The Ethics of Drone Strikes

Author: Ryan Jenkins
Category: Ethics
Word Count: 1000

Very few of us are pacifists, which is to say that most of us accept that killing in warfare is at least sometimes morally justified.

But the philosophical exploration of when killing in war is permissible—one area of the discipline of military ethics—is complicated by worries that arise from the innovative ways in which people can be killed in war. Think, for example, of the special moral considerations associated with “collateral damage,” chemical weapons, or remotely piloted aircraft.

This essay explores the last of these, which have attracted significant public controversy.

An unmanned drone at Creech air force base in Indian Springs, Nevada. Photograph: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

“Drones,” or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), first saw regular battlefield use roughly a decade ago.

While the thought of such remote killing makes many uncomfortable, it’s not clear that drones are a problematic weapon in themselves. Bradley Strawser’s argument in favor of the use of drone strikes is by far the best known (so well known that the controversy surrounding Strawser’s article bleds over into the popular press, where he has published additional arguments defending his view1). Strawser’s argument looks like this:

  1. The “principle of unnecessary risk”: If we have a morally justified goal, we are required to minimize risk to our soldiers in pursuing that goal as long as we could do so without sacrificing some greater value.
  2. Deploying a drone rather than conventional forces usually reduces the risk to our soldiers.
  3. Deploying a drone rather than conventional forces usually does not sacrifice any greater value.
  4. So, deploying drones rather than conventional forces is sometimes obligatory.

This argument is valid, which means that if all of its premises are true then its conclusion will be true as well. Thus, if we want to challenge its conclusion, we must challenge one of its premises.

The first premise seems uncontroversial, especially if we imagine ourselves in the position of a commanding officer. Why would I ever subject my soldiers to unnecessary risk if doing so wouldn’t serve any greater purpose? Likewise, it would be morally wrong for a police department to deploy a human bomb-defuser when they have access to a robot substitute.

The second premise also seems uncontroversial. Some worry that drone strikes take a special toll on their operators: that a soldier’s ability to fight justly is undermined by the video game-like quality of piloting a drone, that their character is corrupted, or that they are subject to unique psychological strains. But just the opposite seems true: When soldiers are deployed to combat zones—when their lives are actively threatened—this seems to be the time when they are under enormous stresses. If anything, the comfort of a drone pilot’s environment should result in less pressure, and should give her additional time to check and re-check her information in order to make just decisions in wartime. And if need be, drone pilots could be moved to combat zones rather than an air-conditioned building stateside. At any rate, whatever psychological harm is done to drone pilots is surely less than the harm that could befall others sent on manned missions instead.

The third premise, however, is controversial. Let’s consider several objections to that premise. Most obviously, we might worry that drone strikes cause more harm to innocent civilians than conventional strikes. However, this claim is far from settled.2

A second objection we may call the threshold objection. This objection says that drone strikes lower the political or psychological cost of military attack, and therefore make military attacks more common. And this could result in greater harm over time.

Note that even if drones do lower the threshold to a military attack, this does not undermine the justification for drone strikes per se. Notice, for example, that there are presumably some times when it would be good to use military force, for example, in some case where we could prevent a genocide (e.g. Rwanda, 1994). In these cases, we should be thankful that we have a way of intervening that carries a lower political cost. At any rate, it is a problem that must be taken case by case, and not a problem with drone strikes in themselves.

Another objection we may call the framing objection. This objection claims that technological inventions profoundly affect the way we see the world and our relationship to one another. That is, rather than seeing our enemies as human beings with dignity, we are apt to see them as mere pawns in some geopolitical chess game. And this would sacrifice some great value.

Even if such a change in mere outlook could be morally problematic, it’s not clear that this is a new feature of the world. Cruise missiles must have had the same effect, and some time ago. But many people would find it implausible that cruise missile strikes are wrong in themselves, which this objection seems to imply.

Yet another objection we may call the asymmetry objection: many people feel that there is something especially disrespectful about drones as a weapon of war. They may think that we treat our enemies as vermin when we kill them with a drone, or that the kind of asymmetric warfare we wage with drones is unfair. Again, we also must think this means giving up some important value.

We can return to Strawser’s original argument for a response to this objection: if our end goal is justified, then why is it problematic for us to accomplish it more safely? The use of drones here is not obviously different from the use of cruise missiles, long-range artillery, or even cannon, all weapons that in one sense or another allow the military to kill its enemies from great distance and with less risk of retribution. Yet, these more conventional military technologies seem permissible.

At this point, we might be satisfied that, as Strawser originally says, drones represent merely “an extension of a long historical trajectory of removing a warrior ever farther from his foe for the warrior’s better protection” (343). In this way, they are essentially no different from other weapons whose use we already find morally acceptable.


1 Strawser, Bradley. “The morality of drone warfare revisited.” The Guardian. August 6, 2012. <>

2 For example, see Plaw, Avery. (2010) “Sudden Justice.” Paper presented at 7th Annual Global Conference on War and Peace, Prague, 1 May.


Strawser, Bradley Jay. “Moral Predators: The Duty to Employ Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles.” Journal of Military Ethics 9.4 (2010): 342-368.

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About the Author

Ryan Jenkins is an associate professor of philosophy and a senior fellow at the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He studies the ethics of emerging technologies, especially automation, cyber war, autonomous weapons, and driverless cars. His work has appeared in journals such as Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, and the Journal of Military Ethics, as well as public fora including Slate and Forbes.

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