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Reorienting the Kantian Attack on Drones

The best case against drone warfare as it is being waged lies in the fact that the campaign is being conducted in secret, shrouded from public view, unguided by any clear standards and immune from oversight.

Last week, Praxis guest blogger Zane Friedkin drew on principles of Kantian ethics to build a case against the Obama administration’s drone campaign in the Middle East and North Africa. I agree that Kant can help guide the debate, and I too have serious misgivings about the recent escalation of drone warfare. But on reflection, I do not think the categorical imperative equips us to justify those misgivings. Nor am I sure that “alienating humans from the very real and often destructive consequences of their actions” is the heart of the problem  or anything new, for that matter. The best case against drone warfare as it is being waged lies in the fact that the campaign is being conducted in secret, shrouded from public view, unguided by any clear standards and immune from oversight.

I’ll explain shortly. First, recall how Zane indicts drone warfare on Kantian grounds. Here is his first salvo:

[P]ro-drone pundits, including Shane and Plaw, fear the threat of “uncontrolled proliferation.”…The underlying assumption is that the right to aggression is unilateral. Imagine the response from the US defense department if a Yemeni insurgent group were to develop its own Predator drone and send it to the United States to assassinate a citizen identified by behavioral patterns. Yemen would likely be subject to massive destruction. The establishment position on drone warfare and on the rights to the technology of aggression thus clearly violates Kant’s universality principle.

The logic holds on a basic level: if you cannot fathom other states employing the military technology you are using to wage war, you should not use that technology yourself. If you are worried about the proliferation of a certain type of weapon, that’s a good sign you are ethically bound to keep your gun in its holster.

Considered from a broader perspective, this application of Kantian ethics hamstrings states in strange and probably undesirable ways. Consider the “death ray on wheels,” a high-powered laser capable of shooting down missiles that is now being tested by the United States Army. Should the U.S. halt development of this defensive technology because it would not want rival states to develop it? Should the American military park all of its F-22 fighter jets because other states have inferior technology in their fleets? Should we find ways to dismantle ourselves as a superpower because we fear other states achieving this status?

If Kant’s universality principle entails what Zane thinks it does, the precept would seem to lead us to the untenable conclusion that states may not pursue a comparative advantage in military might or strategy. Similar difficulties arise when Zane turns to the “humanity as an end” formulation of the categorical imperative, according to which individuals should be treated as ends in themselves, never as mere means:

Advocates of drones, as we have seen, tend to see the broader war effort as justified. Civilian deaths are therefore “collateral damage,” inevitabilities, externalities, necessary as we pursue our noble objectives. Thus, innocent civilians killed are perceived not as an end but as a means to an end — further evidence that drone policy clearly violates core principles of Kantian morality. We may see Kant’s humanity principle as a direct metaphysical condemnation of exploitation — literally, the use of humans as means to a further end.

The claim is buttressed by recent evidence that drone strikes have caused significant numbers of civilian deaths. But, again, the Kantian principle, in Zane’s hands, overreaches. All forms of warfare cost innocent lives, whether by design or by accident. Some kill indiscriminately and maximize civilian deaths; nuclear warfare is a moral atrocity for this reason. But conventional warfare can be tragically costly as well. If anything, drone warfare is better on this score than other methods: it at least aims to kill particular combatants rather than cause mass civilian casualties.

Applying Kantian ethics to military matters is problematic for a more basic reason: the categorical imperative applies to individual moral decisions rather than to acts by sovereign states. In his political writings, Kant foresaw a time when standing armies would gradually be abolished and perpetual peace would be established. But in the meantime, nothing in his political philosophy requires states to unilaterally disarm or abandon weapons that give them an advantage over potential enemies. “At the stage of culture at which the human race still stands,” Kant wrote in his “Speculative Beginning of Human History,” “war is an indispensable means for bringing it to a still higher stage.” Kenneth Waltz observes in a 1962 article in the American Political Science Review that Kant’s idealism is tempered by a strong dose of realism in the realm of foreign affairs: 

Kant…at once condemns war and demonstrates that its occurrence is expected rather than accidental. In the end we are left not with a confident foretelling of “the end of wars and the reign of international law” [Edwin Mead] but with a deeper appreciation of the causes of war and the immense difficulty of doing anything about them.

So we would misapply Kant’s categorical imperative to read it as a condemnation of armed combat in general or of drone warfare in particular. Another strand of Kantian political ethics, however, provides a strong argument against the secrecy of the United States’ remote-controlled killing: the duty of “publicity” that Kant describes in the second appendix of “Perpetual Peace.”

“Every legal claim must be capable of publicity,” Kant writes. “All actions relating to the right of other men are unjust if their maxim is not consistent with publicity.” Kant’s explanation strikes at the heart of the drone debate: 

For a maxim which I may not declare openly without thereby frustrating my own intention, or which must at all costs be kept secret if it is to succeed, or which I cannot publicly acknowledge without thereby inevitably arousing the resistance of everyone to my plans, can only have stirred up…opposition against me because it is itself unjust and thus constitutes a threat to everyone.

While specific covert measures may be necessary at times militarily, operating a campaign of remotely piloted aircraft under complete cover of secrecy is incompatible with Kant’s publicity requirement and clears a path for Obama and future presidents to send missiles anywhere in the world without explanation or accountability. President Obama seemed to admit as much, and betray his worry about the lack of standards guiding the program, late in this fall’s presidential campaign. This was the basis of Will Wilkinson’s Kantian critique of Obama in the Economist last week. New Yorker writer Amy Davidson describes a “scramble in the White House, when it looked like Obama might lose, to try to write down some rules for when the President could order targeted assassinations, ‘so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures.’ ” This hasty attempt to lay down principles for the use of drones leads Davidson to wonder about the president’s judgment:

When it comes to “kill lists,” Obama’s weakness has been to act as though the clarity of his judgment is the same thing as a clear standard; perhaps the thought of losing gave him a sense that this wasn’t the case. But what was most vivid for those in the present Administration, in their vision of President Romney haphazardly dispatching drones? Their distrust of Obama’s successor, or embarrassment about what they might be leaving, unattended to, on the Oval Office desk?

In an excellent post last month at the Monkey Cage, “How to Improve the Drones Debate,” Omar Bashir explains his proposal to enhance accountability through independent oversight. A panel would be charged with determining whether the drone program is satisfying “the requirements of necessity, discrimination, and proportionality” prescribed by just war theory:

Inconsistent studies of post-strike damage have not settled the issue, and we can’t simply take the Obama administration at its word.  Instead, the government needs something beyond existing congressional review to demonstrate credibly to audiences at home and abroad that too many civilians are not dying compared to the threat posed by targets and to show that there is appropriate cause for deeming individuals targetable.

This oversight, which can ideally provide some indication when strikes begin to violate the requirement of proportionality, may be the key to preventing “endless war”: it might help us know when, if not already, campaigns have taken out so many targets that further killing cannot be justified.  

Oversight measures like these may prove ineffectual in reigning in an “endless” barrage of Hellfire missiles around the globe; drones may become an even more widespread tool in international conflicts. But at this point the jury is out on whether drones represent a brave new world in military weaponry or simply the latest technology toward which traditional standards of just war theory should be applied.

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie


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