A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 1, 2009
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When people are critical of using certain methods against terror suspects, one reply is that to accept limits on our actions will make us unsafe. This is because accepting limits will impede our chances of winning and if we do not win, then the terrorists will harm us.

The usual justification for this is that we do not want to be harmed and we want to win. Of course, the terrorists can say the same thing-they also want to avoid harm and achieve victory. They can, of course, help themselves to the same argument used above. After all, if doing whatever it takes to win is morally acceptable, then the terrorists are acting in ways that are morally acceptable. They are just doing what they think it will take to win.

To argue that our side should win, we need something that distinguishes us from the terrorists. We could just be pragmatic and say that we should win because it is us and we are not them. They can, of course, say the same. In this case, both sides are morally equally and whoever wins, wins. If we take this approach, we have to lay aside all moral language when trying to justify what we do or why we should win. After all, such moral talk would be meaningless.

However, few people want to take this approach. Rather, it is common for the defenders of the “do whatever it takes to win” approach to argue that we are justified in acting without moral limits on the basis of (ironically enough) moral grounds.  For example, Ralph Peters argues that we should do whatever it takes to win because an American victory would be better for the world. It is also common to present the view that we are morally superior to the terrorists we fight and being better than them justifies the claim that we should win rather than them.

This approach creates what seems to be a bit of a problem: how do we reconcile rejecting moral limits on our actions with the claim that we are morally correct?

The stock approach is the ends justify the means. The usual line is that since our goals are noble and good, we are morally justified in accepting any means to achieve those goals. This view is, of course, a utilitarian approach. The main worry here is that the actions we take to achieve our goals might morally outweigh our goals. In other words, the moral evil generated by our means might exceed the good of achieving are goals.

This can be illustrated using a simple economic analogy. If achieving a goal generates $500, then it is profitable if we spend $499.99 or less in achieving the goal. If our goal is profit, then any means that bring us to our goal for $499.99 or less would be acceptable. Obviously, the less the means cost, the better.

In the case of a moral goal, the same logic applies. If reaching our goal (beating Al Qaeda, for example) would generate 500 Good Points (just to make up an imaginary measure), any means that reached that goal for 499.99  or less Evil points would be acceptable. Naturally, reaching it with less Evil Points would be better because we’d end up with more Good.

So, if we argue that our side should win because we are in the right or because  our victory would be a moral good, then we would need to avoid generating too much evil. Otherwise, we would be taking actions that would undercut our justification and prevent us from achieving our stated goal.

A variant on this is the view that if we are good, then we can do whatever it takes to win. A variant on the above argument counters this: if we do enough evil, then we are no longer good. This is because being good means that you do good rather than evil.

So, we have to accept some limits. If we do not, then it would be a matter of luck that we would win and still be good or achieve a greater good. By luck, I mean that we would win before we had done enough evil to make us evil or outweigh the good of achieving our goals.

Naturally, some might reply that we must do what it takes to stay save, because survival is what matters.

That is, of course, a practical approach.  One moral reply is that given by Socrates in the Apology. Another moral reply is that, as noted above, if we take survival to justify our actions, then the terrorists can take the same option. As they see it, they need to kill us to survive. In this case, we’d need to lay aside the moral talk and be honest about it. We have no justification beyond wanting to live-just the same as them. We just happen to be us. Of course, if we take this approach to ethics, it would apply across the board. In short, we’d be embracing egoism. Or, if we wanted to toss ethics altogether, we could be moral nihilists.

My view is this: Americans, as a whole, are better than Al Qaeda and their fellows. This is because our general goals are morally superior and we generally accept moral limits that they reject They, for example, intentionally murder children and non-combatants. We, in contrast, put ourselves at risk to avoid hurting civilians. We think women are people and deserve full rights. They do not. When we do wrong, we take ourselves to task for it. They behead journalists. See the difference between good and evil?

Moral battles are not won by being evil.  They are won by being good and defeating evil.

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10 Responses

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  1. kernunos said, on June 1, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Then Good was too moral at their own defense and Evil triumphed and wiped Good off the face of the Earth. Then Evil became Good because they wrote the history.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 2, 2009 at 8:41 pm

      Good is not a matter of labels. Evil can call itself “good” all it wants, but it fails to be good. Yes, I’m assuming an objective standard of ethics. Yes, I need to argue for that. Upcoming blog topic. 🙂

      Being good does not mean being stupid or weak. That is a common misconception. Being evil does not mean being strong. Actually, evil is a serious weakness-a rot that ultimately destroys. Perhaps that is why it is said that good will always defeat evil in the end. Of course, that could just be clever propaganda.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on June 1, 2009 at 9:18 pm


    Thank you for the thought-provoking posts. I enjoy them very much.

    In this post you don’t seem to distinguish between the aggressor and the victim. Do you draw a distinction?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 2, 2009 at 8:47 pm

      Thanks. I do my best to provoke. 🙂

      I do draw a distinction. Actually, many. Let’s look at war. In general, a war of aggression would be immoral-perhaps by definition. Of course, a victim of aggression might not really be a victim. For example, one nation’s actions might provoke a justified attack by another nation. For example, if one country was doing horrific things to its citizens, then an intervention could be morally justified.

  3. magus71 said, on June 2, 2009 at 12:47 am

    If al-Qaeda “wins” (it’s whole other argument as to if that could really happen) do you think you could be writing this blog?

    On most of my responses I’m rushed, as I have to be to work, but I just have to say that if you really thought the US was going to be ruled by some Neo-Caliphate, and that there were armed men roaming the streets enforcing Sharia law (which would mean cutting the fingers off people who smoke cigarettes,) you be willing to fight pretty hard. Was it right for the North to kill half-a-million folks just so blacks didn’t have to work for no pay? I mean, that’s a lot of people and no matter how we killed them and why, it’s not very nice… Half-a fricken-million of our own countrymen. And we want to talk about water-boarding…

    Or you could just lay down and die, and watch the world fall into darkness. You could make yourself feel better by telling yourself that you didn’t harm a soul, you gave up. Because in some metaphysical way, you’re “good” as proven by inaction.

    1) America is good. Not perfect. Bad things are done in war, and we’re one of only a handful of countries that that even tries very hard to do the right thing. And we try very, very hard. You’re talking invading major cities swarming with insurgents, such as Baqubah, and winning while killing only 7 or 8 civilians. and did we kill them? I don’t know.

    2) It’s too easy to say: “Be good and defeat evil.” I’ve been in fights with people. They were drunk, on drugs or wanted to tear the scalp off their girlfriend or all of the above. i didn’t feel all that moral while I’m wrestling with a guy, trying to get handcuffs on him yelling “Put your fucking hands behind your back, asshole!” But it happens. Punched a guy once who spit in my eye after telling me he had AIDS. Turns out he “only” had Hep. C, but he’d been arrested over 70 times and had many drug and alcohol problems so he may have had AIDS for all I knew. He went to the hospital. Was I being “good?” I can assure you the punch was a reflex to get the guy away from me–he was about four inches from my head when he did it. Was there anger behind the punch? Sure. But I didn’t run across a room to do it. Am I sorry? No. i feel he got what he damned well deserved, despite the fact that it was not “by the book.” Would I do it again, though? No, probably not. I’d make sure that I had more control over a prisoner., so that I didn’t have to. And if it happened again, I’d probably be more mentally prepared.

    3) I don’t think anyone is saying do ANYTHING regardless of the enemies capabilities. Afterall, I didn’t unholster my Beretta .40 cal and shoot the guy I spoke of above.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 2, 2009 at 9:22 pm

      I think we are arguing past one another. Your principle seems to be this: do what it takes to win, provided that it matches the enemy’s capabilities and the consequences of not winning. You also seem to make a moral contrast between the United States and the terrorists.

      I agree that when assessing how to act, the enemy’s capabilities are important. Using needlessly excessive force would be wrong. Using too little force would be foolish. I also agree that what is acceptable matches the consequences of failure. So, if we are fighting a great evil and a loss will result in horrible things, then we should do what is required to defeat that evil. The limit is, of course, that if we are fighting to avoid great evil, we would lose if we create an equal or greater evil in trying to beat it.

      You seem to be taking me as interpreting being good as somewhat stupidly accepting debilitating limits on one’s actions. That is not how I see being good. I don’t take the “we must always have tea, cookies and flowers with out enemies” approach. I accept that the right thing to do can include killing people. It can include reducing a city or even a country to nothing but burning ruins. It is, as Sun Tzu would say, best to avoid such things. But, if these things cannot be avoided and they are the only way to prevent greater evil, then they can be justified.

      However, I do believe that there is a point that we should not go beyond. I’ll need to blog on that at some point.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on June 2, 2009 at 6:42 am

    Magus makes an interesting point. If one wants to remain perfectly “good” then pacifism is the only option. As soon as you start fighting a war–any war–you have entered a gray area.

    I think in the real world it is never good against evil, but rather wrong vs. greater wrong.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 2, 2009 at 9:00 pm

      Only if you assume that being good requires being a pacifist. That is, I think, a common misconception. The majority of the great moral theorists argue extensively that goodness is compatible with being able to fight. In fact, many argue that moral goodness requires standing up against evil. John Locke argues at length for this and actually argues that we are morally obligated to defend the innocent, kill murders and so on. Plato and Aristotle also argue for non-pacifistic virtues. Ditto for Confucius. See also Sun Tzu.

      The real world is most often not stark good and evil, but there are plenty of incidents that are clear. For example, beheading journalists is evil. Crashing planes into the Twin Towers was evil. Suicide attacks on children are evil.

  5. kernunos said, on June 2, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Don’t worry Doug, in the future the Left will be able to see your future. Then they can just have you aborted so you will not be able to punch the man in the face. In fact most will have to aborted and a few philosophers will be the only ones left. They will of course starve to death worried that eating a bag of Cheetos will have some morally disastrous ramification somehow.

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