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Drones, Ethics and the Armchair Soldier

Friday 29 March 2013

By JOHN KAAG

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

Ten years ago, I watched the Iraq invasion unfold on TV. It was for me, like most Americans, a remote-control event, the type that you tuned into occasionally to see how it was going before changing the channel, like the Olympics. And, as often happens in the Olympics, we crushed the opposition. But we Americans at home were not the only ones with remote controls. Many of our soldiers also had them, and used them to direct one of the most devastating military assaults in the history of modern warfare. The technological superiority of the United States — its ability to strike with precision from a distance — produced something like the “shock and awe” the media had relentlessly advertised. And it inspired a similar reaction in moral and legal theorists who were concerned about the relationship between advanced military technologies and the legitimation of warfare.

Ten years later, I’m a philosopher writing a book about the ethics of drone warfare. Some days I fear that I will have either to give up the book or to give up philosophy. I worry that I can’t have both. Some of my colleagues would like me to provide decision procedures for military planners and soldiers, the type that could guide them, automatically, unthinkingly, mechanically, to the right decision about drone use. I try to tell them that this is not how ethics, or philosophy, or humans, work.

I try to tell them that the difference between humans and robots is precisely the ability to think and reflect, in Immanuel Kant’s words, to set and pursue ends for themselves. And these ends cannot be set beforehand in some hard and fast way — even if Kant sometimes thought they could.

What disturbs me is the idea that a book about the moral hazard of military technologies should be written as if it was going to be read by robots: input decision procedure, output decision and correlated action. I know that effective military operations have traditionally been based on the chain of command and that this looks a little like the command and control structure of robots. When someone is shooting at you, I can only imagine that you need to follow orders mechanically. The heat of battle is neither the time nor the place for cool ethical reflection.

Warfare, unlike philosophy, could never be conducted from an armchair. Until now. For the first time in history, some soldiers have this in common with philosophers: they can do their jobs sitting down. They now have what I’ve always enjoyed, namely “leisure,” in the Hobbesian sense of the word, meaning they are not constantly afraid of being killed. Hobbes thought that there are certain not-so-obvious perks to leisure (not being killed is the obvious one). For one, you get to think. This is what he means when he says that “leisure is the mother of philosophy.” I tend to agree with Hobbes: only those who enjoy a certain amount of leisure can be philosophers.

Ethics has long been taught — at least in passing — to officer candidates and battlefield soldiers. But this new breed of remote control soldier will have the time and the space to think through unprecedentedly complex moral quandaries, like the question of using a drone to kill an unarmed human being who may be in the early planning stages of a terrorist attack. A 2011 Pentagon study (which anticipated the results of the psychological examination of pilots earlier this year) showed that nearly 30 percent of drone pilots experience what the military calls “burnout,” defined by what the military describes, in unusually sophisticated language, as “an existential crisis.”

You might be under the impression that philosophy is in the business of causing rather than alleviating existential crises. And so you may think that acquainting soldiers with the Gordian knots of philosophy will do little to increase their job satisfaction. But this is only partially correct.

Working one’s way through the complexities of “just war” and moral theory makes it perfectly clear that ethics is not about arriving easily at a single right answer, but rather coming to understand the profound difficulty of doing so. Experiencing this difficulty is what philosophers call existential responsibility. One of the jobs of philosophy, at least as I understand it, is neither to help people to avoid these difficulties nor to exaggerate them, but rather to face them in resolute and creative ways. In short, the job of philosophy is not to create existential crises, but to handle or work through existential responsibility.

In the past, the leaders and military strategists who initiated and oversaw military operations were supposed to shoulder the brunt of existential responsibility. This was appropriate, since they did so from the relative safety of their fortified bunkers or, at the very least, from behind a row of protective ground troops. These ground troops, unfortunately, had more pressing concerns than existential responsibility. They did not have leisure, unlike their commanders, who also often had the philosophical training to think through the complexities of their jobs.

Here we could think about President Obama’s being schooled in Aquinas and Augustine or, even better, Alexander the Great’s studying under Aristotle. This training was not simply a degree requirement at Officer Candidate School or one of the United States military academies, but a sustained, ongoing, and rigorous engagement with a philosophical tradition. Alexander lived with Aristotle. This type of training, I would like to think, helped commanders face the challenge of moral responsibility (if it did not necessarily lead them to the right moral choice). To be clear, studying philosophy does not hard-wire a student to be moral or to always do the right thing. Once again, this is the way that robots, not humans, work. Humans cannot be fully hard-wired. But it does give a student some practice at shouldering the responsibility of being a moral agent. And if we give our soldiers the tools to make informed moral decisions, then we should think about giving them the freedom to do so by making more legal space for selective conscientious objection or for disobeying orders on moral grounds.

In a recent post in The Stone, Jeff McMahan argued that traditional “just war theory” should be reworked in several important ways. He suggested that the tenets of a revised theory apply not only to governments, traditionally represented by commanders and heads of state, but also to individual soldiers. This is a significant revision since it broadens the scope of responsibility for warfare beyond political institutions to include the men and women who engage in combat. This has always been the case with the principles of jus in bello (the conventions or rules that govern military conduct) but McMahan intends individuals to be held responsible for the additional standards of jus ad bellum, those guidelines that describe the permissibility of initiating military operations. Specifically, McMahan believes that individuals are to bear at least some responsibility in upholding “just cause” requirements. McMahan expects more of soldiers and, in this age of drones and leisure, he is right to do so.

I suspect many armchair soldiers would welcome some new intellectual tools to handle this newfound responsibility. As it turns out, some of these “new” tools have been around since Plato and Augustine (fathers of Western moral theory and the just war tradition, respectively), but some are in fact new, or at least newer, and have yet to be introduced in the training of armchair soldiers. Warfare, until this point, had been too brutal, too immediate, too threatening, for soldiers to spend much time on the theoretical matters of ethics. But as technology makes warfare more leisurely it has, for the first time, the chance to be genuinely — and complexly — philosophical. My point here is not that these new armchair soldiers are to be criticized for failing in their moral responsibilities. My point is rather that while drones are to be applauded for keeping these soldiers out of harm’s way physically, we would do well to remember that they do not keep them out of harm’s way morally or psychologically. The high rates of “burnout” should drive this home. Supporting our troops requires ensuring that they are provided not just with training and physical armor, but with the intellectual tools to navigate these new difficulties.

To be sure, the question of what new responsibilities soldiers have is not the only, nor even the most important, ethical question concerning the use of drones. Hannah Arendt claimed, in her analysis of World War II, that “in general, the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands.” Just as was the case in the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago, the most important questions we should be asking should not be directed to armchair soldiers but to those of us in armchairs at home: What wars are being fought in our name? On what grounds are they being fought?


John Kaag is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He is co-author, with Sarah Kreps, of the forthcoming book “Drone Warfare.”

See online: Drones, Ethics and the Armchair Soldier