Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category
Misrepresenting a person’s words or actions in order to score a political point is a form of lying. Of course we know that political ads do this sort of thing regularly. It’s wrong but no one can do much to stop it. And there appears to be no limit to how far political operatives are willing to go, for example, distorting the presentation of a lawyer arguing a case before the Supreme Court. Here is an excerpt from a recently published article from Bloomberg, “Republicans Tampered With Court Audio in Obama Attack Ad.”
In the web ad circulated yesterday, the Republican National Committee excerpts the opening seconds of the March 27 presentation of Obama’s top Supreme Court lawyer, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, in which he is heard struggling for words and twice stopping to drink water.
Obamacare,” the ad concludes, in words shown against a photograph of the high court. “It’s a tough sell.”
A review of a transcript and recordings of those moments shows that Verrilli took a sip of water just once, paused for a much briefer period, and completed his thought, rather than stuttering and trailing off as heard in the edited version.
The ad marks a blurring of the line between the law and politics, in which the nation’s highest court — and the justices and lawyers who decide and argue cases — are becoming fodder for Republicans’ and Democrats’ arguments over the validity of the president’s signature domestic legislative achievement.
RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer said the video was a “mash-up” condensing and splicing together several separate pauses and stutters by Verrilli during the first two minutes of his argument, produced to illustrate how much difficulty he had had defending the health-care law.
“Are there multiple clips in that video? Yes,” Spicer said. “The point was that he continually had to stop because he was having trouble making the case for why Obamacare was valid.”
The Bloomberg piece goes on to say,
Recordings of the court proceedings reviewed by Bloomberg News reveal that the audio has been edited. While Verrilli paused once to drink water during the opening moments of his presentation, he stopped talking for only a few seconds before continuing with his argument. In the RNC ad, he pauses for about 20 seconds, coughs, sips water and stutters.
Just think about Spicer’s defense of his ad. It was a “mash up,” as if this is some sort of justification for manipulating the historical record. One can easily imagine Spicer saying, “Hey, all we were doing was making Verrilli appear to be falling over his own words by changing the timing and length of his pauses and stutters. What’s the big deal? He should have been stuttering given what he was defending. If I think that an opponent shouldn’t be able to make a clear argument, what’s the problem in making him appear as if he can’t?”
We are in serious trouble. A democracy can only take so much distortion from propagandists representing major political parities– with huge sums of money to finance their machinations. It’s bound to lead to boundless cynicism. People will just tune out, turn off, and drop out. But perhaps that’s ultimately the goal of the game: a population so fatigued by a system that leaves them faceless and impotent they will just let the “professionals” run the show. Men like Sean Spicer, who like their ties with power knots.
The New York Times reports the following comments by Cheney in reaction to Obama’s release of the Bush administration memos defending acts of torture:
As the debate escalated, Mr. Cheney weighed in, saying that if the country is to judge the methods used in the interrogations, it should have information about what was obtained from the tough tactics.
“I find it a little bit disturbing” that “they didn’t put out the memos that showed the success of the effort,” Mr. Cheney said on Fox News. “There are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity.” ”Pressure Grows to Investigate Interrogations,” April 20, 2009,
Leaving aside the fact that experts in the field have consistently challenged the utility of torture, leaving aside the fact that we could have gotten more information through alternative methods of interrogation, and leaving aside the fact that by torturing prisoners we increase the chances that our own soldiers will be tortured, what Cheney’s comments reveal is the poverty of the ethical imagination of the Bush administration.
Yes, there are good arguments to be made for taking into consideration consequences in judging whether acts are ethical. There is a whole philosophical tradition built around this notion, Utilitarianism. However, the idea that we can justify torture based on “the success” of the method, which presumably means the successful gathering of intelligence, is precisely what every declaration of human rights, including the Geneva Convention, repudiates. (As does every form of sophisticated Utilitarianism.)
Imagine if I said, let’s rape prisoners in order to get the information that we need. No decent human being would tolerate this as a legitimate means of gathering information. Rape is a basic violation of the dignity and integrity of another human being. It’s horrific to think that governments might write legal briefs defending rape on the grounds that it produced information that they needed. Yet, how different is torture from rape? It too is a basic violation of the dignity and integrity of another human being. If one thinks about what the act of torture does to another human being (and what it does to the torturer), it can be viewed as a form of rape, just as rape can be understood as a form of torture. Nevertheless, the Bush administration’s lawyers wrote legal opinions defending acts that time and again have been labeled torture.
So, here is my suggestion in response to Cheney. When he says, “There are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity,” replace the last part of the sentence, “There are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of raping human beings.” Now, tell me whether anyone who is even moderately ethical, or anyone who wants to defend the ideals for which this country stands, would be willing to utter such a sentence? But this is in fact a sentence that follows from Cheney’s crude consequentialism.
Cheney is a clever but hopelessly thoughtless man, who was part of a thoughtless administration. He still doesn’t understand how much damage he did to this country in his efforts to protect us. (And let’s not forget, his methods aren’t even good ones in terms of protecting the country.)
UPDATE, April 22: Former FBI supervisory agent discusses recent claims about the effectiveness of torture.
“My Tortured Decision” (excerpt)
By ALI SOUFAN, April 22, 2009, The New York Times
FOR seven years I have remained silent about the false claims magnifying the effectiveness of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding. I have spoken only in closed government hearings, as these matters were classified. But the release last week of four Justice Department memos on interrogations allows me to shed light on the story, and on some of the lessons to be learned.
One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.
It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence….
Adam Smith, on the left, looks through Brooks, while Hegel, on the right, can only think, “Oy.”
Poor David Brooks. You just never know when he is going to get in over his head, and neither does he. One can only marvel at some of the “out of left” field claims and arguments that he has made, while continuing to present himself as the most reasonable man on the planet. Don’t get me wrong. It’s hard to dislike the guy, with his schoolboy enthusiasms and his deferential comments about the brains (specifically, the high SAT scores) of the members of the new administration. And you have to prefer him to Rush.
But sometimes in his desire to show off and create a splash he goes too far. Yesterday, April 7, 2009, was just such a day. Brooks entitled his column in the NY Times, “The End of Philosophy.” If that wasn’t pretentious enough, he then proceeded to tell us how philosophers have spent 2,500 years barking up the wrong tree because scientists have now discovered connections between morality and emotion. (As if this is not an old topic, even in Ethics 101.)
Well, I couldn’t resist a quick response, and it appears that neither could hundreds of others. I am reproducing my comments here (unedited) because it seems that they were recommended by good number of readers, and well, you know, one can never pass up an opportunity to knock David’s books out of his hands, figuratively speaking, that is. His article, The End of Philosophy, is a wonderful example of what happens when one goes into the water before one knows how to swim, believing that one doesn’t have to learn. (Just act naturally.) I recommend it to instructors of philosophy (and writing) as a useful classroom tool. Don’t do as David does, or else…. I recommended it to everyone else as a rewarding screamer.
Oy. I think that we need to talk. I am afraid that you are practicing philosophy without a license, which is okay, up to a point. (First rule: do no harm.) What is striking is how consistent you have been over the years in basically holding to a view of morality that Adam Smith and his followers would fine congenial, especially on cooperation. And then presenting from time to time “new insights” that support this position. (The notion that sympathy is the foundation of our moral sensibilities is certainly a feature of this school.) The one place where this School would have let you down in the past (that is, before you discovered emotion) was your desire to believe that Reason (with a capital R) can be depended on for moral guidance. (More on this below.)
I hope that you will not be offended if I say, your piece needs a bit more work. It is not entirely consistent and cogent, for example, in the way that it leans on emotions and then suddenly takes a turn toward “responsibility” at the end, without any sort of explanation for how the latter relates to the former. (And how are we to understand the development of the responsibility?)
But it also contains some rather bizarre claims, for example,
“Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.”
Are you really claiming the babies make moral judgments? Is any sort of emotional response to be understood as a moral judgment? Is the fact that we can’t explain why we think something is wrong always a failure of reason or a failure to appreciate the ways in which habits and judgments get built up over time? (Not all failures in understanding are failures of reason. I am afraid that you suffer a bit from the jilted lover of reason syndrome. You were a believer and now Reason hasn’t lived up to its billing. So, we jump from Reason to Emotion.)
Much to be said here. But this is only a space for quick comments. I have a suggestion. You might want to take a look a classical American Pragmatism, for it tries to grapple with morality in terms of values without relying on a “traditional” notion of reason. (This may be especially interesting to you, since it can be argued that Obama is a philosophical pragmatist, a topic I have written about, if I can engage in a bit of germane self-promotion.)
— Mitchell Aboulafia, NY