The Ethics of Drone Warfare

09 September 2015

In the last six years alone, at least two and a half thousand people have been killed by US drone strikes.[1] That’s nine times more drone attacks under Obama than under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

The justification for this increase in attacks is that drones are precise, effective weapons that reduce unintended casualties. Some might find the idea of a killing machine that can be operated from thousands of miles away deeply chilling. But the defenders of drones say that cold and detached is good in war. It means soldiers can be calm and dispassionate, and not act out of fear. They can take the time to hit the target, making sure there are no civilians around who could get killed.

That all sounds fine and dandy—until, that is, you look at how drones are actually used. While there’s an argument to be made that using a weapon with the potential to reduce unintended casualties in a war is morally preferable to using another kind of weapon, we should be more concerned with what actually happens in drone attacks, rather than what could potentially happen in some alternate universe.

First, to say that drones reduce unintended casualties is misleading, at best. While US soldiers may not be in direct danger when we drone attack Pakistan, Afghanistan, or wherever it is we’re terrorizing these days, hundreds upon hundreds of civilians have been killed by drones since Obama took office. It’s hard to see how that’s “morally preferable.”

Sure, if we used less precise technology to bomb those places, there would probably be even more civilians deaths. But that’s assuming we’d bomb these targets at all, which brings me to the second point.

A big part of the moral problem with drones is that they make it too easy for the powers-that-be to bomb whomever they want without much political fallout. Sending troops in on the ground and putting them in direct danger comes with political consequences, but if we attack our so-called “enemies” remotely, and don’t have soldiers coming back in body bags, then there’s not going to be nearly as much backlash. And so, politically speaking, it’s easy for commanders to order strikes, which then leads to a lot of civilian casualties on the other side.

Of course, the number of civilian casualties from drone attacks has more to do with foreign policy and intelligence gathering practices than the technology of drones per se. If avoiding civilian casualties is not a priority for the commander in charge of a strike, we’re going to see lots of civilian casualties, regardless of the kind of weapons used. We’re told that drone attacks target high value terrorists, when, in reality, it’s also farmers, low level drug dealers, and men exercising in “suspicious looking” compounds who are targeted.[2]

It could be argued that using drones in war is still morally preferable to using other weapons, if you remove the problems that stem from poor intelligence and dubious policies. The question of whether a war is just or a target legitimate is not a question about drone technology. It’s a moral question that must be settled independently.

But if a war is just or a target legitimate, then isn’t using drones the best way to go because it will potentially have the lowest number of unintended casualties?

That’s a very big “if” when the technology itself makes going to war far too politically easy, which leads to us fighting all sorts of unjust wars. Of course, the reverse point could also be true—maybe there are wars we should be fighting but don’t when the possibility that we might incur high casualties means there’s a lack of political will to fight that war. Drones allow us to fight more wars for just causes. Because, you know, that’s definitely what we need more of in the world—war.

Any defense of drones, it seems to me, has to be based on some fantasy world, where politicians never lie, wars are always just, intelligence reliably identifies terrorists and only terrorists, and innocent civilians are never just “collateral damage.”

But we can’t talk about the ethics of drones without talking about how they are actually used in the real world.


Comments (6)

Giraffe_knight's picture


Friday, September 11, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Not to mention the implicit

Not to mention the implicit effects of drone warfare. The constant state of fear that Pakistani's live in every day cannot be discounted. Even if only a could thousand have been killed, you know that at any moment you could be dead directly as a result of this policy (of course, driving a car is more dangerous even still, but I am speaking of perceived threat). What is the end goal though? To just endlessly hunt terrorist leaders like roaches around the globe? You kill one, two are ready to replace him and that's just a fact.'s picture

Saturday, September 12, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Very well, let's talk about

Very well, let's talk about how drones are being used "in the real world" in the current wars.  The UN has not authorized US military action anywhere.  The Congress has not declared war.  They are not wars of self-defense.  So the wars against al Qaeda, ISIS, and whoever else the president thinks is an enemy are illegal. Therefore, any killings of anybody by US drones in the Middle East or anywhere else are murders.  Debates about whether drones are morally preferable to bombings are irrelevant in the current circumstances (sure, they are morally preferable to using nuclear weapons or carpet bombing; so what?).  The President of the United States, therefore, has committed the ultimate international crime, aggression, the same crime for which Nazis were convicted.  Unless you think the President is above the law, as Nixon decreed, you cannot avoid the conclusion that Barack Obama, the President of Drone Warfare, is a serial killer.
Of course, this is unthinkable and unsayable in polite company and in the mainstream media.  As philosophers, however, we can think it, we can say it, and we are right.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, September 13, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

America has always been less

America has always been less a nation by the consent of the governed than it is by the consent of the governing. Those legislators may not have, and I'm not precisely certain of this, given consent to the drone war, but neither have they denied it. It is an ambiguous point, then, from which we cannot be quite so convicted in our opinions. I'm afraid the usual feeble remedy applies: write an angry letter to your congressman. The fact is, there is no just war. That is, and this is the crucial point that always confuses the issue, there is no killing that is an act of doing justice. There is, however, killing, and war, that is morally excusable. The motivating cause of the actions taken are sufficient to excuse the judicious use of force, I think there is not a lot of disagreement on this. It is a mistake to confuse personal indignation with national principles and procedures in law. I remember the War Powers Act, and what motivated it. But it is nevertheless a tool in the hands of less morally unambiguous souls than we may be. If it is not used in this case we have no procedural claim to activate that law, only a political claim to influence it. That is not the same as a legally binding judgment. But, if there is no just war, only excusable violence, and we do indeed have a recognizable excuse, it is not the weapons we choose, but the way we use them that decides whether that alibi excuses our actions. Some Americans seem to think that it is doing justice to shoot as a trespasser someone who knocks on our front door. Some courts have agreed with them. In such an atmosphere a call for justice seems lame. The question, then, is whether what we so quaintly call "rules of engagement" satisfy sufficient grounds for excusing injustice, and whether these rules are carried out faithfully. Maybe we have all seen the shocking video of the drone operators giggling like adolescents at a computer game as they brutally murdered two men in a van who turned out to be innocent. That is inexcusable. But what of avowed enemies hiding in a political regime that protects them, or, as in the case of Pakistan, that rails against us in public but clearly applauds us in private? At the time 9/11 took place I posted comments asking that we keep the response to a police status, and not as a war, but was howled down. That sentiment has not really dissipated completely in the face of atrocities. And the worst atrocities ever committed by this country were done under the auspices of a formal declaration of war. So, the issue is not so easily adjudged as we might like. Drones are just an extension of other modes of war, certainly no worse than cluster bombs, napalm, or indiscriminate use of anti-personel mines. There may be a strange advantage to drones that is overlooked in most pro-and-con discussions, and that is that since there is no pilot at risk, there is no loss of life, on our side, that can then take on a sort of sacrificial aura of a sacred duty of remembrance that clouds our judgment and promotes more of the same. A fully mechanized war? The prospect is certainly chilling, especially as adversaries develop the same technology. But maybe this is a reason to question the future of war rather than the current conduct of it. For reasons that have nothing to do with the technology of warfare, war is becoming obsolete. Not only are we too interdependent, but, because of communications, not war, technology we simply know each other too well. It's like the farm animal that has been given a name, you cannot then kill it for food. This is not a technological advancement, it's a human one.

MJA's picture


Monday, September 14, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

There is no greater example

There is no greater example of mental weakness than the idea that military technology and might is the solution to war. It is this very weakness that fuels our wars. Violence begets violence and nothing more. America has the most technologically advanced military, the most weapons of mass destruction, the largest military budget in the world. It is this might to fight that makes us the very weakest of all, the catalyst of war.  And as for Obama killing the most people with drones, I think he will be remembered as President Obomba.
The strongest force is the force that walks the other Way.
To peace,

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, May 25, 2018 -- 12:16 PM

I am way late on this one--

I am way late on this one---having been out of touch with things in much of 2015. I have not read all of the previous comments, so if my remark(s) is/are redundant, please forgive me. I suppose, depending on who is wearing the shoes, war is as ethical as self-defense. Drone warfare seems tawdry somehow, but if, as I have suggested, it does have ethical ends, then the ethics or lack thereof are least of our worries.