Fellows
rnComputers and War
rnAlex Leveringhaus joins Oxford for the next three years

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Alex Leveringhaus, currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Advanced Study »Justitia Amplificata« based at the Goethe-University Frankfurt and of the Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften, will join the University of Oxford as a post-doctoral researcher this summer. Alex, who specialises in practical philosophy and wrote his PhD thesis on just war theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science, will be part of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC), one of the leading centres for peace and conflict research in the English-speaking world. At ELAC, he will work on the ethical and legal implications of computer-aided weapons and targeting systems. His research project will be financed by the Dutch Ministry of Defence. It will be run in cooperation with the philosophy faculty of Delft University of Technology, NL, and its prestigious Centre for Ethics and Technology. The project leader will be the well-known Oxford ethicist David Rodin, who was, in 2011, named as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in Davos.

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The project, says Alex, is more than timely. Largely hidden from the public, military technology has developed rapidly over the last couple of years. Modern computer technologies, which allow unprecedented capabilities to control the delivery of military force, are about to be developed and, in some cases, are actually already in use. As a result, the image of war, still prevalent in many popular and philosophical discussions, is becoming increasingly outdated. For instance, contrary to Michael Walzer’s assumption that soldiers confront each other as moral equals who pose a direct threat to each other, tomorrow’s combatants will be based at command and control centres where they survey a certain area via video screens, make decisions about a certain course of action with the help of computer-based decision systems, at the push of a button, carry out specific military acts, and, to exaggerate somewhat, join their families for dinner afterwards. The use of drone technology illustrates the point. Although drones were initially used in order to gather intelligence, they are nowadays also used to carry out targeted killings of alleged terrorists, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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Generally, the technological developments of the last twenty years, says Alex, have important legal and ethical implications, which have to be further scrutinised in philosophical discussion. In particular, the research project will assess how far current legal and ethical frameworks for the regulation of military force are applicable to computer-based targeting systems. For Alex, technological developments will affect how we think about war and peace in the future and how we regulate, ethically and legally, the use of force. More specifically, Alex’s work will focus on the perspective of those who operate computer-aided targeting systems. In this context, he will engage with the exciting field of moral psychology, which, in recent years, has attracted considerable attention in the English-speaking philosophical world. How does computer technology affect the moral perception of certain situations? To what extend does it impact on the moral agency of those who use it? Since these questions have hardly been tackled in the current debate over just war theory, the research project is particularly attractive to Alex. It should, he thinks, make an original contribution to the literature.

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Alex is especially keen on two sets of questions. First, it needs to be clarified, he says, who should be held legally and morally responsible for military actions that were carried with the aid of computer-based targeting technology. The danger, according to Alex, is that, especially in cases where moral and legal norms were violated, »individual actors will evade responsibility«. Such a scenario is, for the ethicist, just unacceptable. Second, it needs to be discussed how individuals who are not directly engaged in hostilities can be adequately protected from the effects of the use of force. The technological advances in targeting technology can easily lead to the illusion that it is relatively simple to protect non-combatants. But Alex is sceptical in this regard. If one looks at the use of new weapons systems in recent conflicts (Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya), it seems, he says, that risks have been reduced for ordinary combatants, while they have remained stable, or have, in some cases, even increased, for non-combatants. This is a worrying development that warrants critical scrutiny.

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But the project, Alex thinks, should also open up new perspectives on the use of computers in non-military contexts. Computers nowadays play a key role in most developed societies, and this has important legal and ethical implications that we are only beginning to address. Alex hopes that some of his findings will act as an impulse for a boarder academic and political debate about the use of computer technology.

(FKH - 02.04.2012)