Drones, information technology, and distance: mapping the moral epistemology of remote fighting

Mark Coeckelbergh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Ethical reflection on drone fighting suggests that this practice does not only create physical distance, but also moral distance: far removed from one’s opponent, it becomes easier to kill. This paper discusses this thesis, frames it as a moral-epistemological problem, and explores the role of information technology in bridging and creating distance. Inspired by a broad range of conceptual and empirical resources including ethics of robotics, psychology, phenomenology, and media reports, it is first argued that drone fighting, like other long-range fighting, creates epistemic and moral distance in so far as ‘screenfighting’ implies the disappearance of the vulnerable face and body of the opponent and thus removes moral-psychological barriers to killing. However, the paper also shows that this influence is at least weakened by current surveillance technologies, which make possible a kind of ‘empathic bridging’ by which the fighter’s opponent on the ground is re-humanized, re-faced, and re-embodied. This ‘mutation’ or unintended ‘hacking’ of the practice is a problem for drone pilots and for those who order them to kill, but revealing its moral-epistemic possibilities opens up new avenues for imagining morally better ways of technology-mediated fighting.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)87-98
JournalEthics and information technology
Volume15
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2013

Keywords

  • METIS-295857
  • IR-85550

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