Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Philosophy Weekend: A Rulebook for Drones?

By Levi Asher on Saturday, December 1, 2012 03:39 pm

Philosophy Weekend has always been about moral, social and political philosophy (I originally thought of calling the series "Ethics Weekend", but that title just does not have any zing to it). In the past couple of years, I've allowed two major developments to dominate my choice of weekly topics. First, I became alarmed by Ayn Rand's increasing popularity and began devoting many blog posts to a critique of Objectivism and its underlying assumption of psychological Egoism. Second, I got caught up in the excitement and crazy drama of the 2012 USA presidential election, and devoted many weekend posts to that whole thing. (Interestingly, the common demoninator between these two themes was embodied in a single person, Congressman Paul Ryan, who I expect to be writing a lot about again in three years when he begins running like a maniac for President.)

I never mind a good diversion, but a recent New York Times headline about an attempt by the Obama administration to create a rulebook for the use of military drones reminded me that I originally had a different underlying inquiry in mind for all of these philosophical inquiries, which has gotten buried amidst all the Ayn Rand inquiries and Mitt Romney bobblehead dolls of the past two years. My big question is this: what is pacifism, and why has it become so quiet? Is the philosophy of pacifism viable at all today? How can pacifism be returned to relevance in an era that seems to have completely disdained it, and how can it possibly be that so few people seem to care whether it is returned to relevance or not?

This has always been the core question behind all the Philosophy Weekend blog posts, and as far as I'm concerned the question of the ethical nature of war should be the primary question behind all ethical philosophy. I've said it before and I'll say it again: if you are an ethical philosopher, you ought to be trying to tackle the problem of global war. It's hard to imagine what other important tasks an ethical philosopher could possibly consider more important.

Here's the New York Times article about an attempt by the US government to codify rules for the practice of drone attacks:

The White House reportedly is developing rules for when to kill terrorists around the world. The world may never see them, given the Obama administration’s inclination toward unnecessary secrecy regarding its national security policy. But the effort itself is a first step toward acknowledging that when the government kills people away from the battlefield, it must stay within formal guidelines based on the rule of law — especially when the life of an American citizen is at stake.

For eight years, the United States has conducted but never formally acknowledged a program to kill terrorists associated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban away from the battlefield in Afghanistan. Using drones, the Central Intelligence Agency has made 320 strikes in Pakistan since 2004, killing 2,560 or more people, including at least 139 civilians, according to the Long War Journal, a Web site that tracks counterterrorism operations. Another 55 strikes took place in Yemen.

Administration officials have never explained in any detail how these targets are chosen. Are they killing people only associated with groups that participated in the Sept. 11 attacks, the limitation imposed by Congress when it authorized military force in 2001? Or are they free to remove any threat to the United States they perceive? Officials insist they go after only actual belligerents covered in the 2001 legislation, but the public and the world have no way of knowing whether these decisions are made ad hoc, or how they would be interpreted by future presidents.

Before the election, when it looked as if Mitt Romney had a chance of winning the White House, administration officials began codifying these rules, according to a recent report in The Times by Scott Shane. Mr. Obama did not want to leave an “amorphous” program to his successor, one official told Mr. Shane anonymously.

Because I'm an unabashed Barack Obama fan, I have sometimes been challenged to defend the President's choice to use drones to kill known terrorists (along with, unfortunately, other innocent people who may be in the same place as the known terrorists when the missile flies out of the sky). I can't defend it, and I won't. I've been challenged to explain why I voted for Barack Obama even though his administration has pioneered the use of drone attacks, and the best answer I can come up with is that Barack Obama did not invent war, and is not responsible for getting this country into any of its current wars. I wish he were putting more effort into finding innovative ways to get us out of various terrible situations we're in, but I think his primary focus is economic and social justice within the country, and it seems that he has chosen to carry out a policy of continuity with past military operations (accentuated by an emphasis on quiet effectiveness and small-scale operations, which is at least a big improvement over the previous President's emphasis on loud triumphalism and large-scale invasions).

Still, I always try to keep my own ethical focus clear, and I won't go so far as to defend the use of unmanned aircraft to shoot missiles at suspected targets on the ground. This highly effective but deeply disturbing method of killing terrorists seems to create whole new categories of problems. Every Pakistani or Afghani citizen must face the realization that an unmanned American aircraft may be over their heads at every moment, armed and locked to kill. That's not a reality that any human being can find acceptable, and I'm sure that the bad karma this creates for American foreign policy is snowballing faster than any other efforts towards diplomatic goodwill can balance. I want the drone attacks to stop immediately, even if it means certain known terrorists will live.

But here's my problem -- and yours as well, if you'll take the trouble to answer the question that ends this blog post. I may pretend I have a rulebook for drones -- don't use them, ever -- but my rulebook doesn't stand up to tough examination. Would I consider it acceptable to kill a known terrorist from an aircraft as long as the aircraft is manned? If so, what the hell is the big difference? Would I consider it acceptable if a bystander was standing next to the target? What if the terrorist was actively planning an attack on innocent people, and the bystander was a member of the terrorist's family?

I don't have many good answers here, so I'd like to throw the question out to you. Do you have a rulebook for drones? Do you have a rulebook for war? It seems to me that we'd better start coming up with some good answers ... or eventually we may find out that the drones have a rulebook for us.

10 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: A Rulebook for Drones?"

by Wojciech on

My rulebook for war and drones is pretty much the same as yours: don't do it. If we had a real Christian in the White House for 8 years, we wouldn't be in Iraq or Afghanastan. If we had a real Christian in the White House at the present, our troops would have been pulled more than 4 years ago.

I don't have any concrete data to back this up, but I'd be willing to bet that our wars and drone attacks create more terrorists than they kill.

I saw a story on CBS a few months back and it noted that more that 50% (my memory is not good but I recall it being closer to 90%) of casualties of war are women and children. This deeply saddens me.

I worked at the VA Hospital for 2 years back in college, and seeing first hand how war effects the soldiers is very disturbing. The soldiers are broken and the families of the soldiers are broken. Not to mention the people who live in those countries we're attacking. What did they do to deserve this?

I feel that if we were able to locate and assasinate Osama Bin Laden, why can't we do the same for other terrorists who hate us? I would think it better to spend a while gathering intelligence and striking out at individuals rather than using a blanket approach and bombing the shit out of a location where we believe they are. If we know where they are, why don't we bring in a team of Seals or equivilant and take them out on the ground? I would think this would save many more lives and be more effecient.

by Subject Sigma on

That is a good question.

"Would I consider it acceptable to kill a known terrorist from an aircraft as long as the aircraft is manned? If so, what the hell is the big difference? Would I consider it acceptable if a bystander was standing next to the target?"

Let's examinate the problem just from a technological point of view.

With years and technological progress, the precision of warheads improved.
Is this fact resulting in less "collateral damages" and less civilian casualties? I think so; during World War II, to destroy a bridge, you had to drop dozens of free-falling bombs, throwing many of them out of target; a single laser guided bomb can achieve the same tactical result (disabling the bridge) with a smaller spread of destruction. In both cases, the aircraft pilot will not be able to check, from many thousands meters of altitude, flying at hundreds kilometers per hours, if there is any bystander risking to get killed by the blast.

The targeting system of a drone is not different from the one of a laser-guided missile launched from a manned aircraft: the pilot will select the target with a joystick from a TV monitor, while the aircraft or the drone is still many kilometers away from it: flying at high speed/altitude requires launching the warhead when you still are quite away from the target, and you can "see" it only with a sensor, through a display; the difference is just that one pilot is seated inside the cockpit of the fast-speed, high-altitude flying aircraft, while the other is piloting the drone from inside a hidden bunker.

Shooting from a battleship a long range missile, like tomahawk, in use since many years, is not different from a drone: the target is selected in the same way. And again, the "ancestor" of long range missile is the naval artillery gun, completely unguided, with the target selected with a binocular and the trajectory calculated with simply balistic calculations, like free-falling aircraft bombs: much less accurate, and requiring many shots to get the "correct" target, with big chanches of collateral damages.

So we may shift the question: is there a greater possibility of avoiding civilian casualties with a manned aircraft? I think not, as the shooting is done in both cases with remotely guided warheads, targeted with TV, laser, infra-red, GPS or whatever else system, through a display, without the direct visual of the pilot - some or many kilometers away, racing up in the sky or hidden in a bunker, but always beyond visual range.
In my opinion, being safe inside a bunker instead of risking his life up in the sky, the "pilot" can make a better decision, and has less to lose if he decides to abort the mission because he is not sure of the target; also, the drones can be put on stand-by for times longer than manned aircraft, waiting for better conditions and more safety of reaching the correct target.

That is only the technological part of the question... but I think, this time, that understanding the technology may help philosophy to reach better conclusions.

So in my opinion the rulebook for drone should be no different from the rulebook for manned aircraft; the big problem still remains the same:

does anyone have a rulebook for war?!?

by hypcollector on

...the use of drones should be deadly and without restraint in it's goal of eliminating something or somebody or sombodies. once deployed, any instrument of war should seek to win the war by either killing your opponents or having them quit. it is the only moral way to wage war. war is war. from endless first hand accounts, it is hell. it should never linger, as america's modern wars have. they all linger too long, but 10 years in afganistan? come on. finish it quick and violent. the two depending on each other. the real question for the pacifist's heart is when to wage war. it should be very rare and only when provoked excessively. the role of government is to protect, and justified wars fall into this category. 'to protect' is the decision to get in to war or not. once declared, we have a moral obligation to end it successful and quick. why should there be any less goal? the pacifist has no place in war. war is not passive. the pacifist should influence prior to that. if government is to protect, we must define what to protect and how. governement protects in numerous ways, not just war. war should be last resort. of course everyone says that, but actions speak louder than words. war is big business and many benefit much from war. including our politicians, our media, our war machine manufactureres, our energy industry. it goes on and on. we use the word war so loosly too. the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terror. madison avenue. in summary, when in war, win. when not in war, live peacfully. i am a pacifist....

by The Journey on

There are uses of drones, 1. surveillance and 2. to launch missile. It is always accurate every time it launches the missile.

In 1938, Gandhi said, "Someone has to arise in England with the living faith to say to England, whatever happens, shall not use arms. They are a nation fully armed, and if they having the power deliberately refused to use arms, theirs would be the first example of Christianity in active practice on a mass scale. That will be a real miracle."

- from page 84 of "Human Smoke" by Nicholas Baker

by Silent Joe on

There can be no permanent global solution for the war issue. One's violence only causes more violence and one's pacifism makes him vulnerable to naturally violent individuals. I only know the solution for myself: not to participate in violent conflicts, not to sponsor / promote them and to attempt decreasing the sufferings around me.

by mnaz on

rulebook? for the drone program? how is that even be possible? or if theoretically possible, how would it be verifiable? the whole campaign is classified, under the catch-all shroud of "national security," and waged basically at the sole discretion of the executive branch.

i know obama didn't start these expansionist wars, but aside from the iraq draw-down (arranged by bush) he sure as hell hasn't done much to reel them in--- quite the opposite in many ways.

by hypcollector on

...on another note regarding drones. as instruments of war, meant for war only, they should be restricted to use in war. any attempt to employ drone survellience by the government on it's own citizens is an obvious breach of liberty. and it's creepy...what's next, poisoning via drones, electrocutions, laser beams, offensive drones to shoot down other drones. asteroids was a cool video game, but let's keep it in the box. for use in war only should be a rule. i am a pacifist...

by mnaz on

by the way, i'm struggling to understand how "finish it quick and violent" fits with pacifism, if the campaign is somewhat illegitimate in the first place. can you help me with that? thanks.

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