Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 16, 2012

Drones: A Moral Question?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on July 16, 2012

Was the Godfather a moral actor?  Truth be told, I really don’t know.  Though I’d wager there is an undergraduate philosophy class somewhere that has addressed this issue.

Are drones a moral weapon of war?  This is a bit more pertinent to homeland security.  It is a question addressed in a New York Times article this past weekend.  The takeaway:

So it may be a surprise to find that some moral philosophers, political scientists and weapons specialists believe armed, unmanned aircraft offer marked moral advantages over almost any other tool of warfare.

As technology allows for ever more precise military strikes, the call for limiting to eliminating civilian casualties grows louder. This is not a bad thing–but within a generation or two it has escalated to a constant, underlying condition of carrying out military operations.  Again–not a bad thing.  But an unusual thing when one considers the “strategic” bombing campaigns of WWII, plans for thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union, and B-52 strikes during the Vietnam War.

AVERY PLAW, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, put the C.I.A. drone record in Pakistan up against the ratio of combatant deaths to civilian deaths in other settings. Mr. Plaw considered four studies of drone deaths in Pakistan that estimated the proportion of civilian victims at 4 percent, 6 percent, 17 percent and 20 percent respectively.

In conventional military conflicts over the last two decades, he found that estimates of civilian deaths ranged from about 33 percent to more than 80 percent of all deaths.

The ever-increasing accuracy and ever-decreasing number of civilian deaths raises another question:

The drone’s promise of precision killing and perfect safety for operators is so seductive, in fact, that some scholars have raised a different moral question: Do drones threaten to lower the threshold for lethal violence?

As a personal opinion and not a moral judgment or philosophical conclusion, I have no problems with the use of drone strikes in our current effort against Al Qaeda-linked terrorists.  What does trouble me, along with many others who have given far greater consideration to this issue, is what comes next.  Other nations are already developing their own drones.  There is no doubt that they will soon be used for targeted killings.  But instead of aiming at those we consider national security threats, the point-of-view might be different and a political dissident or controversial opposition figure could be the target.

Given the standards we are setting today, with what arguments will we argue against these strikes in the future?

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Comment by Michael Brady

July 17, 2012 @ 2:10 pm


“As a personal opinion and not a moral judgment or philosophical conclusion, I have no problems with the use of drone strikes in our current effort against Al Qaeda-linked terrorists.”

Shall we have any moral, philosophical, or legal concerns for the collateral maiming and killing of untargeted persons or innocent bystanders who happen to be in the house or the vehicle when the Hellfire arrives?

Systems so precise that only the targeted individual is killed can be imagined (how about a drone the size of a hummingbird http://www.avinc.com/nano fitted with a needle dipped in neurotoxin?) but is our moral calculus simplified or made more complex when the risk of collateral damage is reduced to zero?

What becomes of our nascent 24/7 surveillance state when tireless, sleepless, mindless drones can track down criminal suspects (or political dissidents or wayward spouses), subdue them with pinprick, and summon the client?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 18, 2012 @ 5:40 am

Morality is often understood as the known framework for preserving “right” relationships within a specific society and/or between humans and God.

Ethics can be understood as a process by which relationships come to be recognized and calibrated to achieve purpose(s).

There is a relationship between what we do now and what happens next… and next… and next… Ethics is concerned with discovering and understanding this network of relationships.

In Aristotelian ethics, the simple craftsman does not innovate. The craftsman merely copies old models. As such s/he is moral, but not ethical.

Aristotle’s artist innovates. S/he is often immoral, challenging accepted frameworks. But — Aristotle claims — the great artist is self-consciously ethical. The great artist — innovator, problem-solver, poet, creator, general — knows how the various parts of purpose are in relationship and how those parts can be rearranged to achieve new purpose. Crucially, at least for Aristotle, the great artist knows why the parts behave in this way, can therefore predict outcomes, and can explain this unfolding to other artists.

Aristotle argues that the great artist will also be characterized by arete or virtue or excellence. The value of the artist’s creation depends on the artist acting with knowledge and deliberately choosing an action for itself to achieve the action’s purpose.

I am inclined to see this cultivation of individual arete — and recognizing the relationship of arete to action — as the heart of almost everything Aristotle taught. The point being: it is not easy.

One of the particular perils of our age is how easy many actions have become. Because the acts themselves take so little effort, there is, it seems to me, less attention to the knowledge and deliberate choosing that informs, really empowers, an ethical act.

If we believe the New York Times, in regard to drones President Obama is undertaking what Aristotle would recognize as the knowing, deliberate choosing of a great artist.

But the President is not — yet — explaining his choices. (Mr. Brennan and others have offered some explanations on his behalf.)

I understand why he avoids explanation.

But in the absence of explanation — and our discussion of his explanation — I am concerned the relationship of citizens to each other and to our political agents is undermined. We are supposed to be in the same artist’s studio together, learning from each other, creating together, actively choosing together.

But it seems to me that many (most?) of the craftspeople and potential artists have given up making for consuming. Consuming is so much easier. And even if an artist wanted to, how is an artist supposed to explain the creative process to a mostly thoughtless consumer?

Comment by Terry O'Sullivan

July 18, 2012 @ 8:10 pm

To paraphrase the National Rifle Association: Drones don’t kill people; people do. The problem, as noted, is the slippery slope both of facility — how easy it is to kill people, but also targeting of those who might otherwise be difficult to get to.

The implications are ominous when American citizens are executed without trial, by drones, and given, then, the pending explosion (pun intended) of drones that will be used domestically by law enforcement and the military (as, say already used on the Mexican border), what is to keep American citizens from being killed by drone on U.S. territory?

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » What happens when a drone has one too many drinks?

July 23, 2012 @ 1:13 am

[…] to the important question posed by regular commenter Michael Brady in response to my last drone post: Shall we have any moral, philosophical, or legal concerns for the collateral maiming and killing […]

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