TCS Daily

Bush's Critics Meet the Logic Police

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - June 5, 2003 12:00 AM

In academic circles, there has been talk recently and much hand-wringing about what (if anything) philosophers can contribute to public discourse, particularly as it relates to the debate over the war in Iraq. Some people (including, unsurprisingly, many philosophers) believe that philosophers, as such, have normative or evaluative expertise. This puzzles me. Where did we get such expertise? Was there a course in graduate school in which we were to absorb "correct" values? If so, I and quite a few others missed it. Perhaps I should demand a refund of my tuition.

Nor have philosophers been authorized by others to speak in their behalf, in the way that religious leaders have. Authority is conferred, not assumed. That I, a philosopher, value this or that gives nobody else a reason to value it. Oh sure, I may argue for an evaluative claim, but any such argument must have at least one evaluative premise, and then the question arises at a different point. That I, a philosopher, assert such-and-such goes no way toward showing that it is true (unless, of course, it's a necessary truth, for that's a matter of understanding the relevant concepts). The vaunted "wisdom" of philosophy consists in knowing what one doesn't know, not in having privileged access to the true, the beautiful, or the good.

The expertise of philosophers, hence their authority, is technical, not normative. We are trained to analyze concepts, expose fallacies (understood as errors in reasoning), and clarify arguments and methods. One important element of clarification is identification (articulation, exposition) of assumptions. Another is attention to meaning. The philosopher is adept at distinguishing conceptual, evaluative, and factual claims. In public discourse, these are often entangled, resulting in confusion and fallacy. No other discipline, not even law, self-consciously inculcates analytical, critical, argumentative, and methodological skills in its graduates. Without these skills, intelligent discourse would deteriorate and ultimately cease. Forgive the metaphor, but philosophers are logical police. Their nightstick is nothing more, or less, than the principle of noncontradiction.

Let me illustrate how these distinctively philosophical skills might be used to advance public debate. I have heard it said repeatedly, in the pages of the New York Times, the Guardian and elsewhere, that the Bush administration "lied to" or "misled" the public about its motive(s) for going to war in Iraq. (Not "against" Iraq, but "in" Iraq. It was a war against Saddam Hussein's regime, not against the Iraqi people.)

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that this is true - 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? Why the constant refrain to the effect that the war is "about oil" or a way to "finish what his father started" or an attempt to "distract attention from the economy"? I have racked my brain for an answer to this question. I believe it is one part hatred of the president and all that he stands for, and one part confusion. The philosopher, qua philosopher, can deal with the latter. Perhaps a psychotherapist will have to be called in to deal with the former.

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy and Humanities, The University of Texas at Arlington.

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