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.
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