The Ethics of Helping Build Military Technology

Some 3,000 Google employees recently signed a letter stating that they don’t believe that the company should be involved in Project Maven, an AI surveillance tool likely to be used in more accurate targeting of military drone strikes. They mention a few US military contractors in the letter: Palantir, General Dynamics, and Raytheon. I found this interesting because at one point in my career, I worked for Raytheon. It was during some of the extended tensions between the US and Iraq between the Gulf War and the Iraq War. At the time, many Raytheon employees were proud that the company helped to design and build the Patriot missile. This information had a different effect on me, though. I had a serious conversation with myself about whether I wanted to help build something that would be used to kill people.

I wasn’t on any project that built weapons technology. While I was working on a contract for the Department of Defense, it was in cooperation with the Big Three auto manufacturers working on factory emissions testing. But it was possible that I could be asked to work on a weapons contract because Raytheon did participate in those. I figured it was better to determine my stance on whether I was alright working on weapons contracts before I was asked to do so than to try to work through all the complex feelings in the heat of the moment.

I won’t go through the various thought processes I had other than to explain my conclusion, that I would not assist in building weapons or even things like missile guidance systems that would make weapons more efficient at killing. And if told it was a job requirement and I had to participate, then I would quit my job rather than be complicit in such activity. I felt, then as now, that by building or improving weapons I was at least partially responsible for how they were used. I couldn’t control how the US military would employ those weapons but I could control my participation in the process.

I’m not squeamish nor a pacifist. I understand that weapons and the military are a necessity for defending our country. But I do not believe that all of what the US military is ordered to do is required for the defense of our country or our way of life. And since I cannot trust those in power to use our military arsenal responsibly, I cannot in good conscience add to or improve that arsenal.

So I applaud and support the signatories of the Google Project Maven letter. I’m glad that they are raising these objections and opening up these questions for debate. Because killing, while sometimes necessary, should never be undertaken lightly. And everyone who participates in the mechanisms and machinery of war is responsible for their own participation in that process, however small. People should confront themselves with that fact, examine their own conscience, and decide if their level of participation is something they can live with and what they should do if it isn’t.


Copyright © 2010-2018 by Lee Dohm