Engineering arms. Is there an ethical leg to stand on?

As an engineer in the UK, one of the many well-paid jobs available is to become a weapons or munitions engineer. The UK is the second largest arms exporter in the world and some of the countries it exports to are “human rights priority countries”.

While some of these arms will be used for just causes, it is likely that some will be used immorally and will cause injury or death to innocents.

Is it therefore morally acceptable for an engineer in the UK to contribute in design and manufacture of arms when the end use is not always known?

It is morally indefensible for an engineer in the UK to work in a job that contributes to the manufacturing of arms

The arms trades are significantly influenced by the drive for profits and as such manufacturers that are left unchecked will exploit commercial opportunity to the detriment of ethical consideration. According to research undertaken by Transparency International, the arms trade accounts for 49% of corruption in all world trade.

Engineers working in this industry are complicit in any unethical use of arms that are sold by the company for which they work.

In 2015, United Kingdom sold weapons to 21 of the Foreign Office’s 30 “human rights priority countries” – those identified by the government as being where “the worst, or greatest number of, human rights violations take place” . Saudi Arabia was included in that list, a country that has been committing war crimes in Yemen – nearly 500 civilians were killed by Saudi artillery between June 2015 and June 2016.

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A responsible engineer should consider the positive and negative effects of their actions on any stakeholders of any moral problem, before deciding if their actions are morally acceptable. In this case stakeholders include the people/country/group on which the arms could potentially be used.

Evidently, if some weapons are being exported to countries with poor human rights records, it is possible, or even likely that this group of people will include innocents.

It is unlikely that an engineer will have full knowledge of the destination of the arms in question, however engineers should not assume that companies they work for conduct their business around a robust moral framework. Much of the time this is likely to not be the case. For most companies, the primary motivation for doing business is one of greed. This means that a morally responsible engineer should thoroughly evaluate the morals of any work they may undertake in a prospective job before they accept the job offer.

That being the case, it is unacceptable for an engineer to claim ignorance, or pass blame onto decision makers should he or she carry out work for a company that knowingly practices business that is unethical.

Therefore, in the likely case that the engineer is unaware of the final use of any arms that he or she may help to manufacture or develop, the morally correct course of action would be to abstain from performing any work to aid the manufacture of such arms on the basis that they could potentially be used to cause harm to innocents.

 In light of the possibility that working for an arms producing company in the UK could help contribute to the corrupt sale of arms for unethical means, when judged against any of the ethical frameworks, it is evident that the ethical decision would be to not work for arms producing companies.

It is morally acceptable for an engineer in the UK to work in a job that contributes to the manufacture of arms

If carried out correctly, the engineering of weapons and munitions can be looked upon as a morally ethical task. For instance, reducing the misuse of weaponry lowers the risk of collateral damage through more carefully designed systems. Adding safeguards to the weapons and maintaining the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) would not only prevent misuse of weapons sold by individual parties, it would also reduce weapons access to hostile countries. There is also an element of trust that needs to be taken into consideration. Having faith that the government’s moral views are in line with your own adds to one’s own assurance that the actions undertaken by those in possession of the weapons are acceptable. People in power of weapons, including the government and independent weapons manufacturing companies, have strict rules and guidelines to follow. Adhering to them will help keep the public safe especially when the weapons are developed to defend freedom and liberty rather than using it as an opportunity to make profit, which in that case, would be immoral.

There are many stakeholders to be considered in scenarios such as this. These include the persons using the weapon, our allies, those who are targets of said weapons and any innocent bystanders made collateral. Those using the weapons need to have confidence in the fact that the weapons are safe to use for themselves and understand any effects the weapons may have. Extensive knowledge of the weapons capabilities would help the determine the exact outcome when used. Our allies entrust us with their safety by and rely on us to continuously improve our arsenal to keep up or even stay ahead of the ever-expanding threats from countries hostile to us and our allies. There are strict rules as to what weapons can be used on enemy combatants and it is the engineer’s’ responsibility to comply with these protocols.

It is vital that advancements be continuously made in the field of weaponry. This will lead to improved accuracy and concise lethality which will swiftly deal with scenarios where innocents are at risk of getting hurt. Increasing our knowledge and understanding of the systems allows for a safer and more reliable use. In a utopian world where the line between ambition and greed doesn’t overlap and mindless acts of terror isn’t an issue, the concept of a weapons free world would easily be accepted.

The targets sanctioned by the government for elimination are deemed moral whereas innocents targeted by rogue factions are not moral. Through engineering munitions and weapons, we can improve the accuracy of the weapons and reduce collateral damage. The ways in which enemy combatants are taken down are also conducted in a somewhat humane manner having come a long way since the days of mustard gases thanks to the Geneva Protocol of 1925 (effects of mustard gas can be seen below).

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There are already measures in place to make this case as moral as possible. Engineers need to remember that they carry a part of the responsibility and cannot simply pass it on.

Group 41: Archie Judd, Zhenping Pan, Clydrex Katahena, Reginald James

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8 thoughts on “Engineering arms. Is there an ethical leg to stand on?

  1. The paper poses some important questions in respect to the designers and engineers who are complicit within the trade of arms. However, the reader is left wholly lost in the debate for many of the larger themes are disregarded, with the themes mentioned not taking into account the larger moral context. This subsequently leaves the piece an insufficient debate, let alone a platform for one to come to an individual conclusion. The wider context necessitates a definition of morality itself. Any engineer involved in the process of making weapons intended for the destruction of human life is complicit in murder. The definition of which, if left ambiguous, is the intention of ending human life. One must question whether the engineering of weapons in any context, whether corrupt, anti-human rights, or completely legitimate and in accordance with human rights law is moral. Making weapons could be deemed immoral in any context.
    While the ending paragraph of section one deals with this wider context, it is not sufficiently dealt with, leaving ‘morality’ left undefined. The authors may want to ask themselves: is killing in any context moral? Once this is answered, the subsequent specific themes and points would yield far more sufficient conclusions.

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  2. I think a key point is that the potential moral acts by engineers working in the arms industry aren’t going to be matched by the people who receive the arms. If the UK stopped supplying arms to those using them ‘unethically’ they will just source the weapons elsewhere, and no doubt these weapons will be more unreliable and result in more collateral damage. While quitting your job as a weapons engineer might satisfy your own moral code it isn’t going to save lives.

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  3. Engineering Arms – is there an ethical leg to stand on?

    The arms industry attracts the greedy, corrupt and ungodly. It is unrealistic to suggest that it can be eliminated however, whilst men and nations stock up their armouries in the name of protectionism and aggression.

    Governments and acknowledged organisations such as NATO have the responsibility to set out and police legal arms trade guidelines but there will always be criminal and terrorist organisations who seek to trade in arms illegally thus enabling distribution to the lowest and most insidious elements of society.

    Pacifists and conscientious objectors will take issue with ‘some of these arms will be used for just causes’. The sixth of Moses’ Ten Commandments ‘Thou Shalt not Kill’, is instruction enough for some to condemn weaponry and all those associated with it to the moral dustbin.

    However, the need for deterrents, such as the Trident missile programme, is a fact of life. The approval of going to war by elected Governments is a fact of life, thus the development of arms is also a fact of live. The ethics and practicalities have to be left to those in power, along with the responsibility to police the illegal trade and activities of the illegal arms trade. It is those in power who must shoulder the ethical burden of the continued design and production of modern weaponry.

    Engineering students are unlikely to choose to study engineering because of an ambition of to design weaponry. It is unfair to burden the humble engineer with the ethics, he will have a career to pursue and a need for employment which he deserves. The engineer is not the one who pulls the trigger or is part of the decision process to do so.

    If asked whether he would have launched the World Wide Web knowing how the use of it enables terrorists and criminals to ply their trade, Sir Tim Berners-Lee would undoubtedly say yes he would. Although he cannot be held responsible for the acts of criminals, he can influence governments and organisations on the ethics of policing the internet. Likewise, engineers cannot be held responsible for the design and production of arms; they can, however, influence those who commission them.

    There is no doubt that there is a wide-ranging debate to be had over the ethics of engineering arms but I say leave the engineers out of it.

    J Curtoys 20 April 2017

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  4. The arms industry has also been known as the defence industry, which appears to be a more respectable name to some. There is the question that would there be wars if we did not manufacture weapons or is it the wars that creates demand for weapons. Once weapons are being manufactured there is always the chance that they would be used, to kill fellow humans.
    Greed is always at the centre. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has said that the global arms trade has risen to its highest level since the end of the Cold War,
    The demand for ever improving, more sophisticated weapons is fuelled by the greed of rebels, governments and organised crime world. Treaties and safeguards are not likely stop the arms trade. With the ever increasing demand, the engineer must not be the cynosure of ethicists. Is it enethical to work for the defence industry? No. If targets sanctioned by governments for elimination are deemed moral and the engineer does not decide who the weapons are sold to, then it is morally right for engineers in the UK to work in a company that contributes to the manufacture of weapons (the defence industry)

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  5. Even “ethical engineering” jobs like manufacturing green technology still have their downsides which can have knock on effects. E.g. dams cutting off fish migration leading to famine, mass flooding upstream after its construction and downstream if the dam bursts; displacement of houses to make room for a wind farm; devastation of oyster beds for tidal barrages.

    The engineers who contribute to the building of a dam might not consider the risk they’ve put the valley inhabitants in but does that become immoral?

    Even food/drink manufacture can cause the spread of drought and famine by overuse of ground water supply – potentially a much larger danger than a missile strike. Where do you draw the line?

    So long as the work goes into increasing accuracy and reducing the time it takes for the victims to die and not the opposite, I’m all for it, the more the merrier.

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  6. Designing arms in my opinion should depend on the intent of its use. Governments of every country has the obligation to be prepared to defend its people, that is where I believe arms should be used as a means of defence. I trust, that is, the intent of every engineer designing arms. Though weapons can be used negatively, the ethical obligation should not fall on the engineer but the users.

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  7. This is a very difficult and controversial issue, but I believe that engineers who develope weapon systems have a responsibility for the use of their design. This responsibility is higher than their counterparts who work in many other areas like electronics or oil refinery.
    The weapons can notoriously find its way into the hands of irresponsible operators.
    It’s important that engineers who work for weapon manufacturers understand what rules,regulations and measures as well as restrictions are in place. Though this information may be difficult to obtain it will be a step in the right direction at holding manufacturers accountable.

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  8. Weapons will always find their way into the wrong arms regardless due to the greed that exists in the world. Weapons engineers are not to be held accountable as I’m sure their intentions are to provide the weapons for organisations responsible in dealing with such.

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