Are ethics important in war

Ethics and military

The nature of warfare is changing before our very eyes. Unmanned weapons technology - especially that of drones and robots - is developing rapidly. Apparently we are moving towards a point where the fighting no longer takes place between people, but between machines. Although these are still operated by humans, they are increasingly autonomous.

Some people now believe that this development towards more and more autonomous weapons is extremely questionable from a moral point of view. The organization Human Rights Watch even speaks of the "impending end of humanity" in connection with the use of such weapons. My contribution takes a different point of view. I want to show that, overall, despite some drawbacks, the new technologies represent a significant ethical advance in the history of warfare. In the following, I will mainly focus on the use of drones, as these are the ones that receive the most attention in the debate about changes in warfare. What applies to drones, however, applies mutatis mutandis also for other potentially unmanned platforms such as aircraft, submarines or armored vehicles.

The advantages of the drones

Drones are just one weapon among many: Tanks, cannons, aircraft and submarines are traditionally used - and now also drones. The question of their moral legitimacy therefore belongs to the area of ​​law in war, of jus in bello. The argument that the use of drones poses problems that have more serious consequences than other means of war only appears conclusive if drones pose a special threat to the greatest good that goes beyond the use of conventional weapons jus in bello represent, namely the protection of civilians. Let us briefly recall that that jus in bello imposes two basic restrictions on warfare: (a) civilians must never be attacked directly; and (b) When civilians are attacked indirectly, disproportionate suffering must be prevented. How is the use of drones to be assessed with regard to these restrictions?

What that targeted As far as killing civilians are concerned, there is of course no reason to assume that drones are more dangerous than other means of war. Of course, in theory, drones can be used to directly attack civilians, but so can tanks and planes. Should a state decide to attack the enemy's civilian population directly (for example, in a situation that waltzes the famous term for supreme emergency [extreme emergency]), drones also seem to be the least promising choice of the many weapons available.

Let us now consider the topic of collateral damage: Are civilians at greater risk than usual from the use of drones? Here we should bear in mind the following: The alternative to using drones is not to renounce violence - which would reduce the risk for civilians to zero. Alternatively, other, more conventional weapons such as tanks and helicopters, which are less technically sophisticated, would be used. The use of these inaccurate weapons would, however, likely more instead of demanding fewer civilian victims.

One could reply to this from the point of view of the jus in bello The use of drones in the "old", conventional wars is actually not particularly problematic, but in the "new", asymmetrical conflicts it is. In asymmetrical wars, it is sometimes argued, civilians are particularly at risk from drones. However, I consider this assumption to be unfounded. The real alternative to using drones in the fight against organizations like Hamas and al-Qaeda are not peaceful negotiations, but far less targeted measures. So if the use of lethal weapons in such conflicts (I am referring to the case of war, not law enforcement measures) is generally considered permissible, it is difficult to understand why drones should be considered particularly questionable. (It goes without saying that the use of conventional weapons would also be excluded from the outset if lethal weapons were declared to be inadmissible as a whole.)

Certainly, drones could be misused, but that also applies to other means of war. In any case, at the risk of abuse, we should not lose sight of how promising this technique is from an ethical point of view. All things being equal applies: The more precise a weapon is, the more it meets the requirements in terms of target differentiation and proportionality.

However, this is not the only ethical advantage of drones. The risk to your own soldiers is also much lower. Thanks to the availability of drones and other unmanned weapons systems, states can - and should - always minimize the risk to their own soldiers in the event of a defense. Reducing the number of victims among one's own soldiers is not only a question of morality, but also of common sense: On the one hand, the loss of additional soldiers weakens the armed forces' resistance to the enemy. On the other hand, any risk of military losses potentially limits the ability of states to use their armed forces for military missions.

If the risk for soldiers is reduced through the use of unmanned weapons, this could also increase the willingness of states to participate in humanitarian interventions. As a result, such interventions would certainly be rated as less problematic in terms of the dangers for the deployed soldiers. It is not easy to justify participation in wars that serve to protect another nation from an oppressive regime or the threat of genocide. The use of drones, which greatly reduces the risk to the soldiers, makes this problem appear far less severe.

Another advantage: The possibility of carrying out more effective attacks with drones could delay the threat of large-scale wars or even avoid them entirely. Targeted drone attacks alone could be enough to make the enemy abandon their plans of attack - no troops need to be mobilized and bloody fights on the ground do not have to be carried out. And ultimately, drones are more cost-effective to manufacture and use than manned aircraft - so the funds saved could be invested in important areas such as education, social justice, etc.

Obviously, drones offer significant ethical advantages:


  • All other things being equal, they meet the requirements of target differentiation and proportionality better than other means of war.
  • They enable states to reduce the risk to their own soldiers.
  • They weaken moral objections to participation in humanitarian interventions in the context of war.
  • They enable an effective response to a perceived attack without the simultaneous acceptance of widespread war.
  • They are more cost-effective than manned warfare and thus free up more public money for other causes.

Arguments against the use of drones: a critical consideration

(a) Disrespectful death

Imagine a person walking in his neighborhood and suddenly, literally out of nowhere, being shot by a drone that he cannot even see. Now compare this to the death of a soldier in the battlefield. Obviously there is something disturbing about the first kind of death, something particularly disrespectful and undignified.

But what exactly makes a killing by a robot more disrespectful than a killing by a tank or a helicopter? Perhaps a person who kills another person recognizes in some way - even if this may seem paradoxical - the humanity of his victim. He recognizes the victim as a fellow human being, even if the victim poses a threat to him. For a brief moment these two people meet on the same level, so to speak, and confirm each other's existence and humanity. If, on the other hand, a drone fires a shot and kills a person, there is no such encounter; the humanity of the victim is thus denied. In other words: In any case, it does not receive the appreciation it deserves.

This argument is quite appealing. On closer inspection, however, it doesn't convince me. First of all, it is unclear to what extent a helicopter pilot "appreciates the humanity of her victim" when she aims at a person from a distance and kills him. Second, this argument is mainly convincing if we imagine a physical confrontation between two fighters who look each other in the face and in this way acknowledge the humanity of their counterpart. Most skirmishes, however, have not gone that way for a long time. Cruise missile operators do not see the faces of their victims, nor do pilots or tank drivers. The victims of such attacks are no less “faceless” than those of the drone operations.

My premise at the beginning was that arguments against the use of drones would have to be strong enough to explain why exactly these weapons are ethically reprehensible, without at the same time implying that conventional weapons, whose legitimacy is generally recognized, are also ethically reprehensible.

Since it is close to a pacifist position to deny legitimacy to conventional weapons, I would like to call my initial premise the “non-pacifist premise” or “NP”. Most of the objections to drones are, in my opinion, untenable because they contradict this very premise.

(b) Unfair or "dirty" killing

Perhaps the impression of indignity has something to do with feeling that this type of killing is unjust. Back to the person who walks in his neighborhood and is killed by a drone: Such a killing could be described as a “dirty fight” - probably because the victim has no chance against the drone. But that would be in clear contradiction to the NP premise, since soldiers are just as defenseless against an F16 fighter jet or long-range artillery.

There seem to be two different lines of argument here: on the one hand injustice in the sense of asymmetrical military violence, on the other hand injustice in the sense of killing the enemy with "dirty" weapons and tactics. Both arguments are not tenable against the background of the NP premise. We only need to look back at the reservations that were made about a century ago about submarines and military aircraft, or even earlier about the use of the crossbow. We immediately see how weak and shaky the argument of injustice is. We cannot exclude drones as weapons on the grounds that they are unfair or dishonorable means of warfare - because then we would also have to exclude machine guns (the modern version of the crossbow), submarines and fighter jets at the same time.

(c) Risk-free killing undermines permission to kill in war

According to Paul Kahn, the moral of the law is caught in a contradiction. On the one hand, states have a moral duty to minimize the risk to their soldiers and to create what Kahn calls an "asymmetrical situation" in which they are completely superior to their enemies. On the other hand, at a certain point, this asymmetry undermines the permission to kill in war as a whole. I will explain why. According to Kahn, most soldiers, because of their youth and the influence and pressure of their comrades and superiors, have no moral guilt for their involvement in the war. As for the question of guilt, they should be judged no differently from civilians. So if we assume that combatants may be allowed to kill each other in war, then the basis of the guilt must be different. According to Kahn, this consists in the principle of mutual self-defense: Each side defends itself against the threat that emanates from the other side. But to say that each side poses a threat to the other side basically means that each party is perceived by the other as a risk or that both sides are exposed to a not inconsiderable risk in the battle. If this mutual risk is no longer given because the balance of power between the warring parties is obviously asymmetrical, the paradigm of war no longer applies - just as little as the associated mutual permission to kill enemy fighters. Kahn consequently asks the question of the ethical basis for injuring morally innocent people when there is no longer a mutual risk.

Kahn's discussion of mutual permissions to kill in war reflects a widespread intuitive assumption: it is the willingness to die that gives rise to permission to kill. Those who only operate a drone, on the other hand, do not run the risk of dying while killing and consequently cannot invoke the permission to kill enemy soldiers, understood in this sense. The more the war is waged with drones and combat robots, the less the operators of these machines have the right to bring death and destruction to their enemies.

That is a very well thought-out argument against the use of drones. But I remain skeptical. First of all, the contradiction to the NP premise remains. Drone operators aren't the only fighters whose risk is zero. The same goes for those who fire artillery or cruise missiles far from their targets. Furthermore, humanitarian interventions by third parties would hardly ever be justifiable if the existence of risk were a condition for waging war. According to Kahn, the only way to deal with humanitarian crises would be to call on the law enforcement authorities and by no means to use military force.


There are other arguments against the use of drones that should be discussed elsewhere. In my opinion, the above considerations are sufficient to justify the ethical advantage of the use of drones over more conventional means of war. Even if caution is always required when making assumptions about the future, campaigns with drones seem to me to be far more humane than the great battles of the past. Compared to bombs, cruise missiles, and especially weapons of mass destruction, the drone could well go down in the annals of warfare as a real promise of ethical progress.