The Ethics of Drone Warfare

Sunday, May 27, 2018
First Aired: 
Sunday, September 13, 2015

What Is It

The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, aka ‘drone,’ is increasingly the weapon of choice in America's military operations. Many laud its ability to maintain our global power while reducing human and financial costs. By the same token, however, this safe and secretive weapon may in turn cause civilians to disengage ever more from the politics of war. Are drones the herald of a more sanitized and efficient form of war, or do they represent the dystopian reign of uncaring technologies? What are the responsibilities of civilians in the face of this 'Revolution in Military Affairs'? And how have drones transformed the face of battles for soldiers themselves? John and Ken ask about war in the age of intelligent machines with Bradley Strawser from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, editor of Killing By Remote Control: The Ethics of an Unmanned Military.

Listening Notes

John begins the show citing how common drone strikes have become under the Obama administration. Ken eggs John on to agree that drone strikes are better for Americans at least, since they lead to fewer civilian deaths. John is baffled by this thought; if we want to avoid civilian deaths, why use drone strikes at all? Ken introduces a handy distinction between two issues at stake: whether we should use drones in warfare or whether we should go to war at all? John fights back that these questions are in practice entangled. Ken gets Machiavellian.

John and Ken invite Bradley Strawser to the show, a Professor of Philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School. Strawser starts off recalling how he ended up at this Air Force academy with many of his students possibly getting involved in drone combat. He goes on to clarify the host’s initial squabble, interjecting that the potential moral gains reaped by drone warfare end up allowing it to be used more carelessly. Ken challenges whether the technology itself is morally neutral. Strawser is more skeptical whether technology has ever been neutral.

Responding to an audience question, Strawser explains his qualms about autonomous drones fighting wars on their own. John draws a parallel to the moral decisions self-driving cars may have to make in the future. Another audience member asks about the technology and ethics of assassinations. The conversation veers towards the atrocities of nuclear weapons. A question from the audience incites a discussion of the terrorizing effects of a drone constantly looming over a population.

John presses Strawser on the lack of democratic accountability of the necessarily secretive drone program. Ken returns to the unintended consequences of decreasing the public cost of war by the use of drones. The show ends by touching on a variety of interesting points—from the human cost of operating drones and the effects of the internet to military ethical education.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:28): Shuka Kalantari tells the story of one of the first drone operators hired by the United States military. Brandon Bryant describes his unnerving story of being pushed into this role and the personal struggles he faced afterwards.
  • 60 Second Philosopher (seek to 47:07): Ian Shoales covers some of the major historical advancements in the history of military weapons, with a particular emphasis on the longbow.


Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, February 2, 2022 -- 5:07 AM

This is pretty tricky in one

This is pretty tricky in one sense. Discussing the morality of an advanced form of warfare fails on account of the principle of mutual exclusivity. If world players could/would agree that warfare be banned, on moral principle, there would be no further discussion. That hasn't a snowball's chance.
Professor Strawser's employer is vested in the business of national security through national defense, with a minor in conserving human life. As a practical matter, morality in carrying out these duties, is not a class specification under the job description. Candy coating, while desirable cosmetically, has no useful application beyond public relations.
The pros and cons of drone warfare are little more than another trolley problem: for any facially correct answer, there is a wrong one. Or two. Discussions of this sort are unlikely to unearth any epiphanies. They give an appearance of relevance. Soothing to the national conscience but functionally useless. That is, after all much of what governance is about.,

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