A Philosopher's Blog

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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7 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on May 31, 2009 at 9:49 pm


    Let’s say that person A, call her Glenn, decides to kill person B, call him Michael, and there is nothing Michael can say or do to persuade Glenn to stop.

    Are you saying there are limits to what Michael is allowed to do to save his life and prevent Glenn from killing him?

    Are there situations in which it is morally impermissible to defend oneself?

    • magus71 said, on June 1, 2009 at 1:02 am


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 1, 2009 at 3:23 pm

      In normal reality (that is, outside of philosophical examples), Michael has a vast range of morally okay options. For example, going to the police. As another example, if Glenn came after Michael, Michael could kill him in justifiable self defense. As such, we generally don’t have to worry about pushing the limits.

      I’d say that there are obvious moral limits on what Michael should do: Michael should not blow up Glenn’s apartment building just to stop Glenn. Michael should not beat Glenn to death using a sack full of babies and kittens. Michael should not kill Glenn by slicing Glenn to ribbons over the course of twelve hours using an razor. All these would prevent Glenn from killing Michael, but he should not do them. Why? Well, we could go with a utilitarian argument about the harms prevented (Michael’s death) and the harms generated (lots of dead innocents, for example).

      Now, you might say: “but, Michael would not need to do those sort of things to save his life!” So, perhaps the question should be taken as this: Assuming that X was the only way that Michael could prevent Glenn from killing him, is there any X that Michael should not do?

      Again, in the normal world, X would typically be something that is acceptable: calling the police, fighting in self defense and so on.

      But, fanciful scenarios could be spun that would require Michael to do things that might seem morally questionable. For example, we could imagine that Glenn was a supernatural being who could only be killed by being beaten with a sack full of babies and kittens. Or to be a bit less weird, we could imagine that Glenn has been hiring assassins to kill Michael and is hiding. Glenn’s innocent mother knows where Glenn is hiding, but will only reveal his location to Michael if he tortures her almost to death. After all, she does not want Michael to kill her son.

      In such cases, and less weird ones, I look at it like this. If we assume that Michael is justified in defending himself against Glenn because it would be wrong for Glenn to kill Michael, then the same sort of approach would have to apply to assessing Michael’s defense against Glenn. For example, if Michael is justified in defending himself against Glenn because killing the innocent is wrong, then the same would apply in cases in which Michael’s proposed defense would kill the innocent.

      Now, if Michael claims special moral status for himself that justifies doing anything to save his own life, then he would need to prove that status by showing how he is relevantly different from everyone else. There are many other options as well-for example, an ethical egoist would say that both men should do whatever it takes to achieve their interests. So, Michael could do anything against Glenn and Glenn against Michael (provided it was in their self-interest).

      • magus71 said, on June 1, 2009 at 3:41 pm

        Mike, you are making a complete and titanic strawman from Peter’s argument. He is not saying that killing innocents is something we shouldn’t avoid. He’s saying that the world will suffer even greater evil if America loses. You being liberal though, must give equal value to all cultures. Not me. Some of them earn their way to oblivion. Like the Aztecs for example. Great pyramids. Love em. Really cool art, too. Stupendously bad human sacrifice….

        You’re making vast exaggerations with your arguments. You’re trying to make war pretty, and you’re willing that Americans die so that fewer of the enemy die. I’m not, because as politically incorrect as it is, America is about the only thing that keeps this world from tearing itself apart. And that’s because everyone loves our money and hates our guns.

        It’s unlikely you’d file through a myriad of metaphysical possibilities when someone was trying to kill you with a pick axe. You’d grab a gun, or a baseball bat, or a chainsaw, and defend yourself. When the guy is charging you, wanting to send a rusty spike through your skull, you’re going to fire your weapon. And you may even kill an innocent in doing so. Doesn’t mean you wanted to… The law protects those who are reasonably using force to protect their own lives.

        All of this is words. We already know how people will act. WE KNOW IT. It’s been demonstrated to us for thousands of years.

  2. magus71 said, on June 1, 2009 at 1:04 am

    Peters has clearly stated in many of his articles that we should minimize civilian casualties, but that fighting “on the cheap” as he likes to put it means you’ll be fighting longer and more deaths will result.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 1, 2009 at 3:40 pm

      But, given his stated principle, such limits are to be followed only when they do not impede victory.

  3. kernunos said, on June 8, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    Here is how clear us conservatives see things with biased media. This is fairly common though usually not so blatant.


    I’ll have more proof as it comes in. Oh, and Time has had Obama on its cover 17 times. Were any of them negative?

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