Drones, trolleys and dirty hands

Review of the film "Eye in the Sky"

Eye in the Sky is a 2015 British fictional thriller which explores the ethical challenges of drone warfare, cleverly invoking subtle hints of the moral concept of dirty hands (DH). Although academics differ significantly in their understanding of the concept of “dirty hands” and the “problem of DH”, the general consensus confers that such notions concern the “idea that correct political action must sometimes conflict with profound moral norms” (Coady, 2018).

Eye in the Sky depicts how a multinational team works on a mission to capture three high-level Al-Shabaab leaders currently meeting in a safe-house based in Nairobi, Kenya. The team is linked together by video and voice systems: Colonel Powell, based in Surrey, United Kingdom, has just taken command of the mission; aerial surveillance in Nairobi is provided by a drone controlled by military personnel based in Nevada, USA; and undercover field agents in Nairobi are using short-range cameras to link in ground intelligence. Additionally, the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii is involved to carry out facial recognition to identify the human targets. The operation is supervised in the United Kingdom in a meeting held in the Cabinet Office which includes Lieutenant General Benson, two full government ministers and a ministerial under-secretary.

Upon discovering that the mission’s three targets are currently arming two suicide bombers, Powell demands the operation to capture be swiftly escalated to an operation to kill via missile attack. The lawyers and politicians involved in the chain of command argue the personal, political and legal merits of and the justification for launching such an attack, until eventually legal clearance is granted.

Yet a young girl has now entered the scene, set on selling bread near the target’s building. Political tactics and legal clearance aside, this new element transforms the moral dimension of the situation for the political actors and military personnel, for some more than for others. The alternative courses of action now present an unbearable moral conflict: the risk of letting three high-level terrorist leaders and two suicide bombers leave the house to presumably carry out an attack on a targeted civilian group such as a shopping mall, versus the significant risk of the collateral damage which could occur should the military team strike now, particularly the probable death of an innocent child. The film systematically evokes the idea of weighing up reasonably calculable costs and benefits and of choosing “the lesser of two evils” (de Wijze, 2007, p.4), strikingly depicting an aspect of the problem of DH and stressing the possibility – or even the necessity - of “doing wrong to do right” (de Wijze, 2007, p.3).

The film’s attention now turns to the air force drone pilot in Nevada who has been ordered to fire the missile. He hopes to delay this until the child moves, demanding to have the collateral damage estimate (CDE) rerun. Unsuccessful attempts, under the command of Powell, are also made by the field agents to get the child to go home by buying all of her loaves of bread. With the CDE crudely re-assessed at a lower risk of civilian deaths, the pilot now fires the missile and the building is destroyed, leaving the girl injured but unconscious. However, one of their targets has also survived, and so a second missile is ordered to be fired, this time leaving the young girl on the brink of death. She is rushed to hospital, where she subsequently dies.

Unlike theories of Deontology and Consequentialism which refute the existence of the problem of DH, the situation depicted in Eye in the Sky highlights the idea that in some situations there is no clearly definitive “right” or “wrong” way to resolve a conflict. That is, there is no systematic proper moral theory to refer to in regards to each specific case, for example by always following a strict moral code regardless of outcomes, or by choosing the course of action which results in the “lesser of two evils” (de Wijze, 2007, p.4), regardless of the morality of the action itself. As the director Gavin Hood remarked upon reading the producer’s script, “what I liked was that it didn’t tell me what to think, it forced me to think” (2016). The film effectively encourages the audience to think about situations involving conflicting considerations with no good outcomes and then deciding what would be the best, or rather the least bad, course of action.

It thus resonates with another significant aspect of DH, which some theorists insist upon, that “in all dirty hands scenarios, the agent knows that by acting as she did, she did wrong, violating a moral principle, leaving her feeling remorse or “agent-regret”” (de Wijze, 2007, p.9).

Upon accomplishing the mission, most of the film’s characters are seen left with feelings of remorse and guilt. A type of “moral residue” remains from their decisions and their actions, emphasising the idea that choosing “the lesser of two evils doesn’t mean you’re not still having to choose something deeply immoral” (Hood, 2016). The film’s storyline is an elaborate version of the classic ethical trolley problem, in which an agent must choose between saving five lives from an oncoming train by pulling a lever to redirect the train onto a side track where one person stands and would subsequently be killed, or not pulling the lever, allowing the train to kill the first five. This thought experiment can be recast in many different ways to stretch our thinking and re-evaluate our moral considerations with each new variation of the problem. For example, one version of the thought experiment asks us to consider our familial ties and duties, questioning whether we’d pull the lever if the person standing on the side track was our own child. Another variant involves the choice between pushing a fat man onto the track to stop the trolley from killing five people, hence leading to his death, versus doing nothing and letting the five people die. This version better highlights the notions of active versus passive killing.

Eye in the Sky also raises new ethical considerations for the 21st century. Hood suggests that through drone warfare and similar types of military technology, “we are pulling levers from a distance”, that we are able to kill our enemies without putting our own troops in danger. Does this create a sort of detachment from the horrors of traditional warfare? The film suggests that this is not necessarily so, as most of the characters appear to battle with the moral challenges of their situation to a lesser or, in the case of the pilot, greater extent, both during the mission and afterwards.

It seems likely that the unstoppable advance of technology will create many more DH conflicts for society in the years to come – many of which could confront the average citizen in the course of their routine work day.


Coady, C.A.J. (2018), "The Problem of Dirty Hands", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dirty-hands/(accessed 22/10/2018)

Hood, A. (2016), “Interview: Director Gavin Hood on Eye in the Sky, Drone Warfare, and Alan Rickman”, HuffPost (2017).

Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/zaki-hasan/interview-director-gavin_b_9605436.html(accessed 22/10/2018)

de Wijze, S. (2007) ‘Dirty Hands: Doing Wrong to do Right’ in Primoratz, I. (ed.), Politics and Morality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan)

For more on the Trolley Problem:

Woollard, Fiona and Howard-Snyder, Frances, (2016), "Doing vs. Allowing Harm", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/doing-allowing/ (accessed 22/10/2018)