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Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law


Upcoming Events

April 1, 2015

Perceptions of Risk: How We Manage Emergencies 

Perceptions of Risk - Low resolution.pngThe study of risk management across a variety of domains is an essential part of policymaking today.  From public health to national security, market analysis, and natural disaster emergency response, the question of how to assess and to respond to risks is of the utmost importance.  Important questions pertaining to the public perception include:  Does the public perceive risks accurately or are public perceptions distorted by cognitive biases?  Should public perceptions of risk be taken into account in risk management plans even if they seem “irrational”?  Should preparedness for disasters follow the same template as management of more ordinary risks?  Should the management of risk in the public sector differ from that in the private?  Should the risk of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, be handled in the same way as the risk of human threats, such as terrorism or criminal activity?  Does a serious threat that persists over a protracted period of time, such as a daily threat of terrorism, still count as a security emergency?  When are restrictions of civil liberties, such as quarantines or preventive restraint, justified to pre-empt risk of harm to the general public?

The purpose of this Symposium, co-sponsored by CERL, is to foster multi-disciplinary and inter-professional conversation about risk perception and strategies of emergency management. The panelists will engage in a conversation about emergency preparedness and how our perceptions of risk factor into those efforts. 

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April 15-16, 2015

Ethical Dilemmas in the Global Defense Industry


The defense industry operates at the intersection of the public and private sectors in a global arena and routinely interacts with foreign legal systems and diverse cultures.  Navigating these different contexts creates challenges for the defense industry, particularly where legal and ethical norms conflict.  How should a defense industry company conduct business in countries where government officials operate according to different moral norms?  Should the defense industry be responsive to ethical objections to technological developments in the context of surveillance or controversial new weapons such as autonomous weapons systems?  Should the global defense industry be held to a higher standard than other industries given the sensitive and potentially controversial nature of its enterprise?  Domestically, other pressing questions arise.  Should partnerships between the defense industry and institutions of higher learning be encouraged?  Do such partnerships raise ethical concerns?

The purpose of this conference is to inspire constructive discussion pertaining to such questions, by bringing  together distinguished practitioners and scholars from the private sector, academia, government service and the military to engage in an in-depth exploration of the moral and legal challenges facing the global defense industry.

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Past Events

March 3, 2015

An exclusive screening of ‘The Future of Interrogation: National Security in 21st Century Conflict”

On Tuesday, March 3, 2015, there will be an exclusive screening of video segments from “The Future of Interrogation: National Security in 21st Century Conflict,” a panel discussion being held in Washington, DC at the National Press Club on February 25th. The screening will be followed by a conversation with Professor Claire Finkelstein, Director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, and Professor William Burke-White, Director of Perry World House. Light refreshments will be served.

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February 25, 2015

The Future of Interrogation: National Security in 21st Century Conflict

imageThe Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program (SSCI Report) has sparked discussion about Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT) and reignited the debate about the ethics and legality of their use. The Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL) in collaboration with Perry World House, both of the University of Pennsylvania, will host a public panel assessing the SSCI Report’s findings with regard to the ethics and legality of EIT. The panel will take into consideration the moral and legal rights of detainees, the role of international law in general, and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) particularly in constraining interrogation practices.

Additionally, the role of professionals–lawyers, doctors, journalists, and others who are bound by strict ethical codes of conduct–presents a particularly complex question. In rationalizing and implementing EIT, professional ethical codes can come into conflict with national security imperatives. Do professionals have a duty to oppose national security operations that violate the ethical standards of their professions? Should they have a further duty to disclose such violations to the public? How should violation of such duties be handled?

Finally, the SSCI Report itself has been highly controversial. Some see the report as a long overdue exposure of a doleful chapter in our nation’s recent history. Others see the report as an exercise in partisan politics, suggesting inaccurate statements about the efficacy of EITs as well as holding the intelligence community to unrealistic standards of accountability. The panel will explore these and related complex relationships in a non-partisan manner by bringing together a distinguished group of panelists from different professions.

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November 21-22, 2014

The Ethics of Autonomous Weapons Systems

imageAutonomous Weapons Systems (AWS) are defined by the U.S. Department of Defense as “a weapon system(s) that, once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator.” Since the crucial distinguishing mark of human reasoning is the capacity to set ends and goals, the AWS suggests for the first time the possibility of eliminating the human operator from the battlefield. The development of AWS technology on a broad scale, therefore, represents the potential for a transformation in the structure of war that is qualitatively different from previous military technological innovations.

The idea of fully autonomous weapons systems raises a host of intersecting philosophical and psychological issues, as well as unique legal challenges. For example, it sharply raises the question of whether moral decision-making by human beings involves an intuitive, non-algorithmic capacity that is not likely to be captured by even the most sophisticated of computers?  Is this intuitive moral perceptiveness on the part of human beings ethically desirable? Does the legitimate exercise of deadly force should always require a “meaningful human control?” Should the very definition of AWS focus on the system’s capabilities for autonomous target selection and engagement, or on the human operator’s use of such capabilities?  Who, if anyone, should bear the legal liability for decisions the AWS makes?  The purpose of this conference is to address such questions by bringing together distinguished scholars and practitioners from various fields, to engage in constructive discussion and exploration of the moral and legal challenges posed by Autonomous Weapons Systems.

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April 11-12, 2014

The Weighing of Lives in War: Combatants and Civilians in the Jus in Bello

imageThe weight assigned to combatants’ lives has further implications beyond the battlefield.  For example, the more risk on the battlefield soldiers are expected to bear, arguably the greater the national obligation to compensate and care for wounded warriors.  An argument for minimizing combatant exposure, on the other hand, would have implications for the technologies we should be willing to use in order to minimize combatant casualties, even if some such technologies pose an increased risk of collateral damage. CERL’s roundtable discussion will foster an interdisciplinary discussion on these and related topics, drawing together academics and practitioners to discuss the concept of combatancy and the policy its implications.

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November 22-23, 2013

On the Very Idea of Secret Laws:  Transparency and Publicity in Deliberative Democracy

imageIn Philosophical Investigations, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgentein famously suggested that language is a public, shared phenomenon, and accordingly, that there is no such thing as a “private language.”  A similar doubt might be raised about the possibility of a “private law”:  Is a law that is not publicly shared a conceptual contradiction, in the way a private language might be?  What are the publicity conditions on the concept of law? How much transparency does the notion of deliberative democracy itself require?         

The conference will consider the topic of private laws in light of the recent controversy over secrecy, surveillance, and national security.  Of particular recent interest are the debates surrounding the conduct of Edward Snowden and the policies of the National Security Agency (NSA).  We will also consider the secret orders of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, as well as the secret memos authored by lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel during the Bush and Obama Administrations, and will compare different methods of maintaining secrecy and their impact on individual privacy rights and on rule of law values more generally.

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October 4, 2013

Professional Ethics in National Security Law and Policy


Conflicts between the norms by which professionals are governed and more general national security norms are currently widespread in professional life. Journalists may feel obligated to divulge information they regard as vital for a fully informed public, yet the norms of national security bar disclosure. Lawyers, doctors and psychologists have been asked to help implement policies that conflict with standards of conduct in their processions. Medical researchers seeking to publish research findings are often pressured to withhold information that could have a dual military use. This conference will explore conflicts between professional and national security norms as they arise in six different professions: journalism, law, medicine, mental health, sciences, and business.

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May 16, 2013

Drone Wars: The Future of Targeted Killings & Presidential Power

Join Dean Fitts and Claire Finkelstein for “Drone Wars: The Future of Targeted Killings & Presidential Power” as part of Penn Law’s Washington Seminar Series.

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April 19-20, 2013

Conference on Sovereignty and the Rule of Law

imageThe primary question of this conference is how we ought to treat national sovereignty in the face of international terrorism. Typically, we think that the national sovereignty of a country ought to be respected until war is explicitly declared. Yet, some of the most significant threats around the globe are not countries, but groups that reside in countries that they have no formal ties to. If the state that has control of such countries in unable or unwilling to deal with such threats on their own, what options are available to those states that have legitimate grievances against aggressors? Under what conditions (if any) can a state override the national sovereignty of particular countries to pursue those that they have declared war on? Is the use of drones in a territory any less of a violation of sovereignty that if soldiers are sent in? If a particular state gives secret clearance for a foreign power to enter their country, can the foreign power rightfully enter without the popular support or knowledge of that country’s citizens? In this conference we will discuss the requirements of respect for national sovereignty and what limitations ought be put on security forces in their actions against international terrorism.
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November 16-17, 2012

Conference on The Logic of Deterrence and the Changing Face of Warfare

imageDiscussions of the logic of deterrence, both theoretical and practical, dominated the literature on just war theory during the Cold War. Despite diminished attention, the topic remains of vital importance to the current national security concerns, playing a central role in debates over Cyberwarfare and the use of non-conventional weapons or strategies. This Roundtable seeks to revive traditional discussions about the logic of deterrence, but to place this topic in a contemporary setting. Many of the former questions at the intersection of rational choice theory and ethics apply with renewed force in a post-Cold War world: Is it permissible to threaten to do something it would not otherwise be permissible to do? Does precommitment to an otherwise impermissible course of action render it permissible, given that it is accompanied by advance warning? Does deterrence require public notice to constitute a legitimate public policy? These older theoretical questions prove particularly challenging in an age of highly advanced technologies of war. How does deterrence work if the threatened attack cannot be traced back to the state that launched it? How should deterrence theory handle enemies whose actions are highly unpredictable and decentralized, and where the primary actors might not be interested in sparing civilian lives or even avoiding their own death? Is it legitimate to issue threats of kinetic action to deter a Cyber attack? Given the complexities of modern warfare and counter terrorism operations, the challenges of deterrent theory are now ripe for reexamination.
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October 15, 2012

Roundtable on Cyberwar and the Rule of Law

imageCyberweapons have become the most dangerous innovation of this century. Cyberwarfare is now considered by the FBI to be the number one threat, ahead of other forms of terrorism. Cyberweapons have the potential to wreak havoc with economic, political, and military systems on the basis of a single electronic act, creating a dreadful new total war potentiality in every dimension. Preventing cyberattacks, however, puts immense pressure on notions of sovereignty and the moral and legal doctrines that were developed to regulate them. As compared with other forms of warfare circumscribed by centuries of just war tradition and the law of armed conflict, cyberwarfare is particularly ambiguous from the standpoint of the rule of law: its prevention may require violating the sovereignty of other nations, violating traditional domestic privacy rights, expanding the concept of combatancy, and lowering the threshold for what counts as an act of war. The legal and moral complexities inherent in this new form of warfare make understanding the demands of the rule of law in national security an essential undertaking.
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September 11, 2012

Inaugural Panel on Foundational Questions in National Security

imageSince 9/11, increasing pressures on national security, together with global changes in the nature of war, have posed serious threats to the preservation of rule of law values in American society. The U.S. has struggled continuously with the ethical and legal posture of detention and interrogation, the permissibility of kill or capture raids on suspected terrorists, the legitimate scope of secrecy in the exercise of executive privilege, the acceptable extent of state investigation into the lives of private citizens, the authority of international law relative to U.S. sovereign authority, and now the expansion of the tools of war to include novel methods such as Cyber attacks. The Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law is a new institute at Penn Law devoted to the preservation of rule of law values in the face of the foregoing types of challenges.
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Please RSVP for the event here. If you have questions please contact Jen Evans.

This program has been approved for 1 hour of substantive law credit and 1 hour of ethics credit for Pennsylvania lawyers. Credit may be available in other jurisdictions. Attendees seeking credit should bring payment ($40 – cash or check payable to the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania). There is no charge for the event itself.

May 18 - 19, 2012

The Ethics of Secrecy and the Rule of Law Conference

imageRecent events have put governmental secrecy in the news and enhanced the scrutiny of classification practices. During the Bush Administration, for example, a series of secret legal memoranda authorized the use of enhanced interrogation techniques against terror suspects. These formed a key component of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism strategy. With the Obama Administration, clandestine legal memoranda have sought to justify the use of targeted killing, and one particularly controversial memo authorized the killing of an American citizen, Anwar al-Alawki. The contents of the latter have not been made public, though pressure is mounting for its release. Even the criteria by which a target is placed on the targeted killing list (the “Joint Prioritized Effects List” (JPEL)) remain confidential.

With the pressures of the ongoing War on Terror, major policies and legal questions of national importance have become less and less open to public view. The increase in secrecy is not without costs, as there appears to be a tradeoff between the need for effective security and the value of transparency. On the one hand, as Immanuel Kant wrote, “every claim to right must have this capacity for publicity.” John Rawls has echoed this same sentiment in requiring publicity as a condition of the social contract. On the other hand, effective national security crucially depends on the State’s ability to control the flow of information. This Roundtable will consider whether the expanding use of secrecy in governmental practices is desirable, and, most crucially, whether it is consistent with rule of law values.
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April 30, 2012

Targeted Killing: Law and Morality in an Asymmetric World Book Celebration

image5:30 p.m. | Silverman 245A/Levy Conference Center

“Targeted Killings: Law and Morality in an Asymmetric World” is an interdisciplinary compilation of essays that brings together articles each dealing with the difficult moral and legal issues surrounding the use of targeted killing. The publication, which has been released on the British market, and soon to be released in the United States, has already garnered significant attention and acclaim. With endorsements from Professors Philip Alston and David Luban, and journalist Scott Horton, the volume is the most wide-ranging and thorough treatment of the debate surrounding targeted killing to date. Admiral John Hutson, JAGC, USN (Ret), Dean Emeritus University of New Hampshire School of Law will give a keynote address as part of the celebration event. 


November 30, 2011

Ethical and Legal Dimensions of Targeted Killing

4:30 p.m. | Silverman 245A

imageThe use of targeted killing has become a favored tool in the War on Terror. The killing of Osama Bin Laden further solidified support for the practice, given its efficiency and swift success. Since Bin Laden, several high profile targeted killings have further increased public attention to such operations. With the increased public scrutiny has come a growing sentiment that the moral and legal justifications for targeted killing have not been sufficiently explored. To what extent, for example, do we have an obligation to attempt to capture before killing terror suspects? Are some individuals on the target list civilians rather than combatants or “unlawful combatants”? Are there special problems associated with targeting American citizens, such as al-Awlaki? If killing al-Awlaki was legitimate, would the same sort of operation be permissible on U.S. soil? This panel will seek to explore the ethical and legal issues surrounding recent uses of targeted killing.

Moderator: Claire Finkelstein Algernon Biddle Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy, University of Pennsylvania School of Law
Jens Ohlin Associate Professor of Law, Cornell University
Kevin Govern Associate Professor of Law, Ave Maria School of Law
Daphne Eviatar Senior Associate, Law and Security Program, Human Rights First
Ambassador Thomas Graham Special Representative of the President for Arms Control, Non-Proliferation, and Disarmament, 1994-1997

Listen to the panel:

(Moderated by Claire Finkelstein)

Read more about the panel

April 15 - 16, 2011

Co-sponsored by: Jean beer Blumenfeld Center for Ethics of Georgia State

Using Targeted Killing to Fight the War on Terror: Philosophical, Moral and Legal Challenges

imageThe Obama administration has authorized the CIA to target and kill Anwar al-Aulaqi, a radical Muslim cleric believed to have ties to al-Qaeda, on the ground that he helped to orchestrate attacks against the United States. The authorization raises the interesting question of who is a legitimate target of such military actions. In particular, it is arguably difficult to think of al-Aulaqi as a belligerent against the U.S., as he is himself an American citizen. Al-Aulaqi, however, is not the only person whose identification as a legitimate target raises moral and legal complications. The U.S. and other governments have been targeting and killing many others as part of both the fight against Islamic terrorists and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the widespread use of this technique raises important questions in just war theory. Notable as well is the fact that the U.S. has been targeting suspected militants with unmanned aerial drones, sophisticated military planes controlled remotely from distant lands.

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