Memorial Day Salute

May 29, 2011

I’m going to take a time-out from food and philosophy this Memorial Day weekend to honor those who serve in the United States Armed Services, past and present. I was attending the Society for Philosophy and Technology meetings this week and I heard several fascinating presentations on the way that technology is changing the nature of war. Speakers included Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institute, Brad Allenby of Arizona State, George Lucas of the U.S. Naval Academy and Patrick Lin of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. All of them were talking military ethics, so this is not totally a vacation from the philosophy side of this blog.

One point that all of them made in different ways relates to the way automated weapons systems—weapons like the Predator drones currently being used in Afghanistan—may be changing the meaning of military honor. I was especially impressed with a point made forcefully by Lucas and Singer: A major part of the past success of the U.S. military fighting in foreign wars has been that non-combatants in these theaters have been able to discern the way that U.S. service personnel conduct themselves in a principled manner. Even when the enemies that U.S. forces are fighting have been more closely related to civilian populations in culture, language and custom, over time local populations have tended to respect and often support our servicemen precisely because it becomes evident that they are committed to an ideal of service, and that their actions are tempered by moral principles such as proportionality of response and limiting “collateral damage.”

There are inevitable lapses, of course, and there are mistakes. But service men and women who put themselves in jeopardy and show evidence of commitment to ethical principles eventually win respect. Singer and Lucas argued that this is and is perceived by local populations to be an important difference between American forces and the enemies they face, especially in recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they believe that cultivating such perceptions of honor are materially tied to the chances of military success.

Machines under remote control do not provoke this reaction from local populations. They are more likely to be perceived as evidence that the U.S. has unleashed supernatural powers—that we are literally in league with the devil. Even when such metaphysical interpretations are absent, it is evident that U.S. personnel are not placing themselves at risk in service to principle, however principled the use of advanced technology is.

And there are ethically compelling reasons to use it. How can a President knowingly place the lives of American soldiers at risk when a machine might accomplish the tactical objective just as effectively? And there are also arguments that these machines are much less likely to commit mistakes resulting from fatigue, stress or more serious failings in human nature. American soldiers have been known to exploit civilians, and they are not immune from the temptations of thievery and rape that have attended military conquest since time immemorial. Perhaps robots can do better, and if they could, wouldn’t it be unethical not to use them?

I don’t have answers to these questions but Allenby made another point I agreed with wholeheartedly: Too many people in my line of work (e.g. college professors) are so thoroughly opposed to the military mission that they fail to show any respect for ideas like military honor at all. That kind of cynicism does no service to the aims of military ethics.

So at the risk of disappointing readers who were hoping for an amusing meditation on hot dog cookouts or some other Memorial Day tradition, I’m cataloging this week’s blog as “Serious.”

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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