Drones and Dirty Hands

In Kerstin Fisk & Jennifer Ramos (eds.), Preventive Force: Drones, Targeted Killings, and the Transformation of Contemporary Warfare. New York, USA: New York University Press. pp. 283-312 (2016)
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Abstract

The period known as the “War on Terror” has prompted a revival of interest in the idea of moral dilemmas and the problem of “dirty hands” in public life. Some contend that a policy of targeted killing of terrorist actors is (under specified but not uncommon circumstances) an instance of a dirty-handed moral dilemma – morally required yet morally forbidden, the least evil choice available in the circumstances, but one that nevertheless leaves an indelible moral stain on the character of the person who makes the choice. In this chapter we argue that, while dirty hands situations do exist as a persistent problem of political life, it is generally a mistake to classify policies of target killing (such as the current US policy) as examples of dirty hands. Instead, we maintain, such policies, if justified at all, must ordinarily be justified under the more exacting standards of just war theory and its provisions for justified killing – in particular the requirement that (with limited and defined exceptions) non-combatants be immune from intentional violence. Understanding this distinction both clarifies the significance of dirty hands as a moral phenomenon and also forestalls a set of predictable and all-too-easy appropriations of the concept to domains it was never intended to address.

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Ben Jones
Pennsylvania State University

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