Rand Paul’s dramatic filibuster before the Senate generated a great deal of public debate in recent weeks, and for good reason. Paul has drawn attention to an egregious expansion of the drone program rationale to include targeting of American citizens on American soil, which believed to stretch the already wildly stretched parameters of the Patriot Act. The current policy circumvents the normal rules of judicial arraignment, thinks Paul. His concern corresponds to a wider public worry over the terrific escalation of the drone program, an anxiety that has not been at all assuaged by the Attorney General’s repeated demand for freedom to strike any “immanent threat,” even if domestic. The report of a new base to support drone activities in North Africa is but another telling indicator of the program’s ambition.

The president relented to demands from senators to disclose 11 classified legal memos in which his administration argues that it has the authority to use drone strikes to kill terror suspects who are US citizens Photo: REUTERS

The president relented to demands from senators to disclose 11 classified legal memos in which his administration argues that it has the authority to use drone strikes to kill terror suspects who are US citizens; Photo: REUTERS

Important as Paul’s argument is for public debate, it grasps the moral problems surrounding the drone program only partially. In truth the entire drone program, including its foreign activities, is premised on the acceptance of distinct moral compromises.  We are told that unmanned drone tactics present two new opportunities in the war on terror, both desirable and without precedent: reduced risk of pilot casualties and increased targeting precision. On the face of it, admittedly, these opportunities appear attractive. But their attractiveness ought not distract the opportunistic character of these ends. So far, all rationale offered by officials have appealed to superior outcomes achievable through unmanned drone targeting when compared to traditional means of war.  Appeals to demonstrable “results” of the targeting program are meant to reassure the public that any moral concerns we might have not real. Only the self-deceived argue with results!

This particular mode of practical reasoning about war tactics is morally insufficient. To better interrogate the moral shape of the drone program I propose holding the actual practice of using unmanned aerial vehicles to target terror suspects up to a few traditional principles of just war. The long and informative tradition of just-war theory is a distinctly Christian arrangement of rules for ordering martial affairs toward rightful ends. These rules are intended to govern the planning and activities of war. The Obama administration’s frantic attempt to devise ad-hoc rules for drone targeting in the days leading up to last year’s election reveals that the traditional rules of war were either unknown or entirely overlooked.

In what follows we’ll consider only one of the rules, discrimination, and ask whether the current configuration of the drone program successfully upholds it.  All of the other rules of just war would apply too, of course, and there are good reasons to believe that the drone program fails to meet a few of their moral criteria as well. But for now we want to focus solely on discrimination: any tactic of the drone program must uphold the rule of discrimination to be considered just, such that any tactic failing to uphold the rule would be morally impermissible or even blameworthy.

The principle of discrimination states that a necessary distinction must be maintained in warfare between combatant and non-combatant. It is never right to target civilians deliberately. Only combatants are legitimate candidates for targeting. This is not to suggest that innocent civilians will not be harmed or perhaps even killed in the event of armed conflict. War is far too untidy to expect complete civilian immunity from violence and, regrettably, civilians are indeed far too often incidental casualties to the cruelties of war. But being an incidental casualty of war is quite different from being an express target of war. The principle of discrimination disallows the intentional targeting of civilians while admitting that civilians may invariably fall victim to war’s frenzied effects.

So, by application, does the United States’ drone program deliberately target non-combatants? The answer to this question is slightly tricky. It is not as though drone policies mimic the unthoughtful nuclear policies of the mid twentieth-century. Drones do not (for now!) have the staggering proportionality that nuclear weaponry possesses, and they do not figure so neatly into the logic of our national deterrence schema. Nevertheless, it would appear that many drone strikes are carried out with direct knowledge that civilian causalities will be incurred, which is believed justifiable if legitimate targets are also terminated in the process.  This is precisely the sort of consequentialist desperation we should want to avoid. Resorting to an “ends justify the means” reasoning in warfare is bound to imply an inordinate number of moral compromises, for, as Paul Ramsay stated many decades ago, “it can never do any good to intend or do wrong that good may come of it.”

All of what has been said so far about the principle of discrimination leads to the following claim: Any unmanned aerial targeting that also knowingly accepts the death of non-combatants as a justifiable consequence of targeting combatants is morally impermissible.

There is good reason to believe this principle is being intentionally ignored. No one knows exactly how many people have been killed by drone strikes, but the best estimates indicate something in the neighborhood of 3,000 people. According to several independent investigations of civilian drone strike causalities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, of those 3,000 fatalities approximately 400-900 are considered civilian. It is entirely possible that a full one-third of all casualties have been civilian. This proportion of civilian casualties is simply too high to classify as incidental. Some targeting simply must be carried out under the assumption that civilian lives will be lost as a result.

Notice by contrast how the now famous operation to raid the compound of Osama bin Laden differs from the routine drone strike operations. In the case of the bin Laden raid, a select group of specially trained servicemen used precise measures to penetrate a walled compound for the purpose of capturing or killing a select number of intended targets.  The discrimination shown in this operation is evinced vividly in the low number of non-combatant casualties, and this in Bin Laden’s own compound! Had officials elected instead to use an aerial drone to eliminate bin Laden it is almost certain all of the non-combatants, which included many young children, would not have been spared. Similar comparisons might also be drawn with other aerial operations.

The moralist quoted above, Paul Ramsay, once said that love is both the justification and limitation of war. By that he meant the same love compelling a nation to intervene martially on behalf of another also renders noncombatants morally immune from direct attack. The entirety of the Just War tradition, and the principle of discrimination in particular, is “of that supreme compassion which always seeks if possible to wound none whom by His wounds Christ died to save.” Even our enemies somehow deserve our love. The commandment from our Lord to pray for our enemies ought to have some moral bearing upon thinking about who, exactly, is susceptible to assassination.

Thus, any drone strike that knowingly targets noncombatants, even if only as an accepted accidental casualty, has not upheld the rule of discrimination in warfare and is thus immoral. Rand Paul has asked why a strike on an American on American soil might be legally justified. I am asking how drone strikes on anyone and everywhere might be morally justified given the rather frequent negligence of the principle of discrimination shown by federal officials in current drone policy.

Dr. Matthew Arbo (Ph.D, Theological Ethics, University of Edinburgh) is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in Christian Ethics, Christian Political Thought, St. Augustine, and the Humanities. His research interests range broadly in Christian ethics and political theology, including the history of economic thought, technological ethics, philosophy of religion, historical political theology (especially early-modern), and the thought of St. Augustine. You can follow him on Twitter here.


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  1. Why exactly do you think drone use is unjustified? Is your view:
    (i) If a consequence is foreseen then it’s intended, and we shouldn’t intend to kill civilians (because using civilian death as a means can’t be justified by a good end).
    (ii) If one way of achieving an end has worse consequences than another way of achieving the same end, then you ought not act in the way that has worse consequences.
    (iii) something else?

    It seems to me that (i) can’t be right–surely there’s a difference between intending something as a means and knowing that something will be a consequence of your action (although maybe this isn’t a morally relevant difference… is that your view?). Alternately, it seems to me that if (ii) is what’s going on, then consequentialist concerns are directly relevant (we shouldn’t use drones because there’s an alternative which achieves the same end, but with less bad consequences).


  2. Use of drones for targeting is morally impermissible to the extent that such targeting *accepts* civilian casualties as justified. I don’t think either (i) or (ii) correctly represents the view I’ve outlined above. My basic claim is that any targeting which *knowingly* accepts the death of civilians as a result of *that particular* targeting campaign is morally impermissible. What officials might “intend” with every action is rather beside the point, as far as the above opinion is concerned; I have no access to the ‘intell’ and have no way of detecting the intentions of decision-makers. It doesn’t matter whether the death of civilians is directly intended or not so long as their deaths are *accepted* as reasonable collateral in achieving the ultimate end of assassinating the target(s).


  3. Like Nat pointed out, it seems to me that you have equivocated between drone strikes that “deliberately target non-combatants” and drone strikes conducted with the “knowledge that civilian casualties will be incurred.” The question you set out to answer remains a question: do the U.S. drone attacks deliberately target non-combatants making them immoral? I hope you will help answer this in the comments section.


  4. I believe this argumentation would similarly preclude any and all missile strikes, whether or not launched from drones. Or did I miss some import of the identity of the launch platform?


  5. Matthew (if I may), thanks for responding.

    It sounds like you’re claiming that the wrongness of phi-ing for S depends on S’s belief that outcome X is justified (I assume that accepting as justified is the same as believing to be justified–correct me if I misunderstand you here). But this is strange. Why should the belief that [foreseen consequence X is justified by the benefit of the intended outcome of phi-ing] be what makes the consequence unjustified?


  6. As Nat points out, the piece suggests that the Arbo fails to adequately distinguish between effects that are deliberate (or intended) and effects that are merely foreseen (but not deliberate or intended). Arbo’s response to Nat indicates that he was not making the mistake Nat (charitably) took him to be making. Instead, he was making a much bigger mistake. Arbo maintains that it is morally impermissible to perform some action A in order to attack combatants if it is known that doing A will (might?) result in the death of non-combatants.

    A few quick points:

    1. This position is wildly implausible on its face. For one thing, as Keith points out, it would entail that it is morally impermissible to take out an enemy’s missile launcher if the enemy has strapped a non-combatant to it–even if the missile launcher is being used to kill many non-combatants.

    2. This position does not follow from the principle of discrimination.

    3. This position does not follow from any of the principles that are commonly accepted by just war theorists. (See Aquinas and others on the principle of double effect.)


  7. Thank you all for your substantive remarks/questions to this piece. Let me say first that the intention of this (very) short essay was to introduce lay readers to a basic rule of just war and show how that rule applies to a particular martial tactic. I attempted to cover a great deal of territory in approximately 800 words and knew in doing so that an open flank might be exposed along the way. Alas, that is the nature of an opinion. Because this opinion was intended for lay readers and not for subscribers to ‘Nous’ I elected to keep the argument as simple and concise as possible. A rhetorical compromise, yes, but a useful one. With this in mind, and so as not to disappoint the more logically astute readers, let me address a few of the more prominent concerns raised so far:

    1. I think it is clear on a charitable reading of this opinion that my concern is not really with the intentional targeting of non-combatants–who could say under the covert arrangements headed by the CIA whether any such targeting has been deliberate or not–and rather much more concerned with what appears to be a calculated acceptance of civilian casualties in drone targeting campaigns. If you’d like to call this an attempt to stretch or broaden the principal of discrimination, that’s fine by me, given the intention of this opinion.

    2. There seems to be some concern with my equivocating or conflating an important distinction between deliberate targeting of civilians and knowing acceptance of civilian casualties. I refer in passing to this distinction in paragraph five. It seems to me that acceptance of civilian casualties in *drone targeting* is morally impermissible. Other tactics are not being considered, I am only concerned with drone targeting in particular. Consider a case…

    Suppose target X is known to have secluded himself at location Y. Some CIA officer in Langley is briefed on gathered intelligence about the target and his whereabouts. Included in that intelligence is the admission that the target’s three wives and twelve children are housed with the target at location Y. The CIA officer must therefore decide whether to “pull the trigger” on the target, accepting in doing so that all wives and children will perish, or foregoing the strike to spare the target’s family. My claim is that accepting these civilian causalities as legitimate collateral is morally impermissible. It would be impermissible even if the CIA officer knew the target to be using his family as a defensive shield.

    Could we then contrive a host of extreme counter-examples, like strapping civilians to ballistic missiles, that may somehow throw my argument into question? Perhaps, but I’m not considering those cases. I’m only considering discrimination in drone targeting. And indeed it seems to me that once we are weighing up the potential consequences of either striking or not striking we have already gone astray morally anyway, for my central claim is that consequentialist reasoning is not up to scratch.

    I think I’ll leave it at that for now. I have a newborn boy here with me this afternoon and regrettably I don’t have time to interact with each of you further on this issue. There is evidence that many drone strikes are executed with the express knowledge of civilian casualties and these are believed morally acceptable if the final end is achieved. I am calling into question the moral feasibility of this assumption.

    Again, I thank you for your engagement.


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