however a categorical problem with this solution. It is not only the case that not all states subscribe to those laws, nor yet that those who do so regularly honour them in the breach, nor even that so many belligerents today are not states, but non-state actors, who do not subscribe to them. While real, these are practical problems of adoption, imposition, and implementation; not categorical problems of conception of the rule of law.
The categorical problem is that laws are not ethics. Laws may imply ethics, but are not themselves ethics. Indeed, laws can conflict with ethics. So even if we seek to update laws of war to cover technological warfare, we must still examine the ethics, and also the aesthetics, behind them, to isolate the principles we shall apply.
One can do so chronologically or categorically, generally or particularly, focusing on war’s ontology, including its normality or abnormality, avoidability or inevitability, origins, ends, means and technology. Each of these aspects of war has potential aesthetic and ethical implications.
The question of war’s normality or abnormality, avoidability or inevitability.
Chronologically and generally, focusing on war’s ontology, and so on its normality or abnormality, avoidability or inevitability, one can observe, in political philosophy, and in the views of warriors themselves, as in the poetry of war, a long period of relative conformity, albeit with some variations and exceptions, followed by a relatively recent change. Until about the mid-twentieth century, war was generally considered, by poets, politicians, priests, philosophers and warriors alike, and, as far as we know, by most people, a normal human activity. The classic statement of this view is Clausewitz’s dictum: Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln: ‘War is a continuation of politics by other means.’ (VK 1.1.24)
This is not to say that war was not considered dire by many, especially those people who did not wage it, but felt its full force. Yet even they regarded it, like death and taxes, as inevitable. Others, however, claimed to enjoy, or at least to admire war, considering it, as did most epic poets, a noble test of manhood, or, more prosaically, the most intense form of the struggle for survival of the fittest. Revealingly, many of those who, like Nietzsche, most admired war, were not fit enough to wage it. Those who did so took more sober views, seeing it as a necessary evil. ‘Next to a battle lost the greatest misery is a battle gained.’ (Attributed to Wellington at Waterloo.)
This point raises again the difference between aesthetic and ethical evaluations of war, requiring us further to refine the distinction. Evaluation of war by a non-combatant, neither supporting nor opposing war, is aesthetic. Aesthetic evaluation becomes ethical when one chooses action: to wage war, or support or oppose those who do so. This is because, while aesthetics provide a basis for evaluation, ethics are rules for action. Also, one must distinguish between evaluative and descriptive views of war. Both aesthetic and ethical views of war are evaluative. But an ontological view of war should be a purely descriptive, objective account of what war is. It may incidentally adduce theories of war’s origins and ends in order to define it. These affect whether one’s evaluation of it is aesthetic or ethical. If one thinks war inevitable, while one may still evaluate it aesthetically, ethical judgement of war itself is pointless, because one cannot really choose for or against something inevitable, like death. One may, however, still choose the time, occasion and manner of war, as of death.
Origins and causes of war. Distinction between general and particular origins and causes.
During the long period in which war was generally considered normal, its origins in general were usually traced to inevitable causes: human nature, conflict among various gods, the will of one: all factors immune to human action. Yet the particular causes of individual wars were usually ascribed to specific human actions, constituting provocations to or declarations of war. Such causes, usually diversely identified or described by opposing sides, were used by each in justification of a given war. It was just, because caused by the opposing side, through an act of war calling for retaliation, punishment and reparation. Thus we see a difference between attitudes to war in general, regarded as normal, requiring only descriptive, rather than evaluative explanation, and attitudes to particular wars, requiring specific justification of their causes and purposes.
Evidence, since earliest recorded history, in the form of conquerors’ inscriptions and other records since, shows that such justification is usually claimed. War, from its wagers’ point of view, is not undertaken for its own sake, or for its aesthetic satisfactions, as in the theories of some modern thinkers, but for ostensibly ethical reasons. These are, however, varied, and often mutually contradictory; not only so between opposing belligerents, but even for the same belligerent in different cases.
Ethical nihilism and its view of war.
This brings us back, as promised, to ethical nihilism, and its special relationship with war. War is special for ethical nihilism, because war seems to prove ethical nihilism’s case. In war, ethics are transgressed or redefined. Silent enim leges inter arma: ‘In wartime laws fall silent.’ (Cicero, Pro Milone, 11). What is usually forbidden, killing people, and wanton destruction of property, is bidden, indeed commanded. Thus, nihilism concludes, ethical values merely serve vested interests.
Ethical nihilism about war derives from and encourages sceptical analysis of ethics’ service to vested interests, involving inconsistency and self-contradiction in justifying war. This suggests that, for any given war, each party sees its causes and purposes subjectively, as justified merely by being its own. But in order to enlist the support of its own people and others, ostensibly objective justifications are sought. These may appeal to alleged common self-interest, such as the lure of conquest and plunder, or be presented as enforcing a right or righting a wrong, whether so defined by religion, ideology or law. Thus arises the concept of just war.
The concept of just war.
The concept of just war originates in the West as jus ad bellum, or law governing justification of the causes and purposes of particular wars. Concomitantly with it develops jus in bello, or law governing the proper means of waging war. More recently, the concept of jus post bellum, law governing the aftermath of war, has become current. But the word jus, whether ad bellum, in bello, or post bellum, does not quite mean what we mean by ‘law’: a rule enforced by the state. Jus means rather what we would call ‘right’ or ‘justice’, as opposed to lex, which means what we call ‘law’. Thus the modern laws of war, which largely grew out of their Western mediaeval and early modern predecessors, are in fact, properly speaking, more ethical judgements than laws, unless they be enforced.
Still chronologically, but now specifically, focusing on means, one can identify differing views, implying ethical values, of how rightly to wage war. But these, in the absence of an avowedly authoritative enforcer, are more ethical judgements than laws. In the past, the rule of law stopped at the borders of each tribal domain, city-state, kingdom, republic or empire. Indeed, unless internationally enforced, it still does.
Any enforcement of jus ad bellum or jus post bellum is, in practice, victors’ justice. Jus in bello may, however, but rarely, be enforced by belligerents on their own soldiers, before knowing a given war’s outcome. Yet for the most part, given the rarity of such enforcement, and the number of wars, jus in bello largely remains more ethical judgement than body of law.
Ethical judgement of the means of war.
Ethical judgement of the means of war allows for considerable variety in practice. In Homeric Greece, single face-to-face combat between enemy champions was highly praised, but so was perfidy - such as hiding warriors in a wooden horse given as a token of truce – if it was victorious. In Mediaeval Europe, visor-to-visor combat between armour-clad noblemen on horseback was considered chivalrous. Deploying plebeian archers to unseat the knights, then rush on them with swords and axes to kill them while squirming in their armour in the mud, was considered, at least by the losing side at Agincourt, unchivalrous. Gunpowder rendered war even more distant, anonymous, and deadly.
Sometimes, the notion prevailed that war should be confined to warriors, leaving civilians alone. Contests between champions, as in the Iliad, the story of David and Goliath, Nordic sagas, or mediaeval jousts, known as wagers of battle, could decide the outcome of ethnic, political and dynastic strife, without recourse to full-scale war. (Lea, H.C., Superstition and Force: Essays on the Wager of Law – the Wager of Battle – the Ordeal – Torture, Lea Brothers & Co., 1892). The wager of battle between sovereigns might be considered an example of war becoming a war game: a rule-based contest. But when the similar wager of law was used to settle disputes of law among private individuals and non-sovereign collectivities, it became a way to pervert or circumvent the rule of law, in favour of the rule of might, fraud or luck. More often, however, unruly war was not only fought between armies and navies, but wrought on civilian populations, who had little or no say in their fate. Despite this, the notion of nobility and honour survived, at least among the officer class. ‘Into the valley of death rode the six hundred’, honour, at least in Tennyson’s opinion, if not bodies, intact.
The change in attitudes towards war: from approbation or toleration to animadversion, coincides with growth in the effects of war on populations.
Indeed it was that very war, the Crimean, inspiring that pivotal poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, out of which the modern laws of war grew. This coincided with the growth of democracy in Europe and America. That growth involved an increased capacity for, and social and political expectation of, the expression of popular opinion. This increased capacity led to increasing popular input into the choice of political options, including war, a trend that continues today. The ethics of war, previously a matter mainly of interest to warriors and their masters, became an issue for civilian populations. They increasingly have moved from approbation or toleration of war to animadversion against war.
Beginning with the Paris Declaration, followed by successive Geneva and Hague Conventions, St. Petersburg and London Declarations, the Pact of Paris, a League of Nations Declaration, Nuremberg Principles, United Nations Resolutions, Protocols and Conventions, and the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court, a growing body of international law of war is developing. It focuses on all aspects of war: causes and purposes, means and aftermath. It has even, in a very few cases, been enforced. Its principal concern is not only to regulate the interaction of warriors with each other, but also to reduce the effects of war on civilian populations.
Yet despite all this legislative activity, during the more than century and a half since the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, cannon, machine guns, bombs, gas and bacteria, aerial bombardment, atomic weapons, improvised explosive devices, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and passenger airplanes used in their stead, unleashed on warriors and civilians alike, have increased yet further the distance, anonymity and deadliness of war. The development of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, takes this process one step further. Successors to the longbowmen of Agincourt, drone pilots operate from greater distances, with more anonymity and safety, but the elements are basically the same: a warrior with a weapon that downs the enemy at distance, without having to see his body, let alone his face. Efficient, maybe cost effective, but quite lacking in heroism, nobility or honour.
The myth – or lie – of heroism, nobility and honour.
Why so? Because heroism, nobility and honour are predicated on equal risk to both combatants, voluntarily assumed, in face-to-face combat. This is why, in fiction and films, no matter how amazingly advanced the weaponry depicted, the hero and the villain must eventually descend to fisticuffs. The myth – or lie – of heroes and villains, nobility and honour, demands face-to-face combat. One must know the causes and consequences of one’s actions, at least in the literary imagination.
So are heroism, nobility and honour the ethical values we should seek to teach our technological warriors? That is not what the penultimate question suggests: ‘Does this’ – meaning the air-conditioned ease of waging war by remote control, and the lack of knowledge of the consequences of one’s actions allegedly resulting from doing so - ‘therefore, make war an easier option for political leaders?’ This question seems to imply, not a longing to restore heroism, nobility and honour to warfare, but rather a wish to avoid or forsake war altogether.
Modern animadversion to war: irenicism and pacifism vs. bellicism and polemicism.
Depending on which, avoid or forsake, that wish jibes with one or another form of animadversion to war, prevalent in much modern opinion. Animadversion to war can either be aesthetic or ethical, compatible or incompatible with the old standard view of war as normal and inevitable, though few now think it noble. Those who do think war noble must, logically, somehow value war positively: whether, like Clausewitz, as a rational instrument of policy; or, like Nietzsche, Hitler, and others, as a worthwhile pursuit for its own sake. The former may be called polemicists or bellicists, the latter warmongers.
Animadversion to war comes in two forms: weak and strong, depending on whether one wishes merely to avoid, or to forsake war altogether.
The weak form, avoidance, is aesthetic, and is compatible with the old standard view of war as normal and inevitable. Adapting a term from Church history, I call the weak form of animadversion to war ‘irenicism’. Preference for peace over war informs irenicism, just as preference for life over death informs medicine. Peace, when possible, is as much desired by irenicists as health, wealth and happiness. But if one must coerce or exterminate others to impose peace, that is a price irenicism’s beneficiaries, who may be coerced, but are not normally exterminated, can usually accept. Of course an imposed peace does not last forever. But at least it is named after those who make it last longest: Pax Romana, Britannica, Americana.
The stronger form of animadversion to war is pacifism: forsaking war altogether. Pacifism is ethical, and incompatible with the view of war as normal and inevitable. Taken to its logical conclusion, it argues for abolishing the means of waging war, in order to make war impossible. These four questions suggest a preference for irenicism, since under pacifism, there would be no warriors to instruct in ethics.
(Let me explain a lexicological nuance I make use of here. Just as in introducing ‘irenicism’ as a companion to ‘pacifism’, I distinguish the force of the Latin and Greek words, making the Latin stronger, so I use the Latin ‘bellicist’ to mean ‘warlike’ in a physical, material sense, the Greek ‘polemicist’ to mean ‘combative’ in a dialectical or diplomatic sense.)
Before examining irenicism and pacifism categorically, let us review them chronologically. In so doing, we shall revisit some territory explored in our review of diverse views of the ontology of war. But now we shall be looking for the sources of modern animadversion to war in the forms of irenicism and pacifism. The former is aesthetic, the latter ethical. Both are evaluative. Ontological and evaluative views of war are related by the fact, mentioned above, that if one views war ontologically as normal and inevitable, this limits one’s evaluation of war to aesthetics; but if one views war as avoidable and optional, then one’s evaluation may be ethical.
Sources of irenicism and pacifism in religion and political philosophy.
The earliest recorded forms of irenicism and pacifism are religious. So, for that matter, are the earliest recorded forms of polemicism, bellicism, and warmongering. Among early proponents of peace are Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism. But even these, while advocating peace, not war, do not consider peace normal and war abnormal; rather peace good and war bad. This is evaluation, not description. So to the extent that it considers war normal and inevitable, albeit bad, it is irenicism, not pacifism. Graeco-Roman religion worships war as a god, Ares or Mars; peace as a goddess, Irene or Pax, from whom ‘irenicism’ and ‘pacifism’ derive. He sits at high table; she does not. Judaism seems to have shared the general view of war as normal and inevitable, while generating some of the earliest laws regarding its proper conduct. Some Christians maintain that Christ was a pacifist, others not. Texts are cited both ways. However that may be, Christianity, in most, though not all, of its forms, has been far from pacifist, often taking a leading role in war. The same, despite the profession of peace implicit in its name, can be said of Islam. So the three main Abrahamic religions are irenicist, not pacifist, when indeed they are not bellicist, polemicist or warmongers.
Like most priests, most political philosophers have seen war as normal and inevitable, whatever their aesthetic or would-be ethical evaluations of war. While, according to Plato, Socrates is proud of his own service as a soldier (Plato, Apology, 17.E), Plato himself (Republic, VIII, 567A), prefiguring Marx (loc. cit. supra), thinks that tyrants stir up wars to stay in power. Thus Plato, by an implication which he does not draw, opens a door to pacifism - no tyrants: no war - through which he does not pass. While Aristotle says that we fight wars that we may live in peace, (Politics, VII.14, 1333a.35) thus incidentally defining irenicism, Cicero outlines the theory of just war (De Officiis, I.35 ff.) . This is Christianised by Augustine (De Civitate Dei, V.21-23), Aquinas (Summa Theologica, II.40) and Vitoria (Relectiones Theologicae, XII.3). Gentili (De Iure Belli) and Grotius (De Iure Belli ac Pacis) adapt the theory of just war to cover interaction between the new political reality of nation states, thus contributing to the foundations of modern international law.
Machiavelli offers realistic description, rather than idealistic prescription. Il Principe is rhetorically prescriptive, and can be read as ethically nihilistic. But it can also be read descriptively, or like Swift’s Modest Proposal, as satire, although it is factual. It can even be read as deeply moral. The ends it describes may be good (creating the stability that permits civilisation, especially in the city state – Florence – along lines that the Greeks would have understood) although the means may seem amoral.
However one interprets Il Principe, one of its main subjects is war, whether of conquest (Ch. 3-9) or defence (Ch. 12-14, 20). In it, Machiavelli sees war and politics pragmatically. He describes the practice of amoral statecraft, including war as waged by his contemporaries. That statecraft’s goal - the seizure and tenure of political power – is an end in itself, leading its practitioners to justify its means with highly convoluted ethical arguments, often in conflict with their stated views in other contexts, leading to accusations of hypocrisy. In his later Discorsi, Machiavelli proposes republicanism to prevent the abuses of princes. But in all his works, he regards war as an inevitable part of human nature. Indeed, the only work of his published in his lifetime, and which he regarded as his best, was his Arte della Guerra: Art of War (1521).
Hobbes goes further. He sees the state of nature as ‘a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man’. There, the life of man is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ (Leviathan, 13.9). Only imposition – by persuasion or coercion – of political and ethical order, under the absolute rule of a sovereign, lifts man from this state of nature into civility. Persuasion or coercion enforce a ‘social contract’ whereby individuals surrender part of their autonomy to the sovereign. He, in return, protects them from their fellows’ exercise of their autonomy (Leviathan, 14).
This ‘social contract’ is not reached through actual negotiation by all parties presently concerned. It is seen as having been reached long ago in the mythical past, yet still binding in the present, or as an extrapolation of how things “naturally” are: that is, as the law of nature. Either way, Hobbes’ ‘social contract’ is a successor to Plato’s ‘noble lie’, his metallurgical myth of how ‘the god’ constituted social classes: rulers of gold, helpers of silver, peasants and craftsmen of iron and bronze. It is clear from the context that ‘helpers’ include warriors (Republic, III, 415 B-C). Thus, despite his accusation against tyrants, that they stir up wars to stay in power, Plato accepts warriors, and so war, as a foundational element of his mythological reality. So does Hobbes. They are both, therefore, insofar as they prefer peace to war, irenicists, not pacifists.
But Hobbes’s Leviathan advances beyond Plato’s Republic by offering an ontological description of the state of nature based on quasi scientific reasoning, rather than mythology. Though mythological in form, that exposition is largely free from religious elements in method of enquiry and content of results. On its basis, Hobbes builds a rational political and ethical strategy, absolutism, to remedy the state of nature’s direst defects.
Thus Leviathan implicitly invites eventual use of proper scientific method in ontological description of the state of nature, and also reconsideration of current political and ethical arrangements. The former invitation leads, eventually, to accounts of the state of nature, and the place of war therein, by modern ethology, psychology, anthropology and sociology; the latter, much sooner, to the political and ethical philosophy of the Enlightenment.
The two Enlightenment philosophers most relevant to our discussion are Rousseau and Kant.
Rousseau argues, against Hobbes, for the basically peaceful goodness of human nature, if uncorrupted by a perverted civility. Civility’s perversion consists in its upholding private property and enforcing the division of labour. (Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes, 1754).
Kant is free of such optimistic assumptions about human nature, but is committed to a universalistic view of human duty, a form of the golden rule (‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’) known as the categorical imperative: ‘Handle nur nach derjenigen Maxime, durch die du zugleich wollen kannst, dass sie ein allgemeines Gesetz werde’. ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law,’ (Akademie-Ausgabe Kant Werke IV, S. 421, 6). On this basis he argues for permanent peace, based on classical republicanism (Zum ewigen Frieden. Ein philosophischer Entwurf, 1795/6).
Together, these views lay the foundation for modern pacifism, as proposed by Thoreau, Tolstoy, Suttner, Jaurès, Russell, Lansbury, Gandhi and King. Kant’s arguments form the basis for international agreements and fora such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. By basing individual moral duty on right reason, rather than obedience to authority, whether divine or secular, Kant opens the door to conscientious objection. This in turn informs the doctrine, argued at the Nuremberg trials, that obeying orders is no legitimate defence against charges of war crimes.
The drone pilot’s ethical dilemma.
And this brings us straight back to the dilemma faced by our drone pilot and his or her employer, the state, pointing to potential conflict between them, and providing an instance of where law and ethics may conflict. For, to the extent that the pilot avows ethical values, if the pilot obeys the categorical imperative not to kill human beings, because God or right reason forbids it, then he or she disobeys the state. By obeying the state’s orders to do so, he or she disobeys God or reason.
Given the practical consequences in this life of refusing to follow military orders in battle, as compared to eternal damnation or bad conscience, it is likely that the pilot will obey the state, follow orders, and shoot. In so doing, he or she will doubtless, as will the state itself, argue that this is a just war, abrogating the commandment and overruling the imperative. They will not be alone. Even some self-described pacifists, including Russell, Wells, and Einstein, supported the war against Hitler, as the lesser of two evils.
Nietzsche, who professed, without waging war, to admire it, and whom Hitler, without understanding, professed, while waging war, to admire, should, could he have laughed, have been laughing in his grave, saying ‘I told you so’. For these so-called pacifists, who turned out to be irenicists after all, would seem to prove ethical nihilism’s point: when survival is at stake, all ethics are dispensable. This is not to say that Russell, Wells and Einstein feared for their own by then fairly aged lives, should Hitler triumph, although Einstein, a Jew, clearly had the most to fear. Rather, their argument was that, to save the values of civilisation from barbarism, it was better to sacrifice one of those values, pacifism, for the sake of the rest. The logical further development of that argument surfaces just a generation later, in Vietnam, when ‘we’ would have ‘to destroy the village in order to save it’ (Attributed by Peter Arnett to an unnamed US Major, New York Times, 8/2/1968).
A set of alternatives, arising from the foregoing reviews of diverse views of war, and of irenicism and pacifism vs. bellicism and polemicism, relevant to addressing the four original questions.
We, whoever we may be, after this inevitably short and superficial glance at various views of war, and of the ethics and aesthetics relevant thereto, now at least have a rough idea of some alternatives relevant to addressing the four original questions. Those alternatives can likewise be stated as further questions:
Is war good, bad or evil, or all or none of these? Normal or abnormal? Avoidable or inevitable? What is war’s role in culture? Must that role be filled only by war? Is war, given our purposes, counterproductive? If so, how should we deal with it? If not, how should we conduct it? Given our diversity of points of view, are any ethics or aesthetics relevant to war? If so, which? How is war affected by technology? Is it made more or less likely? Deadly? Destructive? How does technology affect any ethics of war we may adopt? What are our chances of introducing any such ethics into technology based training?
I do not propose, within the scope of this discussion, to answer all these further questions, with some of which poets and philosophers have wrestled for millennia, while plutocrats, priests and politicians have been busy waging war. I shall instead limit myself to identifying what we must know or think in order to consider them, and how this may affect our doubtless diverse answers to the four original questions.
Elements of my theory of culture, relevant to considering the set of alternatives relevant to addressing the four original questions. Definition of the good.
As promised, I shall do so in view of my theory of culture. Let me therefore briefly develop it here slightly beyond its initial exposition above, namely that:‘Culture is a tool-kit for human survival, increase and pleasure. Ethics and technology are among its tools. War is also a tool of culture, often used by politicians.’
My theory of culture is neither theological nor mythological, but philosophical and scientific. Philosophy is study of the nature and structure of knowledge, while science is knowledge of the nature and structure of reality. Leaving, for brevity’s sake, fuller exposition of my theory’s philosophical basis for another occasion, I shall proceed on its scientific basis. This, in relation to the ethics of war, includes anthropology and evolutionary biology. Let me briefly explain the nature of their relevance to ethics.
The main ethical lesson to be drawn from anthropology is that good and bad or evil are differently defined by different people, from different points of view, for different sets of people, and that the same thing may be deemed good for one, or for one set, and bad or evil for another. The only way for good, bad or evil to become universals would be for their definitions to be uniform and universal: uniform in definition universally assigned, and universal in respect of those for whom they are defined. This would mean defining ‘us’ as all humanity. But even if ‘we’ were so defined, we might still disagree as to what particular things were good, bad or evil for us.
The main ethical lesson to be drawn from evolutionary biology is that what is good for us, both as individuals, and as a species, is what leads to our survival, increase and pleasure, thus allowing us fully to explore the limits of our possibility, and become all we potentially may be.
This, curiously enough, coincides with Aristotle’s definition of the good, W. D. Ross renders this as: ‘And the science which knows to what end each thing must be done is the most authoritative of the sciences, and more authoritative than any ancillary science; and this end is the good of that thing, and in general the supreme good in the whole of nature.’
So the supreme good in all of nature, the purpose of all life, may be understood as the drive to survival, increase, and pursuit of pleasure. Survival is both that of the individual, and, as a consequence, that of the species to which the individual belongs and contributes. Increase is both demographic and economic. Both in principle contribute to survival, although competition for limited resources, in the form of the ‘balance of nature’, means that neither can be limitless. The will to live, which in humans becomes the pursuit of pleasure, is the force that drives the whole process.
According to evolutionary biology, survival and increase, or self-replication, is the goal of the genes that constitute individuals and species (Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976). Individual organisms are dispensable, once they have replicated their genes. In humans, at least, they pursue that goal through the pursuit of pleasure. This leads us to reproduce and increase or maintain our numbers, and increase and enhance our food, safety, comfort, health and well being, and so survive and thrive.
Anthropology shows that we pursue pleasure through culture. Culture is the interface between man and nature, and between man and man. Just as evolution works through natural selection, culture works through cultural selection, with the difference that while natural selection is blind, culture can be – but is not necessarily – consciously purposive through choice.
If the pursuit of pleasure is the internal dynamic leading to species survival, the external criterion is adaptiveness. This means that whatever choices man makes in the course of the pursuit of pleasure must so relate to man’s environment, or habitat, as to promote individual or group survival, at least that of the next generation, in order to carry on the species.
Thus emerge ethics, a set of principles and protocols, learned over time by trial and error and passed on from generation to generation, fashioned to promote that result. Since man’s habitat, including man’s interaction with men, changes, so ethics, to be adaptive, must also be able to change. They may do so like natural selection, relatively blindly, though never, since culture involves consciousness, completely so. Or they may do so deliberately, driven by the will of some seeking to change them. Their ability to do so will depend on a mixture of coercion and persuasion.
Ethics are developed over time, separately and differently in each set of humans, whether ethnically defined as family, tribe or race, or culturally defined as nation, faith or culture. Thus there are many different versions of ethics competing with each other, just as there are many different families, tribes, races, nations, faiths and cultures. Competition leads to conflict, and conflict leads to war, including war between and among different ethical systems, and so to our discussion of the ethics of war.
The lessons of anthropology and biology together thus suggest that any ethics pretending to universality must define ‘us’, as the whole human species, while the good must be defined as that leading to the survival, increase and pleasure of the species as a whole, therefore as adaptiveness. Bad or evil must be defined as whatever militates against that goal.
Of course if we do not aspire to universal ethics, we may define ‘us’ however we please, and good, bad and evil from our own point of view. We have been doing so for centuries, and may well continue to do so.
Whichever we choose, universality or particularity, to the extent that ‘we’ are plural and diverse, we shall need agreement based on our diversity: una concordia ex diversitate. This will involve persuasion, coercion, or both.
Consideration of the set of alternatives relevant to addressing the four original questions from the point of view of my theory of culture.
Armed with this understanding of the nature of the relevance of science to the ethics of war, we can now consider alternatives relevant to answering the four original questions, before finally addressing those questions themselves:
Is war good, bad or evil, or all or none of these?
It should by now be clear that the meaning of all these terms depends entirely on point of view. To understand this at its simplest one need only ask: ‘Is what is good for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) – that is, for it to multiply and spread among humans - good for humans?’ Obviously not. ‘Is what is good for humans - sex - good for HIV?’ Obviously so. Every quibble one may raise to the second exchange (it depends on whether you mean ‘feels good’ or ‘is good for’, hence what kind of sex, hedonistic or procreative, hence protected or not, etc.), if raised from the HIV’s point of view, gives an answer opposite to that for humans. This is because the HIV’s interests and those of humans are relatively opposed. Relatively, not absolutely, because the HIV needs humans to survive, for itself to survive. If the questions are asked of two sets of humans, ‘us’ and ‘them’, the answers may be the same, but even more stark in their consequences, since one set of humans may not need the other to survive, for itself to survive. Genocide is a very human thing. (Rubinstein, W. D. Genocide: a history. Pearson Education, 2004)
Thus, the use of terms like good, bad and evil in discussions of difference of interest leading to war among sets of humans is not very useful, because it leads to a dead end, since they only make sense from one or other point of view. The only way out of this dilemma, as suggested above, is to define ‘us’ to include conflicting sets of humans. This is easier said than done.
Is war normal or abnormal?
Anthropology suggests that war is a ubiquitous, nearly universal feature of human behaviour (Keeley, Lawrence H. War before civilization: The myth of the peaceful savage, Oxford University Press, 1996). Both archaeology, examining bones, and field anthropology, observing tribes, confirm that in primitive societies, large proportions, often over half, of males die in or because of war. That number is usually significantly less in civilisation. War is mainly a male activity, although its victims include both sexes. (Coie, J.D. & Dodge, K.A., ‘Aggression and antisocial behavior’, in W. Damon & N. Eisenberg (Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology, 1997, Vol. 3: Social, emotional and personality development.) War is, of course, a special instance of the wider underlying phenomenon of aggression. While aggression is manifested by both sexes, male aggression tends to be more violent, organised and frequent than female aggression (Berkowitz, L. Aggression: Its causes, consequences, and control, McGraw-Hill, 1993).
This leads one to wonder why evolution produces males, and why males are more aggressive than females. One biological theory suggests that indifferentiation precedes differentiation, and that the default gender is female, males developing therefrom (Brizendine, L. The Female Brain, Morgan Road/Broadway Books 2006, The Male Brain, ibid. 2010). Whether this is true or not, sexual differentiation does seem to involve a division of labour, in which greater male aggressiveness plays some role. (Puts, D. A. "Beauty and the beast: Mechanisms of sexual selection in humans", Evolution and Human Behavior 31 (3), 2010: 157–175.) Moreover, since sexual difference is widespread in nature, as is male aggressiveness, it would seem that role, whatever it may be, is adaptive (Buss, D.M. The murderer next door: Why the mind Is designed to kill. Penguin Press, 2005).
This means that it serves the purposes of survival, increase and pleasure of the species. If not, it would go out of fashion. In the case of humans, at least, it serves those purposes through the pursuit of pleasure. Whether it does so in non-human species is difficult to ascertain. Certainly human males take pleasure in aggression, and, though it may be politically incorrect to say so, so apparently do human females. (Campbell, A., "Staying Alive: Evolution, culture, and women's intrasexual aggression", Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22 (2), 1999: 203–252.)
Likewise, it would seem that war plays an adaptive role in culture. If it were not useful for something, it would never have arisen, or would long ago have been abandoned. It provides pleasure to some; misery to many. In that respect it is like many other institutions, such as private property, the division of labour, slavery, wage labour, paying debts, paying taxes, obedience to law, fidelity in marriage and responsibility to family, among others, that do not command universal approbation, but have been or are still widely considered normal or desirable by many.
Is war avoidable or inevitable?
War, like everything in culture, is a tool. If we find, given our present purposes, that using that tool is counterproductive, then we may be able to eliminate its use, or substitute it by something else. But this will depend on what other, perhaps as yet unidentified purposes it serves, and whether it, uniquely, can serve those purposes, and if they are adaptive or not.
What is war’s role in culture?
Ethology suggests that male aggressiveness plays a role in sexual reproduction, as well as in promoting and protecting individual and species survival, to which female aggressiveness also contributes. Anthropology suggests that war, a cultural tool that channels aggressiveness, has far more numerous and complex uses, though these also fall into broad categories, roughly corresponding to those described by ethology: increase, survival and pleasure. We have touched on some, discussing various views of war above, though there are far too many more to discuss them all here, useful as it may be to do so elsewhere at some point.
Must that role be filled only by war?
War is far more common in uncivilised than in civilised cultures. (By ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’ I mean literally cultures involving life in cities for at least some people, or not. This distinction more or less overlaps with that between ‘primitive’ and ‘developed’, but is somewhat more historically and anthropologically precise.) This fact suggests two non-exclusive alternatives. Either whatever role it plays is not necessarily indispensable to human survival, increase and pleasure; or, even if that role is indispensable thereto, it need perhaps not necessarily be filled only by war. This, with increasing civilisation, means either that filling that role may become unnecessary, or that it could be filled by something other than war, perhaps by sport.
Sport quickly becomes war in cases such as hooliganism and the ‘football war’ in Central America. Conversely, some people, such as Afghans, consider war a sport. This may be why nobody, including, or especially Afghans, has ever succeeded in pacifying Afghanistan.
Is war, given our purposes, counterproductive?
This is the crux of the matter; the basic question one must answer, or admit one cannot. For on one’s answer to it hangs the outcome of this discussion. It is, in appearance, a question of fact; one that begs at least two underlying questions, apparently factual in nature: ‘What purposes are they?’ and ‘Who are we, whose purposes they are?’ These two underlying questions must be answered before knowing if war is counterproductive to our purposes.
Yet these two further questions are very difficult to answer, because the answers to both depend on agreement of diverse opinion. The consequent difficulty, not only of answering them in theoretical discussion, but of implementing in practice any decision taken in respect of any answer to them, renders the question whether war is counterproductive to our purposes more one of opinion than of fact. Moreover that opinion already exists, independently of any answers to the underlying factual questions it begs. Quite apart from the opinions of political philosophers, diverse attitudes to war exist in public opinion. This, as we have seen, has an effect on the formation and implementation of policy. So in considering this question let me, before giving my own opinion, review some of those present in the public arena.
Current animadversion to war in public opinion.
Since the mid twentieth century, war is increasingly viewed with animadversion by public opinion in the developed world (e.g. ‘Poll Shows Most Americans Oppose War in Afghanistan’, Washington Post, 20/8/2009; Berinsky, A. J. In Time of War: Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq, University of Chicago Press, 2009; 47-Nation Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 27/6/2007; Asmus, R. D., ‘Power, War, and Public Opinion’, Hoover Institution policy review, no. 123, February 1, 2004; Page, Benjamin I. and Robert Y. Shapiro, The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in American Policy Preferences. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992, etc. etc.).
The developed world is, of course, a minority of mankind, less than 20%, comprising northern North America, all Western and some of Central Europe, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and little else. Most of the world’s nearly 7 billion people live outside it. There are big differences in the balance of opinion within the developed world. The USA is relatively more prepared to go to war, but also very quick to tire of it. In particular, American public opinion tolerates very few American casualties, though it is largely indifferent to those of other parties, including allies. Europe has a wide spectrum of opinion, with corresponding popular and journalistic winged fauna caricatures, ranging from warmongers (‘vampires’), and pragmatic bellicists (‘hawks’) or polemicists (‘eagles’) to irenicists (‘doves’) and pacifists (‘chickens’). Japan, relying on the USA for protection, is mostly smugly pacifist. South Korea is perforce bellicist or polemicist. Despite this diversity, a growing number of people in the developed world, including the USA, taking their own survival and increase for granted, consider war counterproductive to their purposes. These are variously defined, but can be broadly characterised as the pursuit of pleasure, mainly in the form of economic endeavour.
Current animadversion to war is not merely elite opinion; indeed rather the reverse. It is an opinion widely held by populations, thus electorates, in countries where democracy prevails. Even when, as in the case of the misnamed ‘War on Terror’ (terror is a tactic, not an enemy), war has arguably been thrust on people by an attack requiring punitive response, the public’s appetite for war is quickly sated, and fatigue, revulsion and repudiation quickly follow. War, even supposedly just war, interferes too much with the pursuit of pleasure.
Causes of the shift in public opinion.
This opinion stands in contrast with the previous view of war as normal and inevitable. This shift in attitudes to war coincides with two pivotal events: the spread of information in democracies; and the invention of nuclear weapons, together with other existential threats to mankind.
For the first time in man’s history, public policy, and in particular foreign policy, including recourse to and conduct of war, is influenced by the increasingly autonomous, unmanageable will of an electorate. The electorate’s grasp of issues at stake may or may not be accurate, and its perceived self-interest may or may not coincide with its government’s perception. This may lead it to repudiate war supposedly waged in its own defence.
This is an inevitable consequence of the spread of information, and thus misinformation and disinformation, in democracy. In the early stages of democracy, such as in the First and Second World Wars, and even in much of the Cold War, public opinion was relatively easy for governments to manipulate, because governments controlled or influenced most sources of relevant information. In the modern ‘information age’ this is not so. (Simons, G., ‘Mass Media and the Battle for Public Opinion in the Global War on Terror’, Perceptions, Spring/Summer 2008). Governments may still succeed, as did the Bush and Blair administrations, in spreading misinformation or disinformation to support their policies (‘Misperceptions, the media and the Iraq war’, World Public Opinion.Org., 2/10/2003). Bush managed to persuade American public opinion that Saddam Hussein was responsible for Al Qa’ida’s attacks on America of 11/9/2001; Blair the British Parliament that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Both were false. Yet public opinion is not always based on rational assessment of information, accurate or not, but often on emotion.
We saw, with Vietnam, and may yet see with Afghanistan, that modern democratic electorates, possessed, or so they think, of information different from or contrary to that proclaimed by governments, and in any case deeply suspicious of government and of its motives, may prefer a distant defeat to any sustained sacrifice at home for the purpose of victory. Whether this will prove so if distant defeat brings bad (for them) economic consequences at home is as yet untested.
Also for the first time in human history, man can destroy man’s habitat completely. One way to do so is through pollution leading to toxicity or climate change or both. Another is through nuclear war. Likewise, with biological weapons, man could exterminate mankind directly, with less damage to the environment, so making way for other species. From other species’ point of view this might be welcome, but we are condemned to see things from man’s point of view.
This, in itself, is relatively novel. For most of human history, coinciding with the long period in which war was considered normal and inevitable, very few people, excepting poets, philosophers and theologians, thought in terms of man as a whole, or could image anything like man’s point of view, as compared with that of other species. Most people thought in terms of themselves, their families, tribes, races, cities, regions, nations, religions or ideologies. War was conceived and waged from one’s own point of view, which meant defining ‘us’ in opposition to ‘them’.
That is still so at one level of popular consciousness, especially in the less developed parts of the world. But popular perception of threats to the existence of mankind, while not a new phenomenon (witness popular belief in the coming ‘end of the world’ at many stages of history) came, in the developed world in the later twentieth century, to be considered a perfectly rational fear, based on scientifically arguable possibility, rather than merely, as before, a religious delusion. Thus not only did fear of the end of the world become intellectually respectable, but it opened the way to imagining the world from man’s point of view as a species, rather than from that of individuals, families, races, nations, and so forth.
This meant that it became possible to think of war from mankind’s collective point of view, and consider whether it was in man’s interest as a species to wage it or not. This, thus stated, is an elite formulation, focusing on human survival and increase, but it coincides with popular reluctance to let war interfere with the pursuit of pleasure.
If war is counterproductive to our purposes, how should we deal with it?
Clearly, from mankind’s point of view, no ethnic, religious or political purposes war serves should trump species survival. Because man is a species that can drastically alter man’s habitat, and could directly or indirectly exterminate man, man must find a way to promote man’s survival, increase and pleasure, yet avoid extermination. If this involves eliminating war from man’s activities, then that is what must be done.
This is the ethical conclusion logically deriving from the animadversion towards war currently felt by widespread public opinion in the developed world. It logically involves defining ‘us’ as the whole of mankind, rather than as any part thereof. It is predicated on the fear that war, any war, however limited in origin and initial scope, could potentially grow into war of such a nature and extent as to threaten human survival.
Is that fear justified? Should we proceed on its basis? Can we? If so, we must embrace pacifism, not because of any religious belief in the authority of divine commandments, or even through philosophical conviction of the existence of universals, such as good and evil, and the categorical imperative to choose between them, but simply because it is necessary for our species’, and thus for our collective and individual survival.
If war is not counterproductive to our purposes, how should we conduct it?
But what if that fear is not justified? What if the greatest threats to man’s survival do indeed come from pollution or climate change, not from war? What if the spread of pacifism in the developed world leaves it defenceless against its adversaries or enemies? Against animadversion to war, widespread as it is among the electorate in the developed world, stand the views of some, both elites and electorates, in the developed world, and possibly of much of the population of the rest of the world.
More or less reliable studies of opinion on this subject, some cited above, have been carried out in the developed world, but do not yet exist in sufficient volume to be conclusive for most of the rest. Anecdotal evidence from widespread ethnic and religious violence in Africa, China, India, Indochina, Indonesia, Central Asia, the Balkans, the Middle East and Central and South America, suggests that the old view still prevails there. War is not only considered normal and inevitable, but, by some people at least, desirable.
Pending more reliable studies of opinion on this subject in the rest of the world, let us focus on dissent from the prevailing trend towards pacifism in the developed world. Although there are irenicist or pacifist majorities in most of Europe and Japan, there are still, particularly in the USA, UK, Switzerland, France, Netherlands and Denmark, significant numbers of the population prepared to approve their country’s going to war, if attacked, or even in a few other circumstances.
One must ask what this means for those opining so. Of European countries, only in Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Norway and Switzerland is there mandatory military service. In most of the rest of the developed world (excepting Israel, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan), there is no conscription, and warfare is conducted by professional officers and volunteer soldiers. Thus even in developed countries where public opinion is most favourable to war, excepting Switzerland and Denmark, those who so opine are not necessarily likely to have to fight it themselves, or for any family member to have to do so. It is one thing to approve of war if fought by someone else; quite another to be willing and able to fight it oneself.
Policy forming and making elites, including politicians, academics, and businesspersons in relevant professions and industries, are unlikely themselves to have to fight, even if in countries with conscription some of their family members may be. In the majority of developed countries, lacking conscription, the volunteer soldiery (as opposed to the officer class) are likely to consist of people from the lower economic levels of society. These are usually less active than others in policy formation, even if they constitute part of a democratic electorate. Policy, even in democracies, tends to be formed and made by the most politically active sectors of society, which tend to be the more advantaged, economically and educationally. This, an aspect of the division of labour, is yet another problematic social reality to add to the list of those not commanding universal approbation, but widely thought normal.
Warmongering is not favoured – at least not publicly – by most elites in the developed world. It is the preserve of sectors of the populace, or of populist politicians playing on popular emotion. The arguments put forward by policy forming and making elites in favour of polemicism or bellicism tend to be pragmatic, rather than emotional. They include assessments of threat, risk and opportunity, and of interests and intentions of allies, adversaries and enemies. Polemicism or bellicism among such elites is not incompatible with professions of irenicism: peace is to be preferred, but one must be prepared to go to war to keep the peace. A certain ambiguity regarding the precise limits to one’s tolerance is thought to help prevent aggression. Pacifism is to be eschewed, as it invites attack.
The currently dominant elites, as opposed to broad populations, in most of the developed world espouse such a nuanced view, combining professions of irenicism with potential bellicism or polemicism. So long as the USA, the developed country with the largest segment of bellicist opinion in its population, and the most pragmatically polemicist and bellicist elite, plus the largest and best armed military forces, continues to be dominant in the world, this dispensation may hold. If so, so may the present global balance of power, which has prevented major direct hot war between major nations for the last six decades. But if, as looks likely, the USA’s economic and military dominance wanes, and is actively challenged, especially by adversaries or enemies outside the closely culturally related group of most developed countries, most of whose elites espouse liberal modernity and public irenicism, then this dispensation may change.
That is another topic, to be discussed on another occasion. Suffice it to say here that the current focus on tension between the developed world and the Islamic world is misplaced. The Islamic world, even if it wanted to destroy the developed world, which some of its population and elites may do, does not, and will not for the foreseeable future, have the economic and military means to do so. That is, unless it does so suicidally, which, given the statements of some of its leaders, whether of states or non-state actors, some may seek to do. But if, as looks much more likely, China becomes both an economic and military superpower, we shall find ourselves in a completely new international power game. Whether it is played relatively peacefully, or leads to another world war, is very much an open question.
My own opinion on whether war is counterproductive to our purposes or not.
The time has come to give my own opinion, regarding the question whether war is counterproductive to our purposes or not. As stated, this requires identifying both our purposes and ourselves. ‘We’ to me, in the context of this forum, NSL, means the policy forming and making elite of the developed world, and of those parts of the developing world that aspire to join, rather than destroy, the developed world. That describes either who we are, or who we aspire to be. Our purposes are those we deem to serve our interests. These will broadly coincide with the interests of the broader populations of the developed world and aspirants to join it, but our view of those interests may well differ from majority opinion in our particular part of that world.
I do not think that our interests are best served by adopting a policy that forswears the use of force in our defence. The world has not yet reached the level of cohesion and consensus needed to render pacifism a safe strategy for our survival, increase and pleasure. Nor do I think, barring a suicidal move on the part of some state or non-state actor, that this world is at imminent risk of termination, or mankind of extinction, by nuclear war, or the indiscriminate release of biological weapons. Such a risk is not unreal, and is likeliest to come, if it does, from religious sources, since religion offers a reality alternative to that of this world, hence a promise to its perpetrator of escape from permanently sharing the consequences of any such action. But neither the world at large, nor that part of it I think myself to belong to and represent, can let itself be held to ransom by the possibility of such irrational action. It must rather take steps to prevent it. One of those steps is to promote the spread of rationality, and the rational pursuit of enlightened self-interest. Properly understood, the rational pursuit of enlightened self-interest is the best strategy for the survival, increase and pleasure of mankind as a whole, as well as for that part of it with which I identify myself. That part of the world is not merely economically defined, but is defined by an idea.
The idea that defines and unites the collectivity with which I identify, and provides a criterion for achieving concord out of its diversity, is liberal modernity. I have discussed this idea in detail in my previous contributions to NSL, and will not repeat myself here, except to say that we who espouse liberal modernity must realistically appraise the risks and opportunities confronting us. Our declared enemies are relatively few – some proponents of authoritarian modernity, and some opponents of modernity as such – none of whom has the means to destroy us, though they can do us harm. Our potential adversaries, however, are many, and increasingly powerful.
Clearly, it is in our interest to prevent them from becoming enemies, if we can do so through persuasion. The likeliest way to do so is to persuade them to want to join us in development, which is to be achieved by playing the game of modernity, whether liberal or authoritarian, and so to play by its rules, cultural, economic and political. Recent experience suggests that authoritarian modernity tends to become liberal, in response to popular desire. The rules of liberal modernity, based as they are on the rational pursuit of enlightened self-interest, make recourse to war unlikely, by whichever party. But until we are certain that the rest of the world is willing to play by the rules of liberal modernity, we would be foolish to rely exclusively on persuasion, and foreswear all recourse to coercion in our own defence.
We must be prepared to defend our territory and populations against possible attack and conquest. Therefore, in full awareness of all the ethical and practical dilemmas it entails, but equally in full view of the facts facing us, it is my opinion that we must continue to muddle through, with a watchful irenicism, keeping open the option of war, but doing our best, with all the tools of persuasion we have, to prevent it. That being the case, how, if necessary, should we conduct war?
Given our diversity of points of view, are any ethics or aesthetics relevant to war? If so, which?
Clearly, both ethics and aesthetics are relevant to the conduct of war by a liberal democracy, if only because popular, as well as much elite opinion, thinks that they are so. If politics is, in Bismarck’s phrase, used by R.A. Butler as the title of a book, ‘The Art of the Possible’, then it is impossible, in a democracy, to conduct even a necessary war, without some appeal both to ethics and aesthetics. That being the case, the question, given the diversity of views inherent to liberal democracies, becomes: ‘What ethics and aesthetics are relevant?’
While they will, and must, differ in particular cases, the guiding principles are clear: survival, increase, and pleasure, in that order. Of course these principles will have different content in different cases, and one must be prepared to examine it in detail in each case. These principles may be regarded as working hypotheses, representing the highest common denominator of assumption among those espousing liberal modernity. They involve in their details a number of unknowns, whose specific quality and value is to be worked out for particular cases. Let me give an example.
If a liberal democracy’s existence, both as an ethnicity, and as a political entity, is threatened by external enemies, as is the case with Israel, then survival must take priority over increase and the pursuit of pleasure. Yet survival, in such a case, also depends on increase, both economic and demographic, as well as on pleasure, both internal and external. By increase I mean that Israel’s survival depends both on its relative wealth and strength, compared both to its enemies, and to its peoples’ aspirations, and on the numbers, degree of motivation to survive, increase and prosper, and the educational level of its people, compared to those of its enemies. By internal pleasure I mean that its people must have reason to remain committed to its survival, which must offer them more pleasure than pain. By external pleasure I mean that Israel must contrive to keep the good will of its allies, on whom it depends for its survival. Israel is perhaps the most extreme case among liberal democracies. Hard cases not only make good law, but demonstrate ethical alternatives most clearly. Having made that point, I shall leave discussion of other cases for another occasion.
How is war affected by technology? Is it made more or less likely? Deadly? Destructive? How does technology affect any ethics of war we may adopt? What are our chances of introducing any such ethics into technology based training?
These are the questions that remain to be considered. To answer them amounts to answering the four original questions. Rather than separately, let me address them all together, as they are all interrelated.
The most important and relevant technology in this context is information technology. At one level, that of the battlefield, ever smarter information technology in weapons can both maximise their accuracy and effectiveness, and minimise the risk of unintended damage to non-combatants, so-called ‘collateral damage’. It is also less likely to generate body bags to bring home. Thus, at a strategic level, it helps to bind alliances, and maintain support for war in public opinion. The less risk to one’s own side’s soldiers, the longer support for war can be sustained. So the use of smart, remote and impersonal weaponry, while repugnant to lingering yearnings for heroism, nobility and honour, is to be promoted in the interests both of battlefield effectiveness and of the broader need to bind alliances and court public opinion. Particularly as a younger public, taught – or more likely self-taught – to take advanced technology for granted, comes of age and becomes the electorate, the more warfare resembles something they identify with – computer gaming – the more they are likely to support it, when their support becomes vital to the pursuit, by others on their behalf, of their enlightened self-interest, even if they are not, themselves, particularly enlightened.
The pursuit of enlightened self-interest, if it really is enlightened, will by definition lead, in an ever more globalised world, to some level of concord out of diversity. This is because the modern globalised world is so interdependent, ecologically as well as economically, that its survival is now, at those levels, a matter for universal concern. This is broadly recognised by many policy forming and making elites the world over, though not yet universally. The underlying assumptions voiced in public international fora include the recognition that no single culture’s view of reality can hope exclusively to prevail, and that to survive, increase and pursue pleasure, the world must seek and find una concordia ex diversitate. The challenge is to spread this realisation, which is the fundamental bedrock of liberal modernity, beyond elites to populations, both intellectually and emotionally, in order to give it active force.
This raises the issue of elites, and how they relate to public opinion in a democracy. Elites will doubtless always exist and always see things differently, at times, from the populace at large. So elites, both military and political, may have to undertake actions on behalf of the populace at large, in view of elites’ interpretations of the public interest, that are unpopular, but have, so they think, a better chance than popular opinion of turning out to have been right, given the circumstances. A democracy, as I have said before in this forum, is only as good as its demos. I no more believe that we can trust the current populations of that part of the world ruled by liberal democracy, who were prepared to swallow uncritically what they were told by Bush and Blair, necessarily to choose well in complex and challenging circumstances, than that we can safely trust to pacifism for our own survival, increase and pleasure.
A logical corollary of this is that policy forming and making elites must not lie to their own people, or even to others, if for no other reason than that, in the modern information society, they are bound to be found out. Nothing was more destructive of Blair’s Iraq war policy – misguided as it was - than his exposure either as a liar or a fool. That, in a way, is heartening, since it showed democracy at work. More worrying is that large parts of American public opinion still believe the lie that Saddam was behind 9/11, as well as a number of other ‘urban myths’ and irrational beliefs, to which American politicians must pay lip service, even if they do not believe them, in order to get elected.
Thus, in my view, the ethics relevant to war, for a responsible, enlightened, well-informed elite, must be to pursue the interests of their people, even against the popular view, if they are sure that they are right and the people are wrong. They will, given the nature of democracy, have relatively little time to prove themselves right, before they lose power and influence to another set of politicians and policymakers, more aligned with current public opinion. But the pendulum will swing again, and history may eventually vindicate them, or not. That is a risk that they must take, just as soldiers take a risk. And just as soldiers’ risk can be reduced by better information, so can theirs.
The more good intelligence and smart weaponry exists, the less, not more likely is war. This is the lesson of the Cold War, and the continuing success of the doctrine of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction), which is still in force. There is indeed method in its MADness. So long as the rational pursuit of enlightened self-interest prevails, and so long as we, and our adversaries and enemies, know where that interest lies, we all stand a chance of continuing survival, increase and pleasure.
So the ethics we must teach the operators of such technology are those of suitability and proportionality to purpose, achievement of strategic as well as tactical goals, and avoidance of unintended consequences. They must also contrive to stay within the bounds of the internationally recognised laws of war, such as they are at any given point in time, not because those laws are just or right or good, but simply because it is counterproductive for their cause to be judged by them. These are also the ethics we, who presume to do any such teaching, must espouse, and work out for ourselves what they mean in any given case. There is a good chance that such ethics will spread and take hold, if they are presented as something to be worked out by reason, rather than imposed by authority. The most effective instruction most resembles entertainment.
Therefore the way forward lies in more and better, rather than in less technology. Whether we like it or not, this is what will happen anyway. The genie of technology is out of the bottle. So we may as well espouse it, and make the best of it. But we must not put all our faith in technology. We must also develop better human resources, for gathering, analysing and evaluating information. To do this, we must raise the educational level of our demos, as well as that of our elites. It means improving our education and self-education. How to do so will be the subject of my next contribution to this forum.
1 The Charge of the Light Brigade.
Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!" he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.
Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not,
Not the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honor the charge they made!
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
2 Dulce Et Decorum Est,
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!---An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Angustam amice pauperiem pati
robustus acri militia puer
condiscat et Parthos ferocis
vexet eques metuendus hasta
vitamque sub divo et trepidis agat
in rebus. illum ex moenibus hosticis
matrona bellantis tyranni
prospiciens et adulta virgo
suspiret “eheu, ne rudis agminum
sponsus lacessat regius asperum
tactu leonem, quem cruenta
per medias rapit ira caedes."
dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidoque tergo.
Virtus, repulsae nescia sordidae,
intaminatis fulget honoribus
nec sumit aut ponit securis
arbitrio popularis aurae.
Virtus, recludens inmeritis mori
caelum, negata temptat iter via
coetusque volgaris et udam
spernit humum fugiente penna.
est et fideli tuta silentio
merces: vetabo, qui Cereris sacrum
volgarit arcanae, sub isdem
sit trabibus fragilemque mecum
solvat phaselon; saepe Diespiter
neglectus incesto addidit integrum,
raro antecedentem scelestum
deseruit pede Poena claudo.
Horace. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace.
John Conington. trans. London. George Bell and Sons. 1882.
To suffer hardness with good cheer,
In sternest school of warfare bred,
Our youth should learn; let steed and spear
Make him one day the Parthian's dread;
Cold skies, keen perils, brace his life.
Methinks I see from rampired town
Some battling tyrant's matron wife,
Some maiden, look in terror down,—
“Ah, my dear lord, untrain'd in war!
O tempt not the infuriate mood
Of that fell lion I see! from far
He plunges through a tide of blood!“
What joy, for fatherland to die!
Death's darts e'en flying feet o'ertake,
Nor spare a recreant chivalry,
A back that cowers, or loins that quake.
True Virtue never knows defeat:
Her robes she keeps unsullied still,
Nor takes, nor quits, her curule seat
To please a people's veering will.
True Virtue opens heaven to worth:
She makes the way she does not find:
The vulgar crowd, the humid earth,
Her soaring pinion leaves behind.
Seal'd lips have blessings sure to come:
Who drags Eleusis' rite today,
That man shall never share my home,
Or join my voyage: roofs give way
And boats are wreck'd: true men and thieves
Neglected Justice oft confounds:
Though Vengeance halt, she seldom leaves
The wretch whose flying steps she hounds.