By Disanalogy, Cyberwarfare Is Utterly New – Bringsjord and Licato

‘In our second review, we have looked at ‘By Disanalogy, Cyberwarfare Is Utterly New’ written by Selmer Bringsjord and John Licato in Philosophy & Technology, 2015, Vol.28(3), pp.339358

The paper is available here.

Here is the abstract:

We provide an underlying theory of argument by disanalogy, in order to employ it to show that cyberwarfare is fundamentally new (relative to traditional kinetic warfare, and espionage). Once this general case is made, the battle is won: we are well on our way to establishing our main thesis: that Just War Theory itself must be modernized. Augustine and Aquinas (and their predecessors) had a stunningly long run, but today’s world, based as it is on digital information and increasingly intelligent information-processing, points the way to a beast so big and so radically different, that the core of this duo’s insights needs to be radically extended.

Abstract reproduced under license.


Here are the thought of our network members:

Peter Kalu, Lancaster University

The papers’ authors are working on giving computing machines including robots the ability to reason analogically. They argue that Just War Theory cannot provide a worthwhile critique or framework for cyberwarfare because cyberwarfare is utterly new – so new there is no reasoning by analogy possible. Cyberwarfare activity and potential is increasing to the extent that the old JWT paradigms have been left in the dust and arguing by analogy –that the changes are mere wrinkles, that the deep logic of JWT remains good – wastes time. The authors in the article use mathematics in stating their case. The article concludes that, if the disanalogy argument is accepted, this can be the base for working on a new system of ethics for cyberwarfare, or at least to radically overhaul the old thinking embodied in Just War Theory.

I cannot test the authors’ maths as I cannot understand it. However I am not sure it is necessary to understand the maths in order to understand that cyberwarfare forces radical shifts in how war is understood.  Heading into the extreme case of super- intelligent robots, I accept for the purpose of reasoning the authors’ backing of the MiniMaximality principle over the Singularity principle (roughly: mini in terms of robot imagination exceeding human imagination; maxi in terms of brute computing). Their argument as I understand it, places them at odds with the Hyens authors’ conclusions. The severe meltdown of meaning in such terms as ‘war’ and ‘combatant’ and even ‘State’ that the cyberwarfare and its adjuncts has caused inclines me to accept their proposition. My response is to revisit the science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ and invite the authors to consider how these “laws” might be updated. Drones may have already rendered Asimov’s laws obsolete:

Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  1. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  1. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

I admit I struggled somewhat with this paper, as it does not make itself easily accessible to a non-expert audience. However the central argument here clearly, is that cyberwarfare is utterly new, and therefore we need a new approach to the theory of Just War. One of the arguments cited by the authors is that the digital world will eventually enshroud everything (352). The problem here, in my mind, is the direct social implication of such an enshrouding. If everything is connected or ‘enshrouded’ by the digital landscape the simplest way to avoid cyber attacks is surely then just to disconnect. Much as the easiest way to avoid a computer virus is not to connect your computer to the internet (and not to plug any unknown device into it), the same applies for technology. I wonder then (with some future gazing) if the direct response we will witness to this digital enshrouding is a counter-movement in which terrorists and indeed armies are forced to take a technological step back – effectively disconnecting from the benefits of the digital world once cyberwarfare reaches a point wherein state-of-the-art weapons are rendered useless? Either way, I certainly agree in principle with the concept of ‘Enshrouding as hogwash’ (355) – though don’t disagree about the overall direction of the piece being that we need to return to the Just War Theory. The only problem, for me, is that the blurring between friend / enemy / criminal is such now that it becomes increasingly difficult to locate and define a fixed enemy, and even harder still to apportion a broader state-led intentionality to, say, a computer hacker working from their bedroom. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

This paper really poses an important and difficult question: Is cyberwarfare really warfare? This can be difficult to answer, and I think the Tallinn Manual has done a brilliant job. I think a major difficulty in classifying cyber activities is that when most people think of cyber warfare, they think of hacking, spying, and ‘cyber attacks’ that are usually just DDoS attacks putting a website offline. But, those who have research Stuxnet and have future-gazed realise that there is so much more destructive potential in cyber. Rupturing a dam, overheating a nuclear power station, or turning off electricity to major cities are all possible with cyberwarfare. Certainly, actions of such magnitude would normally be an act of war if done via kinetic means, yet the cyber-enemy merely tinkers with data inputs – are they really comparable?

Maybe, this is warfare for the 21st century. After all, do states really want to sell to their public a physical military confrontation with another state where thousands of service personnel might die anymore? It does make sense to some degree to go after critical data rather than bodies. Considering the aim of warfare is to dominate the enemy, and force them to submit to your political will, does it really matter whether that domination might not be in the physical sense?


If you have any thoughts on the paper, or on the comments, please pop them in the comment box below.


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4 thoughts on “By Disanalogy, Cyberwarfare Is Utterly New – Bringsjord and Licato

  1. @ Peter: Asimov’s laws are interesting I think, though I do wonder about the context. His laws as written I think are what he felt ‘should’ be the case with robotics, though he was of course writing at a time when computers were already entering the military arena, with ballistics computers such as ENIAC developed during WW2. From my own standpoint I’d say the militarisation of robots was an inevitability, and that Asimov’s laws in this sense are flawed. A more modern political reading might be to add the word ‘friendly’ before any use of the word ‘human’, but the word ‘friendly’ in itself is one loaded with meaning and implications…

    @ Josh: The question of ‘is cyberwarfare actually warfare?’ is a good one I think, and extremely pertinent. The problem as I see it is that we are at a stage where any legal decision in this area is difficult to enforce. Were an international law of war (for example) to be broken, then we might expect an international military response, but the very nature of cyberwarfare, and indeed ‘cyber’ is that it is in many respects a levelled playing field in which the bedroom hacker can to all intents and purposes bring down NASA. There is no way currently to control or indeed subdue the individual who may or may not be acting on behalf of the State. This then leads us logically to question the very nature of warfare, and individual sovereignty, for if a bedroom hacker, or an Islamic Terrorist can effectively operate as an *individual* and for personal non-State-sanctioned motivations, then we have a major blurring of the boundaries not only of the battlefield, but of the difference between the military and the civil, and even membership of the State itself. Can a State be held accountable for the actions of its (individual) citizens?


  2. Hi Mike,

    In terms of cyber levelling the playing field and the blurring of boundaries, I had a quick look at the Tallinn manual which reinterprets the law of armed conflict for cyber operations. Under Rule 29, it suggests that there would be no bar to patriotic civilians joining in and launching a cyber attack again an enemy state, or non-state actor. But, they would have no combatant immunity (unless part of a cyber-levee en masse). So not only could they be targeted by their enemies in any way, they would also be subject to law enforcement action for what would be cyber criminality.


  3. Hi Josh. Interesting to know! I guess what I’m also getting at here is ‘to what extent can (or indeed should) states be held accountable for the actions of their citizens?’ Law enforcement becomes incredibly difficult in the age of cyber when the hackers are often better equipped than the law enforcement agencies. What then happens if these same criminals then start operating beyond borders and start interfering with other states? For how long can another state be expected to accept that these actions are just the actions of individuals and not the wider state body?


  4. Hi Mike, the issue of attributability for hackers acting beyond a border is fascinating, and something I’ve looked into briefly before. Legally speaking, any state that responds to an attack by a foreign non-state actor is, in fact also starting an international armed conflict with the territorial state where the non-state actor resides. This creates a myriad of problems if, say the non-state actor routed their attack through a third country, or set up their attack to look like it came from a state-backed group in a third country. The response of the victim state could cause an armed conflict with a perfectly innocent state!


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