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Opinion | Is Investing in Defense Contractors Actually Immoral?

I see both sides on this one. Unconditional pacifism is pure but impractical. President Barack Obama said as much in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture in 2009: “A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

That recognition of history is why there are few unconditional pacifists. More common are people who support only “just” wars, such as those fought for self-defense, protection of innocents and perhaps punishment of wrongdoing. “I’m not a pacifist, really,” John Tepper Marlin, an economist and adjunct professor of ethics at the Stern School of Business at New York University, told me this week. “If you want peace, be prepared for war. The issue becomes how much you spend for military versus social services.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine puts people who would like to wash their hands of war in a tricky spot. That includes people who don’t want their companies working for the Pentagon. In 2018, more than 3,000 employees of Google signed a petition opposing its participation in Project Maven, a Defense Department venture that uses artificial intelligence to interpret video imagery and could improve drone targeting.

It’s likewise complicated for E.S.G. funds that screen out defense contractors. I spoke with Andrew Montes, the director of digital strategies for As You Sow, a nonprofit based in Berkeley, Calif., that focuses on corporate accountability. He said: “We unequivocally condemn the invasion, and the Ukrainians have a right to defend themselves. But it’s a separate question if defense stocks belong in the portfolio.”

“We try to take the view of long-term investors,” Montes went on. “If you’re investing in weapons companies, you’re essentially saying that you hope they are financially successful over the next 30 years.” In other words, even if you approve of the arming of the Ukrainians, you might not want to own shares in a company whose profits depend on the arms race continuing for years to come.

Another group raising questions about investment in defense contractors is Datamaran, a company that uses software to screen companies for E.S.G. concerns. The defense contractors can argue that they’re on the right side in the Ukraine war, but “you cannot base your position on just the current context; you must consider past, present and future actions,” Marjella Lecourt-Alma, the chief executive and a co-founder of the company, wrote in an email.

The best outcome would be for today’s weapons to serve as peacemakers — to work so well against the Russians that Putin and other aggressors would think twice before invading a neighbor. “Before the invasion of Ukraine, there was a clear pattern of diminishing war in the world,” said Joshua Goldstein, an emeritus professor of international relations at American University. “There were just smaller civil wars, and fewer of those. The whole trend was in a positive direction. My hope is that this war will be such a spectacular failure that nobody can fail to draw the lesson that war is not a good way to get what you want.”

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