Necro-Ethics part 1: Drone Theory and the Categorical Imperative.

James Simpkin's Micro-Liberations
3 min readMay 27, 2020

If we call someone who kills others by blowing himself up a suicide bomber, then what is the autonym for a fighter for whom it is impossible to be killed? This is one of the many disturbing but fascinating questions the French author Gregoire Chamayou asks in his 2015 book Drone Theory. In this series of blogs I aim to explore several of the keys themes in Chamayou’s book, beginning with his use of Kant’s Categorical Imperative to critique drones as the emerging quintessential method of warfare for democratic states.

What is unique about Drone Theory is that Chamayou’s starting point for his critique of drone warfare is not the technical or the strategic but the ethical and philosophical. Necro-ethics is Chamayou’s critical term for the contemplation of methods of killing in warfare, of which he counts drone warfare as one of the most unsavoury due to its short-curcuiting of the principle of jus in bello by depriving the enemy combatant of any chance of counter-attack against the drone operator safely ensconced in an operations bunker thousands of miles away. Not only this, but drone warfare strips the drone pilot of his or her honour as a warrior by placing them in a totally riskless environment.

Chamayou reaches the conclusion outlined above by drawing on Kant’s notion of the categorical imperative; the idea that people should be treated as ends in themselves, never as means to ends. Deploying the categorical imperative into the warzone, Chamayou uses Kant’s argument in The Metaphysics of Morals that a state is able to use all means necessary to defend itself “except those whose use would render its subjects unfit to be citizens”. For Kant, while a state can ask its citizens to become warriors it cannot ask them to become assassins; alongside which Kant also lists “sharpshooters”, and Chamayou includes the drone. This is because, for Kant, the possibility of being killed turns combatants into honourable warriors, whereas to be an assassin is dishonourable because it is does not allow the the target the possibility of fighting back and is therefore underhanded.

Chamayou then draws on Kant again to make the point that drones are the ulitmate weapon of democratic states. His argument runs that although Kant first dismisses the divine right of sovereigns to “use, wear out, and destroy (kill)” their subjects much like a chicken or sheep farmer might slaughter his livestock since they are “his own product”, nonetheless, Kant argues, the free citizens of a republic could express their consent to go to war in a democratic vote. Yet, because the free citizens of a republic are unlikely to want to risk their lives in combat, they are unlikely to vote to go to war; this is the essence of Kant’s theory of perpetual republican peace, or democratic peace theory in modern parlance. However, Chamayou then stands Kant’s democratic peace theory on its head to argue that precisely because the free citizens of democratic states — of which he reads the United States as the ultimate example — will not vote to put themselves in harms way, then the militaries of those countries will have to develop methods of warfare which do not risk the lives of their citizens and, voila; we have the emergence of the drone! This is all the more dangerous because once human life is removed from the equation the cost of war for the belligerant drops dramatically, and ironically, dronized warfare leads to more combat, not less.

Having now set out the underlying principle in Chamayou’s book about why democratic governments are particularly prone to the adoption of dronized warfare, in part 2 I will set out Chamayou’s case as to why such a development is catastrophic for anti-war protests amongst the citizenry in democratic states.