Friday, August 2, 2013

Attack of the Drones

Previously I mentioned that the use of drones by the US military was one of the moral issues I was interested in exploring. Many people have a visceral reaction to drones, and it's easy to understand why.

Drones seem to turn the act of killing into something cold, clinical, and impersonal. Of course the drones, for now at least, still have a human operator - Skynet hasn't taken over yet. But there is something creepy about the idea of a man in a comfortable air-conditioned office on an Air Force base in Nevada pressing a button and dealing out death and destruction to third world villagers thousands of miles away. It seems too much like shooting fish in a barrel.

Some people seem to be okay with drones killing alleged terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but are horrified by the idea of drones operating within the US, as was rumored to be happening during the hunt for Christopher Dorner. But we obviously can't make a moral distinction based on the religion or ethnicity of the victims. Nor can we make a decision on the morality of drone use purely on the basis of our emotional reaction.

Are military drones ever justified? I think they can be in certain circumstances. There may be cases where force has to be used anyway, and drones, with their surgical accuracy, can reduce harm and death to innocent bystanders.

Offhand I can't think of any other scenarios where the use of armed drones is defensible, and I can see a big downside. There is a sort of moral hazard in not having skin in the game. When the US military knows there is no risk to the drone operator, they are tempted to be more aggressive and cavalier. War becomes a video game, and the victims are pixels on a screen, not flesh and blood.

However, drones are here to stay. Technology will inevitably make them smaller and cheaper, and non-weaponised drones will be put to many new uses, such as aeriel mapping and photography, finding lost people in the outdoors, tracking livestock and wild animals, and of course snooping and surveillance.

Which makes it all the more important that society has an open, transparent, unemotional and productive conversation about the use of drones and their potential for both good and harm.

No comments:

Post a Comment