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Emergent Ethics of Drone Violence: Toward a Comprehensive Governance Framework

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - DRONETHICS (Emergent Ethics of Drone Violence: Toward a Comprehensive Governance Framework)

Reporting period: 2018-07-01 to 2019-12-31

The increasing use of armed, uninhabited aircraft (drones) is a serious political challenge with implications for security and justice worldwide. Drone technology is attracting high levels of investment, drones controlled remotely are becoming more numerous, and technological momentum toward drones controlled by artificial intelligence (AI) is building. Many human lives are at stake in this, so the violent use of drones continues to generate ethical concerns. The DRONETHICS project is systematically addressing an urgent need to clarify the morality of ‘drone violence’, defined as violence involving a weapon system that is radically remote from its immediate user. Such remoteness is achieved through extreme physical distancing or the devolution of agency from humans to machines, 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, the project involves ethical inquiry into drone violence conceptualized as either war, violent law-enforcement, ‘tele-intimate’ violence, or devolved (to AI) violence. Our interdisciplinary research team incorporates international relations, moral philosophy, international law, and gender studies perspectives and approaches. Through innovative exploration and application of alternative frameworks for governing violence, we aim to produce: the first integrated conceptual framework for explaining ethical concerns arising from current and potential forms of drone violence; recommendations for policy-makers on how to manage this violence ethically; and a new normative vision for shaping the longer-term trajectory of drone violence for the good of all humanity.

The DRONETHICS project is intended to help ensure that 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 and comparison of moral arguments for or against it, we aim to develop policy recommendations that are evidence-based and principles-driven. The rationale for pursuing this expansive approach to the emergent ethics of drone violence is that it is more conducive to discerning the true essence of such violence and thus more likely to lead to a comprehensive framework for governing it effectively and justly. Our research is focused on addressing three fundamental 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? Corresponding to these questions, the three principal objectives of DRONETHICS are: 1 (Theory) to develop a comprehensive theory of drone violence as a basis for normative thinking; 2 (Judgment) to discover and compare how government officials, academic authors, drone operators, and robotics engineers make a moral case for or against drone violence; and 3 (Governance) to generate research-based, value-sensitive policy recommendations on ethically preventing, restricting or permitting drone violence in various kinds of circumstances.
The project work is distributed into seven Work Packages (WPs): (1) Theorising drone violence; (2) Drone violence as war; (3) drone violence as violent law-enforcement; (4) Drone violence as interpersonal violence; (5) Drone violence as devolved (to AI violence); (6) Workshops and interviews; and (7) Project administration and research dissemination.

In the first reporting period (01 July 2018 to 31 December 2019), the Principal Investigator (PI) began the process of recruiting two postdoctoral research associates (PDRAs) for the project. They commenced work in early December 2018 (PDRA1) and late February 2019 (PDRA2). On 16-17 July 2019 the project team organised and hosted a research development workshop in Southampton. Fourteen participants, including invitees from Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the US, presented and debated ideas on the theme “Governing Drone Violence: Concepts, Moralities, and Rules”. Most of the papers from the workshop have been selected to be chapters within an edited volume (entitled The Ethics of Drone Strikes: Restraining Remote-Control Killing). The PI designed a project website, and this was launched in May 2019. All members of the project team have received ethics approval from a University of Southampton research ethics committee for conducting human research (interviews), and the independent Ethics Adviser appointed to the project has provided advice when required. Since the start of the project, submissions of manuscripts for publication include (in total) 4 articles, 1 conference paper, 1 authored book, and 3 book chapters, and the PI has submitted detailed proposals to publish an edited book and an authored book. The project team has also disseminated research finding through (in total): 5 conference presentations, 9 workshop presentations, and 15 other events.

Individual project team members have undertaken work as follows:

The PI has: recruited and managed the PDRAs; led work packages (WPs) 1-3 and 7, and contributed to WPs 4-6; applied for and received research ethics approval for human research (interviews) in WPs 2-3; arranged appointment of an independent Ethics Adviser; co-organized an international research workshop; submitted for publication 2 article manuscripts and 1 book chapter; submitted 2 book proposals; designed and launched a project website; and participated in 3 conferences, 1 workshop, and 11 other research dissemination events.

PDRA1 has: led WP4 and contributed to WPs 1, 6 and 7; applied for and received research ethics approval for human research (interviews) in WP4; co-organized an international research workshop; submitted 1 article manuscript; and participated in 1 conference and 2 workshops.

PDRA2 has: led WP5 and contributed to WPs 1, 6 and 7; applied for and received research ethics approval for human research (interviews) in WP5; submitted for publication 1 article manuscript and 1 conference paper, and 1 book manuscript; participated in 1 conference, 6 workshops, and 4 other research dissemination events.
The researchers on this project are taking up the challenge posed by scholars who suggest that the use of armed drones does not (at least sometimes) count as war. If so, the state-of-the-art approach to ethically assessing such violence (i.e. by reference to Just War principles) needs to be improved, supplemented or replaced by other normative approaches. We are making progress in identifying and conceptualizing non-war manifestations of drone strikes including, for example, exploring the idea of drone violence (manifesting as violent law-enforcement) as a tool of ‘wild justice’. The agency of the state (as war-wager or law-enforcer) is not all that matters, however, so drone use is compelling our attention also toward more individualized notions of violence. Pushing further beyond Just War thinking, the focus of our efforts encompasses two non-state-centric conceptualizations of drone-based violence: (1) that this is ‘tele-intimate’ violence, such that concerns about the morality of killing arise at the level of individual drone operators who perceive their own violence via satellite and video-camera; and (2) that, in a hypothetical future, drone use amounts to devolved violence, whereby intelligent drones take over from human operators as post-human moral agents. Accordingly, we are pursuing writing projects that involve applying a feminist ethics of care to tele-intimate violence and considering potential international and global regimes that might better enable AI-controlled violence to be governed.