A Philosopher's Blog

Augmented Soldier Ethics I: Exoskeletons

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 4, 2015
US-Army exoskeleton

US-Army exoskeleton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One common element of military science fiction is the powered exoskeleton, also known as an exoframe, exosuit or powered armor. The basic exoskeleton is a powered framework that serves to provide the wearer with enhanced strength. In movies such as Edge of Tomorrow and video games such as Call of Duty Advanced Warfare the exoskeletons provide improved mobility and carrying capacity (which can include the ability to carry heavier weapons) but do not provide much in the way of armor. In contrast, the powered armor of science fiction provides the benefits of an exoskeleton while also providing a degree of protection. The powered armor of Starship Troopers, The Forever War, Armor and Iron Man all serve as classic examples of this sort of gear.

Because the exoskeletons of fiction provide soldiers with enhanced strength, mobility and carrying capacity, it is no surprise that militaries are very interested in exoskeletons in the real world. While exoskeletons have yet to be deployed, there are some ethical concerns about the augmentation of soldiers.

On the face of it, the use of exoskeletons in warfare seems to be morally unproblematic. The main reason is that an exoskeleton is analogous to any other vehicle, with the exception that it is worn rather than driven. A normal car provides the driver with enhanced mobility and carrying capacity and this is presumably not immoral. In terms of the military context, the exoskeleton would be comparable to a Humvee or a tank, both of which seem morally unproblematic as well.

It might be objected that the use of exoskeletons would give wealthier nations an unfair advantage in war. The easy and obvious response to this is that, unlike in sports and games, gaining an “unfair” advantage in war is not immoral. After all, there is not a moral expectation that combatants will engage in a fair fight rather than making use of advantages in such things as technology and numbers.

It might be objected that the advantage provided by exoskeletons would encourage countries that had them to engage in aggressions that they would not otherwise engage in. The easy reply to this is that despite the hype of video games and movies, any exoskeleton available in the near future would most likely not provide a truly spectacular advantage to infantry. This advantage would, presumably, be on par with existing advantages such as those the United States enjoys over almost everyone else in the world. As such, the use of exoskeletons would not seem morally problematic in this regard.

One point of possible concern is what might be called the “Iron Man Syndrome” (to totally make something up). The idea is that soldiers equipped with exoskeletons might become overconfident (seeing themselves as being like the superhero Iron Man) and thus put themselves and others at risk. After all, unless there are some amazing advances in armor technology that are unmatched by weapon technology, soldiers in powered armor will still be vulnerable to weapons capable of taking on light vehicle armor (which exist in abundance). However, this could be easily addressed by training. And experience.

A second point of possible concern is what could be called the “ogre complex” (also totally made up). An exoskeleton that dramatically boosts a soldier’s strength might encourage some people to act as bullies and abuse civilians or prisoners. While this might be a legitimate concern, it can easily addressed by proper training and discipline.

There are, of course, the usual peripheral issues associated with new weapons technology that could have moral relevance. For example, it is easy to imagine a nation wastefully spending money on exoskeletons, perhaps due to corruption. However, such matters are not specific to exoskeletons and would not be moral problems for the technology as such.

Given the above, it would seem that augmenting soldiers with exoskeletons poses no new moral concerns and is morally comparable to providing soldiers with Humvees, tanks and planes.

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The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 22, 2011

The rather odd policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has finally come to an end. Since I have been consistently opposed to this policy, I am glad that homosexuals have been given the chance to openly serve their country.

One interesting impact of this change is that there will be empirical confirmation or dis-comfirmation of all the dire consequences and harms predicted by the opponents of this change. If their predictions turn out to be in error, I wonder if they will acknowledge this mistake or if they will simply remain silent and move on to another issue (such as getting the policy put back in place). In my own case, I state now that if the evidence shows I am in error, then I will admit that  was mistaken about this matter. Naturally, if people intentionally try to “cause trouble” in response to this change, this does not repudiate my view. After all, the source of the trouble would not be the change in the policy but people intentionally electing to cause said problems.

Another interesting point is that if it turns out that the policy change does not have a negative impact on the American military, will opponents of same-sex marriage take this as evidence against their claims about the threat of homosexuality? After all, if having gays serve openly does not damage the military, then it would seem to indicate that allowing same sex marriage would not damage marriage (which is, I think, already terribly beaten down). Naturally, there are differences between the two situations and these dissimilarities could be enough to break an analogy drawn between them. However, if the end of Don’t Ask turns out to be a military destroying disaster, then it would seem that such a disaster would serve as evidence for the claim that same-sex marriage should not be allowed.

DADT Repealed

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 23, 2010
United States Joint Chiefs of Staff Badge
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The infamous Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was recently repealed.

As has often been argued, the policy was rather  questionable. After all, it seemed to say that it was okay for homosexuals to serve provided that they did so secretly. This seems to imply that what mattered was not someone’s sexual orientation but what other people happened to know about that orientation.  Of course, the “don’t ask” policy seems to have often been ignored and when confronted, military personal were supposed to tell. As such, it seemed like a rather weird sort of policy that needed to be fixed.

While some folks worked hard trying to repeal it, others worked hard to try to stall and prevent the repeal. Most famously, John McCain fought an impressively dogged defense against it (in many cases, fighting against his previous self): each time one of his conditions (such as endorsement by the Joint Chiefs) was met, he would insist on another (such as a survey). Even when all his conditions were met, he still opposed the change. However, his opposition failed and it was repealed.

As I see it, this is a good thing. The top officers and most personal seem to be fine with the situation. Also, nations that have allowed homosexuals to serve do not seem to have run into any problems specific to this factor. In fact, lifting such restrictions seems to be beneficial. See, for example, the Palm Center report on this matter. Naturally, the report can be challenged. However, doing so would seem to require presenting cases in which allowing homosexuals to serve openly was a significant causal factor in creating problems to military effectiveness. Naturally, these cases would have to be properly compared to comparable cases involving heterosexuals to determine if the cause was specific to homosexuality or due to another factor. However, the most reasonable argument against the repeal (that it would impair military effectiveness) seems to have been soundly defeated. As such, the repeal seems reasonable.

Also,  if someone wishes to serve his/her country and can make such a contribution, then it would seem both wrong and wasteful to deny him/her that chance on the basis of sexual orientation. We do not, it would seem, have the luxury of prejudice, what with Iraq, Afghanistan, the endless war on terror, and with possible future conflicts with Iran and North Korea.

Naturally, if the future shows that repealing DaDT has damaged our military due to some factors that did not affect any other military, then a change should be strongly  considered. After all, the military cannot (as many would argue) afford the luxury of equality at the expense of its core mission.

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The State & Discrimination

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on June 26, 2010
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One rather important subject is the role that the state should play in regards to discrimination. Put roughly, this is a question about the extent of the scope of the state’s power to regulate citizens.

I will be begin with the obvious: the state certainly seems to have an obligation to prevent discrimination in agencies and organizations that are under its direct dominion. This would include the military as well as civilian organizations like NASA and ESA. The basis for this is that a democratic state founded on a principle of equality seems to be obligated to provide equal opportunity to its citizens. To exclude certain citizens on illegitimate grounds would be to rob them of the rights of other citizens in an unjust manner and this would, obviously enough, be wrong.

Moving to a bit less obvious realm, there is the public realm that is not directly part of the state. This would include private schools, private companies, other business entities and so on. On one hand, it could be argued that private entities should be able to exclude whoever they wish. For example, female only gyms should be allowed to legally exclude men (which they, in fact, do). On the other hand, even private entities enjoy the benefits of the state and are under its umbrella, so to speak. As such, if they accept the benefits of the state, then they cannot discriminate against the citizens of the state.

Of course, a private entity could refuse all the goods of the state and this would presumably allow them to discriminate.  In short, they would withdraw from the public realm and into the purely private and personal realm. Of course, they would have to refuse everything-road access, police & fire protection, and so on. In fact, they would actually have to leave the state. But then they would be free to do as they wished.

One area where the state seems to have no right to intrude is in the case of purely personal, private relationships. To use an obvious example, a beautiful woman might refuse to date poor or ugly men. She might even refuse to date black men, white men or Jews.  While this would be discrimination, this is entirely within the realm of her private, personal life. As such, the state has no business being involved. Of course, buying into this principle would also involve accepting that many existing laws that limit private behavior would need to be repealed.

Of course, the border between the personal and the public can be debated. For example, suppose that the woman mentioned above runs her own escort service. While she can freely refuse to date ugly men, black men, white men, or Jews does she have the right to refuse a client simply because he his ugly, black, white or a Jew? On the face of it, she would be acting in the public realm (in a business context). As such, she would no longer be operating within the realm of the purely private and personal.

However, some folks do argue that businesses should be largely left alone by the state. In a true free market economy, one might argue, the business realm would be a private matter (they do not call it “private sector” for nothing). As such, businesses could elect to refuse to do business with or hire certain people. Those who are fond of a totally free market but who are not so keen on discrimination would probably argue that discriminatory businesses would be sorted out by the invisible hand. After all, they would be denying themselves customers and employees. There is also the matter of the impact of such policies on the reputation of the business.

In light of the above discussion, one key matter that must be settled is the border between the public and the private. After all, the state seems to have far less right to intrude into private matters.

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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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Stealing Valor

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on November 13, 2009

While the military is very interested in recruiting, there are some people who seem to prefer to pretend to be soldiers. While it is certainly fine for kids to do this, it is certainly not fine for adults to try to pass themselves off as veterans-especially highly decorated veterans. One recent case alleges that Steve Burton, a banker, went to his high school reunion dressed as a marine officer. He is, however, neither a marine nor an officer. To make matters worse, it is alleged that he wore medals-including the rather rare Navy Cross. It is also alleged that Burton blogged about serving in combat, although he obviously has not done so.

He has been charged with “unauthorized wearing of military medals or decorations.” This is a federal misdemeanor and has a maximum penalty of one year in prison.

While wearing such unearned medals might seem a small matter, the action is morally incorrect. First, to claim such honors when one has not earned them is an act of deception. Second, such an action is an insult to those who have actually earned them. While I have not served in the military, I am sure that real soldiers are not very happy about this sort of behavior. After all, as an athlete I am not pleased with people who buy trophies and pretend that they won them (yes, people do this). So, I can imagine that if such deception bothers me then such deception about more important awards (like the Navy Cross) would bother military personnel.

Naturally, one might wonder why people do this. After all, they can easily join the service and earn the uniform honestly. Getting the medals for real would be much more of a challenge-but it can be done. Of course, that would involve actually facing danger and risk-which is much harder than playing make believe.

One obvious reason is that the military is rather popular these days, so passing as a military hero is a way to score points and perhaps get better treatment in some cases (such as the free meal Applebees offered on Veteran’s Day). Another obvious reason is that people like to think of themselves as heroes and play make believe. Of course, most folks limit this sort of thing to idle fantasies or to games.  This is generally harmless and all part of being human. However, some people clearly decide to take it beyond the idle fantasy or daydream stage and actually pretend to be soldiers. Even if they do not use this to their own advantage (to get special treatment, for example), this is not something that should be done. It is, of course, tempting to think that such people should be punished not by time in prison but by being enlisted into the military and sent into combat. That way they could live the dream.

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Socrates, Islam and Conscientious Objectors

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 10, 2009
Portrait of Socrates, Roman marble, Louvre museum

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In 2009 Major Hasan is alleged to have killed 12 soldiers and one civilian at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas. In 2007 he presented “The Koranic World View As It Relates to Muslims in the U.S. Military” During his presentation he said that “it’s getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims.” Based on this, he recommended that the “Department of Defense should allow Muslims [sic] Soldiers the option of being released as ‘Conscientious objectors’ to increase troop morale and decrease adverse events.” In light of the deaths at Fort Hood, perhaps his recommendation should have been taken quite seriously.

While this event is a recent one, the idea of being a conscientious objector is a rather old one. Also, the question of obedience is an even older one, dating back in terms of philosophical discussion to at least Plato’s Crito.

While Socrates is not discussing military service in the Crito, he does discuss the moral question of whether a citizen should obey the commands of the state or not.  In Socrates’s case, he is in prison and awaiting his execution. His friends, lead by Crito, have arrived with a plan to spring him from jail and go to another city  state. Socrates refuses to flee and, like all good philosophers, decides to spend the final moments of his life in philosophical argumentation.

While he presents three distinct arguments, the two that are relevant to the matter at hand can be presented in the following condensed versions. The argument that does not apply here is his argument that he could have chosen exile during his trial and hence would appear foolish to run away.

One argument can be classified as the benefit argument: Socrates argues that since the state benefited him and he freely accepted these benefits, then he owes the state his obedience. A second argument, the contract argument, is that by remaining in the city of Athens by his own free choice he thereby agreed to obey the laws of that city. Socrates does, however, add two important conditions: the state cannot trick or force people to remain and still expect their obedience. But, once an adult person agrees to obey by remaining and accepting the benefits of the state, then she owes her obedience to that state. If she disagrees, then she is obligated to persuade the state that it is in error, but if she fails to do so, she must remain obedient.

Now, let us turn to the matter of Muslim soldiers and Hasan’s case. As noted above, he contends that it is difficult for Muslims in the United States military (and this would presumably also apply to Muslims in any Western military) to morally justify serving when the United States military is engaged in operations against Muslims. He also presents a view that can be easily made into a utilitarian argument: Muslims should be allowed to leave the service so as to avoid harms such as damaged morale and other adverse events (perhaps including such things as violent actions by Muslim soldiers against their fellow soldiers).

While I cannot speak for Socrates with certainty, given his views in the Crito, I suspect that he would present a much better version of the sort of argument I will now hazard.

When Muslim soldiers enter the United States military, they know that they might be required to fight against fellow Muslims. Of course, anyone who enlists knows that they might very well be required to fight against other people who belong to groups they identify with (such as Christians, or men, or women, or Russians, or any number of groups). As such, there seems to be no trickery in play. Also, entering the military is completely voluntary: no one, Muslim or non-Muslim, has to enlist and serve. As such, there is no force.

When people enter the military, the United States spends a considerable amount of resources in training them. Also, the soldiers are given various incentives (such as signing bonuses) and opportunities (such as education). Naturally, the soldiers are also paid and receive other benefits as well.

Since Muslim soldiers have not been deceived or forced into serving and they have accepted the benefits provided by the service, they are then obligated to fulfill their obligations. If they did not wish to risk facing fellow Muslims in battle, then they should have chosen another career path.

It might be objected that this would discriminate against Muslims by not allowing them to enter the service. However, this is not the case. This would no more be discrimination against Muslims than expecting pacifists to either be willing to fight or not join the military in the first place. After all, the military’s function is to fight and service members might be, in theory, called upon to fight people of almost any faith.

Of course, this still leaves open the possibility that a soldier can correctly object to immoral orders or situations and do so within the rules of the military. This right is, of course, held by all soldiers.

Naturally, it could be argued that it is immoral for a Muslim to fight a fellow Muslim (although a shared faith, be it Islam or Christianity rarely if ever seems to be a deterrence against violence in war). However, the same sort of argument could be made by anyone who objects to fighting folks whom they identify with. Of course, I do find this appealing: when we are killing each other over land, power, or whatever, it does seem like we are acting in an immoral manner.

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Fort Hood Killings

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 6, 2009

As almost everyone now knows, Major Hasan killed twelve other soldiers and one civilian at Fort Hood, Texas. While he was shot by a police officer, he is currently in stable condition. Naturally, people are trying to figure out why this happened.

Not surprisingly, one possible explanation is that the attack was an act of terror. This, however, seems somewhat unlikely.

First, workplace violence, though not common, does occur. These cases are generally not acts of terror (in the technical sense) and hence this might also be true of this incident.

Second, it would be rather odd for a terrorist organization to “waste” such an inside agent on such an act. After all, if a terrorist group had a Major as an agent, it would be rather odd for them to tell him to shoot a few soldiers. Such an agent would be a vastly more valuable intelligence asset. Of course, it is not impossible that an agent would be used in this manner. Also, an agent might decide to act on his own.

Third, there seem to be adequate evidence that Hasan acted on his own and was motivated by personal reasons, rather than acting on behalf of a terrorist organization.  After all, other soldiers have done similar things without being terrorists. Also, Fort Hood apparently has the highest number of suicides and it has been speculated that Hasan was attempting to commit suicide by cop. Of course, not all the evidence is yet available and things might change as new evidence is found.

However, there are some reasons to suspect that it might be a terror attack. First, Hasan is a Muslim. While officials are taking pains to say that this is not a reason that they are considering this possibility, obviously it is a factor that is being taken into account. Second, the incident took place on a military base.

While the event was horrible because people were murdered, the incident will also create additional damage. First, since Hasan is a Muslim, this incident will no doubt add to concerns about Muslims-especially those in the military. Second, this clearly adds to worries about the problems within the military in regards to soldier on soldier violence and the suicides that have been occurring in increasing numbers. Third, since Hasan was not just a soldier, but a psychiatrist and officer, this raises worries about the problems that the military is facing in regards to psychological issues.

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Obama & The Problem of Evil

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 2, 2009

While Obama has obviously been under attack from the right, he has also been the target of folks on the left. While the folks on the right attack him because they (claim to) see him as a socialist, a progressive, and a liberal the folks on the left have been critical because they (claim to) see him as being a capitalist, not sufficiently progressive, and a moderate. Naturally, it is tempting to think that he must be doing well-after all, he is annoying both extremes and is hence probably hitting things almost just right.

While the attacks from the right are to be expected, the attacks from the left might surprise some folks. After all, Obama was regarded as some sort of liberal messiah, a progressive Moses who would lead the liberal tribes out of the desert of the Bush years. When he turned out, like most presidents, to be a moderate, the left was sadly disappointed. Their liberal messiah has turned out to be a moderate Moses who would seem to be leading them to the land of the middle, rather than the promised land of the left (moonbat heaven).

Some folks in the media have been paying special attention to Obama’s alleged failures when it comes to the two Gs (Gays and Guns). Obama has failed to get rid of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and has actually come out against legalizing same-sex marriage. He has also not, contrary to the fears of some folk, done anything against gun rights. While things might change, it seems unlikely that Obama will want to risk losing the support of the moderate mainstream by siding too strongly with the gays or too strongly against guns.

Bush was also subject to a similar sort of criticism from the right. While some folks on the right believed that Bush would outlaw abortion and push through an amendment against same sex-marriage, he did neither. Not surprisingly, some folks felt that Bush had betrayed them. While Bush seemed to have no problem with alienating people, perhaps even he balked at the political cost.

Interestingly enough, the disappoint of some folks on the left towards Obama (and the right towards Bush)  can be countered by one of Leibniz’s responses to the classic problem of evil. The problem of evil is, roughly put, the problem of reconciling God’s existence with the evil present in the world.

Leibniz writes: “We find in the universe some things which are not pleasing to us; but let us be aware that it is not made for us alone. It is nevertheless made for us if we are wise: it will serve us if we use it for our service; we shall be happy in it if we wish to be. ”  (Theodicy, #193-5)

The same can be said about the president: we find that the president does some things that are not pleasing to us; but let us be aware that he is not our president alone. That is to say, he is not just the president of the left wingers but of all Americans and hence cannot simply please the left.

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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