Seeking the Best Algorithm for Ethical War Crimes

Most realists understand the meaning of the proverb “all’s fair in love and war.” The judgment of war crimes that sometimes takes place after the end of a war typically falls upon the losers. If “all is fair” for human actors, who are at least theoretically accountable, what will be deemed fair for warfare conducted by AI.

OSAKA, JAPAN – SEPTEMBER 26 2016: Human Size T-800 Endoskeleton Model from the Terminator 3D in Universal Studios japan © Sarunyu L / shutterstock.com

August 02, 2023 07:30 EDT

In times of war, every concerned citizen should wonder what politicians and the military themselves see as acceptable constraints on their action. These are the people who make the decisions thanks presumably to their serious understanding of the stakes and their commitment to the common good.

AI brings in a new dimension. Because most people believe that AI has been designed to make rational decisions following an algorithmic understanding of priorities, when those decisions resemble a war crime, no human can be blamed for the result. The very notion of accountability, which is at the core of every ethical system, disappears. You can’t blame the person who created the algorithm because their intention was not criminal. You can only blame the agent who created the conditions that produced the war crime. But the agent in the case of AI is an abstraction.

So, how do we reconcile three disparate and potentially conflicting forces: the extremely pragmatic notion of military efficacy, the far more abstract idea of ethical standards and the supposed rationality of AI?

According to the Washington Post one high-ranking officer believes that there isn’t much to debate in the US because this is a “Judeo-Christian society.”

When asked about the Pentagon views on autonomous warfare, 3-star General Richard G. Moore Jr., the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, offered this explanation at a Hudson Institute event in July. “Regardless of what your beliefs are, our society is a Judeo-Christian society, and we have a moral compass. Not everybody does. And there are those that are willing to go for the ends regardless of what means have to be employed.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Moral compass:

Similar to an actual compass, a tool that points in one direction and continues to do so, even when the person who claims to possess it turns around and engages in activities that point in the opposite direction.

Contextual note

Moore’s rhetoric is revealing. He begins his assertion with what has become an obligatory nod to inclusivity, “regardless of what your beliefs are.” This permits him to acknowledge the full range of religious or even anti-religious thought permitted by the US Bill of Rights before affirming what he considers a fundamental truth: “our society is a Judeo-Christian society, and we have a moral compass.”

Just as the Supreme Court has stated that corporations are people based on the 19th century idea that commercial companies should be considered “moral persons,” Moore believes that even a multicultural, democratic society has a moral identity. That presumably means that it is accountable for its actions, as any moral being must be.

But Moore’s thinking takes it one step further. Not only does the US have a moral identity and can be thought of as a moral unit in which everyone shares responsibility for its actions. It also possesses a “moral compass.” Dictionary.com defines this as “an internalized set of values and objectives that guide a person with regard to ethical behavior and decision-making:” Various commentators compare it to the Augustinian idea of “conscience.” But conscience, just like consciousness, is a concept that defies clear philosophical definition even when focused on personal decision-making. Both refer to an individual’s system of perception and imply subjectivity. Neither can be applied to collective entities. For that reason, no one has successfully theorized the idea of a corporation, a nation or any other collective entity having a moral compass beyond the idea of a code of conduct or a mission statement. 

When describing the collective sharing or harmonizing of anything that impinges on perception, anthropologists and sociologists prefer to describe what they call “core values” of cultures. But those values  should not be confused with moral or ethical principles. The rather contestable idea of a “Judeo-Christian” culture has little to do with an ethical framework and more to do with vaguely formulated political and economic assumptions. 

The Judeo-Christian reference implicitly evokes the two “Testaments” of the Bible, the first, in Hebrew, describing political events with a strong emphasis on war, the second, in Greek, proposing a view that negates power politics in favor of universal spiritual principles. Moore’s reasoning is clearly closer to the Old Testament’s than the Christian Gospel. His moral compass is clearly a set of explicit rules or laws rather than internalized ethical principles that define and structure human bonds.

Moore draws a distinction between his nation, the US, “who plays by the rules of warfare” from any other nation that doesn’t. Here he is undoubtedly thinking of China, whose culture is so obviously  different. “There are societies that have a very different foundation than ours,” he reminds us, in case we weren’t paying attention. 

All anthropologists would agree with that statement, but they would draw an entirely different conclusion. Moore clearly implies that because his nation purportedly possesses a moral compass, those that are “different” do not. That means they are not just the enemy, but that, lacking our compass, they are morally deficient. Ultimately, this means — as any military officer must assume — that problems related to morality can only be resolved through force.

Historical note

Anyone familiar with the military history of the US might be left wondering about the workings of a Judeo-Christian moral compass in the past. Always acting officially in the name of ensuring “defense,” that history has produced a long series of unjustified wars, even in remote parts of the world. It has resulted in the killing and displacement of millions of people as well as destabilizing and impoverishing entire regions. In what direction was the compass pointing when those events were taking place?

All of these decisions in the remote or recent past were made by morally responsible – but, alas, rarely accountable – human beings. They had identifiable names, like McNamara, Johnson, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush, Clinton and many others. Some of them, such as McNamara, ended up admitting their lack of a moral compass. Most preferred, at best, to avow their flawed assessment of the reality on the ground. Their critics and any number of  serious historians at least have the satisfaction of being able to consult the archives, examine their discourse and actions and recount facts of history attributable to identifiable persons. They may even go further in their analysis and identify ideological groupings — such as the current race of neo-conservatives — that point to shared responsibilities for both mistakes and crimes.

In most cases, identifying responsibility fails to lead to accountability. That is because the class of decision-makers has sealed itself off from the mechanisms of accountability. When President Barack Obama was asked about pursuing those guilty of war crimes or even domestic spying in the previous administration, he argued that it was time to look forward rather than backward. No subsequent administration would ever have considered holding Obama accountable for the still continuing disaster his policy led to in Libya or Syria.

This sad state of affairs is frustrating for those who take an interest in justice. But the knowledge that responsibility can be attributed to specific people is in some minimal ways comforting. It actually helps us collectively to define not so much a moral compass as a moral horizon.

With AI, the rules of the game have changed. The risk exists that, when new and even more extreme war crimes are committed thanks the greater “efficiency” of artificial intelligence, journalists and historians will have no one to hold responsible for political mistakes and war crimes that could take place on a much larger scale. Algorithms will never be held accountable. But neither will they even be identifiable as the source of devastating evils.

Moore explained what he called the “foundation” of his comments when he claimed that the Air Force will not “allow AI to take actions, nor are we going to take actions on information provided by AI unless we can ensure that the information is in accordance with our values.” He then asserted that this “is not anticipated to be the position of any potential adversary.”

Moore made his initial statement in response to a question about “autonomous warfare.” Autonomous weapons are ones that make decisions on their own thanks to the sophisticated technology and algorithms that define their “intelligence.” Moore seems to believe that “our AI” will be taught to submit all its decisions to Judeo-Christian ethicists before any action will be taken. Given the errors and sins of the historical personalities who, because they had a name and a position, theoretically could have been held accountable, what kind of errors and sins can we expect from more potentially extreme and catastrophic propositions by the nameless algorithms of AI? 

Should we simply blame the collective Judeo-Christian culture for the crimes?

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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