Ethical Encounters – Taming of the Infinite: Applying Ethics for Political Violence – A Brief Critique

This is the third post in a series reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Myriam’s post can be found here, Joe’s is here, Jillian’s here and Diego’s here. Kim’s discussion post is here.


The relationship between ethics and politics is complex; in theory, as in practice. Against a contemporary background where hitherto morally prohibited acts, such as assassinations by drones strikes in non-military zones, are instituted as legitimate and justifiable practices, it becomes vital to understand anew the relationship between politics, violence and ethics, and its limits, particularly when such acts are underwritten by innovative military technologies that open new horizons for ethical considerations in international politics.

Ethics, in the context of politics – including international politics – is presently predominantly conceived in terms of applied ethics and chiefly concerned with the search for an ethical theory that can be arrived at through abstraction and applied to real world ethical dilemmas. While burgeoning poststructuralist scholarship in the late 1990s sought to address ethics in terms that consider aspects of contingency, alterity and potentiality, the events unfolding in the aftermath of 9/11 appear to have given way to a more practically oriented approach to thinking about ethics in international politics, giving priority to the application of ethical principles of warring. Such practical approaches often mirror scientific processes, or algorithmic logics in trying to find ‘correct’ outcomes.

While just war traditions of ethics in war have always had a close relationship with the analytical procedures and structures of international law, the practical turn in contemporary political ethics means that concerns addressed in the international and global context are primarily framed in terms of finding and applying appropriate principles, codes and rules in trying to resolve ‘real moral problems’. Problem solving through rational procedures, and scientific rationales thus stands at the heart of practical considerations of the ethics of political violence and war. This is exemplified in the IF/THEN logic of current discourses on the ethics of war or in the structures of target selections for lethal drone strikes. Among others, Seth Lazar’s recent work on the morality of war, presented at a philosophy workshop at the LSE in 2013 for example, considers approaches to moral decision making in uncertainty in the following terms: “one plausible approach to decision-making under uncertainty is to determine the expected moral value (EV) of the outcomes available to me, and to choose the best one. So, I am permitted to ƒ if and only if EV(ƒ) ³ EV(¬ƒ)”. Similarly, Bradley Strawser’s defence of the ethical obligation to use drones as a weapon of choice relies on a selection of variables (X, Y, G) and principles (principle of unnecessary risk – PUR) that, combined, serve to confirm the hypothesis, namely that using drones is an ethical obligation. This procedural algorithmic logic speaks to a technoscientific-subjectivity with which ethical outcomes are ascertained, problems solved. Ethics becomes a technical matter that can be solved through procedures and thus has natural limits. It is only able to assess, whether an outcome was achieved through the correct logical theoretical trajectory, not through the particularities of the moment.

Stuart Kinlough/Getty Images

Stuart Kinlough/Getty Images

As a growing part of our contemporary world is technologically shaped, a growing remit of ethical and political considerations are equally channelled through technologically mediated rational procedures. As Hannah Arendt recognised in her reflections on ethics and codes in her final opus, Life of the Mind:

 what people get used to is less the content of the rules … than the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars. If someone appears who, for whatever purpose wishes to abolish the old “values” or virtues, he will find that easy enough, provided he offers a new code.

Is practical, applied, procedurally oriented ethics appropriate for technologically mediated decisions over life and death? Can we comprehensively understand the ethical implications of drone strikes and other ethically problematic practices when we equate ethical thinking with procedural considerations of legality? It strikes me that this question needs to be explored further. What kind of politics produces applied ethics and vice versa?

As I have indicated in a previous post, applied, or practical ethics, has had a swift and recent ascendance in modernity and has come into its own as a sub-field of ethics in the 1960s to 1980s, as a mode of aligning the growing professionalisation of various sectors with ethical considerations. Applied ethics is typically divided into field-specific sub-categories – medical ethics, bioethics, business ethics, etc. However, there has to date not yet emerged a category by the name of ‘political ethics’, even though applied ethics has become the primary lens for ethical investigations of national and international political practices. Where political administration addresses real-world questions that demand a practical solution, from issues of housing to matters of criminal punishment, to problems of integration, applied ethics as a branch of ethics is relevant and useful for political governance. This is then further extended into the international context, where ethics in international relations, global ethics or international ethics, as a relatively new field of analysis, has presently shaped an identity “as a branch of applied ethics”, as Terry Nardin notes aptly. This branch seeks to address a wide range of complex international issues including migration, military interventions, economic sanctions and their consequences, terrorism and warfare. At the heart of this ethical inquiry stands, again, the demand to solve ‘real world’ problems and dilemmas. Again, ‘problem solving’ is the name of the game. This implies that problems can be solved, correct outcomes can be ascertained and that an authority has the capacity to evaluate what is needed to do so.

Back cover of Randy Cohen's book 'Be Good' in which he suggests that he has a solution for all ethical dilemmas.

Back cover of Randy Cohen’s book ‘Be Good’ in which he suggests that he has a solution for all ethical dilemmas.

In many delimited professional contexts this works well. The prevalence of using applied ethics as a moral frame of reference in and for international politics is, however, somewhat limited, and limiting. For one, the ascertainment of any general moral theory that could be applied to so complex a sphere as the international realm, comprises an endless heteronomy of potentially arising situations that require moral decisions, is a questionable endeavour for the sheer infinity of potentialities that exist in any political realm. Furthermore, it seeks to use principles external to the realm it deals with in order to particular solve internal problems. Following Nardin, ethics is thus turned into a technical subject. And following Donna Haraway, ethics, as a technical matter, then “mimes scientific analysis; both are based on sound facts and hypothesis testing; both are technical practices”, for which a certain level of expertise is required to correctly identify and apply relevant external principles. The framing of moral policies then is reliant on a certain expertise that the politician, the committee or the philosopher of science holds to secure the moral content that can be applied. This moral content is then made manifest and sought to be ascertained in laws, rules and regulations guiding the national and international in ethical decisions. This ethico-legal construct is palpable in nearly all discussions of the ethics of war, humanitarian intervention and, most recently, drone warfare, whereby discussions on the legality of procedures seems to obscure a deeper engagement with the ethicality, or the moral content, of the established (or still debated) ethical framework or code. While the ethico-legal complex is nothing new for considerations of ethics of war and political violence – some might argue the very foundations of just war theory are more fruitfully considered as residing in law over ethics – what is new is the scientific-technological frames with which ethics is sought to be ascertained and secured. This renders ethics in terms of its functionality and becomes something that serves a purpose, or must, at least, have a reason.

What emerges from this need for expertise in the conception and the application of frameworks of ethics is the demand for codes that specify how those engaged in matters of life and death (medical or warfare related) ought to best conduct themselves, so that training can be given and the ’right’ moral decision can be ensured. This conflation of ethical conduct is exemplified in William L. Nash’s anecdote of a group of soldiers tending to the thirst and fatigue of their prisoners of war. Nash is a military professional and was a colonel in Operation Desert Storm. He describes his arrival at the tactical command post in Operation Desert Storm where he observed a group of forty or fifty Iraqi prisoners huddled together in an enclosure, guarded by two soldiers. It was evident to Nash that the prisoners were hungry, cold and exhausted. Nash describes the scene:

Before I could act, I saw four American soldiers going toward the prisoners’ enclosure with their arms full of blankets and food rations. No orders had been issued, training had taught the soldiers to do the right thing according to the laws of armed conflict.

For Nash it is clear that the training in the laws of war has made (and makes) soldiers behave ethically, based on their knowledge of the law and the codes of ethics relevant to their profession, as Nash describes the soldiers’ behaviour as being compliant with the law, rather than an act of responsibility and compassion. This professional detachment and the possibility of code superseding potentially different ethical considerations and individual responsibility is radicalised in contemporary discussions and research on autonomous lethal systems for use in armed conflict.

Flyer for military ethics training for 'young military leaders' in the US Army

Flyer for military ethics training for ‘young military leaders’ in the US Army

The professionalisation of matters of war and political violence, the framing of violent practices in and of war as practical solutions to ethical problems is informed by a heightened demand for ethical certainty and gives rise to the requirement for codes and regulations that determine and secure behaviour. It bears repeating here that the political underpinnings are biopolitical underpinnings, where politics is understood as management, and not politics in the Arendtian sense. It is politics as administration, politics as governance, politics as people and population management that facilitates the ‘applicability’ of ethics, just like business ethics, medical ethics and so on. As in other professions, this gives rise to the need for codes that validate and justify not only the content of the profession, but also the general conduct (behaviour – not action) of the participants in the profession. As Michael Davis describes the role of codes of ethics for the engineering profession:

A code of ethics would then prescribe how professionals are to pursue their common ideal so that each may do the best she can at minimal cost to herself and those she cares about. The code is to protect each professional from certain pressures.

Considering the great lengths to which the Bush administration went to justify the use of torture through legal memoranda and the current efforts to frame target killings in terms of international law and its potential gaps, a notion of the law as a form of ethical code for the profession of international politics crystallises. What is neglected is a consideration of the moral content. This is particularly striking in present debates on the ‘ethical and legal’ implications of lethal drones strikes, which almost without fail focus entirely on the viability and interpretations of legal frameworks rather than considering the moral content of the practice of eliminating humans who are suspected to pose a security risk, and who – in the case of signature strikes – are often not known until they have been killed. Aside from the questionable lawfulness of this practice, it strikes me that there is a tremendous ethical issue. Frameworks of applied ethics lacks the language to address these ethical issues other than in procedural terms.

In short, the focus on legal frameworks and ethics’ practicality over considerations of ethicality occludes any deeper engagement with what ethics actually is, how it is, in fact, determined by the characteristics of a specific type of society and how we can make sense of ethics in modernity as something beyond a mere set of context specific norms and legal regulations. The most significant danger lies in the potentiality that the application of normalised ethical standard, as given by a scientific authority eclipse considerations of individual and perpetually new responsibility toward the other, specifically when ethics is understood as a programme that is to be applied rather than something that arises in alterity and ever-anew. Within this technological mandate, we are lacking the ethical language to address non-linear and coded issues of ethics adequately. When matters of ethics are expressed “by the extreme and in-itself meaningless formalism of mathematical signs”, as Arendt notes elsewhere, we have also lost the capacity to address the ethicality of ethics.

This tension in the perspective of ethics is evident in the apparent disconnect between ethics as understood as the moment of responsibility for the other on one hand and the ethics of a specific profession on the other, where the notion of improving moral standards is a matter of providing an enforceable ethical code and the failure of adherence to stipulated ethical behaviour is “blamed on the faults of the ethical code or the laxity of the organs of its promotion and enforcement”, as Zygmunt Bauman diagnoses insightfully. The ethical code is thus performative as a technical and professional compass of morality to control behaviour. This focus on integrity and professionalism as a version of ethics is particularly notable in the military profession. Martin Cook discusses the importance of looking at practical ethical guidelines in the army in terms of the “limits of the philosophical approach”. In Cook’s account ‘professionalism’ and ‘integrity’ are two crucial aspects of what is considered ethical behaviour. While Cook is sceptical of this conflation, he nonetheless focuses on the very practicalities of being able to conduct oneself in the military profession accurately as ethical behaviour. Key aspects of conducting oneself ethically, in his presentation, comprise professional competence, retaining the public’s trust and continually adapting to emerging challenges. As such, in his account, an ethical obligation consists in ensuring that battle practices are progressive rather than conservative and that military professionals continually develop their expertise. In narrating his account on military ethics as professional ethics, Cook repeatedly refers to the medical field as a comparable profession that considers professional behaviour as ethical behaviour, and ought to do so following a quasi-scientific rationale.

The notion that ethics relates to fulfilling a role, and fulfil it responsibly, reflects what is at the heart of Alisdair MacIntyre’s critique of the modern “moral fiction”, where “the most culturally powerful [moral fiction] is embodied in the claims to effectiveness and hence to authority made by that central character of the modern social drama, the bureaucratic manager.” In a quasi-scientific application of expertise, morality becomes conflated with law-like generalizations, which, in turn, allows the expert to be rendered professional. And it is only in this alleged ‘scientific’ neutrality that the necessity mandate to decide over life itself in a political context can take hold.

Present justification of war and political violence are infused with a scientific assessment. As Kim Hutchings rightly highlights: “In contemporary arguments about just war, there has been a tendency to want to turn just war theory into something much more like an algorithm”. Such algorithmic thinking relies on IF/THEN rationalities, replete with scientific processes, variables and premises that determine when certain conditions are met for acts of violence to become permissible. Arguments of this nature often play out in a sequence of logical considerations: if a certain group or individual meets specifically delineated criteria, then they may be justifiably killed in the context of warfare. This renders ethics and ethical principles not autonomous and for themselves, able to comprehend the incalculable, but rather a functional and normalising tool. This is palpable in the discourses on the ethics of target killings through drones. As elaborated in a previous post, the medical narrative manifests the mandate to let those (professionals) who are able to deal with the illness (the cancer of terrorism) deal with the problem in the most effective and efficient manner and with the utmost professional conduct. Ethical codes serve as a framework to further cement the implicit morality of the goal. In target killings, the preventive measures taken are often posited as a matter of ethical dilemmas framed morally in terms of ‘difficult choices’ and legally in terms of self-defence. It becomes increasingly difficult to argue against the use of a practice that supports humanity and humanness with a tool that allegedly can minimise the damage of necessary act of violence. With algorithmic calculations and formulised processes involved in selecting targets, however, it is evident that the CIA drone programme is a codified programme of prophylactic intervention, resting on the claimed moral authority of being both, intrinsically good for humanity and supported by the ethical professionalism of the technology.

Obama's Disposition Matrix - a flowchart for the procedure to track, capture, render or kill suspected terrorists.

Obama’s Disposition Matrix – a flowchart for the procedure to track, capture, render or kill suspected terrorists.

The quest for being able to ascertain with certainty the rightness or wrongness of a solution to an ethical dilemma reflects a determination to limit, if not eradicate the very aleatory nature of human life. By searching to prescribe ethical principles to an abstracted set of instances and occurrences the contingent character of the encounter with the Other, to speak in Levinasian terms, is disregarded in the assumption that ethical dilemmas can be resolved. When we understand ethics as arising from the encounter with the Other, which neither poses a threat of punishment nor promises any recompense, but simply triggers, by sheer presence an ethical moment, it is precisely in this very moment of the ethical decision that the actual indeterminacy of ethics lies. This indeterminacy cannot be resolved by regulatory frames or codes. It requires responsibility, for each ethical moment anew, not merely expertise. In a my last post here on DoT, I go into greater detail on the topic of encounter and responsibility by taking a trans-disciplinary approach and drawing on principles of musical improvisation as a perhaps more fruitful lens for considerations of ethics as politics. Where ethics is coded, it furthermore curbs ethical responsibility of the individual subject. It prevents each ethical moment from being decided anew and contains the illusory promise of certainty the fallacy of being able to offer a technical way of resolving ethical questions.

I want to stress this, however: the point here is not the outright rejection of codes or the dismissal of guidelines for acceptable behaviour. On the contrary, codes guidelines, regulatory frameworks of law are immensely important and provide a basic stability in a sociopolitical body. But what is at stake here is whether we should understand ethics as code, to conceive of ethics as something that can optimally be resolved by the application of rules for international politics and international political violence. Not only is it not possible, it also removes us ever more from responsibility. And that is crucial when we make decisions over who or what can be killed and killed humanely.

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4 thoughts on “Ethical Encounters – Taming of the Infinite: Applying Ethics for Political Violence – A Brief Critique

  1. This “technical” model of ethics seems to be distinct from traditional ethics only in that the former is typically a series of enforceable generalizations by bureaucrats. Enforceable ethics is policy, not ethics as it is normally understood. And bureaucracy itself is only good for certain things.

    A similarly technical but unenforceable code could well be the natural progression of the field, as psychology with greater understanding resolves to neurology. Policy could then be developed as an application of this ethics.

    “This implies that problems can be solved…”

    Is an ethical problem which cannot be solved actually an ethical problem? It sounds about as amoral as a hurricane. The real ethical question is how to minimize the damage. If that too is unanswerable, move on to the next question. If any other concept of ethics can report better results, the question wasn’t unanswerable after all. Note that was an algorithm.

    “This professional detachment and the possibility of code superseding potentially different ethical considerations and individual responsibility…”

    How is a code different from other “ethical considerations”? Aren’t those just a fuzzier code, developed by experience? A fuzzier code is probably good at avoiding extremes but inconsistent on the particulars.

    “Not only is [understanding ethics as code] not possible, it also removes us ever more from responsibility.”

    Insofar as ethics can be encoded, our responsibility lies in fidelity to the code. Insofar as ethics cannot be encoded, how do you know what to hold people responsible for? I think your ethics is biologically encoded, and we should convert it to human language.

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  2. Pingback: Ethical Encounters – Taming of the Infinite: Applying Ethics for Political Violence – A Brief Critique | The Disorder Of Things | Public Philosophy Journal

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