Division 48 Letter of Inquiry to the APA Ethics Office on Psychologist Involvement in Drones

Those of you on our discussion listserv know that quite a few Division 48 members have become increasingly concerned about the widespread use of weaponized drones by the U.S. military. As peace psychologists we’re particularly aware of the psy- chological trauma that drone use brings to those communities fearful of and subjected to these attacks. And although we don’t know the extent to which psychologists might be involved in various aspects of drone operations, such possibilities raise important ethical questions for our profession.

As a first step in taking action regarding our drone-related concerns, about a dozen listserv members collaborated on drafting the inquiry below to Dr. Stephen Behnke, director of the APA Ethics Office. I sent the letter (below) to him in early October, and after a follow-up email from me mid-month he confirmed that he has received our re- quest. So we are now awaiting a reply responsive to our specific ques- tions from Dr. Behnke, which I will share with the membership when it arrives.

I feel that our listserv discussions and letter drafting went very well. Thanks to all of you who were involved. Reflecting on the energy and the process, it’s my interpretation that a critical mass of the Division 48 membership does not feel comfortable remaining value-neutral on either the broad issue of drones or the specific possibility of psychologist involvement. Starting from a value stance on drones still means that we continue to listen to alternative perspectives and engage in dialogue with open minds. It still means we may have diverse opinions within our own group. It also means that our Society has a role to play in the national dialogue on the use, ethics, and legality of drones. And it means that we can publicly acknowledge that the use of these weap- ons is ethically problematic in a variety of ways.


Dr. Stephen Behnke
Director, APA Ethics Office
750 First Street NE
Washington, DC 20002

October 3, 2013

Dear Dr. Behnke:

Members of APA’s Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence are deeply concerned about the U.S. military’s extensive use of weaponized drones. These drones inflict profound psychological trauma, not only upon the families of victims but also upon the fearful communities living under constant threat of deadly and destructive attacks.

One critical dimension of our broad concern involves questions regarding the professional ethics governing psychologists’ involvement in drone warfare. We are therefore reaching out to you and your office to request timely guidance regarding how the APA Ethics Code addresses the following scenarios:

1.     According to the Code, is it permissible for a psychologist to directly operate or otherwise be involved in the operation of a weaponized drone?

2.     According to the Code, is it permissible for a psychologist to work as an intelligence consultant involved in the targeting of drone strikes?

3.     According to the Code, is it permissible for a psychologist to participate in programs designed to select drone operators or train them in such as way as to overcome the natural psychological aversion to killing other people?

4.     According to the Code, is it permissible for a psychologist to assist in promoting public support for the use of weaponized drones by misrepresenting evidence of the psychological harms that result from such attacks?

We recognize that these questions may not necessarily reflect the current activities of any psychologists working for the Department of Defense, the CIA, or other agencies or corporations. But we also understand that your Ethics Office “serves as a resource to members and the Association in addressing new ethical dilemmas as psychology grows and evolves as a discipline.” It is our view that there is an urgent need for the psychology profession to confront the ethical challenges posed by the multifaceted use of drones – currently as weapons in counter-terrorism operations overseas and as instruments for domestic surveillance, and in the future as fully autonomous weapon systems.

Thank you in advance for providing us with your perspective as the director of APA’s Ethics Office. We look forward to hearing from you and to sharing your reply with our membership.


Brad Olson, PhD
President-Elect of Division 48

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