Persons, Personhood and Proportionality: Building on a Just War Approach to Intelligence Ethics

Kevin Neil James Macnish

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There are a number of different approaches that one can take to intelligence ethics. In recent years, Michael Quinlan, Ross Bellaby and David Omand have each argued that the principles of the Just War tradition can be usefully employed to assess the ethics of intelligence (Bellaby 2012; Omand 2012; Quinlan 2007) from a deontological perspective. I have elsewhere argued that Just War principles are helpful in assessing surveillance (Macnish 2014), which has obvious overlaps with intelligence work. In this chapter I defend the approach of employing the principles of the Just War tradition to intelligence and develop these principles further than Quinlan, Bellaby and Omand have done so far. First, I consider the benefits of this approach. I then look at the challenges it faces, and in so doing present a comprehensive list of those challenges, answering each in turn. Finally, I accept that one challenge in particular (that of a lack of real guidance) holds particular weight. I address this challenge through a consideration of the Just War principle of proportionality as it applies to coercive techniques of intelligence collection. When weighing proportionality, it is tempting to see the assault in coercive intelligence as solely against the individual. I argue that the assault is also against personhood and the wider community, and goes both deeper and wider than an assault ‘merely’ against a single person. I conclude that coercive practices in intelligence are not mala in se, but that they are justifiable only in rare cases.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEthics and the Future of Spying: Technology, National Security and Intelligence Collection
EditorsJai Galliott, Warren Reed
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781317590545
ISBN (Print)9781317590552
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Publication series

NameStudies in Intelligence


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