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New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War


The American Academy of Arts and Sciences project, New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology and War, brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars and practitioners to investigate ethical dilemmas posed by contemporary political developments and changes in military technology. The main idea behind this initiative is that although technological innovations and political developments are changing the way in which modern wars are conducted, efforts to align the legal and ethical frameworks that guide and inform states’ behavior before, during, and after war have not evolved accordingly.

Just War theory—and its principles and doctrine—has for many centuries represented the pinnacle of human morality in warfare. As such, it has informed and influenced the formulation of international laws and treaties in the protection of non-combatants, civilians, and vulnerable categories of individuals.

“In several recent conflicts, including in South Sudan, Darfur, Burundi, Iraq, and Liberia, indirect deaths have represented up to ten times the number of direct victims of violence.”
Keith Krause, “From Armed Conflict to Political Violence: Mapping & Explaining Conflict Trends,” Dædalus, “Ethics, Technology & War” (Fall 2016)

The most important intellectual work examining the application of just war principles to modern wars remains Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars (1977), a classic investigation into just war doctrine applied within the context of inter-state war and civil conflict during the Cold War. Yet, no volume since the end of the Cold War has successfully become the successor to Walzer’s book.

Watch Dædalus contributor Paul Wise discuss his research on the indirect human costs of conflict, including on the health system.

Watch Dædalus contributor Tanisha Fazal discuss her research on rebel groups and the law of armed conflict

This failure is certainly not due to a lack of research and writing about ethics and war. Indeed, there are lively and ongoing debates concerning just war doctrine in a number of academic disciplines and among policy-makers and policy analysts. But these groups rarely speak to each other and there is a growing gap between strong scholarship regarding ethics and war and policy-relevant work that can influence government decisions and public debates. Trends in universities, which increasingly prioritize analytic philosophy in philosophy departments, formal models and game theory in political science departments, and social history over military history in history departments, have all contributed to the relative neglect of the study of the evolution of just war doctrine and applications to real world security problems.

“Cyber Warfare presents different challenges from those that have dominated just war thinking and invites ethical deliberations rather than marginalizing them.”
David P. Fidler, “Just & Unjust War, Uses of Force & Coercion: An Ethical Inquiry with Cyber Illustrations,” Dædalus, “Ethics, Technology & War” (Fall 2016)

The New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War project seeks to introduce a new theoretical understanding of the linkages among jus ad bellum (rules governing when to go to war), jus in bello (rules governing behavior in combat), and jus post bellum (rules governing appropriate actions after war); to broaden the current understanding of the impact of new and future technology developments on the causes and conduct of war, by moving beyond a focus on weapons systems to include analyses of the impact of early warning, health surveillance, and “liberation technologies”; and to expand the debate about just war beyond a state-centric perspective to understand how other groups, including insurgency movements, civil society movements, and international organizations, engage with normative questions of warfare.

Upcoming Project Activities

The New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War project will continue its outreach activities in 2018.

Recent Project Activities

Objects of Wonder: The Face of Battle without the Rules of War

On Tuesday, December 5, 2017, Scott Sagan (Stanford University) delivered a lecture at the National Museum of Natural History Q?rius Theater, drawing on his Dædalus article published as part of the New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War project.

What was warfare like without the laws of armed conflict to constrain violence? In a series of over 40 extraordinary drawings now housed in the National Anthropological Archives at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), Red Horse, a Minneconjou Sioux warrior who fought at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn – also known as Custer’s Last Stand – vividly and candidly portrayed the unrestrained brutality of the battle and its aftermath. Sagan discussed how this artwork not only helps us gain insight into the past, but also better understand contemporary warfare in the age of fast-paced technology.

The program included remarks from Jake Homiak, cultural anthropologist and Director of the National Anthropological Archives, about the importance of collecting these drawings by Red Horse and other notable Plains Indians, such as the Kiowa artist Silver Horn. A remarkable hide painting by Silver Horn that depicts a sham battle is on display in the Objects of Wonder exhibit at the NMNH. The stories behind the creation of both the Red Horse drawings and the painting by Silver Horn reflect the unanticipated ways in which these cultural artifacts came into being and were later understood and valued by scholars across various disciplines.

2017 John Gee Memorial Lecture – The Korean Missile Crisis: Why Deterrence is Still the Best Option

On November 9, 2017, Scott Sagan (Stanford University) delivered the 2017 John Gee Memorial Lecture at Australian National University. He discussed the New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War project, and his research on nuclear weapons, including how we can apply lessons from the Cold War in responding to the current North Korean crisis.

Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran: What Americans Really Think about Using Nuclear Weapons and Killing Non-Combatants

On November 8, 2017, Scott Sagan (Stanford University) delivered a plenary address during the Ethics and War Conference at the International Society for Military Ethics (Asia Pacific chapter). Sagan spoke about the New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War project and his research on nuclear weapons. Gareth Evans (former Foreign Minister of Australia; Australian National University) and New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War project contributor Seth Lazar (Australian National University) served as discussants.

Interviews with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

Randall Pinkston interviews Scott Sagan (Stanford University) for the Carnegie Council for International Affairs’ Global Ethics Forum TV program. The episode will air in late summer 2017.

Randall Pinkston interviews Scott Sagan (Stanford University) for the Carnegie Council for International Affairs’ Global Ethics Forum TV program. The episode will air in late summer 2017.

Joseph H. Felter was interviewed about his Dædalus article (co-authored with Jacob N. Shapiro) on “Limiting Civilian Casualties as Part of a Winning Strategy: The Case of Courageous Restraint.” Audio and transcripts are available on the Carnegie Council’s website and the interview is available through the Carnegie Council’s podcast. Selected video clips are available on Youtube.

Scott Sagan was interviewed about his Dædalus article, co-authored with Jeffrey G. Lewis, on “The Nuclear Necessity Principle: Making U.S. Targeting Policy Confirm with Ethics & the Laws of War.” An audio recording and transcript of the full interview are available on the Carnegie Council’s website, and you can watch a video clip here. The televised interview will air on September 9. MHz Networks will air the program nationwide on Saturdays at 3 p.m. – a listing of channels in your local area is available here.

Briefings with International Organizations and NGOs in Geneva

The Academy has organized two sets of meetings with international organizations and NGOs in Geneva, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In May 2016, Tanisha Fazal (University of Notre Dame), Michael C. Horowitz (University of Pennsylvania), Keith Krause (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies), and Leslie Vinjamuri (SOAS, University of London; Chatham House) were invited to brief high-level leadership at the UNHCR just a week before they began working on a new long-range strategic plan. During a series of meetings, the group discussed some of the underlying issues related to technology and the changing nature of warfare that will affect the context in which UNHCR operates over the next five years. A series of follow-up briefings in July 2017 featured another project contributor, Paul Wise (Stanford University), who shared his work on how technology can help us better understand the full human costs of war. During each trip, project contributors also met with other Geneva-based international and humanitarian organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War Workshop

On April 24, 2017, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ project on New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War co-hosted a workshop with the U.S. Air Force Academy and CISAC at Stanford. The event featured presentations from four contributors to the project’s Dædalus volumes: project chair Scott Sagan (Stanford University), General C. Robert Kehler (USAF, ret.; former commander of STRATCOM), Antonia Chayes (former Undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force), and Laura Savarese (JD and Ph.D. candidate, Yale University). Approximately 120 attendees from the US Air Force Academy, University of Denver, and Colorado College attended the workshop, which included breakout discussions and a final plenary discussion to explore the ethical issues raised by the speakers in greater depth, and to identify avenues for further research. On Tuesday, April 25, 2017, the group participated in a roundtable discussion and Sagan and Kehler delivered guest lectures to classes at USAFA.

Roundtable Discussions with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations

The Academy has organized two roundtable discussions with the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The first session, on “Populations, Perceptions, Power, and Peace Operations” featured project chair Scott Sagan (Stanford University) and fellow Dædalus contributors Tanisha Fazal (University of Notre Dame) and Jacob N. Shapiro (Princeton University) participated. The panel also featured Clare Lockhart (Institute for State Effectiveness) and William Reno (Northwestern University), who are contributing to the Academy’s Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses project. The group discussion examined how we can understand the links between local populations and armed actors, and the effects of these relationships for UN peacekeeping.

A second on “Intelligence in UN Peacekeeping Operations,” featured Joseph H. Felter (Stanford University), Michael C. Horowitz (University of Pennsylvania), and David P. Fidler (Indiana University Maurer School of Law). This session sought to explore the ethical implications of UNDPKO’s increasing use of modern surveillance tools in peacekeeping operations. The three panelists drew on the lessons learned from their Dædalus articles, which addressed autonomous weapons, counterinsurgency, and cyber weapons.

2017 Distinguished Morton L. Mandel Annual Public Lecture
Ethics and the Global War on Terror:
Can Conflicts with Non-State Actors Be Fought in a Just Way?

On March 8, 2017, the American Academy hosted a panel discussion at the House of the Academy in Cambridge, MA, accompanied by local discussions at The George Washington University, Stanford University, the University of Notre Dame, the United States Air Force Academy, and the United States Military Academy at West Point.

The twenty-first century began with the largest and most dramatic attack by a non-state actor, and since 9/11 the number of conflicts between states and non-state actors has increased. ISIL’s declaration of an “Islamic caliphate” in Syria and Iraq is just the latest chapter in a long, intense, and enduring fight between states and non-state actors.

Gabriella Blum (Harvard University), Allen S. Weiner (Stanford University), Jennifer Leaning (Harvard University), and Neta Crawford (Boston University) participate in a panel discussion on “Ethics and the Global War on Terror” on March 8, 2017.

In recent years, as the U.S. administration began to employ new military technology in asymmetric warfare, such as drones and autonomous weapons, new concerns about the morality of targeted killing and questions of proportionality and distinction became central to the debate on fighting ethical wars in the age of a global war on terror.

This program featured Gabriella Blum (Rita E. Hauser Professor of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Harvard Law School), Neta C. Crawford (Professor of Political Science, Boston University), Jennifer Leaning (François-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights; Director, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health), and Allen Weiner (Director, Stanford Program in International and Comparative Law; Co-Director, Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation, Stanford Law School). Watch the panelists’ presentations here.

Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran: Real American Attitudes about Nuclear Weapons and Non-Combatant Immunity

Numerous polls demonstrate that U.S. public approval of President Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has declined significantly since 1945, with less than 50% support now compared with 85% support in 1945. Many scholars and political figures have suggested that this is evidence of the emergence of a “nuclear taboo” and a “non-combatant immunity norm.” New survey experiments, however, demonstrate that a majority of Americans would approve of nuclear weapons attacks against Iran to avoid U.S. military casualties in the future, suggesting that a “nuclear taboo” has not taken hold among the U.S. public and that support for non-combatant immunity is shallow. On November 30, 2016, Scott Sagan discussed these findings and the work of the project on New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War at a public lecture at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School.

Ethical Dilemmas in War

On November 29, 2016, the New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War project co-hosted a series of panel discussions on ethics and nuclear weapons with the School of Security Studies at King’s College London. The program featured a discussion on re-thinking the ethics of nuclear weapons; the consequences of collateral damage; and public opinion, soldiers, and war. The Academy also organized a series of briefings in London and Oxford in connection with the publication of two issues of Dædalus: “Ethics, Technology & War” (Fall 2016) and “The Changing Rules of War” (Winter 2017).

Benjamin Valentino (Dartmouth College), Sir Lawrence Freedman (King’s College London), Scott Sagan (Stanford University), and Heather Williams (King’s College London) participate in a panel discussion on “Rethinking the Ethics of Nuclear Weapons’ during the “Ethical Dilemmas in War” event in November 2016.

A Collective Moral Awakening: Ethical Choices in War and Peace

On November 16, 2016, the American Academy hosted a panel discussion at Stanford University highlighting the work of the Academy’s project on New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War.

During his visit to Hiroshima in May 2016, President Barack Obama called for a “moral awakening”: for new institutions to address the destructive power of nuclear weapons. “Hiroshima teaches this truth,” Obama said: “Technological progress without the equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.”

Incentives to improve national security and win conflicts often have led to the development and use of new and more destructive technologies of war. And yet, especially since World War II, strong incentives have also existed to prohibit aggression and promote self-defense, to encourage legal and moral constraints on violence in war to protect noncombatants, and to punish soldiers and political leaders whose actions are judged to be war crimes. As technological advancement continues unabated, complex organizations—such as the military, government, international organizations, and the medical and humanitarian communities—are continuously called to navigate the complex dilemma between national security imperatives and ethical and legal commitments.

The discussion, moderated by Debra Satz (Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society and Senior Associate Dean for the Humanities and Arts, Stanford University), featured presentations on “Ethics, Law, and U.S. Nuclear Targeting Policy” by Scott Sagan (Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science, Stanford University; Project Director, New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War), “Limiting Civilian Casualties as Part of a Winning Strategy” by Joseph Felter (Senior Research Scholar, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University; U.S. Army, ret.), and “Confronting the True Human Cost of Conflict: The Epidemiologic Challenge to Just War Theory” by Paul Wise (Richard E. Behrman Professor of Child Health and Society and Professor of Pediatrics and Health Policy, Stanford University School of Medicine). Watch the panelists’ presentations here or listen to a recording of the event.

“Writing about War”

The American Academy’s project on New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War hosted its first authors’ workshop at Stanford University on June 30 – July 1, 2015. At the workshop, authors contributing to two forthcoming issues of Dædalus discussed their draft essays and received feedback from other project contributors, military leaders, policy-makers, and scholars. In addition, the Academy hosted a public event on “Writing About War,” featuring Natasha Trethewey (19th Poet Laureate of the United States) and Phil Klay (author of Redeployment, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction). Video of the full event is available here.

Roundtables and Authors’ Workshop

On November 4 – 6, 2015, the New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War project convened a second authors’ workshop and a series of roundtables with policy-makers and practitioners at West Point. Authors shared the findings of their research with members of the U.S. military, including West Point faculty (both military and civilian) who teach courses on ethics, and with policy-makers from New York and Washington, D.C., NGO leaders, and UN-affiliated experts.

Fawad Hussein Syed (left; United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA)) participates in a roundtable discussion with project authors Jennifer Welsh (European University Institute; Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect), Lloyd Axworthy (University of Waterloo; formerly, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Canada), and Leslie Vinjamuri (SOAS, University of London; Chatham House).

Project Chair

  • Scott D. Sagan
    Stanford University

Project Advisors

  • Jennifer Leaning
    Harvard University
  • Janne Nolan
    The George Washington University
  • Barry Posen
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Project Staff

  • Francesca Giovannini
  • Kathryn Moffat

Steering Committee Members

  • Norman Augustine
    Lockheed Martin Corporation, ret.
  • Lloyd Axworthy
    University of Waterloo; formerly, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Canada
  • James Ellis
    Stanford University; Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, ret.; U.S. Navy, ret.
  • Tanisha Fazal
    University of Minnesota;
    formerly, University of Notre Dame
  • Gilman Louie
    Alsop Louie Partners; formerly, In-Q-Tel
  • David Luban
    Georgetown University
  • Mark Martins
    U.S. Army, Judge Advocate General’s Corps
  • Aryeh Neier
    Paris School of International Affairs of
    Sciences Po
  • Nancy Sherman
    Georgetown University
  • Michael Walzer
    Institute for Advanced Study
  • Jennifer Welsh
    European University Institute

Related Publications

Published from   thru      Type:    
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The Changing Rules of War

MIT Press, 2017
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Ethics, Technology & War

MIT Press, 2016
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Project Chair

Scott D. Sagan, Stanford University

In the News

Featured Publications

“The Changing Rules of War”
Dædalus Winter 2017

Read more and download this publication.

“Ethics, Technology & War ”
Dædalus Fall 2016

Read more and download this publication.

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