TCS Daily

Dodging the Issue

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - December 31, 2003 12:00 AM

I've written several TCS columns and several blog entries on the war in Iraq. The point I've tried to make, probably unsuccessfully, is that whether the war is justified, morally, is independent of all of the following:

1. What motivated President Bush in waging it.

2. What reasons President Bush adduced in support of it.

3. Whether President Bush believed it to be justified.


Some readers claimed that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on the motive with which it is performed, but I don't know of any moral theorist who holds that view. Motives bear on character and hence on the person. Actions are evaluated by other features, such as their consequences or whether they show respect for persons. It follows that good people can act wrongly and bad people rightly. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) put it best:


[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. (Utilitarianism, chap. 2 [1861])


Even Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who is sometimes said (incorrectly) to have held the view that the rightness or wrongness of an act depends on its motive, distinguished the two questions. Here is moral philosopher Mark Timmons, an expert on Kant:


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. (Moral Theory: An Introduction [Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002], 175-6)


For Kant, there are two questions: (1) Is the act right? (2) Is the act morally worthy? The motive with which the act is performed bears only on the second of these questions. Thus, one's act can be right but unworthy (if motivated by something other than duty).


Focus on the War Itself


The point I've been trying to make all these months is that we should focus on the war itself (the act) and not (solely) on the motives, beliefs, intentions, or reasons of President Bush. These latter bear on his character and ultimately on his worth as a person, but they have nothing (literally) to do with whether the war he waged is morally justified. That President Bush's critics can't see this dumbfounds me. They seem unable or unwilling to address the morality of the war directly. Shouldn't we be having a discussion of the morality of war? Doesn't the war in Iraq provide the perfect occasion for us to do so?


What exactly is it about President Bush that bothers his critics? I have heard it said ad nauseam that he lied about the war. I wrote a column about the concept of lying, which, regrettably, has been inflated almost beyond recognition by critics. A lie is a falsehood told with intent to deceive. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that President Bush lied. Would that make the war unjustified? No. The act of lying is separate from the act of waging war. One act can be wrong and the other right. Critics, in their zeal to condemn President Bush, conflate distinct acts, thinking that either both acts are right or both wrong. But this is absurd. If the war is justified, then a lie designed to rally support for it would not make it unjustified. If the war is unjustified, then telling the truth about it would not make it justified.


The Nature of Rationalization


This week it occurred to me that what critics have been trying to say all along is that President Bush rationalized his decision to wage war in Iraq. What does it mean to rationalize (in the pejorative sense)? It means "To give plausible reasons for (one's behaviour) that ignore, conceal, or gloss its real motive" (Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed.). One can rationalize either a belief or an action. Suppose I believe in God because it comforts me rather than because I have reasoned it out. Now suppose I come across Anselm's ontological argument in my reading. If I cite this argument as a reason for my belief, I am rationalizing. By hypothesis, my belief does not rest on the argument; I had the belief before I came across it and would retain the belief even if I came to believe the argument unsound. The argument puts a respectable face on what would otherwise be groundless belief.


Actions, too, can be rationalized. Suppose, to use Mill's example, that I rescue a drowning person in order to gain a reward, but, when asked why I did it, I say that I love humanity. I'm rationalizing. I'm giving a respectable reason to cover up my self-serving reason. You might say that I "made it up" as I went along. I'm trying to appear nobler than I am.


What, if anything, is wrong with rationalization? It's wrong, I believe, because it's a form of lying. It's lying about one's real reasons or motives. But notice: My act of rescuing the drowning person can still be right, even if improperly motivated. I did the right thing for the wrong reason. In Kantian terms, my act was in accordance with duty but not done from the motive of duty. Hence, my act lacks moral worth. These concepts--the rightness of the act, the worthiness of the act, the worthiness of the person performing the act--need to be kept distinct. If we conflate them, we lose the ability to express what needs to be expressed.


Rationalizer in Chief?


Let's apply these findings to President Bush. Suppose his real reason for waging war in Iraq was to X. Let X be something self-serving or despicable, such as helping his oil buddies or increasing his chances of reelection. Now suppose President Bush gives other, more respectable reasons for waging war, such as that it will liberate the Iraqi people. President Bush is rationalizing a decision made on other grounds (or for other reasons). We should condemn him for this. His rationalization is a form of lying, and lying is wrong. Moreover, the lie reflects badly on him as a person. But this has nothing to do with whether his act of waging war is justified. That, as we have seen, is a separate matter. Even rationalizers can act rightly.


Why has the focus been on President Bush rather than on the morality of the war? Part of the explanation is animosity. I have never seen such ill-will toward a sitting president. President Bush's critics, such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Democrat presidential candidate Howard Dean, are positively obsessed with him. This, I think, prevents them from separating the person from his actions. But there's another reason as well. As a society, we have lost the capacity for reasoned moral discourse. As I said earlier, this is the perfect time to be discussing the principles of just war. Is it ever a good reason to wage war that it will liberate an oppressed people? What moral weight should we assign to national sovereignty? What exactly is preemption, and how is it related to self-defense? Is it ever permissible? How does self-defense differ, if it does, from defense of others?


There is nothing wrong with evaluating people. Indeed, it is incumbent on all of us, as citizens, to evaluate our elected representatives. We should care very much about their character, their judgment, and the worthiness of their actions, both before and after they are elected. (As Mill pointed out, "in the long run the best proof of good character is good actions.") I have never tried to shield President Bush from criticism. What I have insisted on is simply that, at some point, we shift our focus to the war. We can and should evaluate it without making any reference to President Bush.


Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The University of Texas at Arlington. He is an inveterate and enthusiastic blogger. See and

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