Friday, June 06, 2003

Sophistry in Action

There's no idiot like an educated idiot. As an exemplar in the field of the well-trained stupid, I give you Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D. Read this:

Suppose... that the Bush administration told a big whopping lie about its motive(s). Does this show that the war was unjustified? Not at all. First, motives are not reasons. A badly motivated person can do the right thing (by accident, as it were), just as a well-motivated person can do the wrong thing. That this is so is reflected in a number of common sayings, such as "It's the thought that counts," "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," and "You did the right thing for the wrong reason." The first two suggest that the act is wrong but well-meaning, the third that the act is right in spite of its poor or improper motivation.

Second, there can be more than one motive for a given action. The classic example of multiple motivation is a merchant giving correct change to a customer. This can be done both to do the right thing (by the merchant's standards) and to get the customer to come back (a case of self-interest). Morality and self-interest do not always diverge! Suppose, then, that President Bush had a disreputable motive (fill in your own; make it the very worst) in going to war. Does this show that he had no reputable (respectable, defensible) motive? No. That would be fallacious.

Third, suppose President Bush in fact had no reputable motive in going to war. Suppose he had only disreputable motives, such as defending his daddy's honor. Does this show that the war is unjustified, morally speaking? Again, the answer is no. Justification is objective; motivation is subjective. The war can be justified as an act of self-defense or liberation of a people (to name just two of many justifications) even if the person waging the war doesn't understand it in those terms - even if he or she doesn't view those as justifications. For consider: Either there is a justification for the war (objectively speaking) or there is not. If there is, then it doesn't matter what motivated President Bush. If there isn't, then it doesn't matter what motivated President Bush. Either way, it doesn't matter what motivated President Bush.

One thing - maybe the most important thing - young philosophers learn is charity. Before criticizing an argument, make it the best it can be. This is the fundamental fairness of the philosophical method. It is what turned many of us away from law, where fallacy, sadly, is rewarded. The philosopher cares deeply about process (the relation between premises and conclusion) and only incidentally, if at all, about the result. Too often in the debate about war in Iraq I have seen not just failure to put the best face on an argument but a seeming insistence on putting the worst face on it. This principle of charity in interpretation is nothing more than an application of the Golden Rule, to wit: If you would not like your own argument reconstructed badly - the easier for the critic to dispose of it - do not do so to the arguments of others. Be fair. Be charitable. Be honest. Do not contribute to the degradation of public discourse.

As far as the justification of war in Iraq is concerned, President Bush's motives are irrelevant. Why, then, has the public debate focused so sharply, to the point of harping, on his motives?

I have, since I read this, been combing through my memory to try to discover a more idiotic and twisted turn of logic and have, thus far, failed miserably. Let's take a look at what he's really saying: As long as there is good to be found in an action, then that action is justified.

So, if I took a gun and shot a person at random, would that action be justified if that person turned out to have been a very bad person? A thief? A murderer? A pedophile? As a lawyer, Dr. Burgess-Jackson should know damn well that it wouldn't be justified.

In the law, a person's state of mind plays a major role in deciding whether or not an action is justified. If I shoot someone in self-defense, for example, I shouldn't be held accountable for that action as a crime. If, however, I say that I thought someone might be coming after me, went to his house, kicked down his door and shot him in his sleep, I'm guilty of murder even if I find that his closet contains a 200-photo shrine of me, chicken bones, a doll made from my dryer lint and a memoir entitled How I Plan to Kill the Nitpicker. If the man wasn't standing over me with a gun, I don't have the right to kill him first. Unless, says the law, I truly believed I was in imminent danger

Look at what Bush did: he violated the UN charter by pre-emptively striking a country. Like the legal (and biblical) order against murder, there are ways to justify breaking the rules -- even big rules -- sometimes. Bush knew this and nodded to justification when, on March 17th, he said "The United States of America has the sovereign authority to use force in assuring its own national security. That duty falls to me, as Commander-in-Chief, by the oath I have sworn, by the oath I will keep."

He went on to say that the UN had given him the right to attack Iraq already, saying that, "In the case of Iraq, the Security Council did act, in the early 1990s. Under Resolutions 678 and 687 -- both still in effect -- the United States and our allies are authorized to use force in ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. This is not a question of authority, it is a question of will."

But, it is a question of authority. Bush only had the right to do these things if he truly believed that a) he was protecting the country or b) there was clear evidence of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction at hand (and issue b is debatable, since he was claiming authority from a group which was, at best, ambivalent about his actions and was violating its founding principles at the same time).

If Bush were taken into a court of law and tried to use mass graves and Saddam's treatment of his people as a defense for his actions, he would be denied that luxury. By the rules which govern international relationships, he isn't authorized to fix those problems singlehandedly. Only if he could prove that he had an honest belief that Iraq had WMDs and the country was in danger could he be excused for violating those rules. Therefore, Bush's motives and his state of mind play a very important role in whether or not his actions in Iraq were justified and, if it's proven that his administration jiggered evidence to make his case, it wouldn't only be an impeachable offense, but would be a criminal act as well.

P.S.: Markos has an even better reason to look into Bush's motives. If Dubya's lying about the WMDs, then allowing soldiers to be put in harm's way while poking around in the sand looking for them is an incredibly cynical act. As a military guy, I say it's one thing if soldiers die in defense of their country. It's another if they die in defense of a lie.


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