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Ambivalence on Ethically Challenging Research

I'm the middle of one of those research projects I feel obligated to do, but at the time can't bring myself to feel entirely passionate about. There really is nothing that brings out ambivalence in me like ethics and cyber-warfare. First and foremost, I am no big fan of war, warfare, or the military broadly construed. For that reason alone, the ethics of war should be a topic of great interest. If it's the case that person most fit for office is the one who wants it least, then the best war ethicist should be an absolute pacifist. Think about it this way: what would war ethics look like according to Genghis Khan or Napoleon? I think Atlanta still wakes up in hots sweats over Sherman's ideas about conducting a just war.

Of course, when you actually have to think about the ethics of just war, you have to confront the realist/idealist problem. War is awful and nothing good comes of it (anyone who says otherwise has way too much invested to be unbiased), so the most just war is the one we avoid. In a perfect world, there'd be no armed conflict. Unfortunately, our world is somewhat far from the best imaginable world even if Leibniz is right and it's the best possible one. As such, it feels worse than useless to devote space to an ethics of war that begins and ends with a norm against engaging in armed conflict. Even if it's right, it'll be too readily drowned out by warfare-apologists who give the status quo more room to operate even if it would be better for all humanity for the military-industrial complex to close up shop immediately.

So, what's the ethical course for a would-be war ethicist? First, a healthy dose of realism: just as there is war, there is good philosophical thinking about it. Just War Theory has a long tradition of outlining the framework for a conducting something that could be called an ethical war. Second, a healthy dose of idealism: even if the norm is demanding, a strong argument has force. If there's a general consensus that doing a particular thing turns a justified actor into a malicious actor, there will be a need to address that consensus before crossing the line. It may not prevent the pushing of the button, but it gives sanity and reason one more chance to prevail.

Finally, focus on what happens when things go wrong because that's what will happen. I can say lots of things about the ethics of cyber-conflict, but the most useful things I could say concern how to remain a justified actor in a world of malicious actors. What are the responsibilities of the defender with regard to remaining ethical when the opponent has forsaken ethics? I feel generally ambivalent about "sinking to their level" arguments, but I do think that in the moment where you confront an immediate moment of injustice, you learn something important about yourself. What choices are made beyond that moment will determine who you are and how you evaluate yourself, so it's important to have some clear choices in view. If I can contribute a picture of a just reactions to malicious actors, then I offer something that is both useful and a step in the right direction.

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