The ethics of weapon development: is killing ever ok?

Data from the Stockholm International Peace Institute shows that in 2014 alone, the sales of arms and military services from the 100 largest weapons companies totalled approximately $401 billion. This reflects the huge demand, constant advancement and high capital invested in this sector.

The creation and development of military technology would not be possible without the involvement of engineers and, although they themselves may not use the weapons they create, they still bear some responsibility for the consequences their creations have on the world once they are in the hands of others.

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What should we prioritise?

These engineers face a multitude of ethical dilemmas. The primary aim of their daily work is to maximise the capabilities of the weapon owners to cause direct physical harm to people and structures. On the surface this obviously goes against fundamental respect for life. However, from a utilitarian perspective the continued sustainment of a powerful military enables a country to defend its people as well as providing assistance in foreign conflicts that may be causing suffering for the population in that area, thereby doing the most good for the most people. For these reasons it is ethically understandable why an engineer may wish to facilitate the continued development of technologies of violence.

Alternatively, combining consequentialistic and deontological views one might argue that since production and development of a weapon is likely to result in loss of life somewhere down the line, all development and manufacture of weapons should be stopped, regardless of the reasons for their use. This would be the only option whereby infringements of the moral ‘rule’ against killing could be completely eliminated.

Looking at the example of Northrop, a U.S. jet-maker which designed the F-20 Tigershark in the late 1970’s, we can see that buyers of military technology generally prioritise the effectiveness and advancement of weapons over economic reasoning. Even though the F-20 was not the fastest or longest-range fighter, it was reliable, easy to fly and fairly cheap. However, the company did not manage to sell a single aircraft.

The scale of investment, paired with the pressure on companies to constantly advance their products, makes the weapons industry a lucrative and consistently interesting career prospect for engineers so inclined. This could provide the motives required for an engineer using a hedonistic ethical framework to seek employment in this sector, regardless of the wider effects of their labour. A different spin on this view can be found by considering that military force could be used to acquire resources and territory via conquest, thereby making the country’s population considerably richer, increasing personal pleasure for the citizens involved.

One positive aspect of weapon advancement is that automated and remotely controlled technologies have enabled countries to defend themselves with less human soldiers risking their lives. Conversely, this also implies that countries can fight wars with far less soldiers which could potentially have resulted in wealthier countries being more easily persuaded into engaging in conflicts. For example, it is generally politically much easier for a first world country’s government to replace destroyed weapons than human lives. On the other hand less developed countries that lack the money to buy the most advanced weapons have to defend their territories with more human lives on the line, although cultural differences between territories, especially those controlled by extremist regimes, mean that the political impact on the group in power caused by lives lost in war may vary.

Perceived threats and power competition between countries has perpetuated into widespread ‘arms races’ across the globe, resulting in sky high military budgets. Hypothetically, if the most world’s most influential nations (think the G-7, consisting of America, Germany, China, Japan, Russia, India and Saudi Arabia) agreed to halt the development of weapon technology, other less powerful nations may follow suit. Four of these seven nations are in the world top five for highest military spending, and the seven of them make up 61% of the world’s total. This is a significant sum of money, approximately $953 billion. Thinking even more idealistically, If 80% of the 2015 world military spending was saved ($1250 billion!), imagine how that could enrich the development of new solutions to combat some of the world’s challenges, such as the elimination of poverty, improvement of healthcare services and preservation of our environment. This would arguably improve more people’s lives, making it the best option from a utilitarian perspective. Costa Rica actually abolished its military forces for this reason.

For emergency situations like terror attacks, there could perhaps be a “safe stock” of weapons, owned collectively by the nations involved in the agreement in order to eliminate competition. This stock could be stored to be quickly distributed to the relevant forces, ensuring that such situations could be dealt with effectively. Weapons would still be manufactured, albeit at a much slower rate, but would not be developed further, reducing the threat of even more horrifying weapons being invented and misused.

On a different note, UK Home Office has previously stated that ‘A thriving security industry is vital to help cut crime and protect the public.’ Taking this into consideration, advancements in non-lethal weapons show promise in reducing the suffering created by violent situations. These arms are usually used for self-defence. They help minimise casualties and have applications in both domestic and international conflicts. For example, in a war environment many countries soldiers now use smaller, less lethal bullets resulting in greater accuracy for automatic weapons. This also reduces the number of enemy soldiers able to fight since two soldiers are required to carry a single injured soldier and there is a much greater inclination to retrieve a wounded comrade compared to a corpse.

With these advancements, infringements on the previously discussed moral ‘law’ against killing can be drastically reduced, perhaps allowing utilitarian priorities to take precedence. However, despite the vast reductions in fatalities, the question remains. Can any violent loss of life be considered acceptable?

35: Arthur Hutchinson, Prashant Jha, Kyriakos Petrou, Pui Mandy


6 thoughts on “The ethics of weapon development: is killing ever ok?

  1. Sure, it is great that there is a vast reduction in fatalities, more human lives are not killed. Hurray! However, what is the point of reducing the fatalities if the initial aim was to kill people? Lives are still being taken away, people are still losing their family members. It is not a question about the quantity, but about the objective of developing weapons. If you know that you will be building weapons to kill people, then why do you want to think of reducing it afterwards? I am not against the development of weapons as it is still important to have fire power for safety measurements, but just against the fact that countries always resort to war in the end if they cannot find an agreement. Why do we have to prove who is right or wrong through violence? Is violence the answer to everything?


  2. I think that one has to be realistic about the development of weapons and arms. In certain contexts casualties should be considered acceptable, but never condoned. Obviously in wartime one wishes for the most peaceful and diplomatic outcome possible, however when this is not achievable you have to understand that there are only so many options. Therefore I believe that violence can be considered “ok”, depending on the context.

    That being said, I do believe that the weapons industry’s spending should be drastically cut. As mentioned in the blog, over 60% of defense spending is made by only 7 countries. Coupled with the obscenely ridiculous defense budget that America has, you would think that this money could be better applied elsewhere. With many developed countries falling behind in health-care and education, and even larger problems facing developing and third-world countries, there are clearly more pressing matters that need the world’s attention right now.


  3. The moral questions involved in arms development falls on engineers in only a limited way. If an engineer decided not to engage in weapons manufacture, the weapons will ultimately still be made. If they are not made by one company, another will be contracted. If one country bans arms dealing, another country will step in to sweep up the reward. It is a basic principle of supply and demand that if the supply drops, the price will increase, encouraging more suppliers into the market. In such situations, it is much more effective to target demand.

    Clearly then, the primary responsibility for weapons development falls on end consumers. It is the responsibility of politicians and influential thinkers to adopt a more sensible and modern approach to defence spending and development. Furthermore, weapons exports to some of the world’s more despotic dictators should be more closely scrutinised. Any arms deals which are likely to do more harm than good must be aggressively challenged. Engineers have a very limited influence on this state of affairs, and if they are judged by a consequentialist utilitarian framework, their actions cannot be seen as significantly immoral. Instead, they must resort to their own judgment, as well as the deontological frameworks of their own culture and background.

    Whilst the ethical cycle has been used extremely deftly in this post, I would argue that the hedonistic framework is presented simplistically. Hedonism is not necessarily the same as selfishness. Rather, many hedonist thinkers would take into account pleasure from all stakeholders, as well as their suffering. In this sense, hedonism and utilitarianism are certainly not mutually exclusive. For example, Bentham’s Felicific calculus (a hedonistic analysis tool) would create a more nuanced interpretation of the engineer’s position, especially when considering the ‘extent’ of the action. Bentham would probably come to the same conclusion as the blog, if economic factors were to be considered in isolation. However, he more likely would have taken an overarching view, which would inevitably be dominated by the consideration of any resulting violence.

    On a more technical level, whilst it is true that weapons now employ smaller bullets, it is important to appreciate that this does little to relieve suffering on the battlefield. The primary motivation for a reduction in bullet size in recent decades is the payoff in terms of ‘firepower’. This refers to a soldier’s ability to unleash the largest possible number of projectiles. This makes modern small arms systems significantly more destructive overall. Additionally, modern weapons may result in more lethal wounds. The fact that bullets are lighter means that they travel faster than their predecessors, resulting in devastating terminal ballistics.

    Bullet manufacture has become increasingly suspect over recent decades, both legally and morally. Modern bullets are designed to expand, yaw and tumble, and induce hydrostatic shock. This, in spite of the fact that any bullets designed to expand on impact are illegal in war, under the Hague Convention of 1899. This shows that international law needs to be seriously reevaluated to meet the reality of modern small arms. Again, the law itself falls largely outside of the engineer’s remit, although engineers must be willing to act in an advisory capacity to the best of their ability. In fact, I feel that engineers have a moral obligation to actively inform any discussions. This would provide legislators with the best possible basis on which to build a new legal system controlling arms manufacture.


  4. From what I have understood from the article is that the continuous sustainment of a powerful military (which means the development of weapon) allows a developed country to defend its people or its neighbouring countries, therefore it does good for the people. On the other hand, as less developed countries are unable to purchase such weapons, they would have to defend themselves by risking human soldiers. The question is, does war, violence and killing still take place if weapons are not developed further?

    Back to the drawing board. If you were to take a closer look at the news, why are countries attacking each other in the first place? On one hand you may argue that a country attacks because it wants to put itself forward but on the other side of the spectrum, another might argue that they are attacking as a form of protecting their country. Who knows what is right? Definitely, ethically, killing is and will never be ok. But what we don’t realise or see is that there is so much one can do or control. If engineers decide not to go ahead with the development of weapons, weapons will still be developed. If some countries agree to abolish its military forces, others will not adhere to it. Even if the majority of countries decide to abolish its military forces, it brings you back to the first point- are you taking away the good the country has in protecting its people and neighbouring countries? What are the possibilities of surviving without a good defence team when a country is being attacked? There would most probably be a reason why countries who have the ability to spend, are spending so much on defence.

    On the surface, this might seem as a convenient way of pushing the blame game to engineers and its weapon development for the effects of violence. At the end of the day, violence and war all boil down to countries and people. If all countries can live cohesively with one another, there will not be a need for wars and violence. But you and I both know that it is a task deemed as impossible. As much as countries strive to maintain a good relationship with others, not every country has the same ethos. That being said, I feel that weapon development has very little to do with violence and killing.


  5. In my opinion, the abolition of mass destructive weapons is urgently needed to preserve humanitarian necessity. Weapon advancement in biological and chemical weapons should not be pursued any further. One of the positive aspects of weapon advancement is that less human soldiers risking their lives. But on the other hand, the killing would be more effective in elimination enemies. Every life counts! It is agreeable that smaller, less lethal weapons are used for self-defense, to help cut crime and protect the public. I fully support that world military spending should be used in more beneficial aspects such as reducing rich and poor gap in the world, development of new solutions in biology and preservation of our environment.


  6. I think a critical point has been missed. Human life is not the only thing to take into consideration. Even if weapons are being made less lethal, they still enable armies to take what they want by force rather than diplomacy, arguably causing much more widespread suffering to areas under their rule. The reduction in lethality seems to be more a strategic tool used to give advantage in violent conflict rather than a humanitarian measure adopted to reduce the death toll of war. Also the whole ‘shared armory’ idea seems rather far fetched. Realistically It would take far too long to distribute the weapons in an emergency situation.


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