Henschke – ‘Supersoldiers’: Ethical concerns in human enhancement technologies

Here we are considering a blog on the International Committee of the Red Cross’ page Humanitarian Law & Policy. It’s by Adam Henschke about ethical concerns with human-enhancement technologies, and continues our theme of super-soldiers. It’s available here.

Here’s what we thought:

I have to say I found this blog somewhat lacking, and perhaps even a little naive, for many of the issues in it have been present for many years.

‘Technological optimism’ is something that has long been associated with the military, as each new technology brings with it a whole raft of problems – not least the promise of changing the way we conduct warfare, and making warfare somehow ‘better’. Furthermore, the argument that any sort of enhancement technology can be put to malicious use is true of any technology, not just soldier enhancement. Dare I also add here that malicious use can also include those very same forces using the technology in the first place.

Perhaps one of the most shocking lines from this blog for me is the idea of certain ethicists arguing that there is an urgent need to enhance the human ‘moral decision-making process’. Aside from the blatant hypocrisy (ethicists suggesting unethical means to make something more ‘ethical’) this ‘problem’ already has a solution: the robot. Here, the ethicists in question are essentially suggesting that we alter human thinking such that their actions become systematised, or in other words, robotic. Aside from the dystopian notion of ‘installing’ ethical decision making within a human being. The question remains: why even bother using humans at all?

Finally, I’d like to make a very brief comment on the blog’s discussion surrounding consent. Here, the author focuses on medical consent, but one has to wonder if it is ever possible for a soldier (or citizen at the point of enlistment) to give ‘full’ consent, given one can never know the direction the armed forces may take. Given the State already effectively owns a soldier’s body (they are sent out to die at a command), I wonder why there should be such a focus on ‘informed consent’ in a medical setting? Is this, I wonder, a case of distraction – a straw man to avoid the more pressing issue of consent relating to enlistment itself?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

I appreciate that this article on the ethical consideration of military human enhancement approaches the view with an open mind. Outsiders to the field generally respond with disgust and horror, but to truly analyse the ethics of the issue, it is important to not let yourself be guided by pre-conceived opinions. I also appreciate how he is taking a broad view of military human enhancement, and that he ties it to the larger civilian debate on human enhancement, as that one is rather detailed and intricate. However, due to the nature of the format (an opinion piece on the website of the ICRC) it is rather short, does not go into a clear direction, and is perhaps too careful to avoid making any meaningful statement.

However one thing is clear: The issue of the ethics of testing enhancement and forcing soldiers to go through with it is of utmost importance. The urgency is born out of decades of unethical and harmful research that militaries have conducted, especially on disadvantaged communities. Because of the high demands of the job and the social structure of the military history shows time after time that soldiers will do whatever it takes: e.g. the notorious amphetamine use by militaries all over the world from WW2 to now. It is thus key to bring it into the public’s attention.

One more thing I would like to add to this article is a question that is of my personal interest: What will military human enhancement mean for the gender balance in the armed forces? Will enhancement make the physical differences between women and men insignificant? If that is taken out, how will the gender relations develop, and what larger implications does this have for gender relations, if not stooled on physical dominance by men? Does this mean there is an ethical obligation to introduce military humane enhancement?

Maaike Verbruggen, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

I think a really interesting part of this blog is Henschke’s consideration of the ethics of medical research on military personnel. He determines that as soldiers must follow orders, and military research is usually secret, research into super-soldiers may be unethical as soldiers cannot really give free consent, and research is not open to public scrutiny. This makes me think about drone pilots. We know that they have a greater prevalence of mental illness following operations, than ground troops do, due to having to watch the after-effects of their actions in full-motion video, despite the lack of physical risk.

Although obviously drone operations are not research, the ethical difficulties of super-soldier research seem to apply – the operators cannot just walk away, and they happen in secret. But, the regulatory frameworks are completely different, and they are completely different paradigms, so although the link is interesting, it doesn’t really have any direct impact. It does raise questions though.

If military operations are so difficult, and create harmful psychological injuries to such as extent that we are considering manipulating soldier’s brains so that they can either be healed from such injuries, or prevented all together, what does that say about today’s deployments when they cannot receive such a miracle cure? Indeed, we regularly hear of military veterans who are homeless, or struggling to deal with the after-effects of combat, and do not receive adequate help from government. This is despite the apparent ‘armed forces covenant’ that the UK government proclaims.

Perhaps the potential for super-soldiers is simply another symptom of the fact that militaries require lots of people and lots of money to not only do the things required of them well enough that bullshit managed retreats and re-deployments are not needed, but also to look after people when they come home. Perhaps if governments were really aware of the high impact of modern war, they would provide adequate monies to run their militaries, and have no need for super-soldiers in the first place.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

What do you think?

One thought on “Henschke – ‘Supersoldiers’: Ethical concerns in human enhancement technologies

  1. Gender balance is an interesting question with regards to technology. Is technology in some sense a “levelling force”, or even still are technological innovations always already in one sense gendered?


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