Drones are used to kill people. Civilian casualties can, and often do, result from their use. They chip away at our reputation on the international scene. The physical and emotional distance they allow between a target and the person responsible for eliminating that target, and the resulting lack of relative danger to the person operating the drone, can prove morally and/or ethically problematic. If, however, the question of whether or not drones are ethical is examined purely according to the logic of just war theory, they may be among the most ethical weapons in our arsenal.
Just war theory demands that an ethically conducted war must exact the absolute minimum number of casualties, especially civilian casualties, required to achieve victory over a given opponent. While drones are not yet sufficiently precise to eliminate civilian casualties, they minimize them while eliminating direct threats to the person operating the UAV. This results in both fewer civilian casualties for our opponents and fewer casualties from within our fighting forces. Drones for the win, right? Well, not if you believe that killing someone shouldn't be as easy as pushing a button from the comfort of an easy chair in an air-conditioned room hundreds or thousands of miles away from the action. Since this is not an easily navigable ethical issue, it may come as no surprise that public opinion on the matter is a bit scattered.
In response to the question "Is it ethical for an advanced military to use drones or robots to attack enemy soldiers?" the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies (IEET) produced the graphic below. According to the responses to this January 2012 poll, a third of IEET readers supported banning military drones, a fourth saw no problem with them, and nearly 40% felt that drones should remain under human control (as opposed to being fully autonomous) or be used by both sides engaging in a military conflict.
Image by Clyde DeSouza
Yet another poll, this one conducted on a global scale by the Pew Research Center, indicates that opinions on the matter vary significantly by gender. According to the chart below, more or less half of the men in the listed countries approve of drone use, and 61% of Americans are in favor. It is...um...worth noting that none of the countries most frequently subject to drone attacks were included in this poll.
While racking up casualties at so little personal risk is easy to perceive as reprehensible, the fact remains that fewer casualties result from UAV attacks. This, in spite of the various unsavory aspects of drone usage, may be the only relevant point. The fact of the matter is that drones kill fewer people than other military options available to us.
The chart below was put together by a blogger named Daniel Kuehn and posted to his blog site "Facts and Other Stubborn Things." The figures represented in this chart were ostensibly produced by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), a non-profit in London. Kuehn indicates that this chart compares TBIJ's civilian casualty figures from all drone strikes, to the Iraq Body Count project's civilian casualty figures for the Iraq War from 2003-2012. While this data is certainly contestable, it provides one plausible representation of the number of civilian casualties that may be avoided due to the increased precision made possible by drones.
So, are drones good or bad? They're bad of course. They're used for the purpose of eliminating human lives. Are they better or worse than other tools available to us for that same purpose? They're probably better, for now.