Is It Morally Okay for My Little Brother to Work for a Defense Contractor?

by Benjamin Studebaker

As some of you might know, I have a little brother named Adam (he appears on the blog once in a while). Adam is one of my favorite people–he’s a remarkably kind, thoughtful, and gregarious person. If you met him, you’d like him. Just about everyone does.

Adam's on the left; I'm on the right

Adam’s on the left; I’m on the right

My little brother is studying at the University of Southampton in the UK, where he’s studying to become an aerospace engineer. Becoming an aerospace engineer literally is rocket science, and it’s not easy. Not only are Adam’s classes exceptionally grueling, but he needs to spend this coming summer doing an internship to get work experience and ensure that he’s competitive on the job market when he graduates. These internships are hard to get, especially if you want to be paid for your work. Recently, Adam was able to score a paid internship at a major American defense contractor. As a political theorist, this raises some interesting moral issues for me–no matter your position in international relations, it’s more or less inevitable that when you get involved in designing and manufacturing weapons, the weapons you make will be used in some conflicts you don’t agree with to kill people you don’t think deserve it. Is it okay with me that Adam wants to do this?

In moral philosophy, we generally recognize two broad types of moral systems:

  1. Deontology–these systems hold that actions are good when they follow certain rules and bad when they do not follow those rules regardless of what positive consequences might be achieved by breaking the rules. Deontologists believe actions or character traits are intrinsically good or bad, usually in an absolute way. For instance, many deontologists think that murder is always wrong, no matter what positive effects it might have. Deontologists are often religious (the 10 commandments are a deontology), but not always (see Immanuel Kant).
  2. Consequentialism–these systems dictate that what really matters are the consequences of actions–their outcomes. They are indifferent to the process or means we use so long as the aggregate consequences are positive in some way. Secularists are often (but not always) consequentialists (see the utilitarians).

This is not to say that all deontologists or consequentialists agree with each–there are an immense number of internal debates within both–but the distinction still holds. There are many simple cases that highlight the difference. Here are a few:

The Trolley Problem

A runaway train is poised to run down the wrong siding into a caboose where five people are sitting about having a cup of tea. All five are certain to perish in the wreck if the train strikes them. You see this and have the opportunity to throw a switch, sending the train down a different siding where it will strike a boxcar that one man is in the process of loading, killing him.

Consequentialists usually believe it is better for one person to die rather than five–they throw the switch. Deontologists often believe that if you throw the switch, you’ve murdered the man in the boxcar, and since they believe that murder is categorically wrong, they do nothing.

The Fat Man

This is the same situation as before, except instead of having the opportunity to throw a switch to send the train into the boxcar, you can push a fat man in front of the train. This kills the fat man, but it prevents the train from reaching the caboose.

Consequentialists usually think throwing the switch and pushing the fat man are morally identical cases, because they both have the same result–one person dies. They might feel a little queasier about it, but they make the same decision as before. Deontologists who rationalized that throwing the switch isn’t murder have a much harder time rationalizing the fat man case–they usually see it as distinctively worse, and not merely on an emotional level, but in objective terms.

Hard Times

You are a poor farmer living in a village in a developing country with no substantive social safety net. Bad weather has desolated your farm, and you don’t have the funds to feed your spouse and three children, two boys and a girl. You have an opportunity to send your daughter to work as a prostitute for a year in a nearby city. If you make your daughter work as a prostitute, she will be well-paid and the entire family will have enough money to survive for several more seasons, at which point your children will be old enough to get jobs of their own. If you don’t, you believe that one or more of your children may starve to death, and all three will be malnourished.

Consequentialists usually send the daughter to work as a prostitute, while deontologists are more likely to resist if they believe that prostitution is wrong.

If you were not consistently a consequentialist or a deontologist, it’s not surprising–non-theorists are usually remarkably inconsistent about their moral beliefs because they get those beliefs almost entirely from the social norms they acquired from their parents and peers as children. Theorists and philosophers use consistency to expose the conflicts among our unexamined values and thereby subject them to closer scrutiny than most people can reasonably manage in their day to day lives.

So what do deontology and consequentialism have to do with my brother? I’ve talked to some family members and friends about Adam’s situation, and those people who do take issue with what Adam wants to do usually object on a deontological basis. They argue that because the weapons Adam would be designing and making are sometimes used in the wrong conflicts to kill the wrong people that Adam is an accessory to murder or war crimes.

I’ve never been a deontologist. Deontological moral systems too often force us to choose obviously worse outcomes. I don’t see what the point is in having moral systems, values, or principles if those principles don’t help people live better lives. Deontological systems are fundamentally arbitrary–the behaviors they label as “good” or “bad” merely reflect our traditions and social norms.

Consequentialism takes context into account. It’s more nuanced. As a consequentialist, I look at Adam’s situation and I ask this question:

If Adam works for the defense contractor, does this cause more people to suffer or die than would suffer or die if Adam refused?

The answer is clearly no–if Adam refused the job, someone else would take the job. If the defense contractor decided to close up shop, another defense contractor would swoop in and take the market share. If all the defense contractors in the world refused to make the weapons, the government would make them itself. If everyone refused to make the weapons, that would make a difference, but Adam’s decision has no substantive influence on the behavior of all of these parties. If Adam refuses the job, it will make no difference to the number of wars fought or people who suffer and die. In the meantime, if Adam refuses the job, the direct penalties he incurs are very large–he misses out on a lucrative internship that would improve his market position and help him get future jobs.

International relations theory teaches us that global violence is a systemic issue with a wide array of causes, ranging from the security dilemma to international anarchy to plain old bad decision-making on the part of governments. Because there is nothing to stop powerful states from taking advantage of weaker states, there are irresistible structural incentives for states to try to be strong, and this entails having a powerful military. It’s certainly arguable that military spending is excessive, that the current military threats do not justify the state’s expenditures, but it’s not as if the United States could entirely do without tanks, warplanes, and missiles. Even if I was in charge of our foreign policy, we would still have the most powerful military, we just wouldn’t spend 4.5 times more than our nearest competitor. The trouble is that when you have a big hammer, everything begins to look like a nail, and the US government often misuses its military power in foolhardy and harmful ways.

Adam plays no special role in any of these mistakes. The government creates the demand for weapons. If the private sector doesn’t fulfill that demand, the government will fulfill it itself. The public votes in the ignorant government officials who start or intervene in foolish conflicts and create the demand, and the public pays the taxes that fund those ignorant choices. Every individual in the United States participates in the system, but no individual can affect meaningful change by defecting. The problem is much bigger than any one person.

So why should people expect my little brother to bear a serious personal economic cost for collective decisions they are every bit as much a part of as he is? Too often, we engage in moral scapegoating, blaming individuals for decisions that are at worst mere symptoms of our structural problems. Often these decisions do not have any substantive effects at all on the problems we blame them for causing. This makes it easy for us to convince ourselves that social problems are problems caused by others and not ourselves. We label the people who fire the guns murderers and the people who make them accessories, but we vote for the people who order the guns to be fired and made in the first place. We extol the virtues of our representative democracy even as it leads to vicious, cruel, and stupid foreign policy choices. We defend our system, claiming that it’s the fault of big companies or small individuals, but the system is broken not because individuals or businesses choose to break it, but because it is fundamentally flawed. No one of us bears the blame for this–it is on all of us to forge a better political system at the domestic and international levels, one that leads to less suffering and death.

This is not an easy task. It takes a lot of time, energy, and effort to study how the political system works and how it might be designed differently to work better. We don’t all have that time or energy. Engineers like my brother certainly don’t, not with all the grueling classes they take and difficult problems they have to solve. It’s not reasonable to expect my brother to be a political theorist as well as an engineer. If he tried to, he wouldn’t have the time to be very good at either, and that would be a shame, because he is marvelous at what he does, if I may say so.

Adam is responding to the economic incentives we as a society have created. When we were small, my little brother used to pick up leaves on the ground that he thought were especially beautiful. He’d hand one to me and tell me to keep it forever–he felt it symbolized our relationship. The guy is so sensitive and so smart. He would love to work on a mission to Mars. Now instead of carrying colonists, his rockets will carry warheads. That’s not his fault. It’s ours.