Ethics in Strategy: Making Strategy Rigorous and Ethics Honest

This essay is part of the #StrategyAndEthics series, which asked a group of academics and national security professionals to provide their thoughts on the confluence of ethical considerations, the development of strategy, and the conduct of war. We hope this launches a debate that may one day shape policy.

What is the proper role of ethics in strategy? In a recent article for a series on #StrategyAndEthics on The Strategy Bridge, Pauline Shanks Kaurin explained that strategy suffers from the pitfalls of unexamined assumptions, ignorance of cultural and ethical norms, and difficulty adapting to change. She argues that ethics and philosophy can strengthen practical reasoning in strategy and help strategists examine political ends and other assumptions guiding strategic practice. Finally, Shanks Kaurin observes, “Ethics (as a part of the discipline of philosophy) is also rooted and versed in issues of epistemology—what are the grounds and justification for your belief? Are they reflective of short or long term considerations?”[1] This essay builds on Shanks Kaurin's comments and contends that ethics can discipline strategy by forcing strategists to make their own normative judgments formal and explicit.

Ethics can make strategy rigorous, but strategy also makes ethics honest.

Ethics provide a rigorous way of thinking about normative decision-making that strategists would be wise to assimilate. But if ethics can help strategy be more rigorous—through theories of what makes right, abstract thought experiments, and formal logical argument—the complex problems of strategy can provide tough challenges for ethical theorizing. This essay begins by explaining the instrumental and epistemic challenges of strategic rationality, relates them to the tools of ethical thinking and philosophy writ large, and concludes with an assessment of why strategists and philosophers may benefit from mutual collaboration and learning. Ethics can make strategy rigorous, but strategy also makes ethics honest. Ethics and philosophical thinking should be a part of the strategist's intellectual universe, but philosophers must also carefully consider the intrinsic challenges and difficulties of making strategy.

The Challenge of Strategy: Beyond Instrumental Rationality

It is not important to enumerate all of these barriers.[6] However, it is important to observe that strategic problems are highly heterogeneous in form.[7] Strategic problems and processes vary by levels of tractability and ambiguity. A strategic problem’s level of tractability and ambiguity also has significant implications for the degree of agreement and disagreement about overall ends, ways, and means. The crossing of the strategy bridge in every conflict necessitates engagement with a diverse multiplicity of problems that range from purely mathematical logistical calculations to more qualitative and dialogical questions of civil-military relations. As Christopher Paparone observers, heterogeneity in strategic problems means that homogeneity in strategic problem-solving is inherently doomed to failure.[8]

In some situations, the problem is merely programmatic. A solution can usually be calculated because there is broad agreement about the objective to be sought and the mechanisms and allowable resources for seeking it. Strategies for overseas force projection are an example of solutions to programmatic problems. When this strategy cannot be computed through some algorithm or model, it must be planned and orchestrated through a similarly top-down and usually deterministic process. But what if there is disagreement about the interpretation of the strategic problem to be solved? At this point, we enter into a peculiar space where merely instrumental rationality cannot necessarily help us.

Fundamental disagreements about the goals to be achieved and the manner in which the problem itself is perceived often cannot be resolved by hoary appeals to the eternal wisdom of the “strategic gods” or a vague belief in the importance of doing what is “realistic.” As observed above, there will frequently be significant disagreement about the goals of strategic behavior, the nature of the strategic problem, and the manner in which the strategic problem ought to be solved. Each faction will likely lay claim to the mantle of instrumental realism, portraying themselves as hard-headed and clear-minded analysts willing to think the unthinkable. Each faction also casts their foes as idealists or the players of politics. But all of these supposedly practical strategic realists are only, perhaps, realistic within the narrow assumptions and frames they have often implicitly used to justify their proposed courses of action.

...the role of ethics in strategy is not simply or purely a means of justifying or constraining state choices and conduct. Ethics can help strategists cope with limitations on their capacity for rationality.

Here it becomes apparent that strategy is also a matter of epistemic rationality—how well our beliefs reflect the external world.[9] It is often the case that they do not, making instrumental rationality as useful as rifles operated by blind and deaf soldiers or marines. To make matters even more difficult, strategy also inherently involves trade-offs between competing normative goods and dealing with the often paradoxical logic of wartime situations.[10] This is where ethics may be very useful for the strategist, though perhaps not in the way that he or she often imagines. For many, the utility of ethics lies in answering the question of what justifies war as well as limiting the conduct of war on the battlefield. However, the role of ethics in strategy is not simply or purely a means of justifying or constraining state choices and conduct.[11] Ethics can help strategists cope with limitations on their capacity for rationality.

Making Strategy Rigorous and Ethics Honest: The Utility of Ethics in Strategy

Ethics provides a generalized set of intellectual tools that can help strengthen the rigor of strategic thought. How? Though sometimes overused, theoretical and/or empirical ethical thought experiments, models, and simulations can render intuition and folk wisdom explicit and testable.[12] Moreover, philosophy contains an enormous wealth of theoretical formalisms that can be used to represent and model ethical situations and the calculations of the agents involved in them.[13] Ethics can make strategy rigorous. However, strategists will only accept ethical thinking if strategy's challenges make ethics honest. If ethics present a challenge to strategists, the problem of strategy also presents a significant test to ethics.

Shanks Kaurin argues broadly about the utility of ethics for practical strategic reasoning and the questioning of assumptions about ends and strategic practice. To extend Shanks Kaurin's arguments, there are two particular uses of ethical and philosophical knowledge for strategy: theoretical framing of normative choice, as well as formal logic for representing how rational agents make choices. Given that much of strategic thinking is implicitly consequentialist, it is important for strategists to understand that there are alternatives to consequentialist reasoning.[14] Given how much strategy concerns rational behavior, it is also important for strategists to be aware of formal logical philosophical tools for thinking about rational agency.[15]

The most obvious use of ethical thinking for strategists is the application of ethical frameworks for reflection about strategic goals and military conduct. One can, for example, reason about ethical problems using consequentialist or deontological ethics. Crudely, consequentialists view decision-making in terms of what is necessary to bring about a intrinsically desired state of affairs. Deontological ethics differ in that they evaluate what choices are morally required, forbidden, or allowable given a moral norm. Consequentialists evaluate behavior mostly with regards to its effects and deontological thinkers focus on the conformity of the choice with a rule. One may also conceptualize ethics in terms of virtues that guide and evaluate what character traits we have and should have.[16]

Much of everyday strategic thinking is implicitly consequentialist in form. But it does not inherently or necessarily have to be. This barely scratches the surface of ethical theorizing, as philosophers also ponder metaethics (thinking about ethical thinking) as well as how to use ethical theories to reason about particular issues and situations. Beyond ethical theory, strategists should also take notice of the formal logical methods that many philosophers use, a point Shanks Kaurin addresses well. Some philosophers and scientists utilize formal logic to operationalize their arguments about how agents can or should reason about choice. One of the most useful overall areas of philosophical logic for strategists is the constellation of logics that model rational agency—the study of agents that act according to their own conception of what they have reason to do.[17]

Rational agency ought to be especially of interest to strategists because of its focus on an agent's knowledge and/or belief about its environment, the agent's motivators of actions in the environment such as goals, desires, and intentions, and the agent's normative obligations, permissions, and authorizations that guide and constrain actions.[18] An example of rational agency logic can be found below in Figure 1. Do not be alarmed if the logical symbols look like gibberish. The important thing about the symbols is that they provide a formal language for representing a persistent goal that an agent seeks to achieve.

Figure 1. Expressing a persistent goal in intention logic[19]

The agent can only drop the goal if they believe the goal has been satisfied or the goal will never be satisfied. Formal languages lack the ambiguities of natural language, which is why philosophers often turn to them to reason in a rigorous manner. Logics like those of rational agency can similarly aid strategists in deliberating with each other about complex problems. To make any kind of judgment about what ought to be done in a complex and dangerous situation assumes some kind of model. If ethical theories like deontological and consequentialist ethics can provide a “big picture” way of framing the decision problem, formal logics supply a mathematical manner of operationalizing big picture thinking.

Figure 2. Disciplines that study rational agency[20]

Why go to the trouble of learning about something as abstruse-sounding as deontology or pick up weird-looking mathematical symbols? Aren’t Clausewitz and Sun Tzu enough? Perhaps—intuitively. But strategy is, after all, one of many fields that study the behavior of rational agents. Engagement with philosophy writ large, and ethics in particular, have enhanced both theory and practice in many of these areas of rational inquiry. However, ethicists also have much to learn from strategists. By engaging with strategy, ethicists put their theories to the ultimate test. Thus, while ethics can help strategic reasoning become more rigorous, the fearsome and often overwhelming challenges of strategy formulation supply some of the toughest tests of ethical concepts.

The philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett famously said that artificial intelligence makes philosophy “honest.”[21] To make a robot do something that human beings believe to be “intelligent” requires starting from scratch. A robot starts with nothing; all of its “intelligence” derives from what is programmed or otherwise instrumented by its designer. Thus, flaws in theories of intelligence, cognition, and rationality cannot hide from the robot-builder. The robot will simply not work if the theory is faulty.[22] By extension, the particular problems of making robots and other computers behave ethically tests the validity of philosophical reasoning about ethical behavior.[23] Strategists will only find ethical theories useful if they survive a similarly difficult challenge—providing knowledge about and guidance for strategic behavior. If they do not, the strategic community of practice is likely to simply ignore them.[24]

...ethical theory and the formal logical tools philosophers use to reason through ethical choices ought to be part of the strategist's intellectual universe.

Regardless of the validity of any particular ethical theory or concept when applied to strategy, ethical theory and the formal logical tools philosophers use to reason through ethical choices ought to be part of the strategist's intellectual universe. Without the tools of ethics and philosophy, strategists may go about their strategizing in an ad hoc manner characterized by frequent vague appeals to a crudely defined notion of political realism and a myopic conception of instrumental expediency. But ethics also must survive the formidable challenge of providing knowledge about and guidance for strategic choices. To paraphrase Dennett, ethics can make strategy rigorous, but strategy also makes ethics honest.

Adam Elkus is a PhD student in the Department of Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a fellow at the New America Foundation Cybersecurity Initiative. His views are his own.

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Header Image: Machine Learning: Computing Right and Wrong (Yale Scientific)


[1] See Shanks Kaurin, P. “Strategy and Ethics: Why Strategists Need Philosophical Backup.” The Strategy Bridge. 17 October 2016.

[2] For a compendium of definitions, see Gordon, A. S. (2004). Strategy Representation: An Analysis of Planning Knowledge. Routledge.

[3] Stanovich, K. E. (2012). On the distinction between rationality and intelligence: Implications for understanding individual differences in reasoning. In Holyoak, K., and Morrison, G. The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. 343-365.

[4] Strachan, H. (2013). The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

[5] See Gray, C. S. (1999). Modern Strategy, Oxford University Press, Gray, C. S. (2010). The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice. Oxford University Press, Freedman, L. (2015). Strategy: A History. Oxford University Press, Dolman, E. (2004). Pure Strategy: Power and Principle in the Space and Information Age. Routledge, Betts, R. K. (2000). “Is strategy an illusion?.” International Security, 25(2), 5-50, Beyerchen, A. (1992). “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War.” International Security, 17(3), 59-90, Krepinevich, A. F., & Watts, B. D. (2009). Regaining Strategic Competence. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and Watts, B. D. (2004). Clausewitzian Friction and Future War, Revised Edition. National Defense University Press.

[6] Paparone, C. R. (2010) “Beyond Ends-Based Rationality: A Quad-Conceptual View of Strategic Reasoning for Professional Military Education.” In Marcella, G. Teaching Strategy: Challenge and Response. Army Strategic Studies Institute. 309-340.

[7] Ibid., 321.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Stanovich, K. E. (2012). “On the Distinction between Rationality and Intelligence: Implications for Understanding Individual Differences in Reasoning.” In Holyoak, K., and Morrison, G. The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. 343-365.

[10] Luttwak, E. (2001). Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. Harvard University Press.

[11] Though, to be sure, this is an important objective in and of itself. For an introduction, see Walzer, M. (2015). Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. Basic Books.

[12] See Shepard, R. N. (2008). “The Step to Rationality: The Efficacy of Thought Experiments in Science, Ethics, and Free Will.” Cognitive Science, 32(1), 3-35, Appiah, A. (2008). Experiments in Ethics. Harvard University Press, and Grim, P., Mar, G., & Denis, P. S. (1998). The Philosophical Computer: Exploratory Essays in Philosophical Computer Modeling. MIT Press.

[13] See, for example, the use of the computational LRT* logic by Bringsjord et al. to model the process of military decision-making and the use of a general logicist methodology by Brinsjord et al. to model the problem of nuclear deterrence. Bringsjord, S., & Taylor, J. (2009). Introducing Divine-Command Robot Ethics. Tech. Rep. 062310, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Bringsjord, S., Govindarajulu, N. S., Ellis, S., McCarty, E., & Licato, J. (2014). “Nuclear Deterrence and the Logic of Deliberative Mindreading.” Cognitive Systems Research, 28, 20-43.

[14] Gray, C. (1999). “Clausewitz rules, OK? The future is the past—with GPS.” Review of International Studies, 25(05), 161-182.

[15] Smith, M. L. R., & Stone, J. (2011). “Explaining Strategic Theory.” Infinity Journal, 4, 27-30.

[16] These definitions are cribbed from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as to make them accessible to the nonspecialist.

[17] Wallace, R. J. (1999). “Three Conceptions of Rational Agency.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 2(3), 217-242.

[18] Van der Hoek, W., & Wooldridge, M. (2003). “Towards a Logic of Rational Agency.” Logic Journal of the IGPL, 11(2), 135-159.

[19] Ibid., 137.

[20] Ibid., 136.

[21] Dennett, D. (2006). “Computers as prostheses for the imagination.” In Invited talk presented at the International Computers and Philosophy Conference, Laval, France.

[22] Dennett, D. C. (2006). “The Frame Problem of AI.” In Bermudez, J.L. Philosophy of Psychology: Contemporary Readings. Routledge 433-454. Also see Sloman, A. (1978). The Computer Revolution in Philosophy: Philosophy, Science and Models of Mind. Brighton: Harvester Press and Holland, O., & McFarland, D. (2001). Artificial Ethology. Oxford University Press.

[23] Anderson, M., & Anderson, S. L. (Eds.). (2011). Machine Ethics. Cambridge University Press.

[24] Jones, D., & Smith, M. L. R. (2015). “Return to Reason: Reviving Political Realism in Western Foreign Policy.” International Affairs, 91(5), 933-952.