It was entirely coincidental that the release of Eye in the Sky occurred when the Joint Committee on Human Rights asked the UK government for ‘urgent clarification’ on the legal position of using lethal force overseas for counter-terrorism. The question arose from their consideration of the use of an RAF drone to kill Reyaad Khan, a UK citizen, in Syria last year. This not only raised the issue in parliament but also among the media and general public.
It posed a challenge for us all to consider the deeper spiritual and moral questions beneath this technical legal question. How do we address such issues?
For thousands of years, philosophers have considered such questions through the use of ‘thought experiments’. These are short stories that raise ethical dilemmas, causing us to think about what we would do in such a situation, and what underlying ethical norms or moral laws this reveals. In recent years, feature films have provided excellent thought experiments. And then, as parliament considered the questions raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the excellent film Eye in the Sky was running in cinemas across the country.
Eye in the Sky is an unmissable, morally tense, thriller. First and foremost, it is cinematic art that grabs and holds your attention from start to finish. But it’s also much more than that. As the tension rises with every scene, so does the complexity of the moral questions it raises.
The central character, played brilliantly by Helen Mirren, is a UK-based military officer commanding a drone operation to capture a key terrorist on the ‘most wanted’ list. But closer surveillance reveals that this target is in a house with a group of other terrorists, fitting suicide vests for a bombing that will kill many people. The mission quickly changes from ‘capture’ to ‘kill’, as they plan to put a missile into the house.
But as the drone pilot, based in the USA, is about to engage, a nine-year old girl sets up a market stall right next to the house. Experts are brought in to work out a collateral damage estimation (CDE) and thus calculate the probability that this innocent young girl will be killed.
There follows a series of tense discussions between politicians, military commanders and lawyers. It seems that the USA and UK have different views on the acceptability of different CDEs. And even within each country various individuals view the same data from different perspectives. Ultimately someone has to decide what they should do. If they abort the mission, then the terrorists could potentially kill many innocent people. But if they go ahead they may kill this innocent girl.
This film presents a very dramatic film version of the classic ‘Trolley Problem’ thought experiment, first expressed by the British virtue ethicist Philippa Foot. The ‘Trolley Problem’ dilemma starts by asking what you would do if you were standing by a railway switch that could divert a train that is about to kill five people who are tied up on the tracks ahead; but you notice one person on the side track who will inevitably be killed by your action. Studies by psychologists and philosophers have revealed that many people will pull the switch, preferring to stop the death of five, even if it costs the life of one other person.
However, what if you were standing on a bridge over the track with a fat man next to you, and if you push him onto the track he will certainly die, but will stop the train thus saving the lives of five people. It seems that many people feel less comfortable with this action, possibly because it requires them to be more active in killing someone. A further variant, called the ‘fat villain’, supposes that you discover this man had tied the five people to the track. The variant explored in Eye in the Sky provides two other clever twists. We don’t know if the person will be killed, we just know probabilities from the CDE; and this person is an innocent child.
The list of possible variants of the ‘Trolley Problem’, and their extension in this film, reveals the complexity of contemporary moral questions. As technology has increased so has the power we have at our finger-tips and the challenges we face.
Seventy years ago, when the pilots dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki they could not precisely target to minimize collateral damage. But nor did they see the people they were about to kill. If pilots can now target their bombs more precisely, but also see their victims, does that make their job harder or easier? And, from a moral perspective, should what we see affect the values we attribute?
There are clearly many difficult moral dilemmas facing politicians and the military right now in the contemporary world of counter-terrorism. This fictional film does not present any easy answers but it does provide us all with an opportunity to consider what we would do – and why. Moral dilemmas are complex and difficult. If we think there are simple answers, perhaps we simply haven’t understood the complexity of the questions.
Nick Pollard is co-founder of EthosEducation.org and EthosMedia.org which provide free downloadable resources to help school pupils and the general public to explore spiritual, moral, social and cultural issues through the latest films.