The Ethical Use of Drones and Why North Dakotans Should Care
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
September 2012

Last month the highly respected legal, philosophy, and public policy scholar Robert George wrote a brief piece on First Things calling into question the nation’s policy for drone attacks.

George writes:

“The use of drones is not, in my opinion, inherently immoral in otherwise justifiable military operations; but the risks of death and other grave harms to noncombatants are substantial and certainly complicate the picture for any policy maker who is serious about the moral requirements for the justified use of military force. Having a valid military target is in itself not a sufficient justification for the use of weapons such as predator drones. Sometimes considerations of justice to noncombatants forbid their use, even if that means that grave risks must be endured by our own forces in the prosecution of a war.”

George also called for Catholics to oppose the “wholesale and indiscriminate use of drones.”

The professor’s post is significant because George is no liberal peacenik. He is considered a conservative intellectual and is sometimes accused of being an apologist for the Republican Party. It is true, of course, that the current policy on drone attacks is the creation of President Obama and that the president has ordered five times as more drone strikes as did President George W. Bush. Moreover, the number of non-combatants, teenagers, and American citizens killed by drones under the president’s orders raises serious concerns.

Whether or not George’s criticism is ideological or partisan, the points he raise should not be ignored, especially by North Dakotans.

North Dakota is fast becoming a center for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). As the Toronto Star recently put it: “While drone use in the rest of the United States has been largely theoretical, in eastern North Dakota it is becoming a way of life.” This activity results from a combination of government and private initiatives. The mission of the Grand Forks Airbase switched its mission from tankers to drones in 2005. The North Dakota Air National Guard in Fargo also operates drones. The Customs and Border Patrol have started using UAS for operations along the North Dakota/Canada border.

Meanwhile, with the use of state taxpayer money the University of North Dakota is seeking to become a leader in UAS research, education, and training. Piggy-backing this effort, that state is working to attract UAS-related businesses to the area. For the last six years the University of North Dakota has co-sponsored a “UAS summit,” featuring speakers and presentations on various aspects of civil and military use of UAS. I looked at the agenda for some of the past summits. Although they featured a host of impressive speakers, it does not appear that any of them discussed the ethical questions that accompany the use of UAS, especially combat drones.

Some involved in the development and use of UAS may contend that ethics should not be their concern, that the morality of drone use is a question for policy makers, not the developers, pilots, and crews on the ground. To some extent that is true. In the case of military drone strikes, legal authority ultimately rests with the president. In a democracy, however, moral authority is a shared responsibility. All of us bear responsibility.

As Robert George noted, the use of drones is not inherently immoral. Their use does, however, raise new moral questions. North Dakotans can invest in UAS development and reap the benefits without raising ethical questions or it can invest in UAS development, reap the benefit, and also do their part to ensure that what North Dakota hosts and produces is used responsibly and ethically. The University of North Dakota, for example, could start by hosting symposiums on the moral use of drone technology. It is not enough to become a leader in the technology of UAS. We should also become leaders in the morality of UAS.