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Emergent Ethics of Drone Violence: Toward a Comprehensive Governance Framework

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - DRONETHICS (Emergent Ethics of Drone Violence: Toward a Comprehensive Governance Framework)

Reporting period: 2020-01-01 to 2021-06-30

The increasing use of armed, uninhabited aircraft is a serious political challenge with implications for security and justice worldwide. Drone technology is attracting huge investment, drones controlled remotely are proliferating, and technological momentum toward drone systems incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) is building. Many lives are at stake in this, so the violent use of drones continues to generate ethical concerns. DRONETHICS is systematically addressing an urgent need to clarify the morality of ‘drone violence’, defined as violence involving an aerial, reusable weapon system that is radically remote from its user. Such remoteness is achieved through extreme physical distancing or the devolution of functional control from humans to AI, so drone violence disrupts traditional expectations about war and a warrior’s exposure to risk. In turn, the disruptive premise of this project is that such violence does not necessarily fall within the remit of the Just War framework according to which war is traditionally judged and governed. Moving beyond Just War thinking, DRONETHICS involves ethical inquiry into drone violence conceptualized as either war, violent law-enforcement, ‘tele-intimate’ violence, or devolved (to AI) violence. Our research team incorporates international relations, moral philosophy, international law, and gender studies perspectives. Through innovative application of alternative frameworks for judging violence, we aim to produce: the first integrated conceptual framework for explaining ethical concerns arising from current and potential forms of drone violence; recommendations on how this violence should be managed; and a new normative vision for shaping the future trajectory of drone violence.

DRONETHICS is helping to ensure ethical debate keeps pace with the accelerating global proliferation and scientific progress of militarized drone technology. Based on our theorization of the multifaceted nature of drone violence, and our assessment of moral arguments for and against it, we aim to develop principled, evidence-based policy recommendations. The rationale for pursuing this expansive approach to emergent ethics is that it is more conducive to discerning the true essence of drone violence and thus more likely to lead to a holistic framework for governing it effectively and justly. Our research is focused on addressing three big questions: (1) What is drone violence? (2) Why can drone violence be morally justified or condemned? (3) How should drone violence be prevented, restricted or permitted? Accordingly, the three main objectives of DRONETHICS are: (Theory) to develop a comprehensive theory of drone violence as a basis for normative thinking; (Judgment) to discover and assess how officials, academics, drone operators and AI engineers make a moral case for or against drone violence; and (Governance) to generate value-sensitive policy recommendations on preventing, restricting or permitting drone violence in various kinds of circumstances.
The project work is distributed into 7 Work Packages (WPs): (1) Theorising drone violence; (2) Drone violence as war; (3) drone violence as violent law-enforcement; (4) Drone violence as tele-intimate violence; (5) Drone violence as devolved (to AI) violence; (6) Workshops and interviews; (7) Project administration and research dissemination.

The Principal Investigator (PI) has recruited two postdoctoral research associates (PDRAs) who commenced work in December 2018 (PDRA1) and February 2019 (PDRA2), and a project website was launched in May 2019. In July 2019 we organised a research workshop in Southampton with 14 participants (from Australia, France, Germany, Netherlands, UK and US) presenting and debating on the theme “Governing Drone Violence: Concepts, Moralities, and Rules”. Selected workshop papers were revised into 9 chapters for a volume edited by the PI and published in January 2021. Planning for a policy-oriented workshop to test project findings is underway. All project team members have received approval from a University of Southampton research ethics committee to conduct in-person or online interviews, recruitment of research participants has commenced, and an appointed Ethics Adviser has been available to give independent advice. Our manuscript submissions to publishers include: 9 articles, 1 conference paper, 1 authored book, 1 edited volume, and 6 chapters. We have also disseminated findings or exchanged ideas through: 10 conference presentations, 13 workshop presentations, and 43 other events.

The PI has: managed the PDRAs; led WPs 1-3 and 7, and contributed to WPs 4-6; maintained the website; arranged appointment of an Ethics Adviser; received ethics approval to conduct interviews; commenced recruitment of research participants; co-organized a research workshop; secured 2 book contracts; submitted to publishers 4 articles, 4 chapters and 1 edited volume; commenced writing 1 authored book; participated in 6 conferences and 3 workshops; and disseminated findings or exchanged ideas at 22 other events.

PDRA1 has: led WP4 and contributed to WPs 1, 6 and 7; received ethics approval to conduct interviews; commenced recruitment of research participants; co-organized a research workshop; submitted to publishers 2 articles and 1 chapter; participated in 1 conference and 2 workshops; and disseminated findings or exchanged ideas at 3 other events.

PDRA2 has: led WP5 and contributed to WPs 1, 6 and 7; received ethics approval to conduct interviews; commenced recruitment of research participants; submitted to publishers 4 articles, 3 chapters, 1 conference paper, and 1 book manuscript; participated in 3 conferences and 8 workshops; and disseminated findings or exchanged ideas at 18 other events.
We are taking up the challenge posed by scholars who suggest that armed drone use sometimes does not count as war. If so, the state-of-the-art approach to ethically assessing such violence (by reference to Just War principles) needs to be improved, supplemented or replaced by other normative approaches. We are making progress applying military ethics principles to assess drone violence that occurs in warlike ways. And we are conceptualising non-war manifestations of state violence too, by exploring the idea of drone strikes (manifesting as violent law-enforcement) as a punitive tool of ‘wild justice’, and by ethically assessing potential police uses of armed drones. State agency (as war-wager or law-enforcer) is not all that matters, however, so drone use is compelling our attention also toward other notions of violence. Pushing further beyond Just War thinking, our research efforts encompass two non-state-centric conceptualisations of drone violence as: (1) ‘tele-intimate’ violence, whereby concerns about the morality of killing arise at the level of individual drone operators who can remotely but richly perceive others' humanity via satellite and video-camera; and (2) ‘devolved violence’, whereby the critical functions of drone-based weapon systems are no longer under as much (or any) human control because they are instead performed by AI. Accordingly, our work also involves: applying a feminist ethics of care to the wielding of tele-intimate violence; exploring the potential for drone operators to experience moral injury; and suggesting potential regimes for the principled governance of AI-enabled drone violence.
Reaper drone taxis at Kandahar airfield, Afghanistan