TCS Daily

Bush's Critics as Repeat Offenders

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - July 3, 2003 12:00 AM

The response to my inaugural column in TCS, "Bush's Critics Meet the Logic Police," was overwhelming and, I must admit, gratifying. Unfortunately, much of the response was confused. As you may recall, I argued in the column that one can evaluate the morality of the war in Iraq (or indeed any war) without consulting the motives of those who conducted it. Some respondents took me to task for saying (or implying) that motives are unimportant. I neither said nor implied that motives are unimportant. Motives are very important, but not to the rightness or wrongness of actions. Motives are a basis -- perhaps the basis -- on which to evaluate agents. This is what I meant when I said that good (i.e., well-motivated) people can act wrongly and that bad (i.e., poorly motivated) people can act rightly.

That persons and their actions are different objects of moral evaluation, subject to different standards, is hardly an eccentric claim. Here is the great English philosopher John Stuart Mill, writing in chapter two of Utilitarianism (1861):

[U]tilitarian moralists have gone beyond almost all others in affirming that the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent. He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty or the hope of being paid for his trouble; he who betrays the friend that trusts him is guilty of a crime, even if his object be to serve another friend to whom he is under greater obligations.

I am not citing Mill as an authority. There are no normative authorities. Instead I am showing that the claim I made in my column is far from preposterous. It has a respectable lineage. Mill himself cared very much about both agents and actions, but he thought that we can and should evaluate them separately.

This raises an interesting question. Does one have to be a utilitarian (or, more broadly, a consequentialist) to agree with Mill? A consequentialist believes all of the following: (1) that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends solely on its consequences; (2) that, in calculating the value of consequences, each individual's interests must be given equal consideration (in other words, one must be impartial); and (3) that the right action is the action (of those available to the agent) with the best overall consequences.

At least one respondent charged that I was "presupposing" or "assuming" consequentialism. I was not, but suppose I were. Would that undermine my argument? Clearly not, for it would still engage the consequentialists in the audience. I don't know about the readers of TCS, but many philosophers, including some of the most prominent ones, such as Peter Singer of Princeton and Shelly Kagan of Yale, are consequentialists. They acknowledge a distinction between the rightness or wrongness of what one does and the goodness or badness of the agent who does it. In evaluating the morality of the war in Iraq, therefore, a consequentialist not only may but must ignore President Bush's motives.

Mill's example of the drowning person is pertinent. Hasn't President Bush, by dismantling the regime of Saddam Hussein, saved many "drowning" persons? We now know of the atrocities committed by Hussein during the past quarter century. It is said that he killed more Muslims than anyone in human history. Is there any doubt that, had he not been toppled, he would have continued his murderous ways? And upon his death, isn't it reasonable to believe that his equally heinous sons would have followed in his footsteps, wreaking havoc for decades to come?

It might be said that the cases are disanalogous, since lives were destroyed during the war but not (ex hypothesi) while saving the drowning person. This line of reasoning is not available to the consequentialist. Consequentialists, as such, seek to bring about the greatest sum of good consequences. Regrettably, there are often losers as well as winners in the felicific calculus. For example, if the only way for me to save nineteen lives is by taking one, I am obliged to take the life. (This case comes from a critique of consequentialism by the late Bernard Williams.) To a consequentialist, a person is as responsible for what he or she allows to occur as for what he or she does. Whether President Bush acted rightly, therefore, depends on whether, in his capacity as commander-in-chief, he brought about the greatest sum of good consequences. This, and not what motivated him, is what consequentialists should be debating.

Consider another analogy: the United States' entry into World War II. Many lives were lost in the effort to destroy the Third Reich. But that is just one side of the ledger. How many lives were saved? Here is Jonathan Glover, a British philosopher, on World War II:

There seems no reason in principle why it should always be wrong to start a war. If other governments had foreseen what the Nazis would do, they would probably have been right to invade Germany to remove Hitler in the early 1930s, or to wipe out all the leading Nazis by a bombing raid on one of the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg. Either of these courses of action would have avoided the far worse calamities that actually took place. (Causing Death and Saving Lives [1977], 269)

If one shares Glover's view, then the question is whether Hitler (or, more generally, Nazism) is analogous to Hussein (Baathism). This, and not President Bush's motives, is what the debate should be about.

Some of my critics delighted in pointing out all the things that could go wrong if coalition forces invaded Iraq. It was said that it might increase terrorism tenfold, for example. It might destabilize the region. It might embolden other nations to invade their neighbors. The objection seems to be that we can never know the consequences -- or all the consequences -- of our actions. True enough, but this is a problem for any theory that takes consequences into account. It is not a problem for consequentialism in particular.

And, perhaps as importantly, we should ask: is it really a problem? Most decisions we make in our everyday lives are made under conditions of uncertainty, but that doesn't preclude rational action or excuse inaction. We must do the best we can with the information we have available. As Glover puts it, the decision to go to war "can only be reached by calculating gains and losses, which, even with hindsight, cannot be done with any precision." He adds: "[T]he fact that we cannot be sure of the consequences does not absolve us from the duty to base our decision upon the best judgment of them that we can make."

I said a moment ago that I am not a consequentialist. The other main school of thought in normative ethical theory is deontology. To a deontologist, whether an action is morally required, forbidden, or (merely) permitted depends on what type of action it is. Certain types - for example, killing the innocent, torturing, and lying - must not be intentionally performed, whatever (i.e., no matter how good) the consequences. Actually, this is extreme deontology. Moderate deontologists say that certain types of action must not be intentionally performed unless doing so prevents a great deal of harm. How much harm? Moderate deontologists differ as to where they set the threshold. Those who set the threshold low are close to consequentialists; those who set it high are close to absolute deontologists. An extreme deontologist would rule out torture even if it were the only way to save tens of thousands of innocent lives. A moderate deontologist with a high threshold might require that at least ten thousand innocent lives be saved. A moderate deontologist with a low(er) threshold might require that at least a hundred innocent lives be saved.

One respondent claimed that deontologists, as such, define rightness in terms of motives. The implication is that no deontologist can do what the consequentialist does, namely, evaluate actions and motives separately. If the motive is bad, then the action is wrong. If the motive is good, then the action is right.

I know of no deontologist, even Kant, who holds this view. Kant did say that the only morally worthy motive was the motive of duty, but this is a far cry from saying that whether an action is right or wrong depends solely on the motive with which it is performed. Nor is mine an iconoclastic reading of Kant. As Mark Timmons points out in his recent book Moral Theory (2002), "Kant distinguishes actions that fulfill one's obligations (actions in accordance with duty) from actions that are not only in accordance with duty but also are done from the motive of duty. The shopkeeper who gives correct change to young and inexperienced customers because he is interested in guarding his good business reputation fulfills a moral obligation [i.e., acts rightly] and does his duty, but since his motive is one of self-interest, his dutiful action does not possess moral worth." It should be clear from this that not even Kant defines rightness (doing one's duty) in terms of motives. Proper motivation confers worth, not rightness.

How might a deontologist justify the war in Iraq? It is well known that Kant, a deontologist, was also a retributivist. The doctrines are connected. Kant held that the sole ground of punishment - the only ground that respects persons as persons - is desert. Whether punishment has good consequences was, to him, irrelevant. To a consequentialist, if no good will come of punishing a particular person, even a murderer, it is unjustified, for the punishment itself is a harm. On the other hand, if punishing an innocent person will produce more good than any alternative, then it is justified. Kant rightly rued "the serpent-windings of utilitarianism." It seemed to him that utilitarianism treated individuals as mere means to the ends of others. In John Rawls's famous words, it "fails to take seriously the differences among persons."

Not all deontologists are Kantians, of course, but some are. Can Kant (or a Kantian) justify the war in Iraq? The answer would appear to be "Yes." Saddam Hussein is without question a mass murderer -- not even opponents of the war disagree with that assessment. And murderers deserve punishment. So Saddam Hussein deserves punishment. Whether the United States and its allies are the appropriate bodies to mete out this punishment is a debatable issue, one that I will not take up here. But that's the issue. My aim is merely to gesture to the kind of justification for the war that a deontologist might give - and also to show that it need make no reference to motives. As I have been saying ad nauseam, justification is one thing, motivation another. Frankly, I don't care what motivated President Bush. I care very much about whether he acted rightly, and he did.

At least one critic of my column said that I was endorsing the view that "the end justifies the means." I did no such thing. Those who deny that the end justifies the means are saying that there are certain means that are ruled out, however good the end to be achieved. This is deontology. The slogan "the end justifies the means" is, therefore, consequentialist in nature. As we saw, no means are ruled out, in principle, by a consequentialist. If torturing an innocent person produces more overall good than any alternative, then it is right.

Of course, consequentialists can make use of rules of thumb, and it may be a good rule of thumb not to torture people (since in most cases it brings about suboptimal results). But if in a particular case torture is clearly the act that maximizes the good, then the rule of thumb should be ignored, for torture is the right thing to do. It should be clear from my rejection of consequentialism that I do not endorse the slogan that the end justifies the means. Only a gross misreading of my column could have led someone to think I do.

One final criticism deserves a response. Several writers pointed out that if the war in Iraq is justified on, say, humanitarian grounds, then similar wars are justified in other parts of the world. This is an application of the principle of universalizability. But what ice does it cut? The proponent of war in Iraq can and should support other wars designed to topple tyrants. The principle applies to all relevantly similar cases. This does not mean that we must intervene in all cases; it means that there is a presumption in favor of doing so, that, other things being equal, it would be right to intervene. (Didn't liberals used to believe in humanitarian intervention?) But other things aren't always equal.

The writers in question are making a silly point, when you think about it. They are suggesting that unless the United States intervenes everywhere, it shouldn't intervene anywhere. This is like saying that unless we punish all speeders (or murderers), we shouldn't punish any.

And finally, the writers ignore the deterrent effect of our war in Iraq. By intervening there, we show tyrants around the world that they, too, risk being deposed. I suspect that the war in Iraq has already put the fear of death into several tyrants, which can't but change their behavior in salutary ways.

It saddens and disappoints me that the debate about the justification of war in Iraq is so shrill and defensive, even (especially?) among academics. There are real issues here, issues that philosophers would like to see addressed and that would edify all who engage them. As should be clear by now, I believe that there are multiple independent justifications for the war. The justification for our war in Iraq is, as we philosophers like to say, "overdetermined." I have obviously not demonstrated this, but I've shown how the main ethical theories approach the morality of war. If I have taken even some of the focus off President Bush's motives, which bear on his character but not on the justification of what he did, I will have to count these columns a rousing success.

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy and Humanities, The University of Texas at Arlington. Burgess-Jackson lectures on normative ethical theory and on the morality of warfare in his Ethics courses. His lengthy defense of a deontological ethical theory, deontological egoism, will appear in the July 2003 issue of Social Theory and Practice.

TCS Daily Archives