A Philosopher's Blog

Augmented Soldier Ethics II: Informed Consent

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 6, 2015

One general moral subject that is relevant to the augmentation of soldiers by such things as pharmaceuticals, biologicals or cybernetics is the matter of informed consent. While fiction abounds with tales of involuntary augmentation, real soldiers and citizens of the United States have been coerced or deceived into participating in experiments. As such, there do seem to be legitimate grounds for being concerned that soldiers and citizens could be involuntarily augmented as part of experiments or actual “weapon deployment.”

Assuming the context of a Western democratic state, it seems reasonable to hold that augmenting a soldier without her informed consent would be immoral. After all, the individual has rights against the democratic state and these include the right not to be unjustly coerced or deceived. Socrates, in the Crito, also advanced reasonable arguments that the obedience of a citizen required that the state not coerce or deceive the citizen into the social contract and this would certainly apply to soldiers in a democratic state.

It is certainly tempting to rush to the position that informed consent would make the augmentation of soldiers morally acceptable. After all, the soldier would know what she was getting into and would volunteer to undergo the process in question. In popular fiction, one example of this would be Steve Rogers volunteering for the super soldier conversion. Given his consent, such an augmentation would seem morally acceptable.

There are, of course, some cases where informed consent makes a critical difference in ethics. One obvious example is the moral difference between sex and rape—the difference is a matter of informed and competent consent. If Sam agrees to have sex with Sally, then Sally is not raping Sam. But if Sally drugs Sam and has her way, then that would be rape.  Another obvious example is the difference between theft and receiving a gift—this is also a matter of informed consent. If Sam gives Sally a diamond ring that is not theft. If Sally takes the ring by force or coercion, then that is theft—and presumably wrong.

Even when informed consent is rather important, there are still cases in which the consent does not make the action morally acceptable. For example, Sam and Sally might engage in consensual sex, but if they are siblings or one is the parent of the other, the activity could still be immoral. As another example, Sam might consent to give Sally an heirloom ring that has been in the family for untold generations, but it might still be the wrong thing to do—especially when Sally hocks the ring to buy heroin.

There are also cases in which informed consent is not relevant because of the morality of the action itself. For example, Sam might consent to join in Sally’s plot to murder Ashley (rather than being coerced or tricked) but this would not be relevant to the ethics of the murder. At best it could be said that Sally did not add to her misdeed by coercing or tricking her accomplices, but this would not make the murder itself less bad.

Turning back to the main subject of augmentation, even if the soldiers gave their informed consent, the above consideration show that there would still be the question of whether or not the augmentation itself is moral or not. For example, there are reasonable moral arguments against genetically modifying human beings. If these arguments hold up, then even if a soldier consented to genetic modification, the modification itself would be immoral.  I will be addressing the ethics of pharmaceutical, biological and cybernetic augmentation in later essays.

While informed consent does seem to be a moral necessity, this position can be countered. One stock way to do this is to make use of a utilitarian argument: if the benefits gained from augmenting soldiers without their informed consent outweighed the harms, then the augmentation would be morally acceptable. For example, imagine that a war against a wicked enemy is going rather badly and that an augmentation method has been developed that could turn the war around. The augmentation is dangerous and has awful long term side-effects that would deter most soldiers from volunteering. However, losing to the wicked enemy would be worse—so it could thus be argued that the soldiers should be deceived so that the war could be won. As another example, a wicked enemy is not needed—it could simply be argued that the use of augmented soldiers would end the war faster, thus saving lives, albeit at the cost of those terrible side-effects.

Another stock approach is to appeal to the arguments used by democracies to justify conscription in time of war. If the state (or, rather, those who expect people to do what they say) can coerce citizens into killing and dying in war, then the state can surely coerce and citizens to undergo augmentation. It is easy to imagine a legislature passing something called “the conscription and augmentation act” that legalizes coercing citizens into being augmented to serve in the military. Of course, there are those who are suspicious of democratic states so blatantly violating the rights of life and liberty. However, not all states are democratic.

While democratic states would seem to face some moral limits when it comes to involuntary augmentation, non-democratic states appear to have more options. For example, under fascism the individual exists to serve the state (that is, the bastards that think everyone else should do what they say). If this political system is morally correct, then the state would have every right to coerce or deceive the citizens for the good of the state. In fiction, these states tend to be the ones to crank out involuntary augmented soldiers (that still manage to lose to the good guys).

Naturally, even if the state has the right to coerce or deceive soldiers into becoming augmented, it does not automatically follow that the augmentation itself is morally acceptable—this would depend on the specific augmentations. These matters will be addressed in upcoming essays.



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  1. nailheadtom said, on February 8, 2015 at 10:45 pm

    When it comes to the nation/state, there is no morality when its survival is perceived to be the issue. Even when its survival is assured, there’s no morality. Dropping atomic weapons on Japanese teen-age girls on their way to school was actually cheered by American citizens, as was incinerating the residents of Dresden, Germany, even though most of the affected were non-combatants. For centuries soldiers were generally drunk in battle and in later years high on drugs. Crews on long-distance bombing runs routinely use drugs in order to stay awake. In the course of training soldiers are psychologically manipulated to perform things that most of them would never have dreamed of doing before their service.

    • wtp said, on February 9, 2015 at 12:41 am

      As if there was never a rape of Nanking, no Unit 731, no bombing of Pearl Harbor, no invasion of France, Czechoslovakia, no Anschluss, no concentration camps, no murdering of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Slavs. You comment as if you are some sort of God, above it all in absolute judgement of the acts of men. Only absolute purity is acceptable. Any single wrong committed by those trying to stop tyranny, murder, and mayhem balances out those committing tyrannies, murder, and mayhem. It’s an easy game extremists play. They can’t be held responsible for a damn thing because their great ideas were never implemented “properly”. It’s a scam, a responsibility dodge, and in the end much more despicable and tyranny-enabling than anything you pretend to put yourself above.

      • nailheadtom said, on February 10, 2015 at 9:22 pm

        If an immoral act justifies an immoral response then the very concept of morality goes out the window. Further, if the heinous acts of, for instance, the perpetually referenced Nazis justified the immolation of innocent Germans living under them, then why shouldn’t a citizen respond in kind to something like police brutality in his own country? Naturally you statists view that as a different issue, since the sanctity of the state trumps that of the individual in your well-washed brain.

        • T. J. Babson said, on February 10, 2015 at 11:34 pm

          Nail Head, please tell us how the Nazis could have been stopped without innocents dying?

          • WTP said, on February 11, 2015 at 10:09 am

            NHT is one extra level of abstraction beyond the pop-philosophers like Mike. At least Mike and his fellow fellows somewhat allude to the sort of things they kind of believe should be without actually backing such with real-world effort, or in Mike’s case even lip service. NHT pops in and criticizes what is without ever taking a position on what should be.

        • WTP said, on February 11, 2015 at 10:05 am

          Yes. Keep your hands clean by not doing anything. You are always complaining about how things are but fail to present a viable alternative to how things should be. “You statists…”, as opposed to what? Anarchy? Theocracy? What is it you believe in? You say “If an immoral act justifies an immoral response then the very concept of morality goes out the window”. Not according to what most people understand of morality. Where do you get your understanding of what is moral and what is immoral? If someone steals from you, is it immoral to hunt that person down and use the necessary force to take back what is yours? If someone threatens your life, do you not have a right to protect yourself? If a nation wages war against other nations with no regard whatsoever for civilian life, why should it expect such in return? It is easy to keep one’s hands clean and preen your moral feathers so long as you set yourself apart, God-like, from the rest of society. But when the SOB’s of the world turn their attention to you, you will either howl for protection from the “statists” or submit and likely die.

          • T. J. Babson said, on February 11, 2015 at 10:10 am

            Pacifism means letting the non-pacifists have control…


            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 11, 2015 at 2:14 pm

              You can only survive as a pacifist if friendly non-pacifists protect you from the unfriendly non-pacifists.

            • nailheadtom said, on February 11, 2015 at 11:02 pm

              So it’s either pacifism or nuclear weapons just as it’s the nation/state or anarchy? That’s the choices.

            • TJB said, on February 12, 2015 at 12:13 am

              Personally, If I had to get killed. I would prefer to be killed by a nuke than almost any other way. Nail Head, would you prefer a slow, agonizing death or a painless nuclear death.

          • nailheadtom said, on February 11, 2015 at 11:00 pm

            ” If someone steals from you, is it immoral to hunt that person down and use the necessary force to take back what is yours?”

            Well, if you’re a native American would it be immoral to attempt to take back by force the land that once belonged to your forebears? Would the descendents of Geronimo be applauded for driving the white residents of Arizona back to Europe? Or is there a “use by date” on retribution? The reality is that force and coercion determines morality just as it does ownership of property.

    • T. J. Babson said, on February 9, 2015 at 8:05 am

      The Chinese still haven’t forgiven the Japanese for their behavior during the war.

      • WTP said, on February 9, 2015 at 10:50 am

        Nor the Koreans, nor the Vietnamese, nor the Filipinos, nor the people of Hong Kong, etc. etc. etc.

        • nailheadtom said, on February 12, 2015 at 7:37 am

          There might be a little lingering animosity among the native Americans whose ancestors were lucky enough to escape genocide through disease or murder at the hands of the European invaders. Hasn’t been much done about it though.

          • WTP said, on February 12, 2015 at 10:43 am

            You keep falling back to this Indians thing. It’s an interesting philosophical discussion as to what it means to “own” something. And if you understood anything about real estate and real estate law, you might discover the underlying fact on which functional real estate law is based which is that unless you have an army, you don’t own land. Land is different from pretty much every other possession a person or entity can own. It’s a fascinating subject and I’d be interested to discuss it. But while I respond to the points of your questions, you consistently avoid responding to mine. The most fundamental of which is, what is it you believe in? Theocracy, Anarchy, Communism? What? If you don’t like the current order of things, which you broadly describe as “stateist”, what would you replace it with?

            And not to avoid your pertinent point here, I ask would the indigenous tribes of the Americas not have been within their moral rights, and did they not try as they could, to displace the Europeans from the lands they occupied? That is assuming we can come upon what the borders of said tribes’ lands were. But before we engage is a discussion on that, I feel you have a philosophical obligation to state what you believe in. Rock throwing is easy. Defending something that exists or how something should be requires a lot more rigorous thought, consideration, and discipline.

            • nailheadtom said, on February 13, 2015 at 6:54 am

              “Theocracy, Anarchy, Communism? What?” The human penchant for naming and labels, for pigeon-holing thoughts. Is there a requirement that an individual’s thinking follow a particular ideological blueprint that allows others to assume the sum of his philosophy from a small sample?

              Why should, in this particular case, pointing out discrepancies in moral posture, there be advanced alternatives or solutions? In fact, there seem to be issues described as problems for which there are no solutions. Should a doctor be forbidden to discuss a disease unless he has a cure for it?

            • WTP said, on February 13, 2015 at 10:23 am

              The human penchant for naming and labels, for pigeon-holing thoughts. Is there a requirement that an individual’s thinking follow a particular ideological blueprint that allows others to assume the sum of his philosophy from a small sample?

              I agree. However you yourself were applying the “statist” label. We can argue the semantics and context of that to no useful purpose so moving on…

              . Should a doctor be forbidden to discuss a disease unless he has a cure for it?
              Bad analogy. More fitting question is should a doctor criticize the practices of another doctor if he has no alternatives to offer? Getting on one’s high moral horse is easy in a vacuum of reality where there are no other moral imperatives to conflict. Labeling the guiding principles as to what one’s morals are and which morals trump which in a given situation may be pigeon-holing to some extent, however using labels to describe a general idea saves everyone a lot of time. Yes it’s messy. Such is life.

              I’m not an absolutist and I wouldn’t hold someone to ALL the supposed principle points of a given philosophical approach. Absolute consistency is tyranny. However some consistency is necessary to a philosophy, otherwise it’s just an emoting of the moment.

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