Edinburgh University withdraws drones investment: what next?

The University of Edinburgh’s recent withdrawal of its £1.2M investment in a manufacturer of parts for US drones was praised by many, and Rob Edwards’ related news item in the Guardian was widely retweeted with positive comment. Readers’ comments, however, give the news a more mixed reception.

Did the University do the right thing?  What, if anything, does the logic of its decision commit it to doing next?  The first of those questions was aired in the online comments; and looking at those may help answer the second question, which is now a live one for the university: what next?

Nobody can doubt that Edinburgh will take the question seriously. The disinvestment decision was taken on grounds of social responsibility following pressure from students and campaigners – notably People & Planet. The University has a track record of heeding ethical proposals coming from those quarters, as the fact that it is now entering its tenth year as a Fair Trade University also evidences.  The recent appointment of former environmental strategist Dave Gorman as Director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability is a further sign of senior management commitment to high ethical standards in corporate conduct. The university has also become the first in Europe to sign up to the UN-supported initiative Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI).

So, as the University encourages its members to work out what it means for us as a collectivity to live up to high ethical standards, I want to explore what might be learned from the public comments.

One thing is that they focus on different questions than might loom large when contemplating an investment decision.  There the concerns are such as whether attempting to invest ‘ethically’ or with ‘social responsibility’ risks breaching fiduciary duties, or, if it doesn’t, whether it means only withdrawing from pernicious associations or also promoting ‘good’ enterprises, or whether it further means active engagement in the companies invested in.

The questions raised by the public take the debate back a few steps from the investment decision itself, and may help us probe how the land lies under the path to socially responsible investment.

Some questions are specifically about drones. What is it drones do that is wrong, and (why) is it more wrong than what other weapons systems do?  Comments about the use and effects of drones cite evidence that far from achieving surgical precision of targeting – one of their key selling points – drones actually cause higher rates of civilian casualties than conventional attacks.  Given the effects of drones on civilian populations, their deployment does not necessarily make the world a safer place for anyone: ‘When innocent civilians are killed along with targeted individuals, anger against the United States builds and can well result in the ultimate creation of even more terrorists.’ (Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in PakistanNevertheless, others ask, ‘Why are people more opposed to drones than to normal fighter and bomber aircraft?’  ( A similar question has recently been posed in relation to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.)  One of the comments gives this rather chilling answer that brings out the evaluative dimension of the wrong:

‘It is not entirely rational, except in the accurate perception that it represents a further step in a trend. The ratio of military to civilian deaths in wars has been relentlessly trending towards zero since the advent of the industrial age. When war meant sticking a piece of sharp metal into someone trying to bite your face off, targeting civilians had to be deliberate. Massacres such as that at Baghdad still took place, but it required a very solid motivation.  These days the antagonists sit in comfy chairs and play video games where you get extra points for a wedding party. Those engaging in the fight have almost no chance of injury and those starting the fight, the politicians, literally none at all. This is widely perceived as an instinctive wrong, and also facilitates the slide to conflict in the first place.’

It is wrong also in international law, according to the commenter who points out that launching an attack “in the knowledge that it will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians” is a war crime. S/he cites concerns of Amnesty International that, ‘from the little information made available to the public, U.S. drone strike policy appears to allow extrajudicial executions in violation of the right to life, virtually anywhere in the world.’

The wrongness in this case seems sufficiently clear to justify moral disapproval of the investment. But (when) is moral disapproval sufficient to justify a decision to disinvest?  What moral standards and thresholds of bad or wrong have to be passed in order to trump the conventionally accepted duties of investment managers to focus on returns?  These are questions that can’t be settled without a good deal of deliberation.  It may be thought that causing egregious harms involving clear breaches of human rights would be one obvious moral threshold.  But applying the principle is not so simple: how direct and central must a company’s contribution to the harm be?  In the present case, the manufacture of parts that are uniquely usable by the weapons system that is pronounced morally unacceptable seems to pass the test.  But as we saw recently with regard to the manufacture of chemical weapons in Syria, matters can be much more complicated.

Questions of ethics are not identical to questions of morality, and an important point is that any institutionalised practice – including that of engaging in research and education – has a specific ethical code.  Hence, for instance, we have medical ethics, business ethics, research ethics, and various other forms of professional ethics.  The norms guiding the conduct of a practice are geared to reflect and promote the core values that define its purpose.

The central practices of a university are the generation and dissemination of knowledge; these practices are supported by the wider public because, in the final analysis, they enable others to work to make the world a better place than it would be without that knowledge and the understanding it yields.  Within academia, some would see a strict division of labour here: if we generate the knowledge of how to make a devastating weapon, for instance, it is entirely up to others to decide whether to build one, or use one.  But this isolationist view of academic inquiry risks severing the link to the underlying value that such inquiry is supposed to have.

So what can or should the university do as an ethical corporate actor?  If it accepts as part of its mission a role in supporting growth in the wider economy, to what extent should its ethical stance reflect moral criticism of other economic actors?  Among the comments on the drones disinvestment, some view such decisions as indulging in ‘grand gestures’ that distract attention from the glaring inequalities in a world where the university occupies a very favourable position.  Given the university’s structural position within the globalizing economy, perhaps it should quieten down about its ethical commitments to avoid charges of at best paying lip service and hypocrisy at worst? Or should it, on the contrary, be expressly required to work to transform the global economy?

It seems to me that a bit of perspective is needed here.  The same basic dilemma applies to all attempts to engage ethically with the existing economic conditions; and it would be feeble to renounce the aim of becoming more ethical on the grounds that the background conditions remain unjust.  Putting expectations in perspective also means putting in perspective the actual achievement that prompted this discussion.  It really is a rather small one, in the broader scheme of things. But, then, too, a small achievement is still an achievement. Does it point a direction for future and possibly greater ones?  What should happen next?

There are clearly going to be knotty questions of both fact and ethical judgement involved in any specific review of the probity of any given investment.  This ought to be regarded as more of an opportunity than a problem for a university, however. For, of all institutions, a university is better placed than any other to muster the relevant knowledge and understanding.  That, after all, is its core activity.

The most immediate challenge is to harness its intellectual capacity to the problem at hand.  The University of Edinburgh has taken major steps at its highest levels to support ethical decision-making, including signing up to the Principles for Responsible Investment.  I believe this points to an ethical concern that goes deeper than the simple prudence of managing the potential reputational risks of keeping the wrong company.  In signing up, the university commits to ‘improve the content of the Principles over time’.  This suggests that the criteria used to judge improvements need to be aired, and the content should be illuminated by reference to substantive issues in real cases.

This means the initiative from the top has to be fully connected up with the research resources of the academic community too.  When making responsible decisions about investments, managers are often faced with a large and divergent set of questions.  Whereas the drones case, like Edinburgh’s previous case of disinvestment from tobacco, may prompt few serious ethical counter-arguments, other challenges on the horizon are more complex.  For instance, the fossil fuel industry that campaigners now have in their sights is deeply bound up in the socio-economic fabric in ways that give rise to real questions about structures of complicity and about balancing present social policy needs against longer term goals.  These complexities cannot be addressed without the contribution of academics.  An institutional commitment to respect “ESG Issues” (a set of indicators relating to Environmental sustainability, Social justice, and basic probity in the Governance of an institution or enterprise) has a particular implication for our kind of institution: we ought to be able to scrutinise carefully what the issues inside the box are and what ought to be done in relation to them.

A challenge, though, is that with incentives structures in academia generally these days being oriented to the kind of ‘impact’ that ultimately shows up in someone’s bottom line, research tends to be drawn towards areas where profits are most likely to be accumulated. Ethical questions are not so high up most research agendas. And that itself might be regarded as something of an ethical problem!

Up to now, the group appearing to take the ethical initiative has been the students, their association, and in particular their campaigning organisation People & Planet.  This is something noted, and indeed criticised, in readers’ comments questioning where authority does and should lie.  Edinburgh University is a public institution, they point out, so why should its ethics or policy be decided by students, and possibly by a small section of the student body at that?

As matters of fact, the students have found important champions among senior staff, and policy is decided by the University Court.  But the substance of the challenge deserves reflection.  This is because, of the organised bodies within the institution, it is the students who often seem most closely attuned to the ethical challenges that our globalised world continually throws up.  I remember vividly a Senate discussion on the concept of ‘sustainability’ a few years ago where it was the student representing People & Planet, Ben Miller, who brought by far the most insight to the proceedings.  (His contribution to the University was recognized by award of the Principal’s Medal.)  As Ben himself pointed out, the University has many individual academics who have great breadth and depth of learning to bring to bear on specific relevant questions.  The point I would emphasise is that this potential for engagement has yet to be fully harnessed, perhaps in some sort of organised forum for free ethical debate.

The newspaper article that prompted this blog says that the University of Edinburgh bowed to pressure from students and campaigners.  The obvious next step would be to correct this impression of its posture by becoming as fully proactive in its ethical commitments as the students urge it to be.  That would mean taking a further step beyond acknowledging the general significance of ‘ESG issues’ in financial decisions and engaging the academic community more fully and openly in the substantive ethical questions that firms’ business practices may sometimes occasion around the world.  Basically, if the University wants to keep in the lead, it needs to use its academic capacity to get firmly on the front foot.

Tim Hayward

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