April 04, 2020
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Ends, Means And The Present Tense

It's an old trick question in ethics to ask if the ends justify the means. The trick is usually presented as checking out the ends.

Ends, Means And The Present Tense
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"The war in Iraq is really about peace" President Bush said on April 11, 2003. He and his regime confidently assert that the ends of peace and liberation justify the means of war and destruction.

It’s an old trick question in ethics to ask if the ends justify the means. The trick is usually presented as checking out the ends. That is, a bad end doesn’t justify any means, while of course a good end is just what justifies good means. As to bad means, you have to weigh the bad means (like war) against the good ends (like peace and liberation). And sometimes they are judged just, sometimes not. It’s presented as a matter of proportion.

The devil is in the details of proportion of course. How many lives and wounds, how much pain, anguish and destruction should be sacrificed to ‘peace and liberation?’ Would we sacrifice bombing of our cities and destruction of our civilian population for the peace and liberation of Iraq as confidently as we sacrifice Iraqi lives and cities? How do we reckon costs of lives, cities, money?

Moral philosophers bicker. The Pope has condemned preemptive war as unjust and American neocon Catholic Michael Novak has hied to Rome to argue US righteousness.

Our ability to abstract and argue like this is often cited as our human genius. It’s also clearly a curse. Life happens only in the present tense. Memory and imagination look back and forward and can make us ignore and rationalize the present, but morality happens only in the present and usually has a bodily not abstract character. We drop fire from the sky and wound, we do shoot or don’t shoot. Making war and making peace are different: one accuses and rends, the other forgives and embraces. We’re trying to do both at once and while that’s clearly an improvement over a purely bellicose posture, it’s also an illusion. In the present tense it’s impossible. The Lieutenant Colonel who told his men to go down on one knee, turn their weapons muzzle down and smile made peace in a scene of war. But mostly we’ve made war, bringing staggering military might against a defiant but ill-matched foe. We’re Goliath here, not David. Except we’re an enlightened Goliath who really wants to be seen not as the giant but as the unarmored David, beloved entrepreneurial champion and chosen king of God.

TV coverage cracks and confuses our heads about time. What’s going on, what’s on tape, what’s file footage, what’s the story, fills the time. Very little is in real time except fireworks and reporters telling stories. It feeds our appetite for passing time, giving escape and intensity, but it’s weak on the present tense -- very much pushing off-scene (literally ‘obscene’) the broken bodies and buildings. President Bush announces he’s upset by scenes showing carnage and looting. It’s all really about peace to him but a future disembodied peace via sanitized, not brutal, maiming and ugly war.

When the finest collection of ancient culture was pillaged and destroyed in Baghdad the Bush regime comment was that it’s terrible and untidy and the result of transition turbulence -- i.e. not really our fault but the sad consequence of liberation from a brutal regime. Back to Saddam for blame, forward to liberation and fixing it. But whether 50 thousand or 170 thousand artifacts are gone or destroyed the cultural memory and art are savaged. Some reports already blame ‘ignorant’ Shia revenging their Sunni (Saddam) repression. Clearly the Baghdad museum was not an asset equal to the oilfields for the American liberators. The looting is not just a transition in Rumsfeld’s hypocritical shorthand, it is more war and ruin, bad means and no good end. When Rumsfeld was asked how we could have let this happen he reared mightily in his righteous fashion and snapped that we didn’t let this happen. It happened, he said, no fault of ours, our men were probably protecting hospitals at the time. Already, he said, some people were returning things.

You can say that war is about peace but that doesn’t make it so. That may be your desire for the future or your rationalization or delusion about the past. The only really moral mirror is the present tense -- the first casualty of politicians always anxious to ‘move forward’ and ‘get this behind us.’ Whatever clever ends and means we construct, adduce, or asseverate, we act and will be judged in the present tense -- the only place one can live or die.


Diane Christian is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo.

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