Moral Reasons to Stand with Rand

by Brian Kogelmann:

In this essay I address a recent blog post published by a colleague of mine, Evan Bernick. In his post Evan offers both moral and constitutional arguments justifying the Obama administration’s current use of drones, trying to show how current policy is in line with libertarian values (thus explaining why Evan, a self-described libertarian, refuses to “stand with Rand”). Since Evan has a law degree and I do not, I will not engage him concerning the constitutionality of our current drone policy. But as a philosopher, I do take issue with Evan’s moral justification for the use of drones. In this essay I explain why Evan’s moral arguments fail.

Stand With Rand SignLet us begin where Evan does, by examining the proper role of government: “…the government [is] a blunt tool, useful for one purpose: protecting individuals from physical violence.” Obviously Evan cannot mean all individuals, for the Al-Qaeda operatives at the wrong end of a drone strike are of course individuals, and are certainly not being protected from any sort of violence. Indeed, they are having violence done upon them. In light of this pedantic distinction, let us edit Evan’s understanding of the proper role of government: government is meant to protect non-aggressors from aggressors; moreover, government has no obligation to protect aggressors from physical violence, and may even do violence to them if necessary.

But even in light of this edit, Evan still runs into problems: current drone policy does not merely enact violence upon aggressors; it also, suggests much data, does great violence to innocent civilians as well. The Bureau for Investigative Journalism, for instance, claims that the number of civilians killed between 2004 and 2013 in drone strikes – in Pakistan alone – lies somewhere in the range of 411 to 884, of which at least 168 were children. As such, if it is claimed that government is meant to protect non-aggressors from aggressors then it seems that current drone policy is at odds with this stated goal: for the policy yields aggression on non-aggressors, quite the opposite of protecting them.

Here is how Evan might respond: government’s role is not to protect all non-aggressors from aggressors, but rather to protect certain non-aggressors – those residing within an arbitrary geographical boundary – from aggressors residing from both within and without the boundary. That is, government’s role is to protect its own citizens from physical violence; whether violence is done to other non-aggressing non-citizens is, under this view, irrelevant. Thus, the fact that drone strikes accidentally kill innocent civilians is unimportant.

In combating this new proposal we might note that the current formulation of Evan’s proper role of government seems to be at odds with some of his broader philosophical commitments. Evan derives his conception of a just government from what he seems to believe are universal facts about human nature: “Human beings can only sustain their lives by using their reason to produce and exchange. To use violence against an individual is immoral, because it prevents individuals from making full use of their reason and thus sustaining their lives.” It would be a queer thing if we jumped from his seemingly universal and admittedly congenial ethical maxim to a political philosophy that only requires us to protect certain individuals within a given boundary, while concomitantly allowing us to disregard the lives of those unfortunate enough to be born outside some arbitrary lines drawn on a map. That is, how do we get from an ethical maxim chastising all violence against (let us assume) non-aggressing peoples, to a political philosophy that approbates the killing of some arbitrary non-aggressing peoples for the sake of a different group of arbitrary non-aggressing peoples? I do not think there is a good way of accounting for this inconsistency.

As is, I do not think Evan’s moral arguments in support of current drone policy succeed. But even so, let us see if Evan can make a different, though related point: while he cannot morally justify drone strikes as such, let us see if he can morally justify drone strikes in abstract. Here is the difference: justifying drone strikes as such would entail justifying drone strikes as they currently occur. As we have seen, Evan has failed to do this. Justifying drone strikes in the abstract, though, is different. Here, we are not justifying drone warfare as it currently proceeds; instead, we examine drone strikes as they might occur in a perfect world. The distinction, then, is that of ideal vs. non-ideal political theory.

As has been shown, one of the problems with Evan’s justification of drone strikes as such remains the fact that current use of drones yields civilian casualties – a fact at odds with his broader philosophical commitments. But what if technological advances allow for drones to increase in accuracy – what if we could guarantee that drones would only hit desired targets, leaving non-aggressing citizens unharmed? If this wildly implausible condition were somehow satisfied, could we offer a moral justification for the use of drones? I still do not think so.

Why? The answer can be teased out by examining Evan’s myopic understanding of the state’s purpose. As has been quoted above, Evan claims that the purpose of the state is to protect individuals from physical violence. What remains interesting about this assertion is the insular focus on consequences: the only criterion that the state must satisfy, in order to be just, is whether or not it produces a specified state of affairs. If the state is able to produce a state of affairs where physical violence is not done upon the citizenry, then the state instantiates its proper form; if not, then not. This singular focus on consequences, though, runs into many of the same problems that consequentialist moral theories face. Namely, we leave out something that seems morally salient: it is not merely what states of affairs our actions produce, but also how we go about producing them.

Is it okay to kill one person to harvest organs for five patients who urgently require organ transplants? Is it morally justified to harshly punish trivial crimes to prevent future infractions (we could, perhaps, end illicit drug use if we killed all those found in possession of psychoactive substances)? The states of affairs produced in these two scenarios seem laudable: we save five people in the first, and we prevent drug abuse in the second. But still, something seems unsavory about how we go about producing these states of affairs. As a result, we might think that ethical theories endorsing the above actions – though they may have found part of the answer – still have work to do so as to not allow for intuitively reprehensible actions.

The same pattern of thought applies to Evan’s understanding of the proper role of the state. If the state only exists to protect citizens from physical violence then we leave open – frighteningly open – just how the state might go about doing this. The slaughter of women and children, the use of nuclear weapons and chemical agents, and barbaric scorched earth tactics of times past all remain on the table so long as the state does as Evan thinks it ought. In response to this, we might claim that, while the state’s main objective is to prevent physical violence from happening to individuals, it must go about achieving this end while reined in by certain constraints we find morally appropriate. While it is unclear right now what these constraints might consist of, it at least seems reasonable to posit that the assassination of supposed enemy combatants (some of which might be U.S. citizens), in absence of due process, ordered by one man not subject to oversight, is morally off the table. Protecting individuals from violence might be important, but certainly not at the cost of allowing capricious and unchecked slaughter.

Thus, even if we lived in a perfect world of perfect drone strikes void of the possibility of civilian casualties, it still remains doubtful we can morally justify such practices. This is because we need a more robust understanding of what the proper role of the state is, as the one offered by Evan seems to leave out features of a just society that are morally significant. But even so, this latter point is a somewhat superfluous one. The main point that I argued for in the first half of this paper – that Evan’s attempt to morally justify current U.S. drone policy fails – is the issue that really matters, for we do live in the real world, and in our real world drone warfare is a very real thing. Because our current drone policy fails moral justification I recommend that we all – Evan included – stand with Rand, at least until a better argument is put forward detailing why the use of these weapons is a morally justified practice.


Brian Kogelmann is a Research Intern at a DC think tank. He recently graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a B.A. in philosophy and a B.A. in political science, and will be starting his Ph.D. in philosophy this fall.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Drone Strikes Are Both Moral and Practical

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *