Drones and morality: when did ‘can’ become ‘ought’?

A nice piece written John Kaag and Sarah Kreps in the NYT that discusses how the CIA’s program of extra-judicial strikes is a modern incarnation of the Platonic fable of Gyges. It warns that just because drone strikes ‘can’ minimize casualties, both in terms of civilians and pilots, that in no way means it is a moral imperative  – an ‘ought’. This is a philosophical distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘value’. To say that the U.S. can target individuals without incurring troop casualties does not imply it ought to.

In Plato’s fable, a shepherd called Gyges stumbled upon a ring that granted him invisibility. Dissatisfied with his old life, he seduced the Queen and then one night sneaked into the Royal Palace and murdered the King. Because he was invisible Gyges was never found guilty of his heinous crime. The writers think this story is the perfect allegory for modern drone warfare: there is no risk to the pilots, the murder is committed with impunity, and the target does not even know it is coming.

For all these reasons a ‘moral hazard’ has manifest itself in the age of the drone: greater risks are taken because individuals are sheltered from the consequences of those risks. Coupled with the low cost of drones, there is perceived to be relatively little domestic ‘blowback’.

What’s more, the creation of technology is not a ‘neutral’ enterprise: it creates the conditions for future social and political action. For Marx, ‘the windmill gives you a society with the feudal lord; the steam engine gives you one with the industrial capitalist.’

And yet, as the weapons of war have become more precise, ‘who’ is targeted has become ever-more vague: ‘affiliates’ and ‘combatants’ are used to mask exactly who is being killed. This is compounded by the lack of judicial oversight–and where there is a rulebook, as with Obama’s definition of who counts as a militant, it paints anyone associated with militants as militants themselves.

Techno-efficiency has become an end in itself; it is used as a moral justification for war. The moral discussion of drone warfare needs to be widened, not narrowed by the peculiar Zeitgeist of machines, numbers, and efficiency that so often defines the parameters of discourse.

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