Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics (JSCOPE)
Emerging Doctrine and the Ethics of Warfare
Dr. Tim Challans
School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS)
Military doctrines are often expressions of current practices. A doctrine will attempt to codify the practice, giving it a vocabulary and a set of concepts. This important doctrine business in turn can influence our training and practice whenever doctrine helps to indoctrinate the practitioner more fully into abiding by that particular practice. Squaring doctrine with practice and vice versa makes doctrine very important. The joint world of the American military is articulating a doctrine that describes its current practice, and this doctrine is gaining momentum at such a rate that we will hardly notice when its unofficial status becomes official. This doctrine is referred to as the effects-based approach (EBA), and operations within this approach are called effects-based operations (EBO). As I intimated up front, we have been training and practicing along these lines for some time. The doctrine is going to formalize what we have developed informally. More and more commanders and headquarters across the services are adopting the language of this doctrine; the doctrine writers are working hard so that our doctrinal literature can keep pace with the development. I want to offer a critique of EBA by starting with my most important claim. The effects-based approach has little potential to accommodate moral concerns, and our moral challenges will only increase as we continue to embrace this doctrine. EBA lacks any moral quality because it fails in every sense at the level of theory. The practitioners of EBA profess many assertions and defend their methods at the level of doctrine. However, the deep theory of the effects-based approach rests on several philosophical mistakes—metaphysical, epistemological, and logical mistakes—and I will deal with them each in turn. We should expect mostly mistakes as a result of a practice resting on a mistaken theory, for only by accident and not by design could anything good come out of it. My critique of this doctrine is based on the moral potential—or lack of moral potential—because of its unreliability as a theory. My argument will unfold at the level of theory and will avoid the politics of doctrine development. I want to carry out a dialogue on the academic front of reason and theory rather than the political front of decision makers at their headquarters and directorates. As a result I will be drawing upon the academic debate as it exists among the theorists (particularly that which is in print) rather than the political debate as it exists among decision makers (especially that which is in email traffic or on Power Point).
general idea of the effects-based approach has perhaps always been looming in
the recesses of consciousness among military practitioners, but the specific
practice has been around at least as long as Desert Storm. The concept took root when the intellectual
leaders of the Air Force began thinking and talking and writing about bombing
in terms of what effects they wanted to achieve rather than simply what targets
to service. That idea took root and the
roots have grown so deep and spread so far up to the present day that
practitioners today take the concept for granted. Even without the specialized jargon that the
services are now formulating for EBA, this general concept helped to guide operations
The heavy focus on the idea of an effect quite naturally moved some people to think of the metaphysical correlate to an effect—that of a cause. So, military operations began to be thought of as a chain of events, chains of cause and effect. All planners and commanders had to do was to start with the desired effect and move backward through the chain of events, doing things to cause the effects to take place. The backward planning process lends itself perfectly to laying out an elaborate sequence of causes and effects so that the military can achieve what it desires at the end of the day, or week, or operation. Well, the first mistake that EBA rests on is a metaphysical mistake because of the way it handles the topic of causation. The mistake is very simple to explain. Most philosophers think of cause and effect as being operative in the physical world, the mechanical world, the world of solid objects that abide by the laws of physics. Accordingly, most philosophers of social science do not believe causation is operative in the realm of human activity. Causation entails regularity in the form of laws, and laws possess features somewhere between minimal necessity and maximal sufficiency, any of which is too much to attribute to human action. On the other hand, most social scientists think causation is operative in human affairs and simply take the idea for granted (as well as historians and political scientists). But just as philosophers of science consistently demonstrate that the scientists themselves are not aware of the deep structures of their own practices, the same is true of philosophers of social science and social scientists. This difference in viewing the concept of causation as it relates to human action has perhaps always separated those who approach human activity philosophically from those who approach it scientifically. Within the effects-based approach, the military is attempting to cause effects outside the realm of the physical world; they are trying to bring effects about in the realm of human activity. Causation is not the proper concept when dealing with human activity. Many advocates of the effects-based approach have even attempted to make their so-called scientific approach to appear to be philosophical by looking toward the philosophical literature on causation. They mistakenly believe that something as complex as human activity can be rendered and reduced and mutilated to fit the Procrustean bed of behaviorism, choking the mental realm into lifelessness with their chains of cause and effect. This attempt by EBA advocates is both pseudo-scientific and pseudo-philosophical.
A more proper topic of study
than causal theory when dealing with human activity is a theory of action. Action theory is not well-known outside of
the disciplines of philosophy and cognitive science, but philosophers carved
out a niche for it decades ago, largely in reaction to the behaviorist
assumptions that pervaded the social sciences.
To speak of behavior is important for many social scientific disciplines
because behavior fits neatly into the language and concept of cause and
effect. The deep assumption here is that
people can be caused to behave, and modifying behavior is simply a matter of
adjusting input to get a different output.
Action theory recognizes that the mental realm falls outside the normal
physical realm of cause and effect. One
simply cannot cause another person to act a certain way; people act for
reasons, not causes. While some take reasons to be causes, reason
explanations are different from causal explanations. Action involves intention, which is a
combination of beliefs and desires. The
old behavioral black box disappears in action theory because the black box
opens up. Behaviorism reigned supreme
for decades, and it became firmly entrenched in the military when social
scientists took over the leadership business.
However, in the university behavioral science was slowly replaced by
cognitive science over the last half-century.
While the language of behavior disappeared more and more from
philosophical and cognitive science literature, that same language (along with
its assumptions) remains alive throughout the military. The linguistic archeological evidence is
there with both
and political leaders have long thought in a naïve sense that they could cause
people to act the way they wanted, bringing about desired results. German leaders in the Second World War
thought they could cause
second problem discussed here is closely associated with the first. This problem has to do with the nature of
knowledge, so it is an epistemological problem, how we can know this chain of
causes and effects. There are numerous
doctrinal manuals available, many on the web, that lay out a program with which
to conduct operations according to the effects-based approach. One such manual is Pamphlet 4 from the
The next problem I will deal with is a logical problem, because it has to do with the way we think about time. It is connected to the metaphysical problems as well as the epistemological problems, but it is worthy of its own treatment. The effects-based approach presumes that final causes are operative; the system takes for granted a teleological view of science. While final causes were present in scientific thinking since Aristotle and existed throughout scientific communities influenced by Scholastic teachings, the modern era of scientific thinking abandons the notion of final causes and thinks in terms of efficient causes. By starting with the desired effect and moving through a backward-planning process, military planners and commanders actually employ teleology to their approach, which renders an allegedly scientific EBA to be actually unscientific. The effects they want to bring about in the future actually influence and have purported causal efficacy to events that occur temporarily prior to the desired effects. In other words, the future is helping to cause the past (or the present). This is a mistaken view of what really takes place in the real world, but it is a logical mistake as well. The philosopher Francois Jullien exposes this failure of logic and reasoning in his excellent book, A Treatise on Efficacy: “Given that I myself am constantly evolving in the presence of the enemy, I cannot tell in advance how I shall win the day. In other words, strategy cannot be determined ‘in advance,’ and it is only ‘on the basis of the potential of the situation that it takes shape.” Imposing telos into a so-called scientific process is to misunderstand the whole enterprise of modern science.
Final causes dropped out
when modern thinkers over 400 years ago abandoned the scientific view of the Thomists. Instead of final causation, efficient
causation became the hallmark of a scientific world view. This logical mistake of injecting telos back
into science persists so prevalently in the
Gregory Paul examines the
influence of religiosity in prosperous democracies in an informative article
from the Journal of Religion &
Society. Taking the seventeen most
advanced countries in the world, he finds a positive correlation between
religiosity and an inability to understand the scientific theory of
evolution. The less religious a country
is, the more understanding; the more religious, the less understanding. For example,
This mistaken teleological view is similar to and related to the mistakes that behavioral science rests upon. Arthur Koestler aptly describes this problem when he writes about the temporal displacement assumed in operant conditioning, where the stimulus-response model is reversed because the stimulus temporally occurs after the response—it is out of time—the effect comes before the cause. “Behaviorism is indeed a kind of flat-earth view of the mind,” says Koestler. By way of analogy, EBA is the flat-earth view of military operations, because of its professed goal of shaping behavior. Behaviorism is relevant here, because EBA carries with it behaviorist assumptions in that if we reduce human activity to behavior then that is convenient for the social scientist, for one can cause someone to behave a certain way: “Effects-based operations are coordinated sets of actions directed at shaping the behavior of friends, foes, and neutrals in peace, crisis, and war.” However, if we think in terms of human action and turn to action theory, then since humans act for reasons, having intentions made up of beliefs and desires, then the realm of human activity becomes much more difficult and much less scientific. It is the height of absurdity to try to make something scientific when it cannot be so, as Aristotle reminds us that the intelligent person attributes precision to the degree that the subject matter allows.
Now that we have looked at only the most glaring philosophical mistakes of the theory associated with the effects-based approach, we can turn to the approach’s accommodation of morality. There are three levels of ethics: descriptive, normative, and meta-ethical. It is not accidental that none of the doctrine associated with this approach contains anything remotely connected to moral concerns at any of these levels of inquiry. Meta-ethical inquiry depends upon metaphysical, epistemological, and logical aspects, and the paper up to this point lays the groundwork for a philosophical investigation of the effects-based approach at the meta-ethical level. In fact, there is a built-in contempt for morality embedded deep within the effects-based doctrine, for morality will simply get in the way of pursuing the desired effects. Furthermore, causal claims, whether they are scientific or unscientific, are descriptive in nature and morality is normative; in the case of EBA, never the twain shall meet.
Morality can be usefully described along the lines of what people intend, what people do, and what consequences people bring about. Human intention is masked by this doctrine because of the behaviorist assumptions that under gird it. The focus on effects means that any assessments or judgments of the approach have to do with effectiveness, or the degree to which an operation brings about the effects. Hence, there is a lot of discussion of evaluating the degree of bringing about the effects through what they call measures of effectiveness. There is no discussion or no measure that has to do with an evaluation of whether the actions performed to bring about the effects are morally right. There is no theory of right action present in the effects-based approach. Most philosophers take a theory of right action seriously, with the right taking priority over the good (the language of good and bad is about consequences and the language of right and wrong is about actions). With an emphasis on bringing about certain effects, which are also consequences, the approach presumes consequentialism. Consequences play a role in morality. However, since EBA advocates focus solely on the effects or consequences they want to bring about (which seldom works as planned), they will completely ignore the vastly more harmful unintended consequences they bring about from their pursuit. The means we used to bring about victory to end WWII in large part created the Cold War, and the means we used to prosecute the Cold War in large part created the conditions for the conflict today.
For example, EBA advocates
will shrug their shoulders at collateral damage, believing that collateral
damage is just the price of doing business.
By collateral damage we are talking about the unintended harm to
non-combatants. The 20th Century—leaving
over 100 million war dead—has devolved from having a non-combatant casualty
rate of 10% at the beginning of the century to roughly 50% in the Second World
War to an appalling 90% by the end of the century. Is the current century following this trend? The vast majority of innocent people killed
in terrorist attacks well exceed the 90% rate.
But the casualty rate that we have inflicted in
Of the two general approaches to explore human activity, the scientific approach has had as its project the goals of explanation and prediction while the philosophical approach has worked toward understanding. One general strategy is the scientific one, maintaining that reason explanations could also be causal explanations. Adopting this first strategy, of which the effects-based approach remains a part, are the disciplines of social science that want to render human action under scientific regularities, such as empirical political science, economics, and so on. The other general strategy moves away from a scientific view of human activity remains philosophical. An alternative to the effects-based approach is emerging in some circles. That alternative is called systemic operational design (SOD). SOD is very much more philosophically sophisticated than EBA, and has its roots in modern science and philosophy. EBA remains medieval—pseudo-scientific and pseudo-philosophical.
EBA is an unsuccessful attempt at being scientific while SOD is philosophical. The former is an attempt at gaining a level of certainty and control through a decision procedure, while the latter is a critical method. Decision procedures are closed, complete, decidable, while critical methods remain open, incomplete, and acknowledge uncertainty. The first is pseudo-scientific because one of the features that differentiates between science and pseudo-science is the concept of falsifiability. No matter how much contrary evidence appears in front of EBA advocates, they can deny that the evidence falsifies their pursuits. The model can be completely backwards from ground truth, yet the model can persist—this is how we have failed to recognize or acknowledge something as significant as the current insurgency (as of a year ago at JSCOPE the military was denying one). The former doctrine begins with assumptions and the latter approach begins with questions, thereby revealing their relative stances on knowledge. Even though SOD is philosophically interpretive—not pretending to be scientific—it remains consistent with modern scientific practice and understanding.
Some are skeptical of SOD
because they think it is rooted in Israeli history and culture and
practice. While these states of affairs may
have influenced and motivated the primary theorists, nobody, not even the
Israeli theorists, see SOD as being a uniquely Israeli artifact without
application outside of the
SOD has to do with
capitalizing on emergences rather than teleologies, recognizing the way humans
act in an open system in the real world rather than misrepresenting human
behavior through a flawed representation, as EBA does. Force is not ruled out in the SOD concept,
but force is not the first resort either, so SOD opens the door for
considerations within the moral domain as a necessary feature of the
system. Understanding SOD is difficult,
though, for it requires one to be able to understand scientific evolution, the
way systems change naturally forward through time rather than systems
(particularly systems of systems) being made to change artificially backwards
through time based on some preconceived plan.
Advocates of SOD understand the power of the theory of evolution as a
scientific theory, and many EBA advocates do not. It is no accident that many EBA advocates
prefer intelligent design over the theory of evolution and that many of them
 Alexander Rosenberg, The Philosophy of Social Science, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), chapter 2. “Intentionality turns ‘mere’ behavior into action. Action is intentional, for behavior is only action if there are intentional states—desire and belief that lead to it.”
 Pamphlet 4, Doctrinal Implications of
Operational Net Assessment, United States Joint Forces Command, (
Jullien, A Treatise on Efficacy, (
 Gregory S. Paul, “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies,” Journal of Religion & Society, Volume 7 (2005).
 Arthur Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine, (London: Arkana, 1967), p. 17.
 Edward A. Smith, Effects Based Operations: Applying Network Centric Warfare in Peace, Crisis, and War, (DoD Command and Control Research Program, 2002), p. xiv.
interested in the academic and theoretic pursuits on the part of the
theorists. The theorists include Shimon
Naveh from the Operational Theory Research Institute (OTRI) in
 “People did
not want to hear about the Fedayeen. It
was an undefined enemy. So we ignored
it…If you cannot put a name or a face to an enemy, then why dedicate combat
power to them?”