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Once a physicist: George R Lucas Jr

George R Lucas Jr is a professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate College in Monterey, California

George R Lucas Jr

Why did you decide to study physics?
I grew up during the Cold War when people who had a bent for science or mathematics were encouraged to go in that direction. Also, I came from a family of engineers, so culturally speaking it was the natural thing to do. The undergraduate programme in physics at the College of William and Mary, where I got my bachelor's degree in 1971, was good and I also got to do a lot of hands-on research at a NASA facility called the Space Radiation Effects Laboratory.

 Why did you decide to switch to philosophy? 
I went to graduate school at Northwestern University intending to study physics but then two things happened. One was a sort of gloom that settled over the country as the Vietnam War was winding down. The other was that the demand for physicists and engineers just dropped off a cliff. I think that a lot of people have forgotten that in the 1970s, if you had a science degree you were probably lucky if you could earn money selling pencils as a beggar on the street – there were just no jobs at all. So, I figured, if I was going to be unemployed then I might as well chase the big money into philosophy.

How did you get into military ethics? 
Initially, I studied the work of the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, so that was a nice transitional way to take my physics learning into philosophy. But Whitehead doesn't have much to say about ethics – he's more an aesthetician, writing about beauty and harmony and things like that. In his philosophy "good" is more of an artistic notion than a moral one. My interest in ethical questions came from Vietnam and its aftermath, which made a lot of people think, "Was I opposed to that war, or to all war?" At the time, most people just assumed that war itself was a terrible evil that we should always avoid, whether it was nuclear war with the Soviets or guerrilla war with insurgents. However, I came to feel like there were times when a nation would need to use force in its own defence and for the defence of others. Also, an influential book called Just and Unjust Wars came out in 1977. The author, Michael Walzer, had the same set of questions – he had been opposed to Vietnam but supported the Israeli Six-Day War – and he thought, how can this be? How can I be in favour of one war and then opposed to another? He really didn't have any answers, so he thought it through and eventually published this book. And I think probably every military officer on the planet has a copy of it on their bookshelf.

 What ethical questions do you address with your students? 
The big questions in military ethics are policy questions such as, "do we go to war?", and some of my students – who include officers from all four branches of the US military and members of foreign militaries – think they are somebody else's job. But that's not exactly true. I tell them, sure, the president or Congress or the UN Security Council is going to make the big policy decisions but it is you who'll carry them out, so you need to know something about them. Also, they are going to get sceptical personnel asking, "What the hell are we doing here?", and they need to be able to answer. But then – more pressingly – they need to be able to say, well, for whatever reason, we're here, and we have to do our job correctly. We talk about that as a species of professional ethics. Just as doctors talk about their moral obligations, so should soldiers.

What are you working on now? 
My speciality areas right now are cybersecurity and the ethics of cyberwarfare. The institution where I'm teaching does a lot of research on new weapons systems, and many people are concerned about the ethics of cyberweapons such as Stuxnet [the computer worm that was used to attack a uranium-enrichment facility in Iran in 2010]. A lot of cyberweapons target the civilian population and a lot of cyberstrategists seems to implicitly accept that that's how cyber war is waged, even though that's both a violation of international law and morally questionable. I mean, why go after the ordinary vulnerable people? Aren't you supposed to be fighting against the enemy's military? But Stuxnet was different. It didn't touch any civilians, didn't ruin any civilian property, was aimed entirely at a military-weapons facility that was itself judged illegal and it did no harm even to those at the facility. After information about Stuxnet leaked out, I kind of joked that it was like somebody read an article on cyberwar ethics and then designed it to fit those constraints. A lot of people laughed and then didn't say anything.

 Do you have any advice for today's students? 
I think people should study physics because they love it and not because they think there are jobs or money to be made. But I think I gave up a little too soon. I was frustrated not just by the economy and by moral questions about war but also because I thought physics had reached a blind alley. Back then, particle physics was in a state of chaos, with 137 elementary particles known to exist and no rhyme or reason to them. A few years later, Stephen Hawking was able to link quantum mechanics and astrophysics, and people like Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman invented a new theoretical structure for elementary particles – but by that time I had already left. So, I guess the lesson is not to get discouraged too easily. There's always a new exciting discovery around the corner.

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