TCS Daily

Liberal Disingenuousness About the War in Iraq

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - June 29, 2004 12:00 AM

Search though I may, I have yet to find the inferential path from "President Bush lied" to "The war in Iraq was unjustified" -- which makes me wonder why the first of these sentences is uttered so often. I keep hoping that an opponent of the war, of whom there are many, will supply the path. In the meantime, let's play devil's advocate. Suppose President Bush lied about (1) Iraqi involvement in the attacks of 9-11 and (2) the existence, in Iraq, of weapons of mass destruction. Suppose he really is a liar, as many liberals proclaim. It doesn't follow, without some powerful (but implausible) additional premises, that the war was wrong.

The Morality of Lying

Let's think this through. Is lying always wrong? There are three theoretical positions. The absolutist deontological position is that lying is always wrong, no matter how good the consequences of doing so. The moderate deontological position is that lying is intrinsically wrong (i.e., wrong in itself, because of the kind of act it is), but justified if enough good is produced (or enough harm prevented) thereby. In effect, the moderate deontologist endorses a rebuttable presumption against lying: "Lying is wrong unless X." The consequentialist position is that lying is not intrinsically wrong. That an act is a lie is morally irrelevant. There is no presumption against lying. Whether a lie or any other act is justified depends solely on its consequences.

To summarize: To an absolutist deontologist, lying is intrinsically wrong and can never be justified by its consequences. To a moderate deontologist, lying is intrinsically wrong but can be justified if enough good is produced thereby. To a consequentialist, lying is not intrinsically wrong. If it is wrong at all, it is extrinsically wrong -- because of what it brings about. To an absolutist deontologist, there is an irrebuttable presumption (what lawyers call a "conclusive" presumption) against lying. To a moderate deontologist, there is a rebuttable presumption against lying. To a consequentialist, there is no presumption against lying.

Applying the Theories

Suppose President Bush needed public support for the war in Iraq and believed he could get it -- mobilize it -- only by lying about the two things mentioned. This seems to be the liberal view, repeated ad nauseam. Only an absolutist deontologist would conclude, without more, that the war was unjustified, for, to that person, no amount of good can justify lying. The situation is different, however, for moderate deontologists and consequentialists. For the latter, there must be a calculation of the costs and benefits of the war for all concerned, compared with alternative actions. The consequentialist is not concerned with whether President Bush lied, only with whether his action -- however described -- maximized the good, impartially considered.

(Let me elaborate. The good in question is the good of all, not just of Americans. Consequentialists consider nationality, ethnicity, race, and religion morally irrelevant. These categories are of no intrinsic moral significance to them. Consequentialists also reject loyalties of all kinds, including those to family and friends. In deciding what to do, they say, one must be strictly impartial. The interests of an American count for no more (or less) than the interests of an Iraqi. The interests of my child count for no more (or less) than those of any other child; and if I am the one deciding what to do, I must remain strictly impartial between them. Many people consider this alone to be a sufficient reason to reject consequentialism.)

For the moderate deontologist, who endorses a rebuttable presumption against lying, the question is whether enough good was produced by the war to justify lying. This depends on the person's threshold. Some moderate deontologists have a high threshold; they require a great deal of good to justify a lie. Others have a low threshold; they require only some good to justify a lie. Moderate deontologists fall on a spectrum or continuum. Think of it this way. To an absolutist deontologist, lying has a moral weight of 1. To a consequentialist, lying has a moral weight of 0. Moderate deontologists occupy the space -- and it's a lot of space -- between 0 and 1.

A Hypothetical Case

To see how these moral theories might lead to different conclusions about the permissibility of war in Iraq, suppose the war makes the world a better place by 1,000,000 units. That is, after subtracting the bad from the good, taking everyone's interests into account, we're left with 1,000,000 units of good. No other action, let us say, would produce as much. Now suppose President Bush's hypothesized lies were necessary to produce that good. The absolutist deontologist says the war was unjustified. Evil may not be done that good may come. Lying is categorically prohibited. The consequentialist says the war was justified, since, ex hypothesi, it produced more overall good than any alternative action. To a consequentialist, the end justifies the means. Any means.

Moderate deontologists would disagree among themselves about the permissibility of the war. Those with thresholds higher than 1,000,000 units of good would side with the absolutist deontologists in condemning the war. They would say that 1,000,000 units of good is not enough to justify the lies told to produce that good. Moderate deontologists with lower thresholds might side with the consequentialists in commending the war, since it produced enough good, in their view, to outweigh the intrinsic badness of the lies. Where the threshold is set makes all the difference.

Note that different theorists can come to the same conclusion about the war. That S opposes the war doesn't mean that S is an absolutist deontologist. S may be a moderate deontologist who believes that his or her threshold hasn't been met. By the same token, that T supports the war doesn't mean that T is a consequentialist. T may be a moderate deontologist who believes that his or her threshold has been met. That two or more theories give the same result in particular cases doesn't make them the same theory. What makes theories distinct is that they don't always give the same result.

Remember: I'm only assuming, for the sake of argument, that the consequentialist calculus comes out in favor of the war. It could come out against the war. It all depends on the facts. What's distinctive about consequentialism is that it attaches no intrinsic moral significance to whether President Bush lied.

The Incompleteness of Liberal Thought

The point of these theoretical reflections is this: Even if President Bush lied about Iraqi involvement in the attacks of 9-11 and about the existence, in Iraq, of weapons of mass destruction, all the argumentative work remains to be done! Only absolutist deontologists, of whom I suspect there are few, say that the fact that President Bush lied disposes of the question whether the war was justified. Everyone else must examine the consequences of the war vis-à-vis the consequences of alternative courses of action-and that has nothing to do with President Bush.

Liberals are disingenuous. In their obsessive focus on the president, and specifically on whether he lied to the American people, they miss the larger issue of the justification for the war. They act as if they're all absolutist deontologists. They act as if no amount of good could possibly justify the telling of a lie.

In fact, almost no liberal who opposes the war is an absolutist deontologist. Liberals "adopt" absolutist deontology when it suits their purposes. When it doesn't, they adopt moderate deontology or consequentialism. This is theoretical cherry-picking. It is no more respectable than any other type of cherry-picking. In fact, it's less respectable, since it's either a rationalization of a moral judgment made on other grounds or a bald expression of hatred or some other vile emotion.

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., is a frequent contributor to Tech Central Station. Several of his columns have concerned the war in Iraq, which he supported from the beginning. He is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches courses in Logic, Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, and Philosophy of Law. He has three blogs: AnalPhilosopher, Animal Ethics, and The Ethics of War.


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