Mark Coeckelbergh: Drones, information technology, and distance: mapping the moral epistemology of remote fighting. In: Ethics and Information Technology (2013) 15:87–98. DOI 10.1007/s10676-013-9313-6.
In body-to-body fighting, the fighter sees the eyes and body of his opponent, and has body contact with him. He smells him, feels him, hears him. The fighters see, smell, and feel the skin, the bodily movements, the breathing, the sweat, and perhaps the blood of their opponent. During the fight they are frequently and literally in touch. This has epistemic and moral consequences. The fighter knows that his opponent is also a person and a human being, who also struggles to win, who has feelings (e.g. hate), and who also feels pain when he is hit. The fighter is also very aware of his own body; in a sense his body is his weapon, the fighter ‘is’ weapon and agent at the same time. Moreover, he receives immediate feedback from his opponent, everything he does meets concrete, physical resistance. He also feels everything the opponent does. He is totally involved in the fight. He is immersed in it, is highly concentrated. In his experience there is no mind separated from a body. In the experience of what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’, the fighter is one. He does not and cannot take (reflective) distance or distance himself from his opponent. The fighters are ‘condemned’ to one another. Furthermore, the fight is a personal matter: he fights with a particular person, not with an ‘enemy’. He knows his opponent or, if not, he gets to know the person during the fight in various ways. During the fight the fighters also share the same physical, geographical space, for example a bar or a street corner. Perhaps they even live in the same place (village, city) and share the same social background and culture.
Töten aus Distanz
Drone bombing and, more generally remote controlled military robots, then appears to be the ultimate military distancing technology. The fighter’s own vulnerability is close to zero (or so it seems) and those he is ordered to kill appear as remote targets. The separation between fighter and opponent is complete. Drones seem to be illustrative of a move towards a kind of ‘final’ stage in the history of military technology understood as a history of distancing technology, in which the distance between fighter and ‘the ground’ is maximized. If there is a next step, it is fighting and killing from space—a step which I believe has already been taken.
It seems that in the history of military technology there is a kind of distancing arms race: the opponent will (also) develop offensive and defensive technologies that create distance, and the race is about who can create a fighting position that is most distant in order to decrease one’s own vulnerability (defensive reason); yet at the same time the technology needs to be ‘bridging’ enough to enable killing of the distant target (offensive reason). Drones seem to do that job perfectly.
Indeed, there seems to be something cowardly and unfair about remote killing. The problem with regard to fairness in the case of drones is not only or not so much the unequal power of the parties on the ‘attack’ side (e.g. missile vs. gun), but the unequal vulnerability on the ‘defence’ side. The first party does not commit his life to the fight, does not risk his life; nothing is at stake for the drone fighter—at least not in terms of human lives (the vehicle is still vulnerable, of course, and its loss is regarded by the military as substantial). This asymmetry may be regarded as unfair, and in terms of virtue and vice the drone fighter could be called ‘cowardly’. On the other hand, he and those who order him to kill also carry a huge responsibility, somewhat comparable to an invulnerable, all-powerful, and all-knowing god who selects the weeds and removes them3—here by, literally, descending from heaven to earth and strike the poor earthlings. Who can carry that kind of responsibility? However, this picture of the practice as necessarily implying a huge moral distance as suggested by Cervantes (and by Sharkey) is not entirely correct and fair. Drone fighting is rather different from artillery fighting and certainly different from discharging ‘some random bullet’, as Don Quixote describes the artillery of his day. Let me first clarify the role of information technology in drone fighting in order to further explain what could be morally problematic about drone fighting, and then nuance and revise the thesis about drones and moral distance.
Menschen als Zielscheiben
This social-epistemic and techno-epistemic operation should not be understood in ‘psychological’ terms alone. The technology does not just switch on or off a particular ‘faculty’ (sympathy or empathy) or brain regions (those regions of the brain that are active when we sympathize); it also changes the way we think and act. Thus, I wish to add a Heideggerian hermeneutical point in addition to the empirical-psychological one already acknowledged in the literature. The empirical-psychological version of the thesis assumes that there is a human opponent which we perceive in a morally neutral, objective way and which then can or cannot receive our sympathy, depending on the distance created by the technology. The Heideggerian assumption I start from is that there is no neutral way of conceiving of the opponent, that the opponent already appears to us as a target because of the technology, as a standing-to-be-killed (in analogy with Heidegger’s term ‘standing-reserve’, see Heidegger 1977). The technology and the distance it creates does not only produce a barrier between our empathic capacity and the opponent, it changes the very way we perceive that opponent. In this sense, the technology creates a different world for the fighter. This has moral consequences. Let me further develop (and then nuance) the Heideggerian argument. The thesis about distance, technology and morality is not only supported by Levinas but is also in line with Heideggerian thinking in philosophy of technology. In particular, the work of Dreyfus and Borgmann suggests that electronic technologies are morally problematic because they do not promote engagement and commitment. For example, Dreyfus has shown that the internet can be interpreted as means to leave your body behind and become invulnerable, and that teletechnologies jeopardise real commitment (Dreyfus 2001). And Borgmann has argued that technological devices make goods available without requiring much engagement and skill (Borgmann 1984). This point seems also applicable to electronic technologies: they make life all too easy in the sense that they do not ask us to directly and bodily engage with our material and physical environment. The distance de-skills us: we become dependent on the technology and we do no longer know how it works, what it does, and indeed what we are doing. Moreover, according to Borgmann modern technologies also threaten the social, communal life: when the fireplace is replaced by the screen, we become removed from one another. The moral distance between us and the world, and between us and others, increases. Applied to the case of electronic weapon technology, this analysis of modern and contemporary information technology would presumably imply that the fighters who watch the screens work in a way that does not create a kind of knowledge that is grounded in lived bodily experience, in handling things on the ground, in skilfully engaging with what happens on the battlefield and with others, and that therefore we have a moral problem here since, because of the new technological practice, the fighter cannot see the face of the other and becomes both experientially and morally disengaged from the world and detached from others. This renders what we could call ‘screenfighting’ morally problematic. It seems that the killing is easier since the practice appears to the pilots as a videogame: promoting an entirely detached view of the battlefield, it suggests that you can kill as much as you want; your action does not have real moral consequences. The ‘easier’ the technology, the more moral and social distance it creates. But is this an adequate analysis of the actual practice of drone fighting?
Monitore: Spiegel der Moral
Furthermore, as social beings the members of the drone crew are (still) part of a social environment and network at the airbase and elsewhere (e.g. family and friends). They may not literally see people and talk to people while flying the plane, but their cognitive and moral way of dealing with the world and with others is deeply shaped by the forms of sociality of which they are part and ‘in’ which they live. When they enter the airbase, they do not completely leave behind ‘home’. And the military and the practice of drone fighting have their own forms of sociality. Thus, although one cannot deny the physical, social, and moral distancing effects of the technological practice, as embodied and social beings, drone pilots are likely to experience some empathetic bridging when they view their targets and therefore do not that easily overcome their inhibitions on killing. Their screens then work as moral mirrors: they see others who, like them, have family and friends, have bodies, are vulnerable too.
It turns out that the new ‘distancing’ technologies, which always also were ‘bridging’ technologies, are now creating a kind of epistemic bridge that somewhat mitigates the distancing effects that were morally problematic. The epistemic bridge then becomes a moral bridge, one that lets empathy cross to the other side, so to speak (albeit in one direction only). Of course there is still a significant qualitative epistemic and moral difference between a face-screen-face relation and a ‘real’ face-to-face relation. But at least the new technologies create the possibility for the screenfighters to bridge the moral distance between them and their ‘targets’ by imagining the lives of those they are supposed to kill.