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Drones, information technology, and distance: mapping the moral epistemology of remote fighting

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Ethical reflection on drone fighting suggests that this practice does not only create physical distance, but also moral distance: far removed from one’s opponent, it becomes easier to kill. This paper discusses this thesis, frames it as a moral-epistemological problem, and explores the role of information technology in bridging and creating distance. Inspired by a broad range of conceptual and empirical resources including ethics of robotics, psychology, phenomenology, and media reports, it is first argued that drone fighting, like other long-range fighting, creates epistemic and moral distance in so far as ‘screenfighting’ implies the disappearance of the vulnerable face and body of the opponent and thus removes moral-psychological barriers to killing. However, the paper also shows that this influence is at least weakened by current surveillance technologies, which make possible a kind of ‘empathic bridging’ by which the fighter’s opponent on the ground is re-humanized, re-faced, and re-embodied. This ‘mutation’ or unintended ‘hacking’ of the practice is a problem for drone pilots and for those who order them to kill, but revealing its moral-epistemic possibilities opens up new avenues for imagining morally better ways of technology-mediated fighting.

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  1. Some people object to this and attach a specific meaning to ‘drones’, for instance ‘autonomous UAV’, but I decided to go with common usage.

  2. In this paper I assume a meta-ethical position inspired by Hume, Smith, Dewey, Nussbaum, and Rorty (among other thinkers) which holds that moral feelings and moral imagination are central to morality. The claim is that rational argument is not sufficient and that we need feelings and imagination instead of, or at least next to explicit and principled moral deliberation (for the latter claim see Coeckelbergh 2007). We may even agree with Rorty that the Platonic rationalist ethical project is entirely misguided and that instead of asking “Why should I be moral?” we (moral philosophers) should ask the question how we can act morally towards strangers (Rorty 1993). One answer to this question is that the exercise of empathy, putting oneself in the other’s shoes, helps one to become more moral. In this paper I will not (further) discuss my meta-ethical position in order to create room for my discussion of the main thesis concerning technology and moral distance in relation to drone fighting. However, both the question and the ‘empathy’ answer are centrally relevant to the discussion about drone fighting presented here. My question in this paper can be regarded as a ‘follow up’ on Rorty’s question and answer: if this is what we need to morally bridge out towards strangers, what epistemic, experiential conditions are necessary and sufficient for this empathy to get off the ground? If the main question is about who is a member of our moral community, we want to know how we decide about the border between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, how we (can) draw ‘strangers’ into that community. In particular, in this paper I am interested in the role played by how the opponent appears to us in fighting (e.g. as a stranger, as a target, or as a human being): under what epistemic conditions does he appear as ‘one of us’?

  3. The agricultural metaphor I use here also turns up in the name of a US drone called ‘Reaper’: the name means ‘harvester’ and refers to the figure of the Grim Reaper: death personified as a man with a scythe: an agricultural hand tool for removing or harvesting plants.

  4. I use the term ‘ethical hacking’ or ‘moral hacking’ not as synonyms of so-called white (hat) hacking, although such hacking might play a role in it. Rather, I refer to the production or happening of consequences of a technology not intended by the designers or mainstream users of the technology that subvert the purpose of the technology in a way that has morally good consequences. I write “production or happening” since I wish to leave open the question which role human agency plays in this process.


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I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their interesting comments, which helped me to fine-tune my brief phenomenology of fighting and its historical evolution.

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Correspondence to Mark Coeckelbergh.

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Coeckelbergh, M. Drones, information technology, and distance: mapping the moral epistemology of remote fighting. Ethics Inf Technol 15, 87–98 (2013).

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