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Real Life Terminators: The Inevitable Rise of Autonomous Weapons

image of predator drones in formation

Slaughterbots, a YouTube video by the Future of Life Institute, has racked up nearly three and a half million views for its dystopic nightmare where automated killing machines use facial recognition to track down and murder dissident students. Meanwhile, New Zealand and Austria have called for a ban on autonomous weapons, citing ethical and equity concerns, while a group of parliamentarians from thirty countries have also advocated for a treaty banning the development and use of so-called “killer-robots.” In the U.S., however, a bipartisan committee found that a ban on autonomous weapons “is not currently in the interest of U.S. or international security.”

Despite the sci-fi futurism of slaughterbots, autonomous weapons are not far off. Loitering munitions, which can hover over an area before self-selecting and destroying a target (and themselves), have proliferated since the first reports of their use by Turkish-backed forces in Libya last year. They were used on both sides of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, while U.S.-made switchblade and Russian Zala KYB kamikaze drones have recently been employed in Ukraine. China has even revealed a ship which can not only operate and navigate autonomously, but deploy drones of its own (although the ship is, mercifully, unarmed).

Proponents of autonomous weapons hope that they will reduce casualties overall, as they replace front-line soldiers on the battlefield.

As well as getting humans out of harm’s way, autonomous weapons might be more precise than their human counterparts, reducing collateral damage and risk to civilians.

A survey of Australian Defence Force officers found that the possibility of risk reduction was a significant factor in troops’ attitudes to autonomous weapons, although many retained strong misgivings about operating alongside them. Yet detractors of autonomous weapons, like the group Stop Killer Robots, worry about the ethics of turning life-or-death decisions over to machines. Apart from the dehumanizing nature of the whole endeavor, there are concerns about a lack of accountability and the potential for algorithms to entrench discrimination – with deadly results.

If autonomous weapons can reduce casualties, the concerns over dehumanization and algorithmic discrimination might fade away. What could be a better affirmation of humanity than saving human lives? At this stage, however, data on precision is hard to come by. And there is little reason to think that truly autonomous weapons will be more precise than ‘human-in-the-loop’ systems, which require a flesh-and-blood human to sign off on any aggressive action (although arguments for removing the human from the loop do exist).

There is also the risk that the development of autonomous weapons will lower the barrier of entry to war: if we only have to worry about losing machines, and not people, we might lose sight of the true horrors of armed conflict.

So should we trust robots with life-or-death decisions? Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, worries that abrogating responsibility for killing – even in the heat of battle – will decrease the value of human life. Moreover, the outsourcing of such significant decisions might lead to an accountability gap, where we are left with no recourse when things go wrong. We can hold soldiers to account for killing innocent civilians, but how can we hold a robot to account – especially one which destroys itself on impact?

Technological ethicist Steven Umbrello dismisses the accountability gap, arguing that autonomous weapons are no more troubling than traditional ones. By focusing on the broader system, accountability can be conferred upon decisionmakers in the military chain of command and the designers and engineers of the weapons themselves. There is never a case where the robot is solely at fault: if something goes wrong, we will still be able to find out who is accountable. This response can also apply to the dehumanization problem: it isn’t truly robots who are making life or death decisions, but the people who create and deploy them.

The issue with this approach is that knowing who is accountable isn’t the only factor in accountability: it will, undoubtedly, be far harder to hold those responsible to account.

They won’t be soldiers on the battlefield, but programmers in offices and on campuses thousands of kilometers away. So although the accountability gap may not be an insurmountable philosophical problem, it will still be a difficult practical one.

Although currently confined to the battlefield, we also ought to consider the inevitable spread of autonomous weapons into the domestic sphere. As of last year, over 15 billion dollars in surplus military technology had found its way into the hands of American police. There are already concerns that the proliferation of autonomous systems in southeast Asia could lead to increases in “repression and internal surveillance.” And Human Rights Watch worries that “Fully autonomous weapons would lack human qualities that help law enforcement officials assess the seriousness of a threat and the need for a response.”

But how widespread are these ‘human qualities’ in humans? Police kill over a thousand people each year in the U.S. Robots might be worse – but they could be better. They are unlikely to reflect the fear, short tempers, poor self-control, or lack of training of their human counterparts.

Indeed, an optimist might hope that autonomous systems can increase the effectiveness of policing while reducing danger to both police and civilians.

There is a catch, however: not even AI is free of bias. Studies have found racial bias in algorithms used in risk assessments and facial recognition, and a Microsoft chatbot had to be shut down after it started tweeting offensive statements. Autonomous weapons with biases against particular ethnicities, genders, or societal groups would be a truly frightening prospect.

Finally, we can return to science fiction. What if one of our favorite space-traveling billionaires decides that a private human army isn’t enough, and they’d rather a private robot army? In 2017, a group of billionaires, AI researchers, and academics – including Elon Musk – signed an open letter warning about the dangers of autonomous weapons. That warning wasn’t heeded, and development has continued unabated. With the widespread military adoption of autonomous weapons already occurring, it is only a matter of time before they wind up in private hands. If dehumanization and algorithmic discrimination are serious concerns, then we’re running out of time to address them.


Thanks to my friend CAPT Andrew Pham for his input.

The Philosophical Underpinning of “War Crimes” Statutes

photograph of destroyed apartment buildings

Over the past week, Russian forces have withdrawn from the areas surrounding Kyiv and Chernihiv, both located in Northern Ukraine. Belief among Western intelligence agencies is that this has been a repositioning, not a retreat. This withdrawal, however, was accompanied by disturbing reports, to put it mildly. Accusations against Russian soldiers reported by the Human Rights Watch include executions, repeated rape, torture, threats of violence, and destruction of property aimed against civilians in the area. These revelations come after air strikes against targets such as hospitals and theaters housing civilians.

The international outcry has been severe. U.S. President Joe Biden explicitly referred to Putin as a “war criminal” and called for a war crimes trial. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the U.K., stated this conduct “fully qualifies as a war crime.” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine accused Russia of genocide. However, Russian officials have dismissed the outcry, going so far as to claim that the scenes were staged.

These acts seem to violate the Geneva Conventions. Namely, the Fourth Geneva Convention which establishes protections for civilians in war zones. The convention specifically prohibits violence towards civilians, taking them as hostages, treating them in degrading and/or humiliating ways, and extra-judicial punishments like executions. When violations occur, the Convention tasks parties to it with prospecting responsible individuals through their own legal systems or to defer to international courts, like the International Criminal Court, when appropriate.

It is one thing to recognize nations have agreed to these treaties. However, legal agreement is different from morality. So, we should ask: What moral reason is there to avoid these practices?

A simple justification is a consequentialist one. Targeting civilians massively increases the suffering and death that wars inflict. The idea behind war crimes may simply just be to limit the horrific consequences of war by ensuring that the only people targeted by the war are those who are fighting it.

However, consequentialist justifications can always cut the opposite way. One might try to argue that, in the long run, unrestricted warfare could have better consequences than regulated, limited warfare. Much like the possibility of nuclear annihilation has prevented wars between major powers in the later half of the 20th century and onward, perhaps the possibility of any war becoming (even more) horrific would reduce the number of wars overall.

I am very skeptical of this line of reasoning. Nonetheless, there is a possibility, however remote, that it is correct. So, we should look elsewhere to justify war crimes statutes.

Many have thought long and hard about the morality of conduct in war – jus in bello. These “just war” theorists often determine what considerations justify the use of violence at the individual level and “scale up” this explanation to the level of states. What can we learn from these reflections?

First, violence is only justified against a threat. Suppose someone charged at you with harmful intent. However, you could stop the assailant by striking an innocent bystander; if you’re willing to do that to a bystander, then I might be afraid you’ll use any means available against me.

Would stopping me in my tracks justify attacking the innocent bystander? No, this seems false. And this is true even if attacking an innocent produced better consequences overall – the fact that you and your assailant would both be gravely injured does not justify minorly injuring the bystander.

So, most just war theorists propose a prohibition on the direct targeting of non-combatants. Perhaps the deaths of civilians may be justifiable if they are an unintended, regrettable consequence of an act that produces a desirable outcome. But military decision-makers are morally forbidden from directly and intentionally targeting civilians – an idea known as the doctrine of double effect.

Regardless, decision-makers do not have moral license to do anything so long as they don’t directly target civilians. Most just war theorists endorse a second criterion called proportionality. This means the goods gained by an act that unintentionally harms civilians must be proportionate to the harms. Suppose that bombing a mountain pass would slow an advancing army by a day. However, this would also destroy a village, killing at least one thousand civilians. This act does not target civilians, but it still seems wrong; delaying an advance by a day does not seem proportionate to the lives of one thousand innocents.

Finally, many just war theorists endorse a criterion of necessity. Even if a decision meets the other two criteria, it should not be adopted unless it is required to produce the good in question. Consider the case of the assailant again. You might be justified in defending yourself by shooting the attacker. However, if you also had a fast-acting tranquilizer gun this would change things. You could produce the same good – stopping the attack – without producing the same harm. Since the harm of shooting the attack is no longer necessary, it is no longer permitted.

Let’s extend this to war by re-imaging the mountain pass example. Suppose that the bombing would instead kill just one or two civilians. But we could also render the road impassable by using road spikes, caltrops and digging covered trenches. This would result in no civilian casualties. So, bombing the mountain pass, although not targeting civilians and now proportional, would nonetheless be unnecessary to achieve the goal of delaying the opposing army’s advance. And as a result it would not be justified.

With these criteria in hand, we can now clearly see that many of the Russian’s military’s actions are not just illegal, but they also fail to meet the most minimal standards for jus in bello. Many acts, particularly those in Bucha, directly targeted civilians. As noted earlier, this is the absolute minimum for moral justification. It is also unclear what, if any, purpose acts like executing civilians serve. Since Russian forces have now withdrawn from these areas, they clearly did not achieve whatever objective they were aimed at, unless the goal was merely to terrorize civilians (as the White House claims). But this might even undermine the Russian effort; why would the Ukrainian people put themselves at the mercy of a military that is unwilling to protect civilians?

Will anyone be held to account? It depends on what you mean. The Biden administration has announced new sanctions, the EU has as well and is proposing additional measures to member states. So, there will be at least economic consequences.

Most, however, would like to see the leaders behind these decisions face punishment. Unfortunately, this seems less likely. Russia is party to the Geneva Convention. But in 2019 President Vladimir Putin revoked Russia’s ratification of a protocol allowing members of an independent commission to investigate alleged violations of the Convention. He claimed that such investigations may be politically motivated. This sets the stage for a textbook example of circular reasoning – future investigations will be politically motivated because the Russian regime is not involved with them, and the Russian regime did not want to be involved because these investigations are politically motivated.

Unless the current regime feels compelled to punish the decision-makers directly responsible for these acts (a possibility that strikes me as very unlikely), then these crimes will likely go unpunished. Perhaps, in time, a new regime will take power in Russia and will seek to at least acknowledge and investigate these crimes as part of reconciliation. Until then, this should not stop us from labeling atrocities for what they are lest we grow numb to them.

Can Assassination Ever Be the Right Thing to Do?

blurred photo of man aiming rifle

On March 10th, Facebook modified its free speech policy to allow for some calls to violence directed against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

More strikingly, a week earlier, Senator Lindsey Graham explicitly called for the assassination of President Putin.

Politically, it is ill-advised to blithely call for an assassination in the middle of a tense diplomatic situation, and Senator Graham’s actions were criticized by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

And yet one cannot help but feel the emotional impact of a Clint Eastwood-esque narrative in which all one has to do is kill some bad guy and geopolitical problems go away. Senator Graham called on the Russian people rather than the CIA, but it nonetheless raises the unsettling question: is there a (moral) place for assassination in international politics?

The question is not as far from contemporary practice as it seems. Democratic nations like Israel have utilized political assassination. Ostensibly the United States has formally banned political assassination since the signing of Executive Order 11905 in 1976, yet it makes frequent use of “targeted killing” in its international policy, usually of actors designated as terrorists, but also of Iranian General Soleimani. The straightforward reply is that these actions are unethical, but the morality of assassination is not as straightforward as one would hope and is deeply revealing about international ethics.

The intuitive ethical appeal of killing political leadership is that the harm is, in theory, localized. It has not gone unnoticed that those who declare war rarely fight in them, and the harms of war (like the harms of sanctions), tend to refract over the most vulnerable members of society. Assassinations, by contrast, suggest the possibility of getting at those responsible and few others. Defenders of ethical assassination – like political philosophers Andrew Altman and Christopher Wellman and Eamon Aloyo and military strategist Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters – invariably allude to the possibility of lesser and more targeted harms.

In their discussion of political assassination, Altman and Wellman, write “once one agrees that armed intervention is sometimes admissible, it becomes very difficult to argue consistently that assassination is always morally impermissible.” The idea here is a parity of reasoning argument. If we think a political leader is so reprehensible as to justify the brutality of armed intervention, then why not assassination? Is assassination somehow morally worse than war? For that matter, is assassination worse than oppressive sanctions?

When pushed for reasons, it becomes difficult to draw these boundaries in a principled way.

Before embarking on this discussion, it needs to be emphasized that the argument that claims “IF armed intervention is justified, THEN so is assassination” must clear an exceedingly high bar. It is perfectly legitimate to question whether armed interventions are ever ethical, especially unilateral interventions. In their account, Altman and Wellman stress that such decisions would need to be made by the international community rather than single actors, and still they worry, rightly, whether such decisions would be subject to abuse. As in the case of the assassination of General Suleimani by the United States, it is all too easy to imagine international assassinations as a mere cynical extension of national interest. Hypothetically, assassination could be justified even in cases where armed interventions are not justified, but that would require different and stronger arguments than parity of reason.

The question that follows then is: Is there anything specifically morally abhorrent about assassination that does not apply to armed intervention more generally?

One strategy to clarify the specific problem with assassination is by appeal to international law. The landmark international treaty on the rules of war, the Hague convention of 1899, declared it “especially prohibited” to “kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army.” This sentiment against assassination has been reflected in later law like the Geneva Convention treaty of 1977. These laws concern assassination in war, but presumably assassination would not be outlawed during war time but permissible during peace time. The limitation of this response is that it grounds an ostensible ethical difference in a merely legal one, which can be changed with the stroke of a pen.

A slightly different spin is that a prohibition on assassination is needed to constitute effective international government and law in the first place – that absent this basic decency any international order becomes a nihilistic race to the bottom. As the blowback to Senator Graham’s comments shows, even talk of assassination is corrosive to serious international politics. This line of argument is more compelling, but for full strength it assumes that potential targets are (at least partially) participating in international governance, which may not always be the case. Presumably an international order would not be threatened by actions directed at those fully outside it, as long as there was internal agreement.

A second category of response is that assassination is wrong because it is the ethically wrong way to do war. The military ethics tradition of just war theory (if taken as more than an oxymoron) concerns itself with both justice in the declaration of war and right conduct in war. Right conduct is classically characterized by not targeting, and minimizing collateral damage to, civilians. This concern is reflected in prohibitions for weapons incredible in their destructive scope, like chemical or biological agents, and/or indiscriminate in their targeting, like anti-personnel landmines. However, the intuitive argument for assassination is precisely that it (in theory) minimizes collateral damage and civilian casualties, so by the standards of just war theory assassination appears more moral.

An alternative focus is the “treachery” alluded to in the Hague Convention. Modern understandings and law regarding just war are rooted in older discussions of chivalry and honor. From this perspective, the differentiating wrongness of assassination is that it is uniquely treacherous and dishonorable. Assassinations often involve subterfuge and target someone other than a soldier on a battlefield. However, the same concerns would apply to other common military tactics such as drone strikes and night raids. Moreover, if the assumption about the more limited harms of assassination is correct, forbidding assassination on the grounds of its treacherousness places the “honor” of leadership above the lives of soldiers and civilians.

The final way to characterize the wrongness of assassination is not by appeal to principle, but to challenge its claims to minimizing harms. High-profile political killings are as often the start of atrocities as the end of them, igniting retaliatory violence or wars for succession. In one of the most extensive historical investigations of political assassination to date, historian Franklin Ford concluded “[political assassination’s] demonstrable tendency has nearly always been to besmirch the perpetrator’s credentials, while undermining his chances of any lasting political success.” Similarly, another evidence-based analysis found high levels of instability and violence after successful assassination for governments without well-ordered succession – and assassinations of course do not always succeed, with failed assassination coming with their own consequences.

Even in cases of stable succession there is still no guarantee that the assassination will lead to positive change. This is the problem with the “bad guy” narrative. No matter how morally reprehensible, political leaders do not simply carry their country’s domestic and international problems around with them, to be neatly cleaned up after they fall. By focusing on singular villains we can neglect to appreciate the context behind political actions and the larger structures that maintain and exert political power. Nonetheless, especially in more dictatorial regimes, political leaders do have decision-making powers. The challenge however is to get political decision-makers to decide differently, not simply to eliminate them and let politics play out as it may.

Assassination then appears at the very least no more ethical than armed intervention, and because of its deleterious effects on international legitimacy, likely worse. It is not good ethics and it is not good politics. Nonetheless, advocates of assassination are right that there is something monstrous in the way conflicts between governments are settled via the lives of their people. As Lieutenant Colonel Peterson put it, “national behavior [of states] reminds me of those feudal squabbles in which minor nobles dueled by killing and raping each other’s serfs and burning offending villages.” Assassination, although itself impermissible, suggests an alternative vision for international ethics – thinking small. In a world of sanctions and cyberattacks, why can we not tailor these to target leadership and other influential actors more specifically? Russia is a test case, with sanctions starting to directly target oligarchs and legislators. However, not just in Russia, but everywhere, how would political decisions or actions change if every politician needed to worry about being embroiled in the conflicts they helped to create?

Malum in Se: The Use of Tear Gas by Police

two police officers dressed in riot gear holding smoke grenade guns

Whenever police use tear gas against protestors and rioters, someone invariably asks, “Why, if tear gas is banned for use in war, is it allowed for use in law enforcement?” Ultimately, the justification appears to be, “Because there aren’t any better options.” However this practical excuse is undercut by some of the fundamental considerations of Just War Theory, which underpins international law governing warfare. 

In the nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism sparked by the killing of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, tear gas has been used by the police departments of numerous US cities, including Atlanta, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Tear gas is a name that refers to a variety of different chemicals, including pepper spray. All tear gas compounds act by rapidly and severely irritating people’s eyes, skin, nose, mouth, throat, and lungs. This causes people’s eyes to swell and water (hence the name “tear gas” and “lachrymator agent”) and leads to difficulty breathing. Lachrymator agents are one among many “less than lethal” weapons used in riot control, alongside rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, flash-bangs, and many others. If tear gas is non-lethal, why is it forbidden for use in warfare?

Weapons that are banned for use in warfare by international law typically have one of more features which make them mala in se (i.e., evil in themselves). Means which are mala in se are morally unacceptable for use in warfare according to Just War Theory provisions concerning jus in bello, which refers to rules governing morally appropriate conduct during the course of war. What makes a weapon malum in se? Relating to tear gas, one criterion sticks out clearly. Any weapon the effects of which cannot be controlled is malum in se. Gases are inherently not controllable because to where they drift is determined by wind speed and direction, rather than user intention. Hence police using tear gas on a group of rioters in a residential area, or a non-residential area upwind from a residential area, will likely end up affecting people nearby, and in completely different areas who are complying with the law. In the context of war using weapons that fail to discriminate, or using weapons in a manner that fails to discriminate, between combatants and non-combatants is illegal. Why then is it acceptable for police to use weapons that fail to discriminate between law-breakers and law-abiders? 

Another criterion for determining whether a weapon is malum in se is its proportionality for achieving a legitimate goal. In Just War Theory, a war that has been justly entered into (jus ad bellum) allows those on the just side to use only the minimum necessary force to achieve victory by incapacitating the enemy (who is, if the war has been entered into justly, unjust by definition). Weapons and munitions that cause excessive harm to enemy combatants are prohibited in Just War Theory (and correspondingly outlawed by international accords). For example napalm and white phosphorous are both banned because they cause tremendous pain to combatants and maim them, rather than incapacitating or quickly killing them. Being exceedingly charitable to police, the use of tear gas can be seen as a proportional measure. Police, who are often outnumbered by rioters, need a method to promptly subdue rioters and restore peace without resorting to lethal means. If lethal force is the only viable alternative to weapons like tear gas, then it appears that the use of tear gas may be justified (ignoring that tear gas is malum in se because of its inherent indiscriminateness). 

While tear gas is “less than lethal,” both it and the delivery system for it can cause long-term harm to people. Even people with no underlying respiratory conditions can, with extensive exposure, suffer chronic respiratory issues. Likewise extensive exposure can lead to blindness. It is an indiscriminate chemical agent that has been banned for use in warfare. Under what circumstances, if any at all, could it be acceptable to use it? If we can imagine a group of rioters recklessly or intentionally committing serious crimes, but not doing so in a place from which the tear gas is liable to spread and affect innocent citizens, then we would have found an acceptable situation. Is there any such situation? Prison riots come close to the mark. Indeed, this is one of the situations in which the US Military reserves the right to use tear gas and in which the international laws governing chemical weapons allow militaries to deploy tear gas. However the use of tear gas by police on peaceful protestors or even on rioters in close proximity to peaceful protestors or densely populated urban areas is clearly unjust. The inherently indiscriminate nature of gaseous chemical agents makes them an evil in themselves.

Pope Francis, Edward Gallagher, and Just War Theory

photograph of armed soldiers in file

In his remarks during a trip to Japan, Pope Francis denounced not only the use, but also the mere possession, of nuclear weapons as morally unacceptable. While this has been Pope Francis’ position throughout his tenure as Pope, it marks a change in the Vatican’s official position toward nuclear weapons from the era of Pope John Paul II, at which time the church merely denounced the actual use of nuclear weapons. Neither of these comments are motivated by a general principle of pacifism on the part of the Catholic Church, which both currently and historically has supported the existence and use of military force. The contemporary Church recognizes war as legitimate only in the context of national self-defense.

Relatedly significant controversy has attended President Donald Trump’s meddling in the case of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, who was tried and acquitted of war crimes. The idea of a war crime can itself seem perplexing as to many it is intuitive that the point of war is simply to win quickly and by whatever means necessary. How do nations like the United States, which has actively pursued military means of executing its international agenda, square their activities with idea of a war crime? Are institutions like the United States and the Catholic Church contradicting themselves, or is there actual principle at work?

A good way to understand this is to look into the specific provisions of so-called Just War Theory, the roots of which are in the work of famed (and Catholic) philosopher Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologicae. Far from pacifism, Just War Theory advocates that there is a way to enter into, conduct, and conclude wars which is not merely morally excusable but wholly justified. Nor is this sort of thinking limited to the Catholic tradition. In the Muslim tradition, the concept of jihad is one which prescribes with whom it is morally acceptable to go to war and how it is permissible to prosecute such a war. Similar sentiments can also be found in the writings of the Confucian and Mohist schools of philosophy in Ancient China as well as in Ancient Roman concepts of the laws that govern conduct among nations.

For the sake of simplicity and brevity, let’s stick with Just War Theory. A ban on the use of nuclear weapons would come under the heading of jus in bello, the part of Just War Theory that deals with what counts as prosecuting war in a morally justified fashion. Accounts of the aftermath of the use of nuclear weapons by the United States against Japan in 1945 are harrowing. Those people who survived the initial explosion suffered from extensive and horrible burns as well as a lifetime of health problems due to exposure to intense levels of radiation. These aspects inefficiently achieve the licit goals of military action as allowed by Just War Theory, namely to incapacitate a wrongly aggressing force without excessive damage to civilians and non-military infrastructure. Further, nuclear weapons in general create the possibility of nuclear fallout, which is the transmission of radioactive material throughout the atmosphere by weather patterns. Importantly the spread of nuclear fallout is not in the direct control of those who deploy nuclear weapons in the first instance. Hence the area and number of people affected is indiscriminate, with no clear way of controlling collateral damage.

Both of these features of nuclear weaponry make them a means of conducting war that is arguably male in se, in the terms of Just War Theory. This means that it is a method that is inherently bad, regardless of who uses it and how. Examples of methods that are treated as mala in se without controversy are slavery, pillaging and raping, group punishment as well as chemical and biological weapons (e.g., mustard gas and weaponized infectious agents). Nuclear weapons are not banned, but the similarity of the effects that they have to chemical and biological agents has led many to advocate for disarmament and an international ban on the possession, use, and development of nuclear weapons.

Not only are certain methods of killing and incapacitating enemies and civilians forbidden in Just War Theory, so is certain treatment of prisoners of war. The war crimes accusations against Edward Gallagher concerned the murder of an Islamic State prisoner of war. In general, prisoners of war (and otherwise incapacitated combatants), are not allowed to be killed, tortured, or humiliated. Unlike criminal prisoners, prisoners of war are not being held as a means of punishment for their actions. Even where the captured military personnel are responsible for actions considered international crimes, the ground personnel of the opposing military are not considered legitimately empowered to execute punishment. Here another aspect of Just War Theory enters the picture, jus post bellum, which concerns appropriate behavior upon the conclusion of war. Any prosecution for war crimes must be done by with respect for due process, including full court proceedings, within a court with the appropriate jurisdiction.

Just War Theory attempts to carve out a middle path between two monolithic alternatives. On the one hand there is pacifism, which argues that all violent, military action is morally unacceptable. On the other hand there is so-called realism about war, which argues that war is not immoral but beyond morality. However every nation belonging to any international political or governing body (at least in theory) subjects itself to rules of warfare meant to limit what are seen as moral excesses in the conduct of an otherwise (possibly) justifiable enterprise. The concept of a war crime in general, and the Catholic Church’s evolving position on warfare in particular, both manifest attempts to stay between the twin implausibilities of pacifism and realism concerning war.

If North Korea Launches a Nuclear Attack, How Should the U.S. Respond?

A photo of the North Korean-South Korean border

North Korea’s regime has taken a bolder step in its confrontation with the United States: it has threatened to launch an attack against Guam, a US territory in the Pacific. Then, it walked it back. But, we have seen this kind of behavior in Kim Jong Un many times, so we may foresee that, sooner or later, he will again threaten to attack Hawaii, Guam, South Korea, or any other target within North Korea’s range. If such an attack takes place, and it is a nuclear attack, how should the U.S. ethically respond?

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Just War Theory and the Aims of Trump’s Airstrikes

The guiding concern of just war theory is that it is wrong to harm people, therefore it is wrong to harm people en masse, as we do in war. Thus, just war theory stems from the observation that aggression of all kinds requires justification, and the theory attempts to lay out the justification for acts of war. War is aggressive, and it harms and kills individuals as well as damages nations, and therefore we should take seriously the moral weight of the obligations to avoid it. The two principle realms that just war theory addresses are jus ad bellum (justified principles for entering war) and jus in bello (justified principles of conduct within war).

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