Eye in the Sky: Utilitarianism in a High-Tech War

I saw Eye in the Sky recently and have nothing but praise for it. I will be using it in my Narratives course next year. Here’s why

The movie’s plot is set in motion when British and Kenyan intelligence learn that two British and one American citizen, all radicalized Islamic militants, are meeting with leaders of the Al-Shabaab movement at a house in Nairobi. Under British leadership, an American crew piloting a drone and Kenyan troops operating on the ground put in place a plan to capture the group. Employing a tiny drone that hovers inside the house, the military partners discover that two al-Shabaab militants are putting on suicide vests for an imminent attack.

The British military leader in charge of the operation, portrayed by Helen Mirren, seeks political approval to change the scope of the mission to a missile strike on the house. After some hasty debate at the political level, she receives both British and American approval to kill their own citizens without trial. Just as the American crew is ready to release the missile mounted on the drone, an eight year old girl sets up a stand to sell bread outside the walls of the militants’ house. The political debate, again conducted in Whitehall and the White House, moves to whether the attack on the militants should be halted because of the possibility of “collateral damage.”

As my title suggests, one of the points of view expressed in the debate – by the British military – is utilitarianism, namely the willingness to sacrifice one innocent civilian to save many more. It is opposed, not by deontological ethics, but rather by self-interested soldiers and politicians who are concerned that they will be held accountable for the death of an innocent civilian.

In my post of last December 5, I justified my practice of including spoilers. In this post, I’ll reverse myself. Because the movie has come out so recently and employs suspense as a key technique, this post contains no spoilers.

I will be using the movie for several reasons. It depicts a fascinating interplay between public servants – the military – who want to take action, but who must convince their skeptical political masters. It depicts a variety of decision-making styles, including upward delegation on the part of British politicians, and a gung-ho determination by the British military commander to do whatever it takes to get authorization. It shows the complexity of joint action by countries operating under different political and legal regimes. It forces the audience to confront, in their own minds, the question of whether utilitarianism is an appropriate ethical theory for life-and-death decisions. In a genre traditionally lacking in strong female characters, this movie’s main protagonist is one. Finally, students will find Eye in the Sky’s use of suspense and action in real time compelling.

I will likely use it in place of Zero Dark Thirty, which is an excellent movie that deals with similar issues, but in a one semester course, there isn’t time for both. I keep updating my course, so I will try a new text. Eye in the Sky will follow Twelve Angry Men, another procedural that plays out in real time and involves life and death decisions.


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