Breaking the rules of engagement

War is hell, as the old saying goes, but its fundamental rules of engagement have changed little over the centuries. Professor Henry Shue delved into the increasingly murky waters of modern warfare during a lecture at the Peace Palace in The Hague on August 31, 2016.

One of these rules, as Dr. Shue explained, is a simple one: ‘Don’t kill civilians.’ While countless nations and armies have broken this rule throughout the ages, it remains a cornerstone of international laws and treaties like the Geneva Conventions. But is there ever a scenario when it can, and should, be broken?

“Our capacity for making exceptions to rules is extremely valuable,” Dr. Shue said. “But there are also times when we must inhibit these exceptions.”

During his lecture, Dr. Shue examined philosophical notions of morality on the battlefield and circumstances when targeting non-combatants might be justifiable. For example, the killing of scientists trying to build a nuclear weapon. However, he contended that doing so should be considered an impossibly slippery slope. In the middle of a conflict, where decisions must often be made within a fraction of a second, it can be downright impossible for a soldier, or someone operating a drone from a remote location, to determine who can be considered a serious threat.

Once things like due process and the inability of non-combatants to defend themselves are taken into consideration, the situation becomes a complete moral quagmire. As Dr. Shue argued, it’s tough to justify this strategy when other options are available.

“There is more than one way to skin a military cat, so to speak,” he said.

Alternative strategies might prove less risky and destructive. They may also reduce the potential for ‘total war.’ This term is usually applied to conflicts where the rule book is tossed out the window entirely and military units on both sides become engaged in a terrifying free-for-all.

Dr. Shue was joined by Dr. M.J. van den Hoven and Dr. S.R.M. Miller from TU Delft

during a panel discussion after his lecture. It was the first of two events hosted by the university at the palace that examined technology and ethics. The second, which took place the following evening, featured a panel discussion on the topic of Artificial Intelligence and Human Values.

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