Blind Fire: How Universities Push Ethically Unequipped Students Towards Defense Work


Recruiting season is a critical aspect of many students’ academic journeys. Summer employment brings the chance to increase one’s hiring potential, gain invaluable technical experience, and expand professional networks. However, many jobs come with certain ethical caveats, and some opportunities can put students in a position where they betray their own ethical standards. Nowhere is this truer than in the defense industry. Therefore, it is important to consider whether universities are doing an adequate job of preparing students to make the ethical assessments necessary for seeking employment at a defense company. This article suggests that universities, due to their significant role in pushing students toward employment in the defense industry, need to play a larger role in educating students in ethics and providing information on how certain jobs may be more ethically compromising than others.

When recruiting season is in full swing, students of all majors flock to employers looking for an elusive internship or part-time offer. Between tech, petroleum, design, and marketing, each field available for students to pursue comes with its own ethical considerations. For instance, a petroleum engineer might have to consider the devastating impact of their industry on the environment, while a marketing intern would have to consider how they manipulate their viewers to purchase products that they themselves may not believe in. In almost any field, college students who are new to the industry must make a variety of ethical assessments that are extremely complex, but no industry is more fraught with ethical pitfalls than the defense industry. Thus, it is imperative to acknowledge that while some students are fully capable of making complex ethical considerations, others possess minimal education in ethics. To assess whether universities are adequately preparing their students for work in the defense industry, one must first consider whether work within the military-industrial complex can be ethical at all. With that question answered, one can finally consider whether the responsibility to evaluate this falls to the student, the university, or the recruiter.

Because the military-industrial complex is rooted in war, it is important to first consider if war can be ethical in and of itself. To do so, one might consult the Just War Theory, which states that if the principles of just war – having just cause, being a last resort, being declared by a proper authority, possessing right intention, having a reasonable chance of success, and having the end being proportional to the means used – are upheld in a conflict, then that conflict is ethical [1]. However, this is no simple task. For one, the principles of the Just War Theory utilize a variety of ethical approaches. “Having a just cause” uses the justice approach, consulting “authority” the rights approach, and using ends “proportional to the means used” the utilitarian approach. Each of these approaches comes with a variety of considerations, questions, and rules. For instance, to use the rights-based approach to evaluate the “authority” component of the Just War Theory, one would have to evaluate which rights are being upheld or violated by a nation choosing to engage in war, as well as the rights of those affected by said war. Then one would need to consider whether each right deserves that status, and how such rights might conflict [2]. For a topic as complex and perilous as war, this becomes an immense undertaking. Seeing as the other ethical frameworks require equally deep evaluations, it becomes clear that a full analysis of the ethics of war is far too immense to expect of a fresh college student with no background in ethical analysis.

However, the military-industrial complex is distinct and ethically separate from military conflict itself. Even if a hypothetical just war exists, the fruits of weapons development used during such a war might outlive the conflict and later do harm in unforeseen ways. For students seeking employment within the military-industrial complex, this is a key consideration, as they will likely contribute to the evolution of weapon design and in doing so help create tools that might be used for unethical purposes. For instance, the AK-47, designed in 1947 by Mikhail Kalashnikov, was originally intended to give the Soviet Union parity with weapons manufactured in Nazi Germany. However, due to a variety of factors, it became an icon of terrorist cells and an implement of genocide in Africa [3][4]. As a result, while Kalashnikov’s initial motivation for designing the AK-47 may have fit a variety of ethical frameworks, the weapon’s effectiveness in the hands of bad actors may also have eclipsed any initial benefit. 

Another consideration to make with respect to weapons is whether they can serve as a deterrent. For instance, the development of nuclear weapons has, so far, prevented outright war between military superpowers. In many ways, this is one of the strongest justifications for continued weapon development. By keeping up with cutting edge technology, nations can prevent other powers from attacking them in the first place. However, this idea, despite being valid, fails to consider how the military-industrial complex stands to benefit from the active employment of its products. Therefore, it is in the best interest of defense companies to contribute to unjust conflict rather than to continue developing their products as deterrents to all-out war.

Furthermore, much of the military-industrial complex is supported by government contracts which in turn allows lobbyists of those contractors to exert undue influence on American foreign policy. This was a concern recognized as far back as the 1950’s, with President Eisenhower positing that “in the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist” [5]. The idea that the military-industrial complex habitually acts unethically is not a novel one. To quote Edmund Byrne’s 2010 article in the Journal of Business Ethics, “A key consideration here is that the corporations able to influence the U.S. government to act militarily in their behalf let neither legal nor ethical constraints stand in their way” [6]. Thus, even if a student looks to manufacture more effective weapons to limit unnecessary suffering, the corporation for which they work might see profit in supplying such weapons to unjust customers and causes.

With the above considerations in mind, one can move to consider what role corporations should play in the ethical considerations of their employees. Current recruiting practices seem to suggest that students should be the ones to shoulder the above burden. Careers sections of defense contractor websites almost never mention ethics, and recruiter information sessions mainly focus on company culture and benefits rather than system lethality. This lack of focus on the effects of defense industry products is particularly concerning because such products are often tools used exclusively to kill other humans. Social media companies can get away with glossing over the ethical conundrums related to their products at an information session because the dilemmas are not far removed from everyday life. However, when a student working for a defense company might be assigned to work on a targeting pod which guides missiles towards human targets, they need to know what they are signing up for.

Unfortunately, the background knowledge required to make an informed decision about the ethics of working for a defense company are not universal. While some students might have received an ethical education in high school, or in certain college classes, a student not enrolled in such classes might be entirely unequipped to make complex ethical assessments. One student may understand the history of the military-industrial complex, while another may have stumbled into a defense contractor booth after hearing about it for the first time that morning. Furthermore, students cannot be expected to do their own due diligence because many defense companies present themselves no differently than any other technical corporation. When a defense presentation looks no different from a consumer goods presentation, how can a student be expected to dig deeper for the former? 

Yet another ethical question arises when one considers that such companies hold immense power as sources of employment. Even the most well-informed student might go against their own ethical frameworks and values when professional development and monetary considerations are on the line. Parents, universities, professors, and the job market itself place an enormous emphasis on students to get professional experience during their time in college. Thus, when a student decides to work at a defense company, they are not doing so free from external influence. In fact, they are doing so while biased by very powerful forces. Thus, due to the inherent value of experience at a major firm, defense companies can effectively prevent students from truly acting in their own best interest. With the potentially immense ethical pitfalls of defense work, this power dynamic becomes unacceptable.

Without the influence of universities, however, such power dynamics would not be as potent. For one, to maintain a competitive edge, a university has a strong incentive to remove barriers towards employment for students.  Universities often encourage their students to work in one of the world’s most ethically questionable industries. While engineering students are sometimes given the opportunity to learn about various ethical frameworks in classes, these resources are inadequate for a few reasons. First, such courses are usually optional, resulting in a lack of knowledge for at least some number of students. Second, the courses themselves fail to give students the tools necessary to properly consider work in the defense industry. In a sense this reflects the cultural shifting of universities away from being sources of holistic intellectual education and towards being manufacturers of skilled labor. However, this does not change the fact that universities often fail to give their students the ethics toolset they need to navigate certain aspects of the professional world. In fact, the word “ethics” and its variations are often entirely missing from universities’ mission statements. Yet, by promoting current recruiting practices, universities have the potential to harm their students by pressuring them to betray their ethical principles.

Unfortunately, it appears that discussion of the ethical responsibilities of universities in the recruiting process is scant, and virtually no framework exists for such responsibilities. The question therefore becomes whether universities have an obligation to give their students a robust education in ethics. In considering whether universities might have an obligation to protect their students from harm, it can be useful to consult former legal decisions. From a legal perspective, the Supreme Court case Regents of University of California v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County (2018) established that universities have a duty to protect their students from physical violence during extracurricular activities [7]. However, the legal case for psychological harm, due to its intangibility, is less concrete. Despite this, from a purely ethical perspective, one can see that universities have a clear obligation to protect their students from undue psychological harm incurred from recruiting. This obligation is inherent in the way universities play an active role in pushing students towards jobs in the defense industry. By essentially advertising for defense companies by allowing them to host information sessions and attend career fairs, universities directly encourage students to seek employment at these companies. While a student that looks for an ethically complicated job external to university influences requires no protection, the fact that schools play a significant role in encouraging students to intern at these companies makes them culpable in whatever adverse effects come from their influence. 

Therefore, this article proposes that universities that encourage students to seek employment in the defense industry begin to educate their students on the industry’s inherent complexities. This could be done in a variety of fashions. One avenue could utilize job postings on career gateways by accompanying them with disclaimers and links to further readings on the ethics of weapon manufacturing and design. Another important step would be for universities, and especially engineering colleges, to include an ethics education in the curriculum of every student beginning early in their education. With these efforts in place, universities could begin to give their students the tools necessary to navigate such a high-pressure environment and time in their lives.

Recruiting, even without the weight of ethical considerations, is undoubtedly a stressful period in any student’s academic career. Yet, without the time, confidence, or knowledge to make the necessary ethical assessments in picking a company, getting an internship can become a deeply compromising experience. If universities continue to play middleman and advisor in pushing students towards ethically complex positions, then they must adopt appropriate measures to ensure their students do not jeopardize themselves for the institution’s benefit.

By Max Marshall, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California

About the Author

At the time of writing this paper, Maxim Marshall was a junior studying computer science and had not yet begun his major in art in the Roski School of Art and Design. While Maxim used to be an avid reader of military history, his experiences in undergrad have motivated him to learn more about the justifiability of past American military conflicts.


[1] “Just War Theory | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy”,, 2021. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Nov. 11, 2021].

[2] “Rights Test,” Ethics Ops. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Dec. 13, 2021].

[3] J. Forge, “Proportionality, Just War Theory and Weapons Innovation,” Science and engineering ethics, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 25–38, 2008, doi: 10.1007/s11948-008-9088-z.

[4] C. Chivers “How the AK-47 Rewrote the Rules of Modern Warfare”, Wired, November 1, 2010. Available: [Accessed: Nov. 11, 2021]

[5] “Ike’s Warning Of Military Expansion, 50 Years Later”, NPR, 2011. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Nov. 11, 2021].

[6] E. F. Byrne, “The U.S. Military-Industrial Complex is Circumstantially Unethical,” Journal of business ethics, vol. 95, no. 2, pp. 153–165, 2010, doi: 10.1007/s10551-009-0361-0.

[7] “Regents of University of California v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County”, Justia Law. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Nov. 11, 2021].

Links for Further Reading