The Ethics Of… Super Soldier drugs

Well it finally happened; for the first time in 4 years I missed a scheduled posting deadline without even a re-post. Poor form. By way of compensation, check this out to see what I’ve been up to and marvel at my be-suited ravings. Always good for a laugh.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

I’ve talked about performance enhancing drugs on here before in a sporting context. And while it was interesting to explore the question of ‘why shouldn’t athletes be allowed to do whatever they wish in order to be the best at their sport’, at the end of the day I arrived at the conclusion that it’s kind of idiotic to let someone fuck themselves up to provide entertainment. And more importantly, it’s outright irresponsible to let them do so when being marketed as role models comprises like 90% of their income.

Image result for golf pro

Strip out the marketing and what we have here is a dude who’s really good at an incredibly specific, incredibly useless physical task that achieves literally nothing. Entertaining? Sure. Worth $17.3 million in-and-of itself? Gonna suggest no.

But what if the tasks we were doping ourselves for weren’t useless? What if they were in fact incredibly important, possibly even the single most important task any citizen could ever find themselves responsible for?

What if those drugs were being taken to defend the user, their friends, their fellow citizens, and indeed the very ideals of their nation from impending violent destruction?

Whether war itself can ever be ethically justified or whether specific wars were justified are important questions (which I’ve already addressed quite a few times – see this link for a list), but assuming said war is already underway and our nation faces imminent threat from those who wish to conquer/kill/oppress us, then those question become rather moot. It’s fight or lose at this point and so we’re reduced to a question of tactics – not whether we should fight, but rather how we fight.

Now no doubt that sounds kinda absurd to some; the choice is ‘fight or die’ and we’re going to quibble over acceptable methods? You’d think that if you’re trying to stop someone from killing you then ideas like safety are already well out the window. Which in turn raises the question; why aren’t we doping our combat troops up with literally every kind of stimulant we can cram into them?

Anabolic steroids and human growth hormone for increased strength, blood doping for aerobic performance, amphetamines for endurance and reaction time, nootropics for concentration, painkillers for… pain killing. All these could provide our soldiers with a significant edge in combat, potentially saving not only their own lives in the short-term, but helping them win the war and protect us all in the grand scheme of things.

Sure, any one of these drugs risks serious short- and long-term harm to the body, and a cocktail of them all is likely to mess you up real bad over time. But while such points might be compelling when you’re talking about sporting activities, they tend to lose a bit of impact when someone is actively trying to murder you.

Image result for bayonet charge

“I’m walking this one. All this running is bad for my knees.”

It might be tempting to point out that such drug use is against the laws on most militaries, but so the hell what? Simple deontological rules like this have their place, sure, and in so far as they protect military personal from being compelled to use drugs against their will, they are indeed useful. But if you have a soldier facing combat who wants to take a stimulant to give themself a stimulant to increase their chances of staying alive, then who are we to tell them they cannot? They’re the one taking the risk here, surely they get to make the decision?

And when you consider the fact that many soldiers already find ways of giving themselves that edge despite the rules, surely it would be both safer and more effective for the military to develop the drugs themselves? That way we can avoid dangerous combinations, ensure the prescriptions are appropriate for each soldier’s medical circumstances, ensure monitoring and early treatment where necessary, and overall maximise the benefits and minimise the risks of the drugs in play. Harm minimisation rather than a simple draconian ban.

And if the only thing a soldier ever did was fight and die for their country, then I would be fine with that.

‘What are we trying to achieve?’

It’s a simple and fairly obvious question, which despite being simple and fairly obvious, never ever seems to get asked. Perhaps we think the answers are obvious, despite the fact most of us base our approaches to life on blatantly obvious delusions. Perhaps we think everyone is already in agreement about our goals, despite the results of literally every group project ever run. Or maybe it’s that the consequences of asking that question are too scary to contemplate, considering that incorrect assumptions could mean we’ve been wrong the entire time up until now.

Either way, what we are trying to achieve heavily dictates how we approach the problem, and what can and cannot be justified. And when what we’re discussing is giving soldiers harmful drugs to make them more effective at winning wars, the consequences of a mistake or incorrect assumption are pretty god damn high.

To clarify, if all we were trying to achieve here was to fight wars more effectively, then giving our soldiers access to the best narcotic compounds science could contrive would be a completely ethically valid thing to do – there is a no question that properly-formulated treatments could be massively beneficial to military performance, and while there would definitely be negative side effects both for health and performance, the treatments could be adjusted to ensure that the benefits clearly outweighed the costs. Utilitarian justification achieved, case closed.

But spend any length of time at all studying history and it becomes clear pretty fast that wars are rarely, if ever, about simply killing the enemy. Wars have objectives they aim to achieve, and regardless of how intelligent, rational, or ethically justifiable those objectives are, they exist. If war is seen as an effective means of achieving those objectives, war will be fought. If not, then not.

Image result for war is an extension of diplomacy

Possibly the most pragmatic statement ever made

Regardless of whether the war being fought is aggressive or defensive in nature, there is one objective both sides almost certainly share; improved quality of life. Now maybe the leaders of a nation might only want to improve their own quality of life, rather than for all their citizens, but regardless the point stands – no one ever started a war on the assumption that their quality of life would be worse afterwards. What would be the damn point? And while a country defending itself from war wold quite likely end up worse than where they started, fighting would still be worthwhile in order to prevent the significantly worse quality of life that would result from losing the war.

What does this have to do with giving drugs to soldier? Simple. Soldiers don’t just disappear when a war is completed. At least some of them come home, many bringing serious physical injuries with them and far more with serious psychological damage requiring many years of rehabilitation and support to recover from. While veteran services are increasingly good at meeting those needs today (though still nowhere near good enough), consider the impact on society when a generation of adult men returned from the first world war when these psychological conditions were not well understood – serious and ongoing mental illnesses, family violence, violent behaviour in general, and loss of potential of so many young men that could have aspired so much higher than they could post-war.

No imagine all of that with soldiers also coming down off highly effective, but significantly harmful combat drugs. Drugs specifically designed to make those soldiers faster, stronger, more alert, and all around better at fighting and killing to stay alive. Imagine how much worse the PTSD would be with that in your system. Imagine how much worse the readjustment to a peaceful society would be while dealing not only with this hyper-PTSD, but also drug withdrawals. And then throw in the long-term physical degradation such drugs are known to cause, just for fun. Throw that all into your post-war society and ask yourself – what was it we were trying to achieve?

Even for the most hardened of selfish leaders, concerned only with their own quality of life, the reintroduction of such damaged soldiers back into your society is going to cost you via treatment and additional policing, and cost you badly at that. And since the only alternative to that cost would be executing all affected troops (which is a pretty amazingly efficient way of starting a military coup), suddenly your drug-induced supersoldier program isn’t looking so attractive, is it?

Now naturally there could be exceptions to this argument – maybe there is a drug out there that boosts soldier ability without terrible long-term impacts for example. But the fact that literally every modern military isn’t already using it tends to suggest otherwise. And perhaps if the war we’re talking about is genocidal in nature, and it literally is a choice between drugging soldiers and utter annihilation, then the ethical maths will make sure a choice justified. But considering that such an initiative would require significant planning and organisation to prevent every soldier involved just overdosing on meth and dying from a heart attack 15 minutes into combat such a specific scenario seems unlikely.

And while the argument that it is individual soldiers putting their lives on the line, and that they should have the final say about their own safety in doing so sounds compelling, the fact is that we’ve never really respected that argument and for good reason. Human beings are notoriously terrible at judging their own self-interest. It’s practically the reason ethics exists. Put them into highly emotional, dangerous tactical situations and it’s pretty much guaranteed their decision-making abilities go straight out the window. Modern militaries manage this through strictly regimented training and standardisation – strict deontological rules designed specifically to control how soldiers make decisions so that the military can fight in organised, predictable and plannable ways. Unless you want to re-create a Call of Duty match in real life you do not let soldiers choose what weapon they want to take onto the battlefield. Give them the choice of whether they dose themselves with performance enhancing drugs and we’re entering previously unexplored areas of chaos.


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