Marginalia #5

The military has long adopted technology and pushed the limits of technology through research and development. The use of these technologies, whether newly developed or existing, is not always the intended use. From a cultural standpoint, it would be desirable to think that the military always uses technology in an ethical and good manner, but what is good for some is not for others, and what is good during the stress of battle and confrontation is the preservation of self. Many soldiers are presented with this problem, but may only have a few seconds to react to a situation, and so the military must provide them with the tools necessary to survive and to kill the enemy.

So why must we kill an enemy? What is the purpose? That depends on who you ask, but an even better question to ask is, “how does a soldier feel during combat”? Captain Massimo Scotti talks about his an article. He says, “[f]ighting means being able to use violence in a sensible and effective way, killing only if necessary and allowing for the fact that one can be killed” (2007, p. 12). He goes on to point out that a no holds barred attitude during war time can be extremely dangerous, especially for the soldier.

The human trait of submitting to the emotions has long been known, but even so, in times of duress, we may not realize that we are indeed eschewing logic and perhaps reason, as well as potentially ignoring moral upbringing for the sake of self preservation. Humans are biologically formed to react first and think later when in danger. Perhaps it is a leftover from our evolutionary roots, but that is another discussion. Scotti points out,

“By nature all human beings surrender themselves to pathos (passion) rather than logos (rationality) and ethos (ethics and morals). In particular, during war human beings reveal their real nature and can cause irreparable damage. For this reason, the civilized society calls for ethical behavior and principles which are transformed into regulations that guarantee humanity and justice” (2007, pp. 12-13).

However, there cannot be a guarantee when the enemy is not bound by the same regulations. Even civilized societies will sometimes break the rules. Companies involved with the military and the defense systems must also be wary of the role of ethics as national security is often at risk. Several years ago, Boeing Company revised its ethics program and enforced more stringent policies in order to “target isolated individuals in organizations who place personal ambition above ethical values” (Reeder, 2007, p. 58).

It is far easier for civilian individuals to fall into unethical behavior because there is a lack of training involved and there is no hard contract to behave in a certain manner. Of course, more and more companies are following similar procedures to Boeing as time goes on in order to protect their own assets. Codes of conduct and ethics agreements are created and become required reading and signed contracts with employees. Those who refuse to honor the contracts are refusing to honor their employment with the organization, although those people may be few and far between since most codes of conduct are common sense behavior based upon the social norms of the nation.

Geographically diverse companies may have a harder time enforcing codes of conduct and ethics, but those policies may also be tailored by location or even by position, with those in the highest levels of power being held accountable for those below. Getting back to the military, a manager or supervisor may find himself in a similar situation as a captain on the battlefield. Being responsible for his men, the leader could look to the “U.S. Army’s Soldier’s Creed, the so-called ‘Warrior Ethos’ [which] is outlined: ‘I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade'” (Scotti, 2007, p.14).

So how does this creed justify killing through the use of military technology? Technology is really just a means to an end. Often, the end is not known until a later time, but as in any organizational leadership, “[c]ommanders… taking an ethically wrong decision means increasing the number of choices that they will have to face, as well as the future impact of those choices. A bad ethical decision could catch the commander in a trap showing him the wrong way” (Scotti, 2007, p.15).

The chasm between the military and the every man is not quite as large as we might think. Spy technologies are used to gather intelligence about enemies to provide tactical information and to assist in determining exactly who the enemy is. A technique called pretexting is often used by intelligence agencies in order to flush out spies and enemies of the state. Pretexting was also famously used by Hewlett-Packard corporation in order to track down individuals who had leaked information from within their organization to the press.

HP did not do the spying themselves, of course. They hired private investigators to do the “dirty work”. Julie Creswell wrote, “Investigators for H.P. also tried to plant software on a reporter’s computer to track a bogus document it sent to her and considered infiltrating newsrooms with spies masquerading as clerical workers or cleaners” (2005, p. C1). A major issue with spying is that there are no consistent laws regarding privacy and the ethics of practices such as pretexting. Some people consider it to be a safeguard for the “greater good”, while others simply do not want to have their private life subject to an invasion, especially from a consumer corporation.

So what happens to individuals (or corporations as individuals) when something goes wrong, or when an action is perceived as unethical? Who is to be held accountable? In the case of automated robots used by the military to kill as part of the Future Combat Systems project, there are numerous entities involved in the creation, deployment, and use of the robots (Sharkey, 2007). Any one of these entities could be held accountable for losses incurred as a result of the killing machines. After all, the research and development may have happened at the university level for purely academic reasons.

There are television programs that have robots battling each other “to the death” or at least to a non-operating state. It wasn’t long before the military saw the value of a machine that could cause damage to enemy resources without risking friendly human lives. Richardson poses a compelling question in his article. What should be the role of scientists in wars to come? Aside from illustrating that companies such as Lockheed Martin who employ scientists for the express purpose of creating frighteningly dangerous technology — creations that are used expressly for war and destruction.

Science, technology, and military are so strongly tied to cultures, and in particular, governments and the people, that it is nigh on impossible to extract them from culture and society for examination of ethics and purposes. In his attempt to come to a conclusion, Richardson wonders, “War should not be inevitable but, with the frenzied pace at which strategists and scientists continue their collaboration, one wonders if such efforts can be constrained within the bounds of defense” (2005, p. 48). Indeed. Who would be able to contain the science? Does government have the power to stop it?

It is unlikely that any government would be able to slow the advances in technology as others will pick up where some fear to tread. For those who have no fear, science is the answer to all of their machinations for more power.

“It is the scientists, as a consequence, who have shown that way and other organized violence are extensions of science, at the behest and in the service of those who want power at any price. This combination is likely to continue making potentially violent conflict a continuation of today’s and tomorrow’s research. It is for the rest of us to monitor this conjuncture closely and minimize its threat” (Richardson, 2005, p. 48)

One hopes that “the rest of us” is a large enough population to prevent the proliferation of terrorist regimes and mad men. But perhaps I am exaggerating for the sake of a point. Those who attempt to wrest power at any cost are frightening, but perhaps not mad. At times they could be irrational, but they could also be calculating and dangerous. For those who must protect us, a good sense of ethics is important. For this reason, a course called “Policing With Honor” was created and is used for training ethics to law enforcement officers. It “focuses on the concepts of accountability, ethics and the proper use of power” (Mills-Senn, 2005, p. 48).

This training is another example of a tool that is used to assist military (an law enforcement) in their efforts to defend our nation and our laws. Combined with technologies and techniques, the military can act in a manner that is at the very least consistent, if not entirely safe for the enemy. Ethics is often a matter of consistent behavior that has a purpose and a justification.


  • Creswell, J., Stodghill, R. (2006). Technology for spying lures more than military. New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Sep 25, 2006. p. C.1.
  • Killmister, S. (2008). Remote weaponry: The ethical implications. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 25(2), 121.
  • Mills-Senn, P. (2005). Making it real makes it reflex. Law Enforcement Technology, 32(9), 38-48.
  • Reeder, J., Hickey, D. (2005). Boeing strengthens, enhances ethics program. National Defense, 89(615), 57-58.
  • Richardson, J. (2005). What should be the role of scientists in wars to come. Foresight: the Journal of Futures Studies, Strategic Thinking and Policy, 7(4), 39-50.
  • Scotti, M. (2007). Ethics and motivation: How a soldier feels during combat. Infantry, 96(2), 12-15.
  • Toner, C. (2005). The moral warrior: Ethics and service in the U.S. Military. Air & Space Power Journal, 19(2), 120-122.