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Deterrence and the Ethics of Cyber Conflict

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Part of the Philosophical Studies Series book series (PSSP,volume 124)


The notion that the resort to and conduct of conflict can, and should be constrained on ethical grounds is well understood. Why then is it proving difficult to apply that understanding to cyber space? In the first place, it is as yet unclear how we might define ‘conflict’, ‘violence’ and ‘aggression’ in cyber space; what the ‘cyber domain’ might be; and what it might be to be secure within or from that domain. Do we apply existing understandings and simply prefix them with ‘cyber’, or is there something qualitatively different about cyber security and the conduct it permits or requires?

Then there is a far deeper, more structural problem with which to contend. The ethical problem with cyber space is that it is an artificial environment offering both co-operation on the one hand, and contention and confrontation on the other. And it is difficult to know the identifiers of good and bad behaviour at any given moment. Cyberspace is stubbornly pre-political, pre-strategic and therefore pre-ethical; it is not yet susceptible to the forms of political and strategic organisation with which we are familiar and is thus resistant to the normative constraints with which we have expected to manage and moderate conflict and organised violence.

Cyber security must be conceptualised as an arena for human exchange in which diplomacy, negotiation, bargaining, compromise, concession and the exercise of moral judgement are not only considered proper but are also made possible. This chapter argues that deterrence thinking can assist in this process.


  • Cyber conflict
  • Ethics
  • Aggression
  • Anonymity
  • Deniability
  • Just war tradtion
  • Law of war
  • Harm
  • Intention
  • Discrimination
  • Trust
  • Deterrence

We need to furnish a rational basis for our moral thinking both in general and, in particular, in relation to the difficult issues of war and peace. To be able to write […] about morality and war, it is necessary first to secure the foundations of morality.

(David Fisher, 2011 (Fisher D. 2011. Morality and War: Can War be Just in the Twenty-first Century? Oxford University Press, p3.))

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  1. 1.

    Dipert (2010) , pp385, 405.

  2. 2.

    See, for example, Danks and Danks (2013).

  3. 3.

    Jenkins (2013), p68. Jenkins’ response (p75) to the challenge he sets is, nevertheless, optimistic; ‘cyber-weapons can be more morally sound than conventional weapons ever could.’ [Emphases in original]

  4. 4.

    Jenkins, Is Stuxnet Physical?, p69.

  5. 5.

    According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), in 2015 there are 7 billion mobile cellular subscriptions around the world; a seven-fold increase since 2000. By the end of 2015 the ITU estimate that there could also be as many as 3.2 billion Internet users globally, as against 400 million in 2000. International Telecommunications Union, ICT Facts and Figures. ITU, Geneva: Accessed 5 June 2015.

  6. 6.

    Definition of Aggression, UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX), 14 December 1974:

  7. 7.

    Dipert, The Ethics of Cyberwarfare, p385.

  8. 8.

    Quoted in Shaw (1991), p694.

  9. 9.

    The usual reference point in this debate is the Caroline case of 1837 which established the principle that the pre-emptive use of armed force could be justified only where there was ‘a necessity of self-defense … instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.’ US Secretary of State Daniel Webster quoted in Walzer (2000), p74.

  10. 10.

    Walzer , Just and Unjust Wars, p3.

  11. 11.

    Islam is considered by its adherents to have existed since Adam, held to be the first human.

  12. 12.

    Hew Strachan argues that this was not Clausewitz’s intention and that ‘over the past thirty years western military thought has been hoodwinked by the selective citation of one phrase’: Strachan (2013), p13.

  13. 13.

    I develop this argument in Cornish (2003).


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Cornish, P. (2017). Deterrence and the Ethics of Cyber Conflict. In: Taddeo, M., Glorioso, L. (eds) Ethics and Policies for Cyber Operations. Philosophical Studies Series, vol 124. Springer, Cham.

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