Bioethics Blogs

Targeted Killing and Black Boxes

Written By Mitt Regan and Michael Robillard

            Various aspects of the US targeted killing program have attracted considerable attention and some criticism in philosophy and international law. One important aspect of the program that deserves more attention is how targeted killing reflects how the growing number of conflicts involving non-state actors are eroding conventions regarding the use of violence.  Those conventions are based on the paradigm of conflict between states waged by uniformed armed forces on segregated battlefields.  In such conflicts, an individual’s status as a member of the armed forces makes him/her liable to lethal force without examining his/her specific conduct.  Non-state actors, however, do not wear uniforms and seek to be indistinguishable from civilians.  What, then, should be the basis for their liability?

While the traditional paradigm is based on status, it contains implicit assumptions about liable conduct.  These are that: (1) an individual in uniform poses a threat and (2) he voluntarily wears a uniform knowing this.  Voluntarily posing a threat is thus the implicit moral basis for liability on the traditional view of jus in bello. International law stipulates that this condition is met for someone in uniform.  Conflicts with non-state actors, however, require that we make this determination for each individual.  The debate over targeting killing vividly highlights that there is no consensus on what behaviour satisfies this condition aside from overt hostility.  In other words, we lack an accepted convention for determining liability to lethal force absent explicit demonstrations of hostile intent.

Seen in this light, the controversy over the US targeted killing program reflects a debate over what this convention should be.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.