Plato’s Gyges and Military Drones

By Calips (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Much like the power of the ring in Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Ring of Gyges allows the possessor to become invisible. Plato considers whether a person would make moral decisions if he knew no one would see him. The N.Y. Times article, The Moral Hazard of Drones, picks up Plato’s theme out of his Republic book two and applies it to the U.S. drone war in the middle east.

Terrorists, whatever the moral value of their deeds, may be found and punished; as humans they are subject to retribution, whether it be corporal or legal. They may lose or sacrifice their lives. They may, in fact, be killed in the middle of the night by a drone. Because remote controlled machines cannot suffer these consequences, and the humans who operate them do so at a great distance, the myth of Gyges is more a parable of modern counterterrorism than it is about terrorism.

Scott Shane’s article, The Moral Case for Drones, was mentioned in the above article which provides a positive view of the use of the drone in war. Here he suggests,

“[T]he drone war has prompted an intense focus on civilian casualties, which in a YouTube world have become harder to hide. He argues that technological change is producing a growing intolerance for the routine slaughter of earlier wars.

“Look at the firebombing of Dresden, and compare what we’re doing today,” Mr. Crumpton said. “The public’s expectations have been raised dramatically around the world, and that’s good news.”

If it is accurate to attribute the Plato’s analogy of Gyges to drones, here is what Plato’s Glaucon says about a just and an unjust man having this power,

[360b] If now there should be two such rings, and the just man should put on one and the unjust the other, no one could be found, it would seem, of such adamantine temper as to persevere in justice and endure to refrain his hands from the possessions of others and not touch them, though he might with impunity take what he wished even from the marketplace, [360c] and enter into houses and lie with whom he pleased, and slay and loose from bonds whomsoever he would, and in all other things conduct himself among mankind as the equal of a god. And in so acting he would do no differently from the other man, but both would pursue the same course. And yet this is a great proof, one might argue, that no one is just of his own will but only from constraint, in the belief that justice is not his personal good, inasmuch as every man, when he supposes himself to have the power to do wrong, does wrong. (Republic book 2.360b,c)


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