A Philosopher's Blog

Augmented Soldier Ethics IV: Cybernetics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 4, 2015

Human flesh is weak and metal is strong. So, it is no surprise that military science fiction has often featured soldiers enhanced by cybernetics ranging from the minor to the extreme. An example of a minor cybernetic is an implanted radio. The most extreme example would be a full body conversion: the brain is removed from the original body and placed within a mechanical body. This body might look like a human (known as a Gemini full conversion in Cyberpunk) or be a vehicle such as a tank, as in Keith Laumer’s A Plague of Demons.

One obvious point of moral concern with cybernetics is the involuntary “upgrading” of soldiers, such as the sort practiced by the Cybermen of Doctor Who. While important, the issue of involuntary augmentation is not unique to cybernetics and was addressed in the second essay in this series. For the sake of this essay, it will be assumed that the soldiers volunteer for their cybernetics and are not coerced or deceived. This then shifts the moral concern to the ethics of the cybernetics themselves.

While the ethics of cybernetics is complicated, one way to handle matters is to split cybernetics into two broad categories. The first category consists of restorative cybernetics. The second consists of enhancement cybernetics.

Restorative cybernetics are devices used to restore (hopefully) normal functions to a wounded soldier. Examples would include cyberoptics (replacement eyes), cyberlimbs (replacements legs and arms), and cyberorgans (such as an artificial heart). Soldiers are already being fitted with such devices, although by the standards of science fiction they are still primitive. Given that these devices merely restore functionality and the ethics of prosthetics and similar replacements is well established, there seems to be no moral concern about using such technology in what is essentially a medical role. In fact, it could be argued that nations have a moral obligation to use such technology to restore their wounded soldiers.

While enhancement cybernetics might be used to restore functionality to a wounded soldier, enhancement cybernetics go beyond mere restoration. By definition, they are intended to improve on the original. These enhancements break down into two main classes. The first class consists of replacement cybernetics—these devices require the removal of the original part (be it an eye, limb or organ) and serve as replacements that improve on the original in some manner. For example, cyberoptics could provide a soldier with night vision, telescopic visions and immunity to being blinded by flares and flashes. As another example, cybernetic limbs could provide greater speed, strength and endurance. And, of course, a full conversion could provide a soldier with a vast array of superhuman abilities.

The obvious moral concern with these devices is that they require the removal of the original organic parts—something that certainly seems problematic, even if they do offer enhanced abilities. This could, of course, be offset if the original parts were preserved and restored when the soldier left the service. There is also the concern raised in science fiction about the mental effects of such removals and replacements—the Cyberpunk role playing game developed the notion of cyberpsychosis, a form of insanity caused by having flesh replaced by machines. Obviously, it is not yet known what negative effects (if any) such enhancements will have on people. As in any case of weighing harms and benefits, the likely approach would be utilitarian: are the advantages of the technology worth the cost to the soldier?

A second type of enhancement is an add-on which does not replace existing organic parts. Instead, as the name implies, an add-on involves the addition of a device to the body of the soldier. Add-on cybernetics differ from wearables and standard gear in that they are actually implanted in or attached to the soldier’s body. As such, removal can be rather problematic.

A fairly minor example would be something like an implanted radio. A rather extreme example would be the case of the comic book villain Doctor Octopus—his mechanical limbs are add-ons.  Other examples of add-ons include such things as implanted sensors, implanted armor, implanted weapons (such as in the comic book hero Wolverine), and other such augmentations.

Since these devices do not involve removal of healthy parts, they do avoid that moral concern. However, there are still legitimate concerns about the physical and mental harms that might be caused by such devices. It is easy enough to imagine implanted devices having serious side effects on soldiers. As noted above, these matters would probably be best addressed by utilitarian ethics—weighing the harms against the benefits.

Both types of enhancements also raise a moral concern about returning the soldier to the civilian population after her term of service. In the case of restorative grade devices, there is not as much concern—these soldiers would, ideally, function as they did before their injuries. However, the enhancements do present a potential problem since they, by definition, give the soldier capabilities that exceed that of normal humans. In some cases, re-integration would probably not be a problem. For example, a soldier with enhanced cyberoptics would presumably present no special problems. However, certain augmentations would present serious problems, such as implanted weapons or full conversions. Ideally, augmented soldiers could be restored to normal after their service has ended, but there could obviously be cases in which this was not done—either because of the cost or because the augmentation could not be reversed. This has been explored in science fiction—soldiers that can never stop being soldiers because they are machines of war. While this could be justified on utilitarian grounds (after all, war itself is often justified on such grounds), it is certainly a matter of concern—or will be.


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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on March 4, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    What about soldiers who, after discharge, become free agent killers (=mercenaries) or criminals? Training lasts forever. What about augmentations? Would they be removed? Or would they be used by the now civilian ex-soldiers for augmented professional killing (=merc) or augmented crime? I can see such soldiers becoming mercenaries as a matter of course, with the merc corporations benefitting from the government funded augmentations.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 4, 2015 at 1:46 pm

      In sci-fi, augmented soldiers often go on to become mercenaries or criminals. That is kind of a cyberpunk thing.

      In the real world, it would make sense that they would do what is done now: some would go on to work as contractors (mercenaries), some would retire to normal lives and some might end up in crime. I suspect that the government would remove the augmentations if doing so was cost effective, otherwise they might just dump people back into the population as they were.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on March 4, 2015 at 9:00 pm

        Because our government contracts out security and other services it would probably leave the augmentations in place for use by partner corporations. One of the nastier cartels in Mexico was started by ex-soldiers. The soldiers began as security for an existing cartel (CDG) and eventually formed their own, competitive, cartel (Los Zetas).

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