Understanding the Moral Dimension of Conflict

Summary

Cyber and autonomous capabilities challenge the core principles of morality frameworks in a number of ways. While a prominent question in the public debate is whether morality can be reduced to an algorithm, the body of academic work on the subject is more nuanced.

Moral compass image from RR1505

Background

The nature of conflict is always changing, underpinned by cultural, military and technological evolution. In the last 20 years, the pace of change has accelerated, due in no small part to the advent of new technologies that are transforming the way conflicts are fought, as well as the operating environment in which they take place.

Against this backdrop of continuous change, the traditional morality frameworks that underpin conduct in conflict have been subject to increased scrutiny. A lively academic debate has emerged on the enduring relevance of traditional morality frameworks and explores the challenges posed to them by new ways of waging war.

Goals

RAND Europe was commissioned by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to undertake a ‘quick look’ study to examine the academic debate pertaining to the moral landscape of cross-domain conflict (i.e. a conflict that spans two or more military domains (land, maritime, air, cyber, space).

This study was to:

  • Consider the body of work on morality and armed conflict in the future operating environment
  • Provide insights on the ways in which new methods of fighting may challenge traditional moral principles
  • Identify areas that may be underexplored in the body of work on morality

Methodology

The project team undertook a systematic review of relevant literature, a programme of interviews and a one-day workshop with academic experts. As a ‘quick look’ rather than an in-depth study, the work focused on morality frameworks in the western tradition (the just war theory and international humanitarian law) and centred around two technological areas (cyber and autonomous systems).

Findings

The project team made a number of key findings:

  • Future morality judgements will be made in an environment characterised by complexity and uncertainty — An example of this is the increasing blurring of distinctions between war and peace, between the different domains of conflict (land, maritime, air, space, cyber) and between kinetic and non-kinetic effect.
  • The academic debate about morality in future conflict coalesces around several principal issues — Much of the academic body of work on the subject of morality in conflict takes either the just war theory or international humanitarian law as its frame of reference, with the debate revolving around the applicability of these existing moral frameworks to new ways of waging war.
  • Cyber capabilities challenge the core principles of morality frameworks in a number of ways — Cyber contributes to the blurring of the distinction between peace and war by creating uncertainty as to what constitutes conflict (as opposed to crime or other activities) in cyberspace and, in turn, the kinds of response that are morally appropriate.
  • Autonomous systems raise questions in relation to the principles of legitimate authority, last resort and proportionality — While a prominent question in the public debate is whether morality can be reduced to an algorithm (in other words, whether a machine can ever be capable of moral deliberation), the body of academic work on the subject is more nuanced.