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Intelligence Security Humanitarian Issues

The Moral Hazard of Inaction in War

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Courtesy cea + / Flickr

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 19 August 2016.

When earlier this month the Obama administration released a newly declassified memorandum detailing the U.S. government’s policy on drone strikes, there was little new to be found. It mainly repeats the policies that were released in 2013, to include the vastly-more-than-what-the-law demands requirement of a “near certainty” that there would be zero civilian deaths in a given strike. What is glaringly missing is any formal appraisal of the civilian casualties likely to occur if a strike is not conducted.

Whatever political or even moral imperative there may be for the administration’s extralegal no-civilian-casualty drone policy, it is not the only ethical issue these strikes engage. After all, British philosopher John Stuart Mill observed in his 1859 essay that a “person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”

A failure to formally include any evaluation of the consequences of not striking raises what I would call a “moral hazard.” Traditionally, “moral hazard” is an economics term defined as “the lack of any incentive to guard against a risk when you are protected against it (as by insurance).” However, as applied to drone operations (and other use-of-force situations), I would interpret it as decision-makers having a lack of any incentive to guard against the risk to civilians who might be killed if a targeted terrorist is not struck, because they are protected against the risk of criticism in the absence of a strike.