Sunday, May 12, 2013

PF 2013 NFL Nationals - Drones - Legitimacy

Resolved: The benefits of American drone strikes against foreign targets outweigh the harms.

For part 1 - definitions, click here.


Before diving into Pro and Con positions, I want to touch on the justification for drone use in relation to targeted killings.  The issue is very complex and an examination of the benefits or harms must be predicated on a general assumption that use of drones is neither illegal or immoral.  Otherwise, the Pro case becomes very difficult.  The legal issues are certainly easier to face when we exclude the idea of using drone strikes on US soil against US citizens.  I hope, the legality or morality of drone strikes is not an issue for you.  I think there is plenty of room to debate this topic without side-tracking into a complex discussion of the legitimacy of the action and as long as you understand the issues of legitimacy, you will be better equipped to deal with it if your opponent attempts to walk that path.  It is not my intention in this post, the go deeply into the topic of legitimacy.  Instead, I will leave you a few sources and a brief discussion and if you feel inclined it should be enough for you to research it more deeply on your own.

Just War

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to kill terrorists has been debated by high-school Lincoln Douglas and Public Forum Debaters for a number of years now.  While it may or may not be relevant to the debate over this resolution, I believe it is imperative for teams to gain at least a working background on the ethical, moral and legal justifications for and against the kind of killing, drones are being used for and a very detailed analysis can be found here.  In particular, you can gain a better understanding of the moral framework by reading the two articles which begin here.

Statman 2004:
"I mentioned at the outset two general models for dealing with threats to vital interests: the war model and the non-war (i.e., criminal law and individual self-defense) model. In war, goes the common wisdom, soldiers of all sides are permitted to kill any soldier of the adversary, unless the latter surrenders or in limited exceptional circumstances. This permission to kill is not contingent on establishing that the soldier being killed poses any significant threat to the other side or, even assuming that he does pose such a threat, that he is morally responsible for doing so....Things are, of course, totally different, both morally and legally, in the context of the relations between individuals under criminal law and accepted rules of self-defense. To kill in self-defense, one is required to verify that the perceived attacker poses a clear and imminent danger to one’s vital interests and that the attacker bears responsibility for this danger. And, of course, with respect to punishment, it can be imposed only after establishing beyond reasonable doubt that the accused did commit the alleged crime"

Statman 2004:
"The moral legitimacy of targeted killing becomes even clearer when compared to the alternative means of fighting terror — that is, the massive invasion of the community that shelters and supports the terrorists in an attempt to catch or kill the terrorists and destroy their infrastructure....invading a civilian area inevitably leads to the deaths and injury of far more people, mostly innocent people, than careful use of targeted killing. Second, such actions bring death, misery, and destruction to people who are only minimally involved (if at all) in, or responsible for, terror or military attacks, whereas with targeted killing, collateral damage is significantly reduced (though not prevented altogether). Hence, targeted killing is the preferable method not only because, on a utilitarian calculation, it saves lives—a very weighty moral consideration—but also because it is more commensurate with a fundamental condition of justified self-defense, namely, that those killed are responsible for the threat posed."

The Moral Justification

Claiming benefits for the use of drones (unmanned aerial vehicles - UAVs) is moot if there is no moral justification to use them.  We must assume for the purposes of this debate, the intended objective, for example the objective to kill terrorists, is a just act in the first place.  To be sure, the moral justification for killing terrorists, which finds its basis in "just war theory" (jus in bello) is not the issue.  Instead we are debating whether or not use of drones to carry out that objective has benefits which outweigh the harms.  However, we must concede that the imperative to kill terrorists is morally justified.  If one uses an immoral means to carry out a moral and just act then it is pretty difficult to argue the ends justifies the means since the means is immoral.  For example, it may be justifiable to launch a war against another country which has attacked your interests, killed your people and continues to express a desire to inflict harm upon you.  The act of war may even be deemed morally justified under the principles of the right to self-defense.  However, if your forces resort to tactics such as indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, mass rape, use of chemical weapons, etc.  The means you employ are unjust which renders your actions immoral even though the objective was initially justified.

Therefore, in the context of American drone strikes, we must consider the act of war against terrorists is justifiable and morally permissible in the first place and so we evaluate whether the means we employ, i.e. drones strikes, is moral.  To be sure, if we did not use drones, we would use other means to carry out the objective to kill terrorists.

Bradley Strawser builds a case for moral justification based on simple principles of obligatory expediency, risk reduction and economy.

Strawser 2010:
"The justification of remotely controlled weapons in war here assumes that their employment is done as part of a fully justified war effort meeting both jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria. Thus, if the military in question is justified in a particular military strike in the first place, they should protect the just warrior carrying out the action to the greatest extent as is possible up until protecting the warrior impedes his/her ability to behave justly in combat, as will be argued below. Granted, if a given military action is unjustified, then it is unjustified whether it is done by a pilot flying an aircraft remotely or otherwise."

Strawser's general principle is clear. The justification for UAVs rests in the idea we are morally obligated to reduce the risk to our warriors when its feasible and expedient to do so as long as it does not compromise the warriors ability to behave justly.

Strawser 2010:
"The burden of proof, then, is on those who argue that we should not employ UAVs or similar remote technology. Such a position needs to justify why we should have pilots take on such risk."

Legal Justification

When looking to the broad legal issues surrounding the issue of targeting and killing terrorists in other countries, the justification or lack thereof rests in how one views the so-called war on terror and whether or not, there is a parallel between killing enemy combatants in a declared war between two states, and killing active members of terrorist groups in "war" that has been declared between a non-aligned paramilitary group and a nation.  The question over which ethicists struggle is, are trans-national terrorists enemy combatants or organized criminals.  The rules of engagement are very much dependent on how one answers that question and even then, it seems the terrorist resides in a murky realm between combatant and non-combatant, between just and unjust and efforts to justify their targeted killing remains controversial under existing theories.  However, many moral and legal theorists are suggesting a kind of hybrid definition.

Gross 2006:
"Perhaps it is more reasonable to think that some combatants are unjust, and that those espousing an unjust cause and/or fighting by unjust means merit a response more severe than do those combatants who are just. Rather than ignore the moral responsibility of terrorists and their supporters, their moral non-innocence justifies stronger and harsher measures than one would normally inflict on an adversary. Perhaps targeted killings are an appropriate response to terrorism precisely because terrorists deserve to suffer harm in a way that just combatants do not. Jeff McMahan, who does not discuss targeted killings, sets the stage for this argument as he discusses the limits of permissible harm that one may cause when facing a threat. ... An acceptable response is necessary, cost-effective and one that avoids excessive non-combatant casualties; it does not vary relative to an adversary’s moral responsibility. Echoing Statman and Meisels’ concern for the ‘special responsibility’ or ‘culpability’ that terrorists bear, McMahan suggests, however, that we carefully weigh a belligerent’s moral responsibility and respond more harshly to those combatants who are unjust."


Bradley Jay Strawser (2010): Moral Predators: The Duty to Employ
Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles, Journal of Military Ethics, 9:4, 342-368

The Ethics of Killing in War
Jeff McMahan, 114 Ethics 693, 2004

Assassination and Targeted Killing: Law Enforcement, Execution or Self-Defence?
Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol 23, No 3
Michael L. Gross, 2006

Targeted Killing, 5 THEORETICAL INQUIRIES L. 179
Daniel Statman, 2004

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