Global Ethics Corner: When Are Drones Strikes Ethical?

May 4, 2012

President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser recently defended drone strikes, saying they are legal, wise, and moral. But, citing international law, many critics question this approach, especially in a non-combat zone like Pakistan. Is it ethically problematic to rely on drone strikes?

Once the stuff of science fiction, unmanned, remotely piloted aircraft have emerged over the last decade as an integral part of the United States' military strategy in the so-called "war on terror."

Targeted drone strikes have been used to kill Islamic militants in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere.

But the American government never formally acknowledged the use of drones against al-Qaeda.

Until now.

President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan recently gave a speech defending the use of drones. Brennan said the Obama administration believes targeted drone strikes are not only legal and wise, but ethical as well.

He pointed to three key principles that the administration considers when planning a targeted drone strike. First, there's the principle of necessity. By that he means that the target should have a definite military value. Second, there's the principle of distinction, which means that only military objectives, not civilians, should be targeted. And finally, there's the principle of proportionality—meaning that you only want to strike when the military benefits outweigh the potential collateral damage.

Brennan points to an overarching moral principle of humanity. He says these drone strikes won't inflict unnecessary suffering, and therefore they are ethical and just.

Critics of drone strikes disagree, citing international law, which they say prohibits "unlawful killing."

Drone strikes inside combat zones like Afghanistan may be ethical if they conform to established notions of just war theory.

But, these critics say, drone strikes in non-combat zones like Pakistan are ethically problematic.

What do you think? Is the Obama administration right? Are drone strikes ethical?

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance:
james_gordon_los_angeles [also for photo 12]
Gerald Nino, CBP/U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security
Pete Souza/White House [also for photos 4 & 5]
The U.S. Army
Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod/U.S. Army
Spc. David A. Jackson/U.S. Army
CODEPINK Women For Peace
Staff Sgt. Michael L. Casteel/U.S. Army
Christian Payne

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