Philosophy Weekend has always been about moral, social and political philosophy (I originally thought of calling the series “Ethics Weekend”, but that title just does not have any zing to it). In the past couple of years, I’ve allowed two major developments to dominate my choice of weekly topics. First, I became alarmed by Ayn Rand’s increasing popularity and began devoting many blog posts to a critique of Objectivism and its underlying assumption of psychological Egoism. Second, I got caught up in the excitement and crazy drama of the 2012 USA presidential election, and devoted many weekend posts to that whole thing. (Interestingly, the common demoninator between these two themes was embodied in a single person, Congressman Paul Ryan, who I expect to be writing a lot about again in three years when he begins running like a maniac for President.)
I never mind a good diversion, but a recent New York Times headline about an attempt by the Obama administration to create a rulebook for the use of military drones reminded me that I originally had a different underlying inquiry in mind for all of these philosophical inquiries, which has gotten buried amidst all the Ayn Rand inquiries and Mitt Romney bobblehead dolls of the past two years. My big question is this: what is pacifism, and why has it become so quiet? Is the philosophy of pacifism viable at all today? How can pacifism be returned to relevance in an era that seems to have completely disdained it, and how can it possibly be that so few people seem to care whether it is returned to relevance or not?
This has always been the core question behind all the Philosophy Weekend blog posts, and as far as I’m concerned the question of the ethical nature of war should be the primary question behind all ethical philosophy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you are an ethical philosopher, you ought to be trying to tackle the problem of global war. It’s hard to imagine what other important tasks an ethical philosopher could possibly consider more important.
Here’s the New York Times article about an attempt by the US government to codify rules for the practice of drone attacks:
The White House reportedly is developing rules for when to kill terrorists around the world. The world may never see them, given the Obama administration’s inclination toward unnecessary secrecy regarding its national security policy. But the effort itself is a first step toward acknowledging that when the government kills people away from the battlefield, it must stay within formal guidelines based on the rule of law — especially when the life of an American citizen is at stake.
For eight years, the United States has conducted but never formally acknowledged a program to kill terrorists associated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban away from the battlefield in Afghanistan. Using drones, the Central Intelligence Agency has made 320 strikes in Pakistan since 2004, killing 2,560 or more people, including at least 139 civilians, according to the Long War Journal, a Web site that tracks counterterrorism operations. Another 55 strikes took place in Yemen.
Administration officials have never explained in any detail how these targets are chosen. Are they killing people only associated with groups that participated in the Sept. 11 attacks, the limitation imposed by Congress when it authorized military force in 2001? Or are they free to remove any threat to the United States they perceive? Officials insist they go after only actual belligerents covered in the 2001 legislation, but the public and the world have no way of knowing whether these decisions are made ad hoc, or how they would be interpreted by future presidents.
Before the election, when it looked as if Mitt Romney had a chance of winning the White House, administration officials began codifying these rules, according to a recent report in The Times by Scott Shane. Mr. Obama did not want to leave an “amorphous” program to his successor, one official told Mr. Shane anonymously.
Because I’m an unabashed Barack Obama fan, I have sometimes been challenged to defend the President’s choice to use drones to kill known terrorists (along with, unfortunately, other innocent people who may be in the same place as the known terrorists when the missile flies out of the sky). I can’t defend it, and I won’t. I’ve been challenged to explain why I voted for Barack Obama even though his administration has pioneered the use of drone attacks, and the best answer I can come up with is that Barack Obama did not invent war, and is not responsible for getting this country into any of its current wars. I wish he were putting more effort into finding innovative ways to get us out of various terrible situations we’re in, but I think his primary focus is economic and social justice within the country, and it seems that he has chosen to carry out a policy of continuity with past military operations (accentuated by an emphasis on quiet effectiveness and small-scale operations, which is at least a big improvement over the previous President’s emphasis on loud triumphalism and large-scale invasions).
Still, I always try to keep my own ethical focus clear, and I won’t go so far as to defend the use of unmanned aircraft to shoot missiles at suspected targets on the ground. This highly effective but deeply disturbing method of killing terrorists seems to create whole new categories of problems. Every Pakistani or Afghani citizen must face the realization that an unmanned American aircraft may be over their heads at every moment, armed and locked to kill. That’s not a reality that any human being can find acceptable, and I’m sure that the bad karma this creates for American foreign policy is snowballing faster than any other efforts towards diplomatic goodwill can balance. I want the drone attacks to stop immediately, even if it means certain known terrorists will live.
But here’s my problem — and yours as well, if you’ll take the trouble to answer the question that ends this blog post. I may pretend I have a rulebook for drones — don’t use them, ever — but my rulebook doesn’t stand up to tough examination. Would I consider it acceptable to kill a known terrorist from an aircraft as long as the aircraft is manned? If so, what the hell is the big difference? Would I consider it acceptable if a bystander was standing next to the target? What if the terrorist was actively planning an attack on innocent people, and the bystander was a member of the terrorist’s family?
I don’t have many good answers here, so I’d like to throw the question out to you. Do you have a rulebook for drones? Do you have a rulebook for war? It seems to me that we’d better start coming up with some good answers … or eventually we may find out that the drones have a rulebook for us.