A couple of days ago, I linked to this article on the Guardian website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/nov/19/killer-robots-banned-human-rights. I suggested in my comment that ‘Killer robots should be banned’ is about as unambiguously right as any moral statement gets. I added, in a rather combative fashion, that anyone who disagreed was probably approaching robothood themselves. Although the link and accompanying comment were ‘liked’ by a lot of my friends, they quite rightly also prompted a flurry of responses arguing that things were, in fact, more complicated than that. It was pointed out that it could well turn out that ‘autonomous’ drones could be better at discriminating military targets from civilian ones, that they avoided risking the lives of troops on one’s own side, and that the language of ‘killer robots’ (note the inverted commas in the Guardian headline) was highly emotive and already assumed a moral position, putting us in mind of the 38th governor of California on the rampage.
I was, of course, being deliberately inflammatory and facetious in my comment. I don’t believe that the friends who made these very sensible points are robots, and I admit that there are complexities to this debate which my comments knowingly overlooked. There is a background to this: over the preceding days, I had been extremely (some would say excessively) upset about the situation in Gaza, to the point of insomnia. In particular, I was depressed about the way events were being covered by the British media, particularly by the BBC. The general approach seemed to be that, because of the massive complexity of the situation, and because there was suffering on both sides, it would be wrong to cover the unfolding story with anything other than a ‘neutral’ stance, that treated the wrongs of both sides as equally reprehensible and held back from ‘taking sides’. This seems to me to be wrong, both conceptually in the idea of what neutrality or impartiality consist in, and ethically in the wilful blindness to domination, oppression and inequality, and the way that such blindness compounded the wrong being done to the Palestinian people.
Ten years ago I was the victim of an assault on a quiet street late on an evening, and was forced to fight off my assailant, who was a great deal larger than me, and who was attempting to physically invade my body. Witnessing such a situation, nobody with any compassion would either shout at us both to stop it, tell me that my situation could only be remedied if I stopped struggling, or simply ignore the situation on the basis that they are ignorant of the complexities or history that led up to what was happening. Once again, I am being inflammatory. People could point out that this is a poor analogy, that a nation is not a person, that Israeli civilians are suffering when they are not directly responsible for what is happening, and so on. It might also be said that it is disrespectful to women to bring the example of sexual violence into the debate in this way, rather as comparisons to Hitler trivialise the suffering and death that he caused.
I hold up my hands to this, but I am not merely offering an analogy to be held up and examined for structural similarities that could lead us to a conclusion of ethical parity or disparity. What I am trying to do is to evoke, rather than explain, the simplicity and clarity that one has to adopt in situations of extreme violence, invasion and victimhood. The fact of immediate threat and oppression may not make the victim or the observer blind to any complexities of the situation – with a decade acting as a soft buffer between myself and the past, I often reflect on the fact that my attacker probably had a very unpleasant childhood and clearly had a serious drug problem – but when the assault is taking place, these issues have to be overlooked: for the victim this is a demand of immediate necessity, and for the witness it is a demand of compassion based on the recognition of that necessity.
We could say that the two situations are nothing like each other, and that we should not draw any comparisons of this kind, but to go down this road is in danger of leaving us morally paralysed, as I suspect the BBC are right now. Nothing, in history or in current experience, is exactly like the situation of the Palestinian people. As a comfortable middle-class person in Western Europe, I have incredibly little comprehension of what it must be like. But it is only through interaction and engagement with the particular and the familiar that we can have any sort of compassion at all for people in situations very different from our own. We abstract from the particular, in a more or less fine-grained way, towards an attitude of care and compassion for those whose particular experiences differ greatly from our own. This is the ancient concept of agape, a love found towards one’s fellows that is able to transcend the particular and extends to a love of humanity. This is an extremely different thing from the abstractions of analogical reasoning, and without it any theoretical abstraction in ethics or politics would be empty words.
What does this have to do with the killer robots? It is about the nature of taking a moral stance. Frege described the act of judgment as making a leap. In the case of moral and political judgments, it is a leap from our safe cosy comfortable ‘neutral’ stance and the false sense of superiority that it gives us, towards an engagement with the messy, screwed-up reality of things. This necessarily involves a certain focus: the reality is messy and screwed-up, but compassion demands that we throw down the gauntlet and describe robots that kill people as ‘killer robots’. We have to make these sorts of judgments with emotion and conviction, despite the knowledge that things are very complicated, that we will never have a full or complete understanding of the situation, that sometimes we will be battling alongside those whose own motives we might question, and that it could turn out that we were wrong. A leap need not be a blind one: we should spend some time looking at the size of the chasm to be leapt, and what is on the other side, but eventually a leap must be made, in full knowledge and full ignorance of the nagging voices from both sides of the debate.
One motivation for the particular judgment in this case is that the development of ‘autonomous’ killer technology is itself a failure to make such a commitment, and an attempt to hold moral responsibility at a distance. The unmanned drones currently in use are the subject of much debate of this kind – the remoteness of the operators is said to give them a sense of distance and unreality, and a lessened moral responsibility. This debate has been going on for hundreds of years: the invention of the crossbow prompted debates about whether there could be just conduct in wars where people could be attacked from such long distances, and where the attacker was often safely shielded behind a stone fortification, firing through an embrasure, a narrow slit of a window that allows the arrow out and nothing in. The Catholic Church ruled, tellingly, that such technology could be used against ‘heathens’, but not against fellow Christians. Reel forward through the centuries and similar things were being said about guns, and much later about the cutely nicknamed ‘doodlebugs’, the sinister flying bombs pioneered by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. I don’t say this to undermine the current arguments about drones – quite the opposite, I think there has been a general movement through the centuries toward more remote forms of warfare which have pushed the gap between victim and assailant ever further apart – but I think that the current research into ‘autonomous’ weaponry presents us with a difference of kind, not just one of degree. In all the former cases, the decision to kill has been made easier and less involved, but it is still a decision that a person makes. In this case, the very question of life and death is moved out of human hands, into those of an unconscious mechanical killer that is everything but autonomous in the most meaningful senses of the word. To develop and employ such warfare is to present a hideous caricature of keeping one’s hands clean at the expense of one’s very humanity.
‘man finds himself in an organised situation in which he is himself involved: his choice involves mankind in its entirety, and he cannot avoid choosing’ – Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism.