Drone Strikes Are Both Moral and Practical

Why I Still Stand Against Rand

by Evan Bernick

Three weeks ago, in the wake of Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster, I wrote an article defending the Obama Administration’s drone policy on moral and constitutional grounds. In it, I focused primarily on the constitutionality of drone strikes. I am therefore glad that my friend and colleague, Brian Kogelmann, has challenged my moral arguments, as he has given me an opportunity to think through and flesh them out.

Obama's Drone Policy

In what follows, I will present a moral defense, not of drone strikes per se, but of the state’s use of force to protect its own citizens, even at the cost of the lives of non-aggressors who are not citizens. I will also argue that my colleague’s understanding of morality would make a commitment to moral action into a suicide pact. I will contend, instead, for a moral understanding that does not force us to choose between what is right and what is practical.

An initial question presents itself: Why do human beings need morality? Why do we need a set of principles by which to evaluate our actions as good or evil, and choose good rather than evil? Whatever the accomplishments of non-human animals, we have no evidence that they consciously choose between alternative courses of action. They seem to do reasonably well. Why shouldn’t we do the same?

The simple answer is that we can’t survive that way.  The most complex non-human animals instinctively know what they must do to stay alive and act accordingly. They cannot consciously engage in self-destructive behavior. Humans, by contrast, make self-destructive choices on the basis of badly formulated ideas about how the world works. That is, they can choose not to live.

How can we avoid self-destruction? We must use our reason. Reason is the faculty enables us to live consistently with reality, to make choices that are grounded in knowledge of the world around us. These life-sustaining choices are not merely practical—they are moral.

Biological life is not the only reward of moral activity.  Those who act morally experience a unique emotional reward: happiness, a state of noncontradictory joy.  While happiness, as an emotional state, cannot serve as a standard for moral action, it follows upon consistent moral action. To be moral is to increase one’s prospects of attaining happiness.

Because life serves as the standard for moral action and reason is crucial to survival, it is morally right for individuals to defend themselves. Men cannot reason at gunpoint. A morality that required individuals to suffer violence without defending themselves would be self-defeating because it would be self-destructive.  Of course, some individuals will necessarily have more difficulty defending themselves against aggressors, and some will be stricter observers of justice than others.

Further, honest disputes will always arise.  There exists a need for settled, predictable rules; impartial arbiters to administer them; and overwhelming force to ensure compliance with them. There also exists a need for overwhelming force to combat threats from non-citizen aggressors.

This is where the state comes in. Individuals delegate their right to self-defense to the state in the belief that it can more effectively preserve their lives by its monopoly on retaliatory force. In responding to aggressors, the state can do no more and no less than individuals, acting in their own self-defense, can do for themselves. The end of both the individual and the state is the preservation of individuals’ lives.

What, then, can individuals do for themselves? They can do what is necessary to defend themselves against aggressors. What is necessary depends upon the circumstances. If a bank robber uses a teller as a human shield and fires shots at an armed private citizen, that citizen may fire back until the bank robber is no longer a threat. If the teller dies, the blood is on the hands of the bank robber who initiated the force, not the private citizen who is defending his life, as is his right.

The question of whether or not any particular use of military force by the government is morally justifiable should be resolved in the same way. Given a genuine threat to the lives of its citizens, a government is morally obliged to use as much force as is necessary to defend them, even if that means that non-aggressors will inevitably die. That blood is on the hands of those who have initiated force, not that of the government that is defending the lives of its citizens, in keeping with its charge. It has no right to do otherwise.

Does this open the door to what my colleague refers to as “barbaric scorched earth tactics”? Slaughtering non-aggressors where equally effective means of protecting citizens from aggressors are available would certainly constitute a moral crime. Every human individual represents a potential value to every other. Every human life has the capacity to enrich one’s own. No government can justify such slaughter by arguing that it was not the initial aggressor. To the extent that the government uses force that is not necessary to protect its citizens, it becomes an aggressor. At the same time, no government has the right to force its citizens to sacrifice their lives to non-citizens. The government must use the most effective means of protecting the lives of its own citizens.

My colleague objects to what he calls a morally “arbitrary” distinction between non-aggressing US citizens and non-aggressing citizens of other nations.  It is, however, no more arbitrary than the distinction between the teller who is being used as a human shield and the private citizen who must shoot through him or her to protect himself from a bank robber. Just as the individual’s primary moral responsibility is to preserve his own life, the state’s primary moral responsibility is to preserve the lives of its citizens. A morality that would require individuals to sacrifice their lives for the sake of non-aggressors would leave them helpless to defend themselves against unscrupulous aggressors who place no value on innocent life. It would leave them slaves to the worst that humanity has to offer. One can imagine no better argument against pursuing the good, than that it is thus disarmed against evil.

It is high time to restore an understanding of morality that does not force us to choose between “doing evil, that good may come” and doing nothing. The key lies in restoring the link between morality, life and happiness. Individuals who need to act rationally to survive and thrive have, in virtue of what they are, the right to defend themselves against aggressors. The government is only a delegatee of this right, and it is morally obliged to exercise it. Insofar as drone strikes better ensure the security of US citizens than any other alternative means of targeting and killing those who are determined to kill them, the government can –and indeed, must— use them.

Evan Bernick is a Legal Associate at a DC think tank and a Legal Fellow with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. 


  1. Kyle Gibson says:

    “A morality that would require individuals to sacrifice their lives for the sake of non-aggressors would leave them helpless to defend themselves against unscrupulous aggressors who place no value on innocent life.”

    I disagree with this in general, but ESPECIALLY in terms of drone strikes. In every hostage crisis, law enforcement looks for ways to combat the aggressor without harm to non-aggressors. To say that in all cases, our lives are jeopardized for the sake of non-aggressors is just not true.

    Drone strikes is a specific topic because the cost-benefit analysis is just not public. Because this information is not public, questions should be asked if these “terrorists” pose as a true threat to national security. Just as you have been taught in Chicago, which should presume innocence until proven guilty. In the case of drone strikes, I give innocence to all individuals and am not suspecting them of terrorists.

    • Kyle, as I explained in my previous piece, the presumption of innocence does not apply to certain individuals who are identified as enemy combatants. We have a congressional declaration (the AUMF) that authorizes the use of military force against certain individuals. If we doubt whether or not they are a threat, we should revise or repeal the AUMF and start over.

      My argument here is that we should use the most effective means of targeting individuals who have been identified as threats to the lives of American citizens in the context of valid declarations of war. If that means drone strikes, then use drone strikes.

      As to combatting aggressors without harm to non-agressors– yes, to the extent that we CAN do that, we SHOULD do that. But if we give preference to the lives of non-agressors over the potential loss of American lives, either by risking our soldiers in raids or forbearing entirely from going after certain individuals because we can’t avoid civilian casualties? The government has no right to sacrifice our safety, or that of our soldiers, to those of civilians whom our enemies shelter among, and who have an incentive to shelter among, so long as we don’t pursue them when they do. We didn’t give up our right to defend ourselves to the state (at least, where the state can act effectively to defend us- obviously, we can still defend ourselves if we are assaulted and there are no police to protect us) only to have the state refuse to exercise it. If we don’t want the state going after Al-Qaeda because they’re not a threat to our lives, we should vote accordingly.

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