Monday, July 23, 2012

The Morality of Killing: Drone Strikes

The morality of the American use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) has been debated much recently. Consider the recent New York Times discussion at The Stone. A colleague directed me to an argument by Bradley Strawser in the Journal of Military Ethics. To his argument in favor of the use of drones, I have the following reply.

I strongly disagree with Strawser, and am almost tempted to accuse him of sophistry. Objection 6 covers my principle objection to the use of UAVs; it lowers the threshold for what counts as a just war (jus ad bellum) action. Below is his summary of the objection and response.

“Hence, although it is certainly possible that use of UAVs could lower the costs of going to war for a given state and, thereby, lower the threshold for going to war such that a state might have an increased likelihood of engaging in a war that is unjust, such predictions cannot be the basis for demanding an intentional violation of PUR given our present epistemic limitations.” (361)

 The author’s rebuttal shifts the focus of moral concern to what is owed the offensive combatant per the “PUR” principle (protect our soldiers), and not the societal and political issues of lowering the threshold. Not only does he shift the focus, from one issue to another, but he assumes that we would seek the same war action regardless of the technology. That is, his PUR principle, upon which his defense of UAVs is based, only works assuming that we seek the same war actions regardless of technology.

In sum, the arguments for objection 6 are beside-the-point, on the edge of fallacious if not fully committed, because of the shifting of focus and assumptions. They do not address the core concerns of such objections, and thus the whole argument is also implicitly a straw man argument, because the author posits that the objectors share the same assumptions, but they do not; the argument would be successful if they did.

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