Research Project

The Ethics of Killing

Are Extrajudicial Drone Strikes Ethical?

The Reasoning

Assassinations have influenced history since the beginning of civilization; they've been used to gain political power, destroy empires, and silence opposing ideas. In 1981, Ronald Regan banned government-sanctioned assassinations, but more recently, a new type of killing has cropped up; drone strikes. Since Obama's inaguration in 2008, unmanned CIA and military drones have been responsible for over 2,500 deaths. Many of them were necessary, a few even being senior members of al-Queda or other terrorist groups from Yemen, Pakistan, and even Somalia. But civilian casualties have also been mounting, along with the question of the law. Are targeted drone strikes without due process ever ethical?

"A big part of the moral problem with drones is that they make it too easy for the powers-that-be to bomb whomever they want without much political fallout."

Evaluating Perspectives

Drone strikes can have a huge social impact not only on Middle Eastern civilians, but on the United States as well. Those with high power in the government must be considered, but so do those who operate the drones. They are the ones who make the decision to pull the trigger, even from over 2000 miles away, and that having that kind of power can be a huge burden. Middle Eastern civilians should also be considered, perhaps even more so than politicians, as they are the ones constantly being watched, and sometimes even threatened. At least 315 out of the 2500 killed were innocent civilians, some of them even children, those numbers can have a huge impact on how the US is viewed from foriegn countries.

The political and legal lens is also an important insight to consider. There is a large debate on whether these drone strikes are going against Regan's ruling, or whether they are protected by the Law of War, a law that states that when at war, killing an enemy at any time is permitted. The Obama administration has been under fire almost from day one about the growing number of deaths, both civilian and terrorist, that started with their action. Clearly, their political perspectives on the ethics of drone strikes would be extremely insightful, but there are others that would have even larger ramifications. How political leaders from around the world, especially from the targeted countries like Yemen and Pakistan, are vital to understanding the political situation. Insights from the US' allies would be interesting too, as these drone strikes can have a huge influence on where our political relations go from here to the future.

Perhaps the most important perspective to consider is the ethical lens. Taking into account the amount of civilian casualties, plus the nearly limitless power these drones give us, is it right to kill a potential threat without any further consideration? Important people to consider when asking these questions are journalists, who often end up seeing the aftermath first hand, as well as families of victims on both sides of the conflict.


Serle, J. (2015). Almost 2,500 now killed by covert US drone strikes since Obama inauguration six years ago: The Bureau's report for January 2015 - The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Retrieved May 27, 2016, from

Jack Serle has been an investigative journalist for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism for over three years, and has published freelance pieces in other papers such as the Huffington Post. He was also part of the team that won the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2013, for reporting on US drone strikes. His article can be used to provide context, providing statistics like the fact that "At least 2,464 people have now been killed by US drone strikes outside the country’s declared war zones since President Barack Obama’s inauguration..." (Serle 2015).

Maguire, L. (2015, September 12). The Ethics of Drone Warfare [Audio blog post]. Retrieved May 27, 2016, from

Laura Maguire is the Director of Research for Philosophy Talk, and graduated with distinction in Philosophy from Trinity College. She then completed her PhD at Stanford University and is now a professor of Philosophy there. Maguire's stance on drone strikes is that they grant too much power to those who use them, and that they take away the humanity of the victim, arguing that "they make it too easy for the powers-that-be to bomb whomever they want without much...fallout" (Maguire, 2015). This source can be used to support the ethical lens by studying how much power the drones grant, as well as adding an esteemed philosophers voice.

Owen, T. (2013, March 14). Drones don't just kill. Their psychological effects are creating enemies. Retrieved May 30, 2016, from


Taylor Owen is the director of research at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, and senior editor of His article argues that drone use in the Middle East causes significant social and psychological damage to the victims and the civilians caught in the crossfire. Owen suggests claims that "[the drones] hover over villages and cities, watching, then killing, then watching again. Like Big Brother." and questions "What are the human and strategic costs of this uninterrupted drone presence?" (Owen, 2013). His arguments can be used for the social/cultural lens, and although he doesn't have much up close experience with drone use, his perspective as a citizen from the US' neighbor, Canada, provides a unique opinion on what other countries think of US drone strikes.

Foust, J. (2012, January 27). The Political Consequences of a Drones-First Policy. Retrieved May 30, 2016, from

Joshua Foust is the author of "Afghanistan Journal: Selections from", and a former member of the intelligence community, where he studied the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan and political violence in Yemen. His article, "The Political Consequences of a Drones-First Policy", studies how US drone use in the Middle East is affecting the political climate between the countries there, and the US and its allies. He claims that these strikes are harming relations between the US and other world governments, and, among civilians in countries like Yemen and Pakistan, "drones are almost always unpopular, as they represent a distant and unaccountable foreign power exercising the right to kill them at will." (Foust 2012). Foust supplies a compelling perspective, as a first hand witness to the damage these strikes are causing in the Middle East, and his article can be used to support the political lens.

Groves, S. (2013, April 10). Drone Strikes: The Legality of U.S. Targeting Terrorists Abroad. Retrieved May 31, 2016, from

An expert on democracy and human rights, Steven Groves has testified before congress on issues ranging from international law to the United Nations, and is one of the leaders of the Heritage Foundation's Freedom Project. Groves supports the use of drones in other countries, and claims that their strikes "may lawfully be used against an enemy belligerent during an armed conflict or under circumstances in which the belligerent constitutes an imminent threat to national security." (Groves, 2013). His argument could support the counterclaim, as well as add to the political lens.

What Should Be done

While it's possible that drone strikes could be considered legal under some circumstances, it is clear that the risks outweigh the benefits. They isolate the US from other countries, both politically and socially, and there are undeniable moral questions to killing at will from a distance. Eliminating drone strikes would allow civilians from the target countries to feel safe from at least one side of the conflict, and show other world governments that the US can restrain itself from time to time. It would also increase public support within the country, as drone strikes are considered unethical among many US citizens. To ease this transition, the US military could begin to use drones only for gathering information, while leaving the groundwork to soldiers who are able to make judgement calls up close. As time passes, drones could be replaced with small military unites, and some areas could be pulled out of all together. As a result, the US will begin to regain its political and social standing among other world leaders as a responsible world power.