Faculty spotlight: Tom Simpson

Tom Simpson is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, and a Senior Research Fellow at Wadham College. His work focuses on three interrelated themes: trust, military ethics, and big questions questions thrown up by new information and computing technologies.

Tom appeared on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story (October 2015) to talk about the military use of drones in a debate with Jeremy Scahill (co-founder of the Intercept, which reported the drone papers leak) and Nadim Houry (from Human Rights Watch). He also wrote a piece for The Conversation about the ethical implications of leaked drone papers detailing the US drone strike operations against Islamist terrorists in East Africa.

What are the ethical implications you talked about?

The story about US drone strike operations was published on the website “The Intercept”, which is a campaigning organisation, and only incidentally a source of news. This is illustrated by the kind of language they used, describing the drone strikes as “assassinations”. This obscures the significant moral issues that the growing use of drones actually raises. The key point is that the inherited strict division between peace and war, which law reflects, is not obviously adequate for preserving an sufficient level of security. What’s clear is that countering terrorism through policing actions only will lead to greater numbers of innocent victims. But responding to terrorism through war tends to spread the violence. The response that governments have taken over the last 15 years or so is to try and avoid the dilemma, by expanding the grey area between peace and war, and using covert groups (spies, special forces) to combat terrorism. Historically, these agencies’ operations have been officially deniable, being either covert or unacknowledged, and this largely continues. We need an informed, public debate about whether this is appropriate, and what the regimes of accountability are for this kind of force. So there are some hard questions to be confronted, which tend to be obscured by activism on the issue. 

So, what should governments do about it?

My own view is that an international effort is needed to modify the body of law which currently governs conflict between states – namely International Humanitarian Law – so that it is suitable for more discrete, limited uses of force. The Paris attacks have made vivid the threat to life that terrorists such as ISIS pose, and particularly the way that ungoverned or contested spaces allow these groups to coalesce. What we lack is a clear legal basis, and regimes of accountability, which enable governments to intervene in such territories and to protect their people against such threats that emerge from them. Developing that must be a priority. I argue this point in a recent submission (see link below) to the UK’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has an inquiry ongoing into exactly this issue. The key test for any such body of law is whether it is impartially applicable, and restricts lethal force to only that which is necessary for self-defence.

How does this relate to the research you’re currently involved with?

I have a long-running interest in the ethics of force, with a particular focus on the ethical questions that new technologies raise, especially when used by the military. I recently published a paper on the ethics of autonomous weapons systems, a successor technology to drones and often referred to as ‘killer robots’. 

I especially enjoy bringing this research into the classroom at the Blavatnik School of Government, and engaging with students about ethical questions that governments around the world face as they devise and implement public policies on the ‘Foundations’ course. One of the far-sighted aspects of the School has been the decision to make this ethical and political engagement a central part of the curriculum – the Masters in Public Policy opens with Foundations, alongside Economics – and I think this will yield really positive benefits for policy-making internationally in the long-run. 

November 2015