Begun, the Drone War Has

by Brian Kogelmann:

When I published a response to Evan Bernick’s constitutional and moral defense of the Obama administration’s use of drones, I did not anticipate a fecund discussion to blossom. I was thus delighted to learn that my friend and colleague published a response to my response, in which he carefully annunciates his moral justification for the use of drones specifically, and the use of force by the state more broadly.

American Drone PolicyAlthough Evan has done an admirable job, I still think he has committed several errors, which I intend on pointing out in this essay. In this paper I highlight several implausible implications produced by Evan’s moral system. I end by offering a meta-critique of Evan and mine’s debate, where I show that we differ in our moral commitments largely because we disagree concerning how moral philosophy ought to be done.

The central tenet of Evan’s moral philosophy, from what I gather, is as follows: actions that are “life-sustaining” actions are also moral actions; actions that are not life-sustaining actions – that is, actions that are self-destructive – are immoral actions. As an example, if I am being accosted by a gang of thieves who are about to do violence upon me, it is the moral thing to do to fight them off with force. As another example, suicide would be the ultimate example of immoral action, for killing one’s self seems to be the paragon of self-destruction.

Let us begin by noting some of the queer implications that follow from Evan’s moral system. There are many examples of individuals sacrificing themselves for the betterment of others or the promulgation of some cause that is dear to them. Moreover, many people often think that these martyrs – in their acts of self-sacrifice – have done, if not a morally good thing, at the very least not a morally bad thing. As just a few examples: the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, sparking the Tunisian revolution; instances of self-starvation done in protest (Mohandas Gandhi’s hunger strikes come to mind); and even the actions of Jesus Christ who died (so some believe) for our sins. Is the above list really a list of immoral actions? Under Evan’s moral system they would be, because the actions are self-destructive. I do not think a moral system classifying Jesus and Gandhi as immoral actors is a very good moral system.

Let us move on. Because moral action is life-sustaining action, it follows that it is morally right for individuals to defend themselves against aggressors; since immoral action is self-destructive action, it also follows that it is immoral for individuals to not defend themselves against aggressors. Moreover, since individuals delegate their right to self-defense to the state, it follows that the state has the same moral prerogative as the individual: namely, it would be morally right for the state to defend its citizens against aggressors, and morally wrong to abdicate such responsibilities. As a result, a government “is morally obliged to use as much force as is necessary to defend [its citizens], even if that means that non-aggressors will inevitably die.” What I would like to do now is discuss Evan’s use of the word “necessary.”

Under one interpretation of what constitutes necessity, drone strikes are not necessary. If it is true that there are real threats in the world that must be neutralized, then we can surely carry out such assassinations in ways that do not kill so many innocent civilians (one thinks back to the elimination of Osama bin Laden, where women and children were encountered in the compound, but were merely zip-tied and handcuffed rather than slaughtered). While the probability of civilian casualty with this alternative method is still non-zero (some unarmed individuals were killed in the bin Laden raid), it is certainly less than the probability of civilian casualty we see with drone strikes. Since drone strikes are thus not absolutely necessary to carry out many targeted killings, and since Evan maintains that “slaughtering non-aggressors where equally effective means of protecting citizens from aggressors are available would certainly constitute a moral crime,” it follows that Evan’s moral system fails to justify the use of drones, at least in some (if not most) cases.

Here is how Evan might respond: the proposed alternative to the use of drones does not remain a legitimate alternative because it places the lives of U.S. soldiers in danger; the probability of U.S. soldiers dying in a bin Laden-esque raid is much higher than the probability of U.S. soldiers dying in a routine drone strike. Thus, “necessary” is used in a more aberrant way: not only necessary to get the job done, but necessary to get the job done in such a manner that minimizes U.S. casualties, even at the cost of maximizing non-U.S. civilian causalities. This understanding of what counts as necessary, if adopted, leads to several counterintuitive implications that Evan must swallow if he is to stand by his moral system.

Consider the following example: suppose we have intelligence detailing that there is a cell of terrorists in the city of Tokyo, who are planning major attacks on several different U.S. cities. Also suppose that we have available to us only two means of neutralizing this threat: we can either send in ground troops or we can firebomb large parts of Tokyo. If we send in ground troops then we run the risk of some U.S. soldiers dying; if we firebomb Tokyo, we know that thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians will die – civilians that have just as much to do with the terrorist cell as civilians in Poland or Cambodia or the U.S. do. Under Evan’s understanding of what is necessary, the morally right thing to do would be to firebomb the city of Tokyo, resulting in the loss of thousands of innocent lives, rather than risk a few U.S. soldier lives. Such a commitment, I believe, is morally unacceptable. Borders probably do matter, but not to such a degree that a handful of U.S. lives are judged more valuable than the inhabitants of one of the most populace cities on the planet.

Here is how Evan might respond: while it is unfortunate that we must wipe out a large chunk of Tokyo, we do not have to feel culpable for such regrettable consequences. This is because the “blood is on the hands of those who have initiated force, not that of the government that is defending the lives of its citizens.” Such a view, though, seems to falsely dichotomize what it means to be morally responsible for some wrongful deed. It is certainly true that if we did firebomb Tokyo out of self-defense, then we would not be as morally guilty for our actions as, say, the Nazis were for what they did to the Jews. But just because we lack culpability at this robust level it does not follow that we are completely innocent. It would intuitively seem wrong to hold that we harbor just as much culpability for the baleful state of affairs in Tokyo as a dairy farmer in Switzerland does. It may be true that we are not totally responsible for our actions; but we are at least partially responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, especially when we are the ones dropping bombs on them.

Why do Evan and I disagree so strongly when it comes to our moral commitments? While there are many factors at work here, I believe one major reason remains the fact that we go about doing moral philosophy in very different ways. From what I can tell, Evan likes to argue from first principles: he establishes his axiom and from there shows how different situations are handled by his system. Such a method of doing moral philosophy, though, often requires its proponents to swallow counterintuitive implications when their moral system is placed under duress through the use of counterfactuals. What I have tried to accomplish in this essay, thus far, is point out the implications that I think Evan would have to accept if he is to hold on to the basic axiom he established.

There is another way of doing moral philosophy, though, made popular largely by John Rawls called reflective equilibrium. Reflective Equilibrium entails constantly working back and forth amongst our intuitions about what is right and wrong, and, in doing so, constructing a moral theory or set of principles that does not upset any of our intuitions, creating a harmony of sorts. We do not start with an axiom and then end there; we might start with an axiom, but then edit our axiom based on its ability to deal with tough situations. It is a method of moral philosophy that is dynamic, not static.

Reflective equilibrium is a more consistent way of doing moral philosophy, and thus is superior to arguing from first principles. It is more consistent because it takes seriously our intuitions about what is morally right and wrong throughout the whole process of doing moral philosophy, rather than just at the beginning of the process. Those who argue solely from first principles make use of intuitions at first; they develop their first principles based on their basic intuitions about the right and the good. They then often ignore counterfactual objections to their established moral system, begrudgingly accepting counterintuitive implications to what was originally a very intuitive idea. This is akin to establishing a scientific hypothesis concerning how the world works based on observation of the external world, and then refusing to edit the original hypothesis when new observation questions the verity of the established position. Reflective equilibrium, though, does not make this error. It is a way of doing moral philosophy that takes seriously our intuitions at all points of the theorizing process.

Because of this, I think Evan would do well to adopt this different, more coherent way of doing moral philosophy. If he does I am confident he will realize some of the intuitively-unappealing implications that result from his original commitment to the moral goodness of life-sustaining action. Continuing one’s life is important, and the state protecting its citizens is also of the utmost significance. But there are surely limits to this. There are times when individuals and states go too far, and even though these individuals might be engaged in life-sustaining practices, it is still very possible for them to do morally wrong things. Drone strikes – though it may be true they are a life-sustaining practice – which result in a ratio of 49 civilians for every one alleged terrorist killed, are certainly a practice that, if not flat out morally impermissible, should at least capture our attention as a morally suspect enterprise.


Brian Kogelmann recently graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a B.A. in philosophy and a B.A. in political science. In the fall he will be starting his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Arizona where he will be a Charles G. Koch fellow at the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom. 

One Comment

  1. Brian,

    As always, a pleasure. I look forward to further discussion. I agree wholeheartedly that any system of philosophy must be grounded in rational perception of the world around us and deal with real-world situations in an effective manner. I don’t study philosophy as an end in itself, as something intrinsically rewarding or interesting. If it didn’t help me to live and be happy, I’d abandon it.

    One clarification, and one question (for now)

    You state that “There are many examples of individuals sacrificing themselves for the betterment of others or the promulgation of some cause that is dear to them. Moreover, many people often think that these martyrs – in their acts of self-sacrifice – have done, if not a morally good thing, at the very least not a morally bad thing.”

    And I include myself among those “many.”

    Respectfully, you have misunderstood me. A morality which uses human life as its standard does not commit you to preserving your bare physical existence at all costs. The key qualifier is “human.” If one cannot use one’s reason to realize one’s values, if one is prevented from doing so to a degree that’s intolerable, the preservation of one’s biological life does not trump all other considerations. Men who choose to fight to the death rather than submit to live in slavery (such as, say, the Jews who hold out at Masada) or commit suicide rather than endure a thugocracy in which they can’t realize their values (such as Mouhammed Bouazizi).

    You refer to these actions as “self-sacrifice,” but I do not understand them in that way. Self-sacrifice entails giving up a greater value for a lesser value. If survival as, in effect, a sub-human, a slave, is a lesser value than the potential value of living as a free man, it is in no way a sacrifice to seek to realize than value, even at the risk of losing one’s biological life.

    Secondly, you assert, “Under Evan’s understanding of what is necessary, the morally right thing to do would be to firebomb the city of Tokyo, resulting in the loss of thousands of innocent lives, rather than risk a few U.S. soldier lives. Such a commitment, I believe, is morally unacceptable.”

    There is no conceivable way that firebombing an entire city would be “necessary,” on my terms, to take out a single cell of terrorists. This would indeed be immoral. Unnecessary losses of innocent life are always immoral– necessary being understood, not as “absolutely necessary,” but “necessary to achieve the military end in question without compromising Americans’ rights to life.” You know they’re in the city, but you don’t know where, and you bomb the city randomly, hoping you kill the terrorists? How would you know if you killed them? You are morally obliged, on these circumstances, to seek out more information.

    But I would put it to you: Why, on YOUR terms, would it be immoral? My standard is life– human life. What’s yours?

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