Going to class on whether the end justifies the means
Welcome to Ethics 101. Today our class will address the classic conundrum: Does the end justify the means? As many of you are aware, I was adamantly opposed to the United States’ unilateral approach to waging war on Iraq. Along with millions of others, I protested this administration’s presumption that the battle against terrorism would best be served by a military occupation of one particular country. Nevertheless, I believe there have been some significant benefits received from our engagement including the disempowerment of a dictator and an initial attempt at a free election. However, these positive steps present a problem of some significance. This past week, our president, in a speech to leaders of Western Europe, acknowledged that his approach to Iraq had caused consternation and even condemnation by many leaders in the free world.
He quickly followed that acknowledgment with the implication that it was now time for everyone to work together for the establishment of a viable democracy in Iraq. Although there is still some debate, most observers recognize that, either through poor research or outright deception, the justification of a U.S. invasion of Iraq was less than forthright. Both the president and several of his key advisors claimed a rationale for the invasion that was faulty at best and deceitful to some.So, we face a couple of questions: Do the limited but still significant successes of the current campaign in Iraq now justify increased participation by those European powers who were once reluctant to accept President Bush’s reasoning? Or, is there a legitimate case to be made that the U.S. administration, given its previous ineptness and dishonesty, cannot be trusted to provide an accurate assessment to its allies of this and other perceived trouble spots around the world? In other words, did the president burn his bridges?Such a question takes on great importance as we in America ponder the cost of our continuing foreign policy both in tax dollars and national morale. This past week, rumors were flying about a possible U.S. invasion of Iran.
The president labeled such speculation as “ridiculous” but in light of past precedents, one can understand the concern of both Americans and the citizens of potential European allies.It has been almost two years since President Bush landed aboard the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier to announce “Mission accomplished!” in regard to the war in Iraq. It was public relations ploy that backfired terribly as nearly 1,500 grieving U.S. families and countless Iraqis can attest. It is unsettling to say the least when the president employs these and similar tactics to accomplish his goals, noble as they may be.Philosopher Mortimer Adler boldly declared that a good end always justifies the means – which initially relieved more than a few unscrupulous folks – but he went on to say, “People who are shocked by this statement overlook one thing: If an action is morally bad in itself, it cannot really serve a good end, even though it may on the surface appear to do so. “Men in power have often tried to condone their use of violence or fraud by making it appear that their injustice to individuals was for the social good and was, therefore, justified. “But since the good society involves justice for all, a government that employs unjust means defeats the end it pretends to serve.
You cannot use bad means for a good end any more than you can build a good house out of bad materials.”So, the question now revolves around our definition of a “good society.”Is a society good if it succeeds in protecting its citizens from acts of violence even as it perpetrates violence upon others, including innocent citizens? Can a society become truly good if in pursuit of a noble goal it utilizes ignoble methods?Difficult questions, class. See Machiavelli for additional insight, and when you’ve had enough of him, check out a fellow named Gandhi for a slightly different perspective. Papers on my desk tomorrow; 600 words, single-spaced. Class dismissed.Rich Mayfield writes a Saturday column. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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