Drones Threaten Democratic Decision-Making

by Steven Levine

As the only philosopher among the respondents to Bradley Jay Strawser in this symposium, it would be reasonable for me to be expected to examine the question of whether drones are morally permissible or impermissible. Straswer argues that their use is not only permissible but in many cases morally obligatory. I therefore might be expected to argue that they are not permissible, much less obligatory. But this approach in my view obscures as much as it illuminates. For I think there is a prior philosophical task with respect to drones, namely, to make explicit to ourselves their character, nature, and likely use, and the challenge their use poses for our moral and political life.

We begin with the question: is there anything unique about drone technology? I think the answer is yes. While on a continuum with prior technologies (long-range guided missiles, for example), drones are unique because, in a context where there is no physical threat to their operator, they are not only extremely accurate but guided, in real-time, by the practical decision making of a human agent. For Strawser these features of drone use are moral goods and therefore part of their philosophical justification. In being accurate and subject to real-time human decision making the unintended death of non-combatants is avoided far more than with other technologies, while in shielding the operator of the drone one avoids subjecting one’s soldiers to unnecessary risk. What I want to show is that both of these features, which are seemingly good, are precisely what make drone warfare so dangerous to our moral and political life.

But how could using a weapon that dramatically reduces collateral damage not be good? The problem is that drones, in being so accurate, are suited to be not only weapons of traditional war but also instruments of targeted assassinations and intelligence actions. In this sense, the drone is the perfect weapon for a world in which the primary division is not between states but between states and non-state actors and where the distinction between the military and intelligence has all but collapsed. While drones could be used in traditional war, they have until now been used as weapons in what we could call, contentiously but I think accurately, imperial border control (The U.S.’ imperial borders not being contiguous with its landmass). They have been used not against states with which we are at war, but against threatening persons who have taken shelter (or are sheltered) in failed states. This changes the status of the civilians who are collaterally killed in drone attacks. They are not citizens of a state with whom the U.S. is at war, but unlucky citizens of a state that is unable to monopolize the means of violence. One could imagine a person in the Pakistani tribal regions thinking: ‘even though my country is not at war with the US, I could be eviscerated at any moment by one of their bombs from the sky’. Here we could ask what is hopefully not taken to be a cynical question: why is this not a form of terrorizing a population? Is it relevant that drone strikes are not intended to terrorize the population but they do all the same?

Strawser would, I think, reply that while the considerations mentioned above are concerning, they do not bear on the question of why drones specifically are problematic, morally or otherwise. For drones still reduce collateral damage relative to other forms of imperial border control, for example, manned aerial attack, special-forces operations, etc. If a mission is just—and granting for the sake of argument that the U.S.’ mission against non-state actors in the tribal region of Pakistan is just—why is the drone as a means to successfully achieving this mission more problematic than other means? It’s a good question.

I think that the answer here is not so much moral but political: drones and their use threaten democratic decision-making far more than traditional military action. Why? We can bring out the answer to this by considering the other feature of drone use mentioned above: the fact that it shields its operator from physical harm. Strawser canvases and then argues against the obvious reason why this might be problematic: in avoiding casualties drones make war too easy and too tempting for policymakers, giving rise to more uses of force.[1] But this is only part of the problem. In lowering the cost of use, drones do not just make war too tempting, they also make assassinations and secret intelligence operations too tempting. Drones and their specific capabilities, i.e., their accuracy and ability to be guided in real-time with no threat to their operator, make them uniquely suited to these types of operations. For in reducing collateral damage and the risk of the mission overall, they lower the visibility of the operation and the potential for pushback not just by those attacked but by other actors, i.e., domestic constituencies concerned about the mission, other governments, international bodies and NGO’s, etc. Strawser bemoans the secret nature of the drone program, and argues that a just program needs a transparent legal framework. What he does not consider is the possibility that secrecy is not a contingent feature of U.S. drone policy, but is endemic to the technology and its likely, i.e., not ideal, use.

If we consider drone use in abstraction from current U.S. policy and consider their likely uses in light of their specific capabilities, it seems highly plausible that states would be interested in using drones to neutralize not just terrorists but various other actors taken to be threatening (whom, of course, they would call terrorists). I say ‘states’ here for why do we assume that drones will be the sole property of the US? Russia, China, and other major states will surely possess drones, and they have their own imperial border wars to fight (Chechnya, Tibet, etc.). Of course, Strawser will say, our use of drones is just, their use of drones would probably not be. But I am not interested in the ideal normative framework in which drones ought to be used, but again in their likely use in light of their specific capabilities. Even though in his paper Strawser claims that we need to distinguish between policy and principle, i.e., between our moral evaluation of current U.S. drone policy and our evaluation of drones as a technology tout court, it seems to me that Strawser’s whole discussion, including his supposedly abstract philosophical defense of drones, assumes the goodwill of those who are using drones. In not ‘universalizing the use of drones’, in being concerned ultimately to defend the U.S.’s use of drones, Strawser’s moral consideration of drone use is not nearly abstract enough.

But how does all of this relate to my claim that drones threaten democratic decision-making? While of course many wars have been fought without prior democratic deliberation, due to the burden of mobilization and the ongoing risk of death war is an event that intensely concerns a whole citizenry. As evinced by the quite limited public concern with drones (notwithstanding this symposium and some elite discussion in think-tanks and law schools) drone war is not like that. Unlike war, imperial border control is ongoing, open-ended, and internal to the maintenance of hegemony. It is an elite project, one that is mostly out of sight of the population. (We can see this in Obama’s strategy of imperial retrenchment: wind down the wars, ramp up the drones, keep liberals quiet). Ground invasion, aerial attack, and other means of traditional war are public expressions of the state and are declared to be so—due to their grave consequences if nothing else. As such, the state and its citizenry must take responsibility for these actions, and another state and its citizenry can respond instrumentally (through a counter use of force) or deliberatively (through negotiation). Drone war does not have this character, no one takes responsibility for their use, and no public countermove is possible.

Strawser would, I think, argue that these are contingent political features of the context of drone use, and so are not morally dispositive concerning their permissibility or impermissibility. I, in contrast, think that these features of drone use are the heart of the matter and are occluded from view by Strawser’s strictly moral consideration of drones. I leave it to the reader to judge who is right.[2]


[1] Strawser argues against this reason at length in his paper “Moral Predators: The Duty to Employ Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles,” Journal of Military Ethics, 9: 4 (2010).

[2] I would like to thank J.M. Tyree for enlightening discussion about these difficult issues.

Steven Levine is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachussettes, Boston.

To leave a comment, please see the introduction to the DAG-3QD Peace and Justice Symposia, of which this essay is a part, here.

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