08 March 2010


The Morality of War

Yes, well, you may or may not know already that I don’t have much time for the word ‘morality’ on account of it being an all-things-to-all-men (and women) concept that is just wheeled out in an attempt to reinforce an argument that lacks any other grounds of persuasion. I’ve even done it myself at times - under pressure! But because of its ubiquity it has become fairly meaningless. There isn’t even enough agreement as to whether it refers to consensual codes of rules or just individual innate gut feelings to make it worthwhile using in debate.
Last night at Secular Hall a member of the audience (in responding to the talk about artificial intelligence [AI]) referenced drone weaponry – unmanned aircraft, tanks, machine gun posts, etc. and asked whether the developers of AI ever concerned themselves with the morality of such applications. I pointed out that there was no step change involved here – these weapons were actually controlled by humans but they were based many miles from the scene – out of harm’s way. But it was just a further development of remote control and remote killing. (I might have added that even when machines have been developed that can be given a mission ‘e.g. capture the Golden Gate Bridge’ and then left to work out how to do it all by themselves it will still only be a further form of remote control, not artificial intelligence, won’t it?)
‘Democratic’ imperial powers like the US, Britain and Israel are developing remotely controlled weaponry so that their governments can engage in wars to expand their spheres of influence without fear that a rising casualty list will pull the rug from under their feet at the next election.
In reality, attempts to do maximum harm to an enemy while minimising one’s own casualties must go back before recorded history even began. At one time, one can guess, early human clans fought each other over bits of turf by engaging in hand-to-hand combat, using fists and clubs, but well within range of opponents equipped with just the same sort of kit. In considering the history of warfare one might perhaps see this as a golden age when men were men, where there was an honesty and authenticity about it – seeing the whites of the other man’s eyes before attempting to knock him senseless. It is an aspect of martial relations, perhaps, that still continues in the boxing ring, governed by Queensbury Rules that ensure no underhand tactics are used.
But this ‘golden age’ must have ended the first time someone threw a rock at the enemy from a higher and possibly hidden vantage point. Or when spears developed for killing animals at a distance were turned to killing opposing tribesmen at a distance.
I very much doubt whether, at the time, victorious tribal elders sat around the campfire after a battle debating whether such tactics were ethical. So while I abhor the further development of weapons that enable powerful and wealthy governments to impose their will on poor and weak nations without any real risk to their own position, I have to say that I think the so-called ‘moral’ questions are irrelevant.

Whatever happened to stun guns and paralysing pistols and the development of other such less destructive weapons of peace that used to be featured in science fiction stories? I suppose the development of means of knocking people out with gas is prohibited as being chemical warfare. Instead we get neutron bombs that wipe out all life and leave the property standing. This is progress?
On one side a warlord, through threats and promises, leads his troops to invade the territory of a peaceful people. On the other, the people resist with all the violence they can muster, and hurt what appear to be innocent civilians* on what appears to be the other side*, the aggressor himself being naturally the best protected of all. There's clearly an aggressor, and on the whole, this is the party that wins, and is therefore proved just in the history it writes.

In the days of hand-to-hand combat and clubs, the warlord had to convince (by fair means or foul) a lot of men to join up, face the hardships of army life and put their lives on the line. Part of this involved a (maybe undeclared) protected right to pillage which might have its attraction over toil to fill the belly. But the point is, that some effort had to be made to convince the fighters - large numbers of them - that this was what they wanted to to - or at least that they had no option.

Today's sophisticated weaponry changes all that - relatively few troops are needed, because the potential kill (or more preferably, non-life-threatening debilitating injury, as we saw in Jenny Linnell’s recent eye-witness account from Gaza) of each one is far higher. The development and manufacture of this weaponry is expensive, and is thus unavailable to those who are the victims of years and decades of plunder, aggression and siege. The expense is met by taxation - hence the extraordinary lengths that the aggressors go to to convince their taxable populations that they are doing the right thing. Arms manufacturers profit and invest in the press.

Instead of having to convince a great mass of fighters, the aggressor now has to convince a great mass of funders. This is done by promoting a pro-war ethos, and by using some of the taxes for social purposes. The opposition of millions is tolerated because (for the time being) it is ineffective. Those who might be effective are terrified to even withhold tax (and when it comes to it, powerless, since their assets would be sequestrated), let alone go on strike. Almost all of us turn a blind eye to the fact that through our taxes we fund aggressors. We refuse to admit our complicity. We march once or twice a year in absolution. We have no choice. We do right. Right is what we do.

Harry’s right to shun talk of morality.

* The civilians appear to be innocent, but without their work and support the aggressor, who does not himself toil, would be quite impotent. And if only they could see it, it would be in the mutual interest of all the people, whichever side they think they’re on, to neutralise the aggressor, who is a parasite on the lot of them! Thankfully they have some petty squabbles which they magnify out of all proportion and are thus incapable of effective unity.
On the other hand, I guess if war can ever be justified, there are some benefits to using more sophisticated weaponry. By making it easier to target only combatants, sophisticated weapons can help reduce the number of civilian casualties.

On the other hand, I agree that if these type of sophisticated weapons are used for the wrong purposes, the consequences can be disastrous (i.e. Gaza). Harry makes the good point that it is easier to take immoral actions from a distance. We should remember that some WWII pilots, who would not normally kill a fly, found it easy to carpet bomb German cities, thereby killing thousands of innocent civilians.
A pre-Second World War pacifist slogan was: "War will cease when men refuse to fight." But for that to be true it has to be 100 per cent of men - and can anybody ever see that happening!

An argument is that war is nature's pruning hook, ensuring survival of the fittest - but war mainly kills young, fit people!

Some people want war because it brings excitement into otherise dull, unsatisfying lives.

I've heard people say they had a "good" (second world) war - which means they had a cushy billet well away from the firing line!
Thanks for the support Richard, but I didn't say that! There are nowadays 'rules of war', translated on the battlefield into a set of rules about when and how certain weapons are used: the avoidance of civilian casualties whenever possible; when unavoidable the military advantage must outweigh the civilian loss of life; do not use civilians as human shields; etc. Some might call these 'moral' rules. I just call them rules that have been agreed on internationally as a way of protecting one's own civilians from enemy action - and everyone else has taken the same view. The absence of any so-called 'moral dimension' to the rules is shown by the fact that the rules are often ignored - e.g. by the Israelis in Gaza last year - because they know they can get away with it. So they are more like the laws against speeding on the roads.
It is much easier to massacre the enemy from a distance as one is separated from the potential emotional reaction (for many a natural human emotion - but unfortunately nowhere near universal in humans) to seeing human blood and guts flying off in all directions. However, the notion that this is a 'moral' reaction just confuses matters as there is no concensus on what the term should be used to mean. So it's better to avoid using it altogether. And that is easier than you think.
This is a video of a talk by Sam Harris who claims that science can tell us what is moral, at least in some cases:


I don't think it's as easy as he makes it seem however. The key test it seems to me is whether an action or policy is beneficial to the universe as a whole in the long term, and that is difficult to decide because to get it right every time requires omniscience. But nevertheless the more science we have the better our judgment can be.

Harry refers to "attempts to do maximum harm to an enemy while minimising one’s own casualties". This can only be in relation to an immediate situation on the battlefield. The wider context is to persuade your enemy to be your friend!
That's a good link George. Sam Harris is a good speaker and it's so much easier to follow the thread of his argument than it would be to follow your average archbishop!

But it seems to me he is taking as read that there is a self-evident objective for 'morality' to aim at, namely universal human welfare. That the aim of morality (ie as codes of rules or guiding values) is (not ought to be) the avoidance of harm to living creatures and the maximising of human flourishing.

As this is going to take us away from the thing that started this thread I'll post my thoughts as the start of a new thread...
Sorry to come back yet again to this old topic, but I've just seen a rather relevant video.

Richard says: ... if war can ever be justified, there are some benefits to using more sophisticated weaponry. By making it easier to target only combatants, sophisticated weapons can help reduce the number of civilian casualties ...

It's not quite like that. If casualty numbers are reduced at all, it is among the operators of the sophisticated weaponry. There is absolutely no protection for civilians. Have a look at this clip:


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