Pugwash: Drone regulation

Credit: Alison Chiu/Advertising Staff Member Credit: Alison Chiu/Advertising Staff Member

This week at Pugwash, the topic of discussion was drones — more specifically, the moral implications of using drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), for military and surveillance purposes.

First discussed was the utility of drones. One argument is that drones lead to far lower civilian casualty rates. While foot soldiers can accidentally execute civilians during raids, a drone can directly target an enemy and avoid the confusion that may occur with ground soldiers. Additionally, drones do not have families, so losing a UAV is purely an economic issue, much different from losing a soldier. This positivism toward UAVs caused an immediate stir among Pugwash. Some members rebutted that a drone may be more algorithmic than a human, but it uses missiles to take out enemies. Thus, while a human can accidentally kill a civilian located near a target, a drone would definitely kill every civilian near the target. In terms of preventing unnecessary civilian casualties, this point does not make drones preferable.

Slate magazine quotes statistics which show that drones lead to less civilian casualties than ground soldiers, but these statistics cannot always be trusted because it is unclear in some cases who is considered a nearby civilian.

The ability to attach cameras on drones poses another advantage. The cameras do not allow fighters to commit atrocities without some form of video evidence being released. A human could remove a camera from their head before committing a terrible act, while a drone could not — that is, unless said drone was being controlled by someone wishing to commit such atrocities. In this case, the use of the drone could make matters worse, as the human controller would have the ability to cause harm without having to experience such carnage in person. Would this detachment reduce the self-moral questioning that accompanies committing lethal acts in person? Is a drone the perfect type of killing machine?

Next, surveillance drones in the United States were discussed. The concern was raised that the propagation of such UAVs will lead to a society where we are consistently being watched.

Furthermore, unlike a security camera, a surveillance drone can follow people. Is this type of society one we want to inhabit, or is it a small price to pay in return for the propagation of a technology that could deliver books to citizens through Amazon 20 minutes after an order is placed? Additionally, an increase in surveillance will reduce the possibility of being wrongly convicted of an action. It was discussed that if one is a good, law-abiding citizen, they should have nothing to hide. An objection was raised that there may be more justice, but there would be less forgiveness. If one makes a mistake, it is written in stone. This issue already occurs in the online world. Do we want to extend this hyper awareness to our physical world, or is this Orwellian utopia a nightmare?
As with many topics of Pugwash meetings, there was no definite answer to the objective morality of drones. However, there was a collectively deeper understanding of the controversy surrounding UAVs.