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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.

Raufereien, Totschlag

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.

Ethische Einbahnstraßen

Exzerpte aus:

John Williams: Distant Intimacy: Space, Drones, and Just War. In: Ethics & International Affairs / Volume 29 / Issue 01 / Spring 2015, pp 93-110

Kein Duell. ein Tötungsplan

Geographical contextualization of intimacy highlights that an individual’s status within the wider conflict is only one part of this issue. Being singled out for killing is an act of spatial intimacy, and — for one of the parties – the drone operator — may involve the restoration of a mediated phenomenological intimacy of combat that, rather the “screening” the killer from the killed, can restore a facsimile of the visceral personal experience of previous forms of combat. The reality of drone strikes departs from this ideal.


Just war’s traditional categories remain connected to the Clausewitzian paradigm of war as analogous to a duel, both in micro-terms of individual engagements and macro-terms of the relationship between the parties. Asymmetry challenges the duel metaphor’s ability to ground ethical assessment. Coeckelbergh highlights this in terms of a phenomenological ethics indebted to Heidegger and Levinas focused on epistemic relations, but it applies equally to more familiar just war approaches. The technologically mediated asymmetric battlespace produces the distant intimacy of drone strikes as a very particular ethical relationship. This reinforces asymmetry and adds to the potential for ethical assessment of the use of military force via posing questions about the spatial production of ethical subjectivity. The ethical status of individuals becomes dependent on their location in battlespace, which, in the case of drone operators and targets, takes a very distinctive form that warps the usual account of the relationship between physical and emotional distance. Moving beyond Coeckelbergh’s account of this process, though, critical geographical appreciation helps to reveal how just war theory’s under-developed account of space—its reliance on the Clausewitzian metaphor—creates ethical asymmetry such that the ethical subjectivity of drone targets becomes entirely dependent on the construction of space by those targeting them.

Individualität ohne Reziprozität

The distant intimacy of drones serves as a striking illustration of spatial flexibility.The space where drones operate is not just their immediate surroundings, spanning as that does thousands of miles between the operator in, for instance, Nevada and their target in Pakistan’s Swat valley and the drone’s service base in Afghanistan. As noted, weapons operators have been very distant from their targets for a long time. The space is more extensive, incorporating the virtual space of data streams that have brought specific, individual target of the drone to the attention of the operator’s commanders. It also includes the satellite systems that enable communication between operator and drone, making it extra-terrestrial, too. All of this is held together by a real-time temporality. The concept of “assemblage” has been applied to drones by Williams to show how drone operators can be understood as elements or components of a complex technological system.53 Similarly, Coeckelbergh points towards science, technology and society (STS) scholarship as stressing the networked construction of knowledge of the target.54 What is most important from an ethical perspective about dronespace is asymmetry. As critical political geographers stress, and our brief consideration of space illustrates, space is a political concept rooted in and expressive of power relationships. The construction, possession, and utilization of knowledge within a spatial context that itself manifests power inequalities creates, enables and legitimizes a relationship that, in this instance, is distinctively, possibly uniquely, asymmetrical. Dronespace places all of the cards—every one of them—in the hand of the drone operator. Distant intimacy is ethically significant and problematic because it challenges some basic concepts typically deployed to establish, understand, and assess the ethical quality of relationships between human beings and the choices that are possible. Distant intimacy requires dronespace to establish and attempt to legitimise the distinct asymmetry of a relationship that is ethically unidirectional.

The first challenge is to the target’s autonomy. Autonomy is a major component of just war debates, especially during the last decade as more formal analytical philosophical work has become increasingly prominent.55 A shift towards analyses of just war categories and concepts rooted within a rights-based approach stresses how targeting decisions and the liability of those targeted are complex choices. “Role-based” accounts, such as Michael Walzer’s analysis of the combatant/noncombatant boundary, ascribe liability to lethal force principally on the basis of adoption of a role.56 This is challenged by rights-based accounts arguing that liability to lethal force must reflect something specific about the targeted individual: they have done something (or be imminently about to do something) to which lethal force is an appropriate response. This stresses the ethical importance of the autonomous choice of the individual to engage in activity that they know renders them potentially liable to lethal force. However, autonomy is retained, at least partially, in conventional military situations because humans may cease those actions through surrender or withdrawal from military operations. You cannot surrender to a Reaper.57 Within dronespace the target’s autonomy is fundamentally compromised. That is true, of course, for a B-52 bomber, Tomahawk, or MX missile, or a host of other weapons systems. Yet these do not claim the intimacy of drones— the discriminatory precision based on enhanced intelligence gathering and personalized targeting. By making military operations personal, drones exacerbate the problem of less discriminate weapons systems that obliterate individual autonomy by their nature, by holding out a promise of precision that is a one-way deal. The drone deployer can exercise precision, ostensibly restoring the connection between warfare and individual culpability rights-based ethics demands for the use of force, yet this is strictly one-way. Ostensible respect for the target’s autonomy comes at the paradoxical price of removing their autonomy over their fate. They are targeted as an autonomous individual—a specific person—yet are denied the last resort of individual autonomy in warfare: the chance to surrender. This, therefore, is a more extensive objection on the grounds of radical asymmetry than is usually considered,58 which focuses on the moment of attack “the intuition … that killing someone in such a manner is profoundly disrespectful … such distance makes warfare seem too clinical or cold-hearted.”59 As critical consideration of space highlights, it is not the distance between drone operator and target at the moment of attack that is ethically significant. It is the construction of fourdimensional space in which the drone deployer claims authority over every aspect of the target’s life—past, present and future—and the information assessed to determine the moment and manner of its ending in a system to which the target has no access. While the intimate knowledge of target’s lives drone operators possess may restore some element of


�their humanity in the eyes of the operator,60 it is nevertheless a humanity that it constructed solely and exclusively on terms set by the operator. Within dronespace, reinforcing the novelty of its asymmetry, the drone operator’s autonomy is enhanced by choices drones provide through data gathering and processing potential and the long-loiter capability that increases options over when to attack. That all data about the target is not subject to challenge by the target further compromises their autonomy. The target cannot intercede in debates taking place among the drone operator, their commanders, legal advisers and others about whether and when they are to die. Again, this is a difference of degree in relation to other weapons systems. The meticulous planning of firebombing raids against Dresden or Cologne, for instance, allowed no moment of consideration for the views of their targets, but the indiscriminate and impersonal nature of such attacks marks the crucial point of departure from the intimacy of drone strikes and the highly personalized asymmetry of dronespace. As right-based analytical philosophy gains prominence in just war theory, the significance of individual autonomy and liability increases and the paradox of distant intimacy is more fully revealed. Respect for and protection of human rights is ostensibly enhanced by drone technologies via improved compliance with discrimination and proportionality. Yet, simultaneously, the rights-holding, autonomous human being underpinning the necessity for discrimination and proportionality is negated by the asymmetry of dronespace., extending far beyond the location and moment of attack, to include construction of a four-dimensional space in which the target’s autonomy is both personalised and removed. Uwe Steinhoff suggests that, for some, war has become ‘pest control’,61 and whilst the argument here is different from that underpinning the point Steinhoff critiques, the asymmetry it invokes is not wholly dissimilar: within dronespace the target’s autonomy is completely conditional on the decisions of the drone deployer. Reciprocity is a second ethical principle rewritten in dronespace. The physical invulnerability of drone operators shatters a commonplace element of conventional just war thinking, that is, the moral equality of combatants that establishes reciprocal acknowledgement of the distinctive position each occupies. Reciprocity manifests in various ways, most obviously via the combatants’ shared physical vulnerability. This need not be a narrow interpretation—the attacker is equally vulnerable to the attacked at the moment of attack—but it represents an intuition about war that those who participate are vulnerable and mutual vulnerability establishes a degree of reciprocity among combatants.62 Critics argue that any notion of war as a ‘fair fight’ is long gone and, in any case, it is morally correct to protect a just warrior.63 The extent of and respect for reciprocity is variable, of course, and collapses entirely on occasion, but the distant intimacy of dronespace renders this formulation 12

�inapplicable. While the drone operator knows a great deal about the target and holds them in a position of immense vulnerability, the target cannot know anything about their interlocutor and the vulnerability they suffer arises wholly from the intimacy the technology the deploy creates, not in any way from the conscious intentions of the target. Reciprocity through mutual vulnerability is inapplicable.

Not all just war theorists accept the moral equality of combatants. Jeff McMahan argues that combatants in an unjust cause are not the moral equals of those fighting for a just cause, and acts of violence they commit in pursuit of injustice are morally unjustifiable.64 McMahan offers powerful arguments for skepticism about a critique of drones through the absence of reciprocity of vulnerability. McMahan’s argument, however, assumes that unjust combatants fighting for an unjust cause pose a real risk to the just warriors they face, but those unjust warriors may not invoke moral equality rooted in their right to self-defense in any efforts they may make to resist. In the case of drones, there is no possibility of intentional harmful resistance by the target. The right to self-defence that provides the bedrock of McMahan’s critique is effectively inoperable. While that does not fully refute McMahan’s point—the defenders of Hiroshima had no operational possibility of resisting the Enola Gay—it reinforces how the accumulation of differences of degree in asymmetry and the distinctiveness of dronespace consistently stretches the logic of just war categories and concepts to reveal the necessity of explicit critical consideration of spatial issues. The distant intimacy of drones represents the apogee and nadir of the individuation of military action. The apogee because strikes can target individuals subject to sustained surveillance drawing on multiple, sometimes real-time, intelligence sources, granting unprecedented insight into the target’s life. The nadir because the target’s autonomy as an individual is removed through the absence of meaningful participation in the process that makes them a target or the possession of any significant means of self-defense. McMahan’s rejection of combatants’ moral equality on the basis that those fighting an unjust war are not the moral equals of their just adversaries does not strip those unjust warriors of their right to self-defense should they come under unjust attack.65 Strawser’s argument for the duty to minimize risks faced by just warriors does not strip the right to self-defense against unjust attack from their targets.66 Both McMahan and Strawser, however, miss how dronespace necessarily precludes reciprocity: it strips from targets their right to self-defense as part of their incorporation into this novel spatial realm. In the case of signature strikes, it reduces them to data streams representing patterns of behavior suggesting potential future harm or “affiliation” with named individuals.