Maiello: Defeat the Press
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In the Times today, a professor of philosophy and a professor of government team up to tackle the "Moral Hazards of Drones," and they evoke Plato's tale of Gyges to make the case.
The Gyges story is a simple one. A farmer finds a magic ring that renders him invisible. The power corrupts him to the point where he uses it to kill the King. He then marries the Queen and takes over the country. The authors (John Kaag the philosopher and Sarah Kreps, the expert in government) explore our moral revulsion at the idea that just because you can get away with something that you might feel justified in doing it. You shouldn't not steal, rape and murder for fear of getting caught. You should not do those things because you're an ethical person who doesn't mistreat others, even when you can get away with it.
Kaag and Kreps apply these lessons to Obama's drone war against terror suspects and finds that the administration is severely lacking in ethical grounding. Killing people via remote control, they argue, is akin to having the magic ring. It allows for the U.S. to act with impunity.
Maybe the professors* were dumbing things down for a newspaper audience, but I was a little surprised by the simplicity of this argument. Maybe we haven't given Gyges his due. In Plato's telling, Gyges is clearly in the wrong. He uses his immunity from justice for personal gain at the expense of the King. We must assume that in this case, the King is the just rule of the land and that the people accept that.
But what if we complicate matters a bit? What if the King is a tyrant? What if, instead of the ring going to a simple farmhand who grows wild with ambition, the ring goes to Hamlet, who uses it to kill his Uncle, who usurped the throne from his father, thus restoring the proper monarchy under the named heir? Or what if, instead of installing himself as dictator, Gyges uses the ring to slay a tyrant and then sets up an anarcho-syndicalist commune where the citizens take turns acting as a sort of executive officer of the week, but all of the decision of that officer have to be ratified at a biweekly counsel, by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs but by a two third majo--
Once you decide that the King's authority lacks legitimacy, the story has changed. Who we are targeting with the drones really does matter. Kaag and Kreps point out that the unilateral executive authority being used here is problematic. I agree. Checks and balances are clearly missing from the process.
But the other side of the Gyges story is that just because you can act with impunity doesn't mean you shouldn't. What if our farmer had, after the death of his beloved Uncle Ben, turned to fighting crime?
*In the draft of this that I posted, I referred to the professors as "terrorists," by accident. This is not generally how I disagree with people. See acanuck's comment below for a chuckle.*