Drones in Theory and in Practice

"Killing by Remote Control", edited by Bradley J. Strawser, Oxford University Press, 2013

Reviewed in this essay: Killing by Remote Control: The Ethics of an Unmanned Militaryedited by Bradley J. Strawser, Oxford University Press, 2013. 

Academic philosophers working on topics in applied ethics, such as drone usage, insist on distinguishing between permissibility in theory and permissibility in practice. In claiming that current U.S. drone policies are impermissible in practice, one is not committed to concluding that drone usage is therefore impermissible in theory—that is, that there is no conceivable scenario in which drone usage would be permissible.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the current debate surrounding the morality of drone usage seems fixated on practical considerations, to the extent that theoretical questions are often left entirely unasked. Naturally, philosophers are wont to ask such theoretical questions. As a result, one might expect philosophers to object to this myopic focus on practical questions, adamant that the theoretical questions receive due attention. It may be surprising, then, that philosophers seem uninterested in the theoretical debate surrounding drone usage. Indeed, there is a widely-held view among philosophers that there is no compelling theoretical argument prohibiting the use of drones tout court. That is, the theoretical discussion never really gets off the ground; it simply conforms to one’s prior theoretical conclusions.

In defence of this view, philosophers Bradley J. Strawser (the editor of Killing by Remote Control) and Stephen Kershnar each champion what I take to be the predominant theoretical view—namely, that the introduction of drones neither requires nor justifies any significant modifications to one’s existing view on the moral permissibility of killing in war.

While certainly more popular, this view is not universally held. Asa Kasher, for example, suggests rejecting an otherwise widely accepted principle in just war theory—namely, that an attack that increases the risk to civilians in exchange for a lower risk to one’s own soldiers is morally impermissible. On Kasher’s view, such scenarios are nevertheless permissible, since drones protect soldiers’ lives, and soldiers should not be forced to take on unnecessary and disproportionate risk.

This volume also gives significant attention to practical questions. For instance, David Whetham considers what might happen when drone usage becomes more widespread, and Avery Plaw canvasses the data to argue that drones are less dangerous to civilians than certain other common forms of military intervention.

Two of the most thought-provoking contributions to this volume centre on issues that are both theoretical and practical in nature. Uwe Steinhoff argues that, while drone usage is not intrinsically wrong, the massive power asymmetry it generates is alarming, in part because it seems to justify terrorist acts by opposing sides. Zack Beauchamp and Julian Savulescu argue that drones facilitate humanitarian intervention, which is typically far too risky otherwise.

Given its commendably wide scope, this volume warrants attention from anyone, philosopher or otherwise, with an interest in the ongoing debate on drones. Non-academics will benefit from the wealth of accessible discussion on both sides of the debate. Although I doubt any of the dissenting views will spark a change to the received view among philosophers, I suspect many will nevertheless find this volume to be both challenging and rewarding.