Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

peacebuilding ethics and the Kobayashi Maru

I was in New York yesterday for a panel discussion that accompanied the launch of PRIO’s new Forum for Peacebuilding Ethics. During the afternoon, one issue that came up time and time again was the need for practitioners to constantly weigh a complex set of priorities when programming in conflict-affected countries, many which involve thorny sets of moral trade-offs and difficult ethical choices. Indeed the problems that we grapple with are often what social planners sometimes refer to as wicked problems—issues where you never have all the required information, never understand all the causal relationships, where efforts to achieve changes in one area can lead to deterioration in other areas, and where to a large extent each problem is unique. There is no solution, in a mathematical/engineering sense—just a good faith effort to maximize gains and minimize harms.

One of the questions that came up was the training and human resource management implications of all this. Do we do an adequate job of preparing staff for these issues? How does one prepare for the ethical minefield that is peacebuilding? How does one prepare them for the almost-inevitable misjudgments?

Much of the time we train around best practices. There are good reasons for this—after all, we want agencies and their staffs to learn from what has (and has not) worked in the past. But the very language of “best practices” implies that there is an appropriate solution, rather than rather a number of potentially problematic approaches each involving costs and benefits.

Which, in turn, brings me to the Kobayashi Maru.

Science fiction fans will immediately recognize this as a reference to a Starfleet training simulation featured in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the Kobyashi Maru scenario, trainees were faced with impossible choices in an unwinnable situation: did they answer a distress call from a damaged frieghter, only to find their ship destroyed? Or did they ignore the call, only to see the freighter destroyed? It was meant to be a test of character, and an evaluation of how would-be officers confronted such dilemmas.

Now, readers who haven’t the slightest interest in Star Trek needn’t worry that this blog post will slip into excessive Trekkism. Rather, it occurs to me that there may be some value in designing peacebuilding/humanitarian assistance operations in which participants are confronted with situations that truly have no good answers. I mean this, moreover, not simply in that they face resource shortages and hence opportunity costs associated with actions (something that the Carana simulation does very well), but rather that no matter what they do, they are forced to confront gut-wrenching moral choices.

  • Does one—for example—pull humanitarian workers out of a dangerous area, knowing locals will die? Or does one keep them there, knowing that no matter what security precautions are taken there is a significant risk of staff being killed?
  • Do you authorize an airstrike against a high-value insurgent leader, knowing that there is a near-certainty of significant civilian casualties?
  • Do you pay “taxes” to a local militia to enable access to a needy population—knowing that the doing so strengthens their capacity to engage in such predatory activities?
  • Do peacekeepers fight in to protect civilians from massacre, even if they believe they lack the capability to win and might thereby be slaughtered as well? (Yes, I’m thinking here of Srebrenica, although it could equally be applied to some of the choices that MONUC has made in DR Congo.)

…and so forth. The point would be not so much which particular choice was made, but how it was made—providing an opportunity for participants to reflect on the the moral and practical calculus involved.

5 responses to “peacebuilding ethics and the Kobayashi Maru

  1. Patrick Dresch 02/03/2020 at 3:26 pm

    I think it is worth considering that wicked problems are often defined as having multiple stake holders and no unambiguous solution. This is particularly relevant in humanitarian response and disaster relief when trying to follow the humanitarian principles. How does one choose who gets what aid? There may not be either a correct “mathematical” or “moral” answer, or the answers may in-fact conflict. These difficulties are compounded by imperfect data on which to base one’s decision on, and time pressure may not allow more information to be gathered.

    I agree that the decision making process should be practised, and many organisations have decision making models which they teach. Perhaps the benefit of using games is to give players an opportunity to practice this process and recognise how the stress affects them so that they are better able to deal with it in a real life situation? Dead of Winter is a good example of a game which requires players to balance personal objectives, long term team objectives, short term crises, and limited food while also dealing with other stressors. Although this is aimed at entertainment, using a similar system with a facilitator could provide a useful learning experience.

  2. Muneer 04/04/2009 at 7:38 am

    Great, really ethics is most valuable thing which we are losing these days.

  3. Tim Wilkie 24/02/2009 at 11:25 pm

    Great post. Really got me thinking. Thanks.

  4. Rex Brynen 23/02/2009 at 9:58 pm

    Good points, Michael.

    I think I would see such a simulation as less a “test of character” ST II: Wrath of Khan-style, and more as an opportunity for participants to unpack and discuss their moral and operational calculus post-simulation (and in doing so possibly help them to identify factors and implications that they hadn’t earlier considered, or which have been implicit in their reasoning).

  5. Michael Steele 23/02/2009 at 5:39 pm

    The obvious comment would be “To what end?”. The fictional “Koyashi Maru Scenario”, as written into the book/film was “a test of character”… less about training for hard choices and more of a straightforward psychological evaluation technique.

    As the post implies, you can certainly craft sims that acclimate players to the necessity of making morally courageous choices on a regular basis. There is much value in this training direction (IMHO), but it is very hard to *teach* moral courage (ie making the ‘right choice’) through games because you cannot condition a player to develop ‘moral reflexes’ if the lessons are not in close alignment with their existing fundamental core beliefs about what constitutes right/wrong – they end up just gaming the sim in order to ‘win’. Complicating the problem; these core beliefs vary wildly from culture to culture, to say nothing of individual differences. While professional cultures (military, doctors, etc.) coupled with strong, clear doctrine can provide a stepping stone for this leap in some circumstances, it will still be a leap.

    In creating such a game system, if the goal is to teach players to face daunting, if not impossible situations with grace/courage/character, etc. then such a simulation is merely part of the process; such a training syllabus needs a lot of carefully thought-out feedback mechanisms and direct mentoring/coaching – to do less is to merely traumatize the trainees and make them gun-shy about taking responsibility or accepting missions with uncertain outcomes.

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