A Philosopher's Blog

Do We Need a War on Terror?

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 18, 2010
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While there is considerable discussion about how the war on terror should be run, there is relativity little talk about whether there should be such a war.

I suspect that some readers think I will be presenting only two options: either fight terrorism or simply give up. This view would be based on the assumption that either we are waging war against terrorists or we are doing nothing. However, this is a false dilemma. There are considerable gradations between having a war on terror and doing nothing.

Obviously, I do not advocate doing nothing about terrorism. However, I do believe that the war on terror is fundamentally misguided and actually creates more harm than good. As such, I am actually arguing that we should do a better job countering terrorism.

One obvious problem with the war on terror (which is shared with most of the other wars on whatever) is that the war and opponent are not clearly defined. Rather, the notion of war and the notion of terror are rather vague. While the idea that we are in a war against terror is brought out to justify a wide range of actions, this war, its goals and its methods seem to shift with the political winds. As such, it is hardly any wonder that this war on terror has made about as much progress as the other wars on whatever.

What is needed is a clear and precise set of goals, objectives and methods. That is, we need to know what exactly we are trying to do and how we are supposed to accomplish it. As such, the war on terror should be replaced with discrete and precise objectives.

Another problem with the war on terror is that the notion that it is a war can be misused to create a sense of urgency and importance. This allows, for example, people to silence criticism by evoking the notion that we are at war. The problem with this is that the criticisms can often be legitimate. When such criticism is silenced, then corruption and the misuse of power become far more likely. This has been the case in the war on terror.

As such, we need to take a critical look at this war on terror and the critics must not be silenced with cries of “national security” or “we are at war.”

A related problem is that the war on terror has resulted in a vast expansion in intelligence services and operations. For example, almost a million people now have top secret clearance. At first glance, this might seem like a good thing. After all, the more agencies and people who are out gathering dots to be connected the more likely it is that terrorists will be caught.

However, some reflection and investigation reveals some serious problems. One of these is that such a vast number of agencies, contractors and operators actually creates a morass that makes it harder to rapidly and effectively process and act upon intelligence. Second, this system is consuming significant amounts of resources that could be better employed elsewhere. Of course, this situation is a gravy train for the security contractors and it could be argued that this should be looked at as a government jobs program (socialized security, perhaps).

Interestingly enough, trimming down, streamlining and re-organizing the intelligence system would result in a more effective gathering and processing of information. The practical challenge is, of course, to create a system large enough to handle the challenges yet small enough to remain effective.  Naturally, when people try to argue for this view, the usual response is that “we are at war” and hence presumably need a bloated and wasteful system.

Another related  problem is the fact that this war on terror has been used as a means to siphon vast sums of money to various contractors and others. The war on terror has certainly proven profitable for some, including some members of congress. Of course, spending money and getting a good return would be fine. However, the money dumped into the war on terror seems to have yielded very little in terms of enhancing national security. For example, consider the money spent trying to detect radioactive material. As another example, consider the vast sums spent on private security contractors that has created an ineffective system.

Even worse, a significant amount of money has actually “vanished.” For example, the Pentagon cannot account for $8.7 billion in Iraqi funds.

This is, of course, the sort of thing that Eisenhower warned us about. What is needed is perhaps the impossible: proper auditing of spending, investigations into war profiteering (including members of the government), and changing the focus from fattening bank accounts to developing effective means of countering threats.

While we do need to be on guard against threats from terrorists, we do not need this war on terror.

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Bringing Down the World

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 22, 2010
Coat of arms of Greece.

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While the economic crisis hit the United States hard, it hit Greece and some other European countries harder. Greece seems to be the worst off-there has been rioting in the streets (never a good sign).

While Greece once enjoyed an excellent rating from a financial standpoint, the evidence seems to be that the country was cooking the books with the aid of certain financial companies. The gist seems to be that Greece was hiding its debts in a way that enabled it to maintain  a good rating when, in fact, it was high risk. This is, of course, all part of the pattern of how the financial evil magic of Wall Street enabled economic chaos to rip through the world.

Interestingly enough, most (if not all) of this seems to be completely legal. This is hardly shocking, since the folks who write the laws are rather close to the Wall Street folks (identical, in some cases-which is as close as one can get).

What is most interesting is that failed terrorist attacks stir up far greater concern and responses than the financial misdeeds that have done so much damage. Of course, the financial folks are not considered terrorists. After all, they do not aim to create fear and terror. The fear of unemployment, the terror of losing one’s house, the horror of riots and financial collapses are merely the side effects of their misdeeds.

In response to the Greek situation, other countries have stepped in to provide money. This includes money from American taxpayers. In short, the rest of us are being forced to pay for the misdeeds of those who profited from creating this financial nightmare. Worse, little or nothing is being changed to prevent it from happening again.

At this point, I am not claiming that this is the start of the downward spiral of Western civilization. That is a matter for historians to sort out after the collapse. However, financial ruin is a good place for the end to begin. Thank you Wall Street for your contribution to bringing down the world. Enjoy those profits.

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Beta Monday

Posted in Politics, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on May 3, 2010
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Sadly, I have no substantial post for today.

My reason: Beta Overload. Thanks to a friend of mine I have a Starcraft II Beta key (legitimate). Thanks to my purchase of Halo ODST  I also have access to the Halo Reach beta which starts today.

But, to throw out some commentary:

On a serious note, an SUV loaded with a assortment of explosives almost blew up in New York over the weekend. At this point, there seem to be no clear suspects. The main possibilities include 1) someone seeking revenge for South Park’s slight against Islam (the SUV was parked near the offices of the company that owns the show), 2) some random crazy, 3) a foreign terrorist, 4) a domestic terrorist, or even 5) someone who wants people to think that terrorists are active in the United States.

Based on what I have heard about the attempt, it seems to be a rather amateur bomb. Of course, this does not mean that it is not the result of real terrorists. After all, Al Qaeda has shown a serious loss in its operational competence when it comes to bombs (as per the underwear bomber).

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Posted in Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on April 24, 2010
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Back in the 1990s Cyberpunk was hot in science fiction. A central theme of this genre was battles in cyberspace. Fast forward to 2010 and the dystopic future envisioned in those tales has failed to materialize. However, the theme of cyber warfare was rather prescient. The internet is literally a war zone in which attackers try to breach the defenses of networks and individual computers. While much of this is done by criminals, there are also states playing this new game.

While criminals are a serious concern, the actions of nation states are also extremely worrisome. After all, software experts with the backing of a national budget could do considerable damage to another nation by attacking the private and governmental computer infrastructure. Financial systems, energy systems, defense systems and communication systems could be disrupted or even crippled. In theory, such attacks could be done anonymously. This would allow a nation to do damage and avoid retaliation.

China has shown that it is quite willing to use computer hacking (in the bad sense of the term) as part of national policy. While Google was the main target recently, there is no reason to think that China has any qualms about this method.  Other nations also seem to be willing and able to use such methods.

While the United States has been a center of computer and network innovation, the United States government has done rather poorly in the area of cyber security. This, obviously enough, needs to be rectified. Part of the problem is, no doubt, that our main focus has been on dumping money to counter the (non-cyber) terrorist threats (or to create the illusion that we are doing so), to fight our two wars, and so on. Another problem is that we have a hodge-podge system and lack a unified approach to this matter. There is also the concern that some government folks seem to be more concerned with downloading porn at work rather than focusing on the issue of security.

Whatever the reason, our country has a serious vulnerability in this area that must be addressed. Of course, this might be “addressed” by companies with high paid lobbyists getting fat contracts to provide useless security measures that will need to be repaired and patched to actually be effective.

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The Pentagon Shooter

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 5, 2010
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John Bedell was killed after shooting at police outside the Pentagon. His motivation seems to have been his distrust of the government and his apparently rather disturbed mental state. Bedell is being cast as a libertarian although, obviously enough, most libertarians do not advocate shooting police.

Interestingly, while Bedell saw patterns of conspiracy, some folks see him as being part of a pattern as well. As Northeastern University criminologist Jack Levin says, “Sadly enough, there is a pattern. He represents a much larger force in our society today. If one individual is paranoid, we call it mental illness. If thousands of people share the same paranoia, we call it ideology. There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of Americans who are extremely angry with the federal government.”

Levin is correct in his claim that many people are angry with the federal government. However, it seems rather problematic to equate this anger with paranoia. After all, while there are people who are, in fact, paranoid, there are people who are rather angry at the government who are not mentally ill. A problem with this sort of remark is that it can be taken as dismissing those who are angry with the government as being mentally ill and hence most likely lacking in legitimate concerns.

While there are angry and paranoid people, the number of people who take violent action against the government is rather small. This is not to dismiss the danger presented by such people but rather to put it in perspective. Yes, we should obviously be concerned about people who will engage in such attacks, just as we should be concerned about possible attacks by foreign terrorists or actions by violent criminals. However, it is also important to keep the threat in a proper perspective. It would be a mistake, for example, to infer that because a few loners have done such acts of violence that there is a rather vast army of the paranoid waiting out there for the moment to strike. Also, it would be a mistake to dismiss those who are critical of the government as merely paranoid. After all, there are excellent grounds on which to be angry at the folks in the government. This anger does not, however, justify violence.

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Palin, Obama, & Terror

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 5, 2010
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While some folks regard Palin as a shallow thinker (at best) she does an excellent job of presenting the thoughts and feelings of a certain segment of America. She also excels at sticking to the Republican‘s talking points. Interestingly enough, the views that she expresses when criticizing Obama about the war on terror nicely raise the contrast between Obama’s views and those allegedly held by Republicans.

On Fox News she raised the usual point against Obama by pointing out that “We are in war. These are acts of war that these terrorists are committing.”

While the Republican’s take the line that Obama does not get that we are at war, this does not seem to be the case. Obama, of course, says the word “war” to describe the situation and we are still conducting military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, we are still actively involved in the more general conflict with terrorist groups. As such, Obama seems to get the idea that we are at war.

I suspect that Palin (and other Republicans) do not harp on the “we are at war” point to try to convince Obama that we are, in fact, at war. Rather, I think that the line is that “we are at war, so we have to act like we are at war” and by this they mean “we are at war, so we can, should and must act in ways that violate Constitutional, moral, and human rights.” As Palin puts it:

“We need to treat them a little bit differently than an American who is worthy, an American being worthy of our U.S. constitutional rights. I don’t think the terrorists are worthy of our rights.”

The first claim, that terrorists need to be treated differently, can be taken as a reasonable claim. After all, terrorists (like criminals) act in ways that are different from law abiding citizens and hence should be treated differently. After all, people who break the law get treated differently-they are punished. Of course, Palin makes it clear that she does not mean this. Rather, her point is that the terrorists should not have our rights because they are not worthy of them.

This view does have a certain appeal. After all, when people act badly (be they terrorists or criminals) it is natural to think that they deserve less protection from the law and also forfeit some of their rights.

In some cases, it is reasonable to argue that people should be denied certain rights based on their actions. For example, someone who murders someone should have his right to liberty restricted because he no longer deserves that right. Of course, this should be done after a trial that involves due process. After all, to justly take away someone’s rights requires establishing that doing so would be just. To take away the right before the trial would be rather unjust and to hold no trial at all would be extremely unjust.

The same applies to terrorists who are captured. To strip them of their rights before their trial or to not hold a trial at all would be to act unjustly.

The usual counter to this is to restate that we are at war. After all, we do not conduct trials during firefights to see if we can shoot back at the enemy.While this is a reasonable point, it does not establish that captured terrorists should not be subject to the rule of law. After all, when the police come under fire, they can shoot back without holding a trial first. This fact does not prove that we should not hold trials for criminals who are captured or surrender.

Palin, not surprisingly, is very much against the idea that fighting terrorist is a matter of law enforcement. She says,

“Treating this like a mere law enforcement matter places our country at great risk because that’s not how radical Islamic extremists are looking at this. They know we’re at war, and to win that war we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern.”

This is, of course, a stock point: the terrorists do not respect the rule of law and they “know we’re at war” (that is, they are willing to do whatever it takes to win), so we need to be like them.

While being as bad as the enemy does have a certain appeal (eye for an eye and all that), this is a war of values. In the West, we put forth the rule of law, human rights, and justice as being among our most important values. We also pride ourselves on our ethics and often cast this battle with terrorists as a moral struggle. In short, we are fighting for our values against their values.

As Palin points out, the terrorists do not value the rule of law, they do not respect human rights, and they have a badly distorted view of justice. But, if we take her advice and accept that being at war means we can be like them in this regard, then we have lost this war in a very meaningful sense. Each day that we remain true to our values, we win. As such, those who would tempt us away from these values is aiding the enemy.

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Trying Terrorists

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 6, 2010
Frederick Dielman (1847-1935) designed this mo...

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The proposal to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to New York City for trial created considerable controversy. While some of it was manufactured for political purposes, there are significant issues here.

First, there is the practical issue: bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to the city for trial will cost millions of dollars. Interestingly, some folks have expressed a willingness to hold the trial in their town so as to bring that money into their community. In any case, holding the trial on a military facility would presumably be cheaper-the security is presumably already in place.

Second, there is the concern that NYC will be targeted again if the trial is held there. Of course, this concern applies to anyplace the trial is located and, of course, NYC is presumably already a prime target for terrorists (that is, after all, where the 9/11 attacks took place). Also, to use some Bush era talk: if we do not hold the trial in NYC because we are afraid, then the terrorist win by turning us into cowards in the face of their threats.

Third, there is the moral and political statement of holding a civilian trial. It shows that we are committed to the rule of law, justice and due process. In contrast, our terrorist foes are outside of the limits of civilization, law and justice. In a very important sense, our battle against the various terrorist groups is a struggle between our values and their values. You do not win a moral battle over values by abandoning those values-anymore than you defend a city by abandoning that city to the enemy.

Fourth, holding a civilian trial casts the terrorist as a criminal and not a combatant. In a sense, a combatant is a fighter in a war and treating him as such would seem to grant him a certain status. Treating him as the criminal he is makes a statement about the nature of terrorism and terrorists: they are not enemy combatantsmurder of the innocent. fighting a war. They are mere criminals engaged in the

Fifth, it has been contended that trying a terrorist rather than just executing them entourages terrorists by showing that we are weak. In reply, the same argument could apply to any criminal and thus would justify getting rid of the notion of holding trials at all. This seems rather absurd, so the argument should be rejected. As another reply, it is the terrorists who are weak. After all, if we can hold such trials, this shows that we are so strong that we can offer justice even to our worst enemies. Executing people without trials and without justice is the way of the terrorist, not the way of the just.

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Assimilating Islam

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 12, 2009

Seeing an interview with Christopher Caldwell on the Colbert Report got me thinking about Islam and the West. Caldwell notes that one of Europe‘s biggest problems is dealing with Muslim immigrants. Naturally, this is a problem that the United States faces as well.

While Caldwell’s case can be criticized, he does raise a rather legitimate concern: the West faces a serious challenge in dealing with Muslim immigrants and how this is handled (or botched) will have a significant impact on the shape of things to come.

While the United States has had various issues with immigration over the years, the United States generally does a very good job of assimilating immigrants into the American mainstream. This is, of course, relative to Europe. Not surprisingly, we have done better in the case of Muslim immigrants as well. One reason, as Caldwell notes, is that while some folks claim that America is going socialist, we still have an employment based economy that tends to attract people looking for work and get rid of people who are unable to do so.  This has at least two important effects. First, this leads to mixing between immigrants and Americans. Second, it means that most immigrants will hold jobs, thus giving them a stake and something to do. In contrast, Europe provides much more in the way of the public dole, thus allowing immigrants to remain who do not mix with the general populace on the job. Perhaps more importantly, unemployment provides a fertile breeding ground for dissatisfaction.

There are of course many other factors that are involved in the United States being able to better assimilate Muslims and these factors should be considered key elements in the war on terror. After all, while most Muslims are not terrorists, many modern terrorists are Muslims. Naturally, terrorist groups that claim to be acting on behalf of Islam will try to recruit Muslims in enemy nations to commit acts of terror and provide support. So far, American Muslims have proven quite resistant to these attempts. However, we should not take this for granted and thus should take steps to make sure that this remains the case.

Assimilating Muslims does not mean making them cease to be Muslims. After all, being a Muslim and being an American are no more at odds than is being Catholic and American or Jewish and American. An assimilated Muslim would be a Muslim who believes that s/he is part of America and is generally favorable towards the ideals, laws and values of America. At the very least, s/he does not regard America or the American people as an enemy of Islam and hence has no inclination to aid those who wish to harm Americans. Obviously, for people to become assimilated, they have to believe that Americans will reciprocate. That is, if a Muslim is expected to be favorable towards (or at least tolerant of) American values and ideals then Americans must at least be tolerant of Islam. This is clearly something that we can do-after all, we have had plenty of practice as a nation (despite some rather nasty bouts of intolerance).

Part of winning the “war on terror” involves denying the enemy aid and support. Perhaps the best way to do this is to make potential enemies into friends and allies-winning through assimilation rather than violence. Our capacity to expand our culture in this manner has been a great part of our success. People come to us and join us, making us stronger. Naturally, we should be on guard against enemies in our midst, but we should not let fear deny us the use of one of our best defenses.

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Too Blur or Not to Blur?

Posted in Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 5, 2009
Washington Public Power Supply System Nuclear ...
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When planning an attack, the more information you have, the better. When trying to defend against an attack, the more information you can deny to the enemy, the better. These facts underlie the concern about high quality online images of American nuclear power plants.

The main worry is that terrorists will use these images to plan out attacks against nuclear power plants. Apparently, the people who attacked Mumbai used online mapping software to help plan their attack and this lends credence to the worry. Obviously, such images would be very useful in planning out an attack. Also important is the fact that the images can be acquired without attracting attention. In contrast, making a physical reconnaissance of a target would be risky for terrorists and could well tip off law enforcement that something is up. The proposed solution is to have a policy for blurring such images to make it more difficult for terrorists to get such information. Dick Cheney‘s house, it has been claimed, is blurred out on Google Earth.

Of course, one obvious problem with this plan is that the images are readily available now. Any terrorists thinking about attacks in the future can just save the images and have them on hand should they decide to plan an attack. However, the blurring of new images could still be effective. Doing so would deny people detailed images of these critical locations, provided that they did not have some other means of acquiring them. Of course, terrorists could simply attack the multitude of sites for which they already have clear photos. As such, the time to blur would have been before the images were posted. To blur now is like covering a child’s eyes to prevent him from seeing streakers only after several of them have already run by.

While blurring such images might help, terrorists have obviously launched effective attacks without them. Terrorists can also acquire information in many other ways, though these might be somewhat more difficult. As such, the value of blurring is probably fairly minimal.

No doubt someone will argue that we should blur the images even if it would have little effect. After all, they might say, blurring the images takes such little effort and could make us a tiny bit safer. Surely that is worth it?

On one hand, that seems reasonable. After all, if blurring the images makes it a tiny bit more difficult for hypothetical terrorists to launch hypothetical attacks in the future, then it seems like something that should be done.

On the other hand, there are some concerns about doing this. One is that blurring out the sites would really do nothing to make us safer. After all, a terrorist is not going to say “curses, we were going to attack the Great Satan‘s nuclear plant, but these blurred images make it impossible! Damn you to hell, Photoshop!” As such, there is no reason to take even the small effort needed to blur things. A second reason is that for the blurring to have any chance of being effective, all publicly available images would have to be blurred. Ensuring this would require new laws and their enforcement. This would, as always, not be free or easy and we should ask if the cost of doing this would be worth the alleged gain in safety. Conservative folks would probably also raise concerns about the government stepping in with more regulation. A third reason is that such moves towards secrecy can encourage the spread of more secrecy. If we start by blurring out nuclear plants, then the logical step is to blur out non-nuclear power plants, and so on to everything that the terrorists might consider attacking. Also, since terrorists have made use of online mapping programs, we need to be worried that they might use Mapquest or Google Earth to find their way to key targets. They can, of course, also use paper maps-so we need to be worried about those as well.

While this seems absurd, that is my point. The same logic used to argue for blurring the photos of the buildings can be used to argue against allowing maps that show their locations to be online. The mere fact that something might have some use to a terrorist hardly seems to justify such action.

Someone might be thinking that because of my view, I would argue that everything about such sites should be publicly available. That, for example, detailed interior maps and the security plans of nuclear plants should be put online.

I do not think that at all-because that would be stupid. That is the sort of information that would be very useful to the wrong sort of people. Also, there is a distinction between what the photos show and this other information. The photos just show the exterior of the plants. They show what a person could see who walked /drove by them or was in a commercial flight that went nearby. In other words, the photos show what is publicly available. They do not show what is hidden from the public eye. This is an important distinction. As such, I do not think that blurring is necessary or even reasonable at this point.

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Ralph Peters and Killing Journalists II

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 31, 2009

A recent essay by Ralph Peters’ in the The Journal of International Security Affairs argues in favor of attacking journalists within combat zones. In my previous post, I took a critical look at his view. I now turn to assessing the moral principle he uses to justify his view.

Peters claims “The point of all this is simple: Win. In warfare, nothing else matters. If you cannot win clean, win dirty. But win. Our victories are ultimately in humanity’s interests, while our failures nourish monsters.” Let us break this down.

His first point is that only winning matters and “nothing else matters.” While he might be engaged in hyperbole for dramatic purposes, I’ll take his words at face value. So, his principle is that it is acceptable to do anything that contributes to winning.

This principle would, of course, seem to apply to the enemy as well. So, if blowing up school children, crashing planes into buildings or detonating a dirty bomb in New York city would help Al Qaedi win, then they should do it.

Peters does not, of course, want to accept that view. After all, he thinks that the terrorists are evil and that we are good. But, if we to do anything at all to win, without limits, then how do we differ from terrorists?

His second point is his justification. His view is that when we win, this furthers the interest of humanity. In contrast, when we lose, this will help feed the monsters.

But, one might say, isn’t a monster someone who accepts no moral limits on  his actions? As such, would not following Peters’ principle lead to the creation of monsters? Suppose that we accepted this principle and acted accordingly. This would involve getting rid of all moral and legal restrictions within war. We would, of course, have to change how we train our soldiers-they would need to be trained to recognize no limits of any kind, should the situation so warrant. Soldiers with  consciences would, of course, be a military liability-they would be unable to do whatever it took to win. To act on Peters principle, we would need a military devoid of such people-or at least we would need enough people without moral qualms or limits to do what he thinks must be done. In short, we would need monsters for our wars. It is not clear how accepting and acting on a principle that there are no moral limits to our actions would lead to a better world.

It might be countered that in most wars we would not need to go to the monster stage in order to win. We can win within the limits of the (presumably false and mistaken) limits set by law and morality. As such, we will not have to worry about nourishing our own monsters.

In reply, if we accept the principle that there are no limits and all that matters is winning, then this will increase the chances that we will resort to evil methods even when they are not necessary. To use an analogy, imagine a game with one set of rules that limits the players. Then imagine that the players are told that these rules are not really rules-players can do whatever to win and it is just fine. Sure, it would be nice if they stuck to the rules, but winning is what counts. I suspect that players would be rather quick to abandon the rules.

Another concern is this: folks who believe that they can do whatever they must because their cause is righteous have generally caused far more harm than good. A person might begin with a righteous cause. But, by accepting that they can do anything for their cause leads them away from morality. It would be odd indeed if they could remain righteous in their cause while being wicked in their deeds.

As such, if we wish to be righteous and achieve good ends, then we cannot accept that we can act without limits. That is the thinking of a monster.

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