It’s time to get serious about the moral questions resulting from our new class of weapons. In the last week or so, cyberwarfare has made front-page news: the United States may have been behind the Stuxnet cyberattack on Iran; Iran may have suffered another digital attack with the Flame virus; and our military and industrial computer chips may or may not be compromised by backdoor switches implanted by China. These revelations suggest that the way we fight wars is changing, and so are the rules.
This digital evolution means that it is now less clear what kind of events should reasonably trigger a war, as well as how and when new technologies may be used. With cyberweapons, a war theoretically could be waged without casualties or political risk, so their attractiveness is great—maybe so irresistible that nations are tempted to use them before such aggression is justified. This essay identifies some important ethical issues that have been upturned by these emerging digital weapons, which in turn help explain why national cyberdefense is such a difficult policy area.
How we justify and prosecute a war matters. For instance, the last U.S. presidency proposed a doctrine of preventive or preemptive war, known as the “Bush doctrine,” which asked, if a nation knows it will be attacked, why wait for the damage to be done before it retaliates? But this policy breaks from the just-war tradition, which historically gives moral permission for a nation to enter war only in self-defense. This tradition says that waging war—a terrible evil that is to be avoided when possible—requires a nation to have the righteous reason of protecting itself from further unprovoked attacks.
This essay was co-written with Fritz Allhoff and Neil Rowe
Photo courtesy of Reuters
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Dr. Patrick Lin is an IEET fellow, as well as an assistant philosophy professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and director of its Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group. He was previously an ethics fellow at the US Naval Academy and a post-doctoral associate at Dartmouth College.