PTE Madison Sage

War and asymmetrical morality: an exploration of how the ethical systems of different cultures can become a tactical consideration in warfare and conflict escalation.

There have been endless wars waged across the ages, and though the conditions of conflict may change, ultimately all wars are brought to the same state. All have an equaliser, a rule of warfare that exists outside of any that we may dictate, a rule of the nature of warfare itself: that despite intention, despite method, despite all those factors within humanity’s realm of control, war is a design of destruction. And so, we, perhaps in our ignorance, apply rules. Thus, military ethics as a concept is born. But ethics itself is a complex concept, especially when introduced into the environment of war, and is heavily influenced by factors such as culture. This essay will attempt to describe the complex relationship that exists between the ethics applied to warfare and culture, and investigate the effects of such concepts on military tactics and the escalation of conflict.

The purpose of ethics and morality is to distinguish right from wrong, providing an individual and societal compass (Singer, 2022). In terms of societal importance, rather than simply providing a basis for decision making on an individual level, ethics provides greater harmony, allowing large groups of humans to live together, and improve the way in which they live (Lindsay, 2010). Despite often being used interchangeably, ethics and morals are different, though related, concepts. Morals are defined as a person’s ideas based on their desire to do good. Thus, ethics are derived from moral concepts, being a set of rules defining allowable behaviour (Ethics vs. Morals: What's The Difference?, 2022). Ethics can be in the form of a loose and assumed moral code that most of society agrees to, or can be a set code, as in ‘professional ethics’ or ‘legal ethics’, which tend to be heavily detailed and designed for the purpose of enforcing (ethics, no date). The beginnings of ethics as a philosophical subject can be traced back to the Greeks, with Socrates who began to challenge and criticise conventional beliefs (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, no date; The Editors of Encyclopaedia, 2021). However, when discussing the foundations of ethics, it is important to note that morality and general ethical systems within societies is not a purely human construct in itself. Rowlands (2012) argues that animals are ‘moral subjects’. Ghose (2012) notes that psychologist Hal Herzog suggests that while there is an appearance of moral codes, or at least an order observed in groups of wild animals, their ‘moral’ system and acts serve a purpose, in which they are consequence driven. He states that animals do not ‘reason about morality’, with human ethical systems integrating that which is more ‘arbitrary’, established in language and culture instead.

This is important when taking into consideration the nature of ethics, and the goals they are designed to achieve. The baser instincts of animals are to develop a system that promotes survivability and consequence (Ghose, 2012). With the argument that animals do harbour morals to some extent, it is reasonable to assume that our own predisposition to do so must therefore go beyond our ancestors’ implementation of exploring and applying ethical philosophy to societal function, but is also ingrained with the original intent to create an environment of higher survivability through greater harmony. Thus, perhaps there is an instinct where humanity desires on a greater scale to create rules to protect itself. And this becomes especially prevalent to consider when it comes to warfare ethics.

War is a human phenomenon. And an extraordinarily destructive one at that. Developing a system of rules determining what is acceptable in warfare is necessary, lest the conflict get out of hand. But how do we dictate war? We can attempt to go forth with the intention to apply logic, and only logic, to the environment of war to develop a set of rules, but it considers only what is correct in terms of known facts (Corcoran, 1989). Thus, it has limitations that mean it cannot properly describe war.  Logic suffers from the truth that it is too much a clinical practice, and is exempt from the human element that must be considered in warfare. For a viable system of structure in warfare, we must combine that which is ‘logical’ to that which logic does not describe: the human element of emotion. But the entry of ethics again complicates matters, as what is deemed ethical is subjective. Ethics is, in some ways, a more volatile system because it encompasses a greater number of unknown variables: not only one must do what one perceives as logical, but this is further complicated by an individual’s moral codes, and what is perceived as moral by that individual’s counterparts. No longer is a course of action viable simply because it achieves ends, but there is a new test: whether it should be done; weighing necessity and ethical choices. And so, we endeavour to apply this concept of ethics to warfare.

Ethical systems are based heavily on cultural tendencies. (Cancian, 2017; Hu, Yu and Peng, 2018; Mustamil, 2010). Shared culture is an important factor in the profession of arms, as it allows a group to work cohesively to achieve common goals (Greene et al., 2010). Ethical systems are reliant on interpretation and the need for those who adhere to the system to be preconditioned in the certain way of thinking that aligns with the intent and goal of the ethical boundaries. If one is not well versed, or attuned to this way of thinking, or the environment forces a dramatic change in moral perception/compass (psychological trauma etc) the ‘guidelines’ that ethical structures outline ultimately can produce very different results.

The Australian Defence Force (hereafter ADF) defines its ethical code in its ADF Philosophical Doctrine, the purpose of which is to define acceptable behaviour and expectations for ADF members. The doctrine primarily references the Just War Theory, which outlines what is needed for a just war: just cause, authority, intention, chance of success, and proportionality (Moseley, no date). This is supplemented by three other philosophical theories: Natural Law, which examines intent and reasonableness; Duty Ethics, which encompasses whether an act is ‘right’ in itself; and Virtue Ethics, which is based on character and what a person is aiming to be. The ADF however, does not subscribe to the Consequentialist Theory, which only considers outcomes of an act, or Ethical Relativism, which argues that there is no objective moral truth (Malcolm, 2022). The foundation of the ADF’s theories is based on the value placed on life and limiting the cost of war. This is further solidified by the ‘values’ of the ADF that members are expected to uphold: Service, Courage, Respect, Integrity, and Excellence (Cox, 2020). The ethics of the ADF are therefore designed with the intention to reduce suffering and the scale of warfare to make as minimal impact in terms of disruption as possible. And this is determined more so by the culture of the ADF than those overarching ethical systems. Other ethical constructs, as observed in different parts of the world, adopt similar rules on a superficial level, but culturally are designed more to promote winning a war, heedless of the cost.

Furthermore, on a broader scope of tactics of conflicts, actions taken during warfare are more enlightening when it comes to determining variations in military ethics. We can easily establish that while there are standards that attempt to govern and enforce the rules of warfare on an international scale, such as the law of armed conflict, creating such a harmonious system is unreasonable. The question of “what are acceptable tactics?” varies greatly across time, conflicts, and cultures. We can observe this through actions and applied warfare tactics, and it becomes obvious that different cultures, nations and groups harbour very different ideas about what is acceptable in war. Cancian (2017) discusses this from the modern standpoint, noting that in general, Western societies find the practice of using suicide warriors a despicable practice, while other groups, like Radical Islamists, not only use such tactics, but interpret the Koran  (religious text of Islam) in such a way as to find them commendable. A somewhat controversial standpoint in Western culture due to cultural constraints, he argues that for groups lacking sophisticated technology, such attacks could be tactically sound, as human beings can provide informed guidance for explosive attacks. Such tactics are not only used by Islamic groups, with kamikaze pilots in WWII being another example of sacrifice as a tactic. It should be noted that while many moral codes explicitly imply what is deemed as correct values or action, interpretation is a key factor of unpredictability, whether that be by an individual or a group.

We can conclude from such examples that there are massive ethical distinctions at play on an international scale. As discussed previously, ethics themselves are designed to promote the survivability of a culture, and ethical norms are developed around this fact. Different cultures achieve survivability in terms of military ethics differently as they use ethics to fight wars utilising different advantages. In some cultures, the ethical systems used in conflict are designed solely to secure success, and all ethical virtues are pivotal to this point. While other cultures, like the ADF, ensure survivability through harmonious rules that mitigate suffering and lower the overall cost of war. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, and to an extent, influences how a country is perceived by its counterparts on an international scale. And while culture affects war tactics and ethics, is a culture defined by their actions during war?

Ethics introduces another conundrum during war: how is conflict affected when opposing sides hold drastically different beliefs? And what role do ethical systems play in escalating conflict? Differing military ethics are an example of psychological distinction between cultures. Dehumanisation is a process that creates moral exclusion, with targeted groups depicted as ‘less than’ (Brown, 2018). It occurs in warfare as protracted conflict results in widening psychological distance between warring peoples, and parties begin to stop viewing the other as belonging to a shared human community (Maiese, 2003). David Smith (2012), author of book Less than Human, argues that dehumanisation is necessary in war, as it goes against our wiring to harm or kill another human being, due to our being members of a social species. Dehumanisation in war could be attributed to the specific environment of war itself that forces humanity to commit that which it detrimental to its psyche, and thus as a defence mechanism, dehumanisation is utilised. Maiese (2003) writes that opponents are categorised as fundamentally evil in nature, and that once this perception has been cemented, the view of ‘diabolical enemy’ is formed, and the conflict is framed as good vs evil, in which victory of ‘good’ must be secured. Dehumanisation leads to ‘inhuman acts’, where violence is accepted where in normal society, it would not. Human rights violations, war crimes, genocide, slavery; these can all be attributed to the breakdown of societal relations and empathy as a result of dehumanisation (Brown, 2018). Once a group has been marginalised as morally inferior, or ‘other’, restraints against violence disappear, increasing the likelihood of an escalation in conflict (Maiese, 2003). 

The following is a relevant question to ask: as dehumanisation can be said to be developed from a lack of understanding, leading to another group being perceived as ‘other’ or ‘lesser’, do conflicts that involve groups from ethically diverse backgrounds get inflamed from this factor? As it is a requirement for dehumanisation to stem from the identification of an ‘enemy image’, which is already in place during war, the process is furthered by negative actions carried out by the said ‘enemy’ being seen as fundamental to their nature, even though these acts are necessary and align with the nature of war (Maiese, 2003). Thus, a reasonable correlation can be drawn from diverse ethics to dehumanisation, and then to conflict escalation. When moral restraints are removed, there is an escalation in conflict that can occur alongside this dehumanising behaviour, in the form of revenge (escalation through retaliation) or because the enemy has now taken on a factor of unpredictability.  Often, we seek allies in cultures whose ethical systems are similar to our own, as similarities in culture fosters trust and understanding. We are able to use our ethical system to generate strong allies in times of war, in which our goals and methods align, and to a point our ethical systems make us predictable in our warfighting tactics. Groups are predictable when they abide by a certain set of rules, and thus there is a factor reduced in warfare whereby there is a lessening of fear or the unknown between enemies. Their tactics are not predictable by what they will do, wherein all those other avenues are used within the scope of moral restraint, but by what a group will not do, due to ethical codes.

However, should these codes be broken, there enters a factor of unpredictability into the fighting, which can provoke enemies and cause overcompensation. But there are those who use this as a form of attack. Warfare can be fought in many ways, and manipulation of fear is one of them. Harari (2018), in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century states that ‘terrorists don’t think like army generals. Instead, they think like theatre producers’. They do not possess armies that are capable of attacking their enemies outright, and so they use fear as their greatest weapon. He states that terrorism, as a form of warfare, is reliant on provoking the enemy and causing him to overreact as ‘terrorists stage a terrifying spectacle of violence that captures our imagination and turns it against us’. Ultimately, their success or failure depends on their enemy. It is a risky form of warfare, but wielded correctly, can be effective. Unpredictability can be weaponised. It can be what an entire strategy is founded on. Terrorists are unpredictable because they have no ethical system at aligns with their enemies, and so they are therefore able to use this to their advantage. They do not use an ethical system that aligns with those values emphasised by systems like that used by the ADF, and due to this distinction, there is difficulty in anticipating and counteracting their actions, without overcompensating and inflaming the conflict, which is the goal of their attacks. Thus, ethics can be used as a wartime tactic in both extremes. For this purpose, we can define the ethical system as used by the ADF as ‘defensive ethics’ or ‘controlling ethics’ in that their intent is to minimise the human cost of war, and thereby reduce the scale of conflict. Ethics are a preventative measure, implemented as a control and used as an outreach system to strengthen political positions. We can label opposite systems, however, as ‘assertive’ ethics, ethical systems that are designed to not to ask what is humanely right, in such a way as defined by international humanitarian law, but what is right in the scope of winning a conflict. They are invoked to inflame, with the sole purpose of fighting those systems that centre on the value of human life. Just as we use ethics, they are used against us, and we are inadvertently victim to their opposite systems as we are driven by lesser human instincts driven to identify threats and enemies by the unknown.

Dehumanisation is a slippery slope for those who, like the ADF, use ethics defensively. Should such an ethical system degrade, there would be a weakening of political positions and the potential loss of allies. There would be the ability of wielding that factor of unpredictability, but it would more likely hinder rather than contribute to success in conflict. The ADF are not a minority force that relies on theatrics. It wages a type of warfare that is more direct and reliant on relationships for survival. Thus, toppling the ethical system would undermine war fighting strategy and forfeit political standing and stability. Ethics themselves can be tactical. From this we can reasonably ask; if ethical systems themselves can cause such an effect, could this be knowingly utilised in a conflict to control the scale of warfare? And what of the importance of studying and predicting this phenomenon? In terms of tactics and the scale of conflict, preventing or limiting certain effects of diverse ethical systems could reduce a factor that increases the risk of massive escalations in conflict. On a human level, it prevents suffering. On an individual level, protects against moral injury. On a scale of conflict, study of this could mean that it is a somewhat controlled factor in warfare, to the extent that it can be manipulated and employed, if not as a tactic, as something at least that is a factor that warrants consideration. The enemy we are fighting, and their cultures and ethical systems are therefore a crucial factor to consider in conflict.

Warfare is a complex phenomenon. It is a chaos that is necessary for us to grapple with. But what of balance? Of equilibrium, the beautiful system that exists in nature yet is so rarely found applied in the realm of humanity? And we attempt to apply it, waging wars in the name of righting the scales, creating rules around the conditions of the conflict, so that it may be successful in restoring justice, and yet this practice never seems to work. Try as we might, such concepts escape equilibrium, escape control, and any measures we attempt to leash the chaos with. Yes, war is a human construct. But it is one that is beyond our scope to describe. Philosophers across the ages have tried, and their efforts are seen now in our prided rules of warfare, in our carefully constructed ethical systems and in our recognition of the suffering our fighting causes. But we are plagued by humanity’s great imperfection. We can never replicate equilibrium. And the problems we experience in warfare, of how our ethical systems fail to protect against dehumanisation, of how the systems themselves can even be the cause for escalation, all due to the unsurmountable gap that exists between sectors of humanity, is all proof. But in recognising this fact, we can use it to our advantage. Weapons are the tools of the soldier. Strategists fight with that which is intangible and easily manipulated: rules. Ethics are powerful. They can unite and inspire. They can provoke fear and crumble constraints. And harnessed correctly, they can help win wars.


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