Graphic by Mike Petriano

The Ethics of Defense Technology Development: An Investor’s Perspective

AA great deal of ink has been spilled on activism inside tech companies regarding the ethics of doing business with the defense community. Much of the current debate within the U.S. technology community tends to frame the issues in binary terms: technologists have a choice — to participate in the “business of war” (as a recent letter by Google employees put it) and become complicit in war’s consequences, or to withdraw from work with the defense community completely. The tech community’s ambivalence regarding the defense sector is understandable. In the post-Cold War geopolitical environment, our collective memory of conflict (to the extent there is one) has too often been characterized by recent experiences of failed nation-building, unmet aspirations for globalization, and the rise of populism.

The Principle of Last Resort

“What is the evil in War? Is it the death of some who will soon die in any case, that others may live in peaceful subjection? This is mere cowardly dislike, not any religious feeling. The real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power and such like.” (Against Faustus, St. Augustine of Hippo)

The Principles of Discrimination and Proportionality

Where the use of force is necessary, Just War requires that it be deployed ethically and consistently with the principles of discrimination and proportionality. Discrimination deals with the determination of who is considered a legitimate target in war and proportionality deals with the concern of how much force is morally appropriate. These two principles are often discussed separately, but in the case of evaluating in the context of technology development it makes sense to discuss them in concert with one another. Defense technology can play an important role in enforcing these principles.

The Principles of Just Authority and Right Intent

“And thus the commonwealth comes by a power to set down what punishment shall belong to the several transgressions which they think worthy of it, committed amongst the members of that society, (which is the power of making laws) as well as it has the power to punish any injury done unto any of its members, by any one that is not of it, (which is the power of war and peace;) and all this for the preservation of the property of all the members of that society, as far as it is possible.” (Of Civil Government, John Locke)

Conclusion: If you want peace, you must prepare for war

Many in Silicon Valley hold the mistaken belief that if they and their counterparts withdraw from defense or weapons work, they can force a stoppage and bring about a peaceful equilibrium. There is a fundamental consideration that has been too little covered in this debate, however: What are the moral consequences of societies rooted in a Just War tradition refusing to invest in sophisticated defense technologies while authoritarian regimes invest aggressively in their development?

Trae Stephens is a Partner at Founders Fund, where he focuses on startups operating in the government space.

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