Q. Is the use of armed drones ethical?
The use of armed drones presents a complex moral calculus. One view suggests that if a state uses force as part of its counterterrorism policy, then the most humane, ethical way to carry it out is through the use of drone strikes. As Dan Byman points out, drone strikes are more ethical than many tools host nations would use to deal with terrorist organizations. The Yemeni and Pakistani militaries, for example, have a history of torturing detainees and indiscriminately bombing civilian areas.
Bradley Strawser has also defended the use of drones on ethical and moral grounds, suggesting that drones are more accurate in terms of reducing casualties on the ground and do not bring a pilot into the line of fire. As he and others have suggested, drones are not novel in terms of their ability to engage targets lethally and if anything are a more appropriate vehicle than predecessors or existing alternatives. Strawser suggests that if a country is going to engage in conflict, drones are the most humane, legal way to do it. Indeed, "using such technology is, in fact, obligatory."88
On the other side of the debate are philosophers who have raised the question about whether drones introduce a moral hazard for the use of force.89 Moral hazards involve situations whereby avoiding cost has the perverse incentive of causing one actor to engage in risks that they would not otherwise take. Consider, for instance, that in 2014, 70% of skiers report wearing helmets—triple the number from 2003. Still the number of head injuries has not declined. The hunch is that helmets give individuals license to take more risks, exposing them to injuries that even helmets cannot protect against.90
The metaphor about costs and risks applies in the context of drones; drones present no costs to the user. The drone operators are not at risk and the domestic populace does not see body bags coming home from war. The result, backed by comments of many former leaders, including former Secretaries of Defense Gates and Panetta, is that the use of drones has allowed the United States to take liberties with using force precisely because the technology is relatively antiseptic and low-cost.91 According to this formulation, the problem is not so much with how a particular side uses force, but that it is using force. The counterfactual question it raises is whether that actor would have engaged in force in the absence of the enabling technology. That the United States has engaged in armed drone strikes with the frequency it has, and to the nearexclusion of manned alternatives, suggests a counterfactual world with lower levels of military force. It is this moral hazard problem—an unintended consequence of a low-cost technology being that it is used less discerningly—that presents the alternative ethical perspective.
It is on this side of the philosophical debate that theorists such as Michael Walzer wade in. Walzer worries that to those equipped with a hammer, everything will look like a nail, and in the case of having armed drones, everything will look like a viable, legitimate target. He notes that "here is the difficulty: the technology is so good that the criteria for using it are likely to be steadily relaxed," causing an "overuse of drones" and tendency to use drones as a blunt instrument rather than as a vehicle for precise, targeted killing. He concludes that using drones in this way isn't "morally wise," and implies that bearing some risk ourselves could help create a more circumspect and moral targeting strategy.92 Such guidance, of course, runs counter to one key reason why leaders have found drones to be attractive, which is that they minimize risk to one's own side, but from the purely ethical standpoint of just war theory, militaries must be willing to sacrifice not just for their own troops but for civilians in areas where they are engaged in conflict.