Ethics education and innovations in weapons technology

  • Études

By Dragan Stanar

Prof. Dr. Dragan Stanar is a member of EuroISME’s Board of Directors. He is associate professor of military ethics at the Military Academy of the Defence University in Belgrade and a reserve officer in the Serbian Armed Forces.


Our generation of humans is truly blessed with the opportunity to live out our long and comfortable lives in an era of extraordinary high objective life quality, regardless of the factors we take into account when making this claim, as wonderfully elaborated by Steven Pinker in his seminal book Enlightenment Now [1]. The key component and the vital driver of this all-encompassing progress of humanity most certainly is the unprecedented development of technical sciences and technology in the past three centuries or so. Technological breakthroughs enabled us to master virtually all segments and elements of our world – from the tiniest particles of matter to the laws governing the very universe we inhibit. Necessarily and inescapably following the somewhat revised form of Maslow’s blueprint of the hierarchy of human needs, we focused our prime efforts on developing technology primarily to ensure our safety and security, much before implementing it for the sake of meeting any of our other needs, even the physiological ones which are the foundation of Maslow’s pyramid [2].

Throughout history, mankind has implemented new technology and novel scientific knowledge first and foremost in the realm of what we today refer to as “defence industry” in order to ensure and protect peace in which society could actually reap the benefits of technological achievements in all other spheres of life.

This accumulated and seemingly intuitive knowledge of all human societies, that preservation of peace is condictio sine qua non of a life in which we can truly benefit from technological advancements, has led and still inevitably leads to our never-ending pursuit of maximizing our security with new technology before anything else, “epitomized in our perpetual endeavor to enhance and perfect our weapons: to make our weapons more reliable, more powerful, more lethal”[3] much before we enhance any other aspect of our society. But the supremely beneficial “quantum leap” of technical sciences and technology in past centuries also inherently brought about a highly significant and potentially perilous issue for humanity, in all spheres of application of technology, naturally and absolutely including defence industry.

Namely, a dangerous and apparently ever-widening gap has been created between contributions and “blessings” of the “know-how” gifted to humanity by technical sciences and the ability of social sciences and humanities to keep pace and perform their essential and vital task – to explain what we ought and ought not to do with the powerful knowledge and technology we today possess.

It seems almost impossible to find a segment of (post)modern reality in which the described issue is more alarming and hazardous than that of defence industry. Weapons technology has placed unimaginable and historically unparalleled power of utter destruction and limitless desolation into the hands of individual human beings while ignoring the fact that those who hold the future of our world in their hands are quite likely unable to differentiate between what is simply possible and what is desirable and/or justifiable. This has essentially always been the crucial task of all social sciences and humanities, but primarily and most explicitly of ethics – to single out things that are morally justified and indeed good within the realm of things that are now actually possible to us as humans[4]. Modern weapons technology has bestowed upon humanity this possibility of “unbearable easiness”[5] and “unprecedented effectiveness of killing in war”[6] and levels of destruction beyond our wildest imagination but without society ensuring first that those who wield the proverbial almighty sword are in fact aware of the fact that sheer possibility does not entail automatic justification. Unfortunately, this has been the modus operandi of our modern societies, not just in defence industry but in all spheres of life in the past century – to for some strange reason assume that we are justified in doing things simply because we can now do them with our technology. But while it is true that “everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature”[7] is possible if we have adequate knowledge, it is also true that moral laws rather than laws of nature prescribe what should be done among things that can be done.

Therefore, proper ethics education is of pivotal importance in the entire realm of defence industry and weapons technology development, as the latter is making bounds towards a position of omnipotence[8].

It is not necessary only for those who actually get to use new weapons technology, but equally for those who create, develop it, and finally market it. I firmly and genuinely believe that, in the context of the entire defence industry, it is only the deep and profound ethics education and knowledge of the moral nature and implications of our actions and decisions that stands between humanity and its potential annihilation in the near future. Only if we realize that not all things that are brought into the realm of the possible by weapons technology are in fact justifiable, desirable and ultimately good, especially in hands of those who cannot be trusted with such immense power, can we hope that humanity will not eventually fall victim to its own boundless ingenuity and pure brilliance in weapons crafting. To paraphrase the wise and great Georges Clemenceau – development of weapons technology is too serious a matter to entrust solely to weapons engineers; it must also be genuinely and sincerely entrusted to philosophers and ethicists who can limit scope of the things we bring to existence from the realm of the possible. Especially having in mind that humanity’s reluctance to use our “spears” is in inverse proportion to their “sharpness”, to paraphrase yet another great mind.


[1] Pinker, Steven (2018). Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. New York: Viking

[2] History has clearly demonstrated that when security of our loved ones is endangered, even our physiological needs become secondary.

[3] Stanar, Dragan (2022). The Loss of Innocence in the Age of Drone: Redefining the Notion of Innocence in the Context of Drone Warfare. In: Schoonhoven, R. and Koch, B. (eds.), Emerging Military Technologies: Ethical and Legal Perspectives. Leiden: Brill Nijhoff, p. 141.

[4] Babić, Jovan (2018). Science and reality. In: Mastilović, D. (ed), The Idea of the Faculty of Philosophy, East Sarajevo: University of East Sarajevo, p. 59.

[5] Stanar, Dragan (2021). The Vital Significance of Military Ethics. Journal of Military Ethics, Vol 20 (3-4), p. 238.

[6] Scharre, Paul (2018). The Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, p. 54.

[7] Deutsch, David (2011). The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World. New York: Viking, p. 56.

[8] Omnipotence should be understood here as a capability of creating destruction without rational limits both in power and in territory. Modern weapons allow militaries to reach virtually all corners of our planet (land, sea, air-space) with almost unlimited power of destruction. That is why we cannot afford the industry with that type of power to function without clear ethical boundaries and without proper understanding of the meaning of moral limitations of what is being designed”.


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