When Philosophy Meets Politics, or Why George Bush Is a Crummy Utilitarian

Let the revolution begin! With the Catallarchs off to San Francisco to "work on their tans" (which I assume is anarcho-capitalist for "drink their body weight in beer"), Jonathan asked me to step in and provide some content for the next couple of weeks. I guess that maybe he's hoping to drive some of you all away and bring the readership back down to more manageable levels. Or some such thing. Actually, I'm pretty excited to be writing posts here. Here's my chance to get Belle Waring to call me a crazy drunken anarchist, too. One can at least hope, anyway.

But since I'm feeling at least fairly sane at the moment, and since the fact that my son is napping in the other room makes drunken rather a bad idea at the moment, I'm going to have to settle for using my big new pulpit to call George Bush a lousy philosopher. Yes, I know that this is fairly lame. After all, picking on George Bush for lacking intellectual heft requires about as much cleverness as picking on libertarians for being dateless on a Saturday night. The odd thing, though, is that in this case, my beef isn't so much with Bush's lack of critical reasoning or philosophical analysis. Nor is it about his tendency to base all of his decisions on a Magic 8 Ball. Okay, he calls it God, but let's not split hairs. No, my objection here is that Bush appears actually to be using something that might in fact resemble something in the general ballpark of philosophy. He's just doing it very badly.

After reading Bush's 6 September speech (that's the one in which he confessed to the existence of not-so-secret overseas prisons; see WaPo's overview here), it struck me that Bush is actually providing a utilitarian argument for holding suspected terrorists overseas, torturing them, then giving them a military tribunal in which we use the confessions we elicited via torture along with evidence that we don't even let them see in order to justify holding them indefinitely. I can't believe that I just wrote that particular sentence, by the way. Or rather, I can't quite believe that I just wrote that sentence in a post that isn't about failed states and humanitarian intervention. Sheesh. I think that I might need a brief pause to go shower.

Didn't help. Anyway, the arguments being offered for -- I don't wanna write it again...that stuff up in the previous paragraph -- are roughly utilitarian in character. The argument, as I see it, is something like:

    1. Terrorism poses a significant risk to the safety of American citizens and to our entire way of life.
    2. The capture and cooperation of certain key terrorists is necessary for preventing those risks.
    3. Key terrorists are unwilling to cooperate under any normal sorts of conditions.
    4. Thus we can prevent terrorism only by utilizing extraordinary methods of capture, interrogation, and detainment.
    5. Extra-national detainment, torture, and military tribunals are the only workable extraordinary methods.
    6. Therefore, if the state has an obligation to protect American citizens and the American way of life from terrorism, then the state ought to detain terrorists overseas, torture them, and subject them to military tribunals and indefinite detainment.

The argument is pretty explicitly utilitarian, or at least pretty explicitly consequentialist. As such, it's one that, at least on its face, I wouldn't reject out of hand. The trouble, of course, is that it is not at all obvious to me that any single premise of the argument is actually true. And to those of you who think this guy is dumb, you just try coming up with an argument that lacks a single true premise and still convinces 50 million people. OTOH, though, arguing facts with these guys is a mug's game. After all, when the facts don't map on to reality, they just make some shit up.

So instead, I'd like to point out that even if every single premise in the above argument were correct, the conclusion still doesn't follow. You see, a consequentialist has to consider all the consequences of some particular strategy, and not just the most immediate set. And there are a whole hell of a lot of unintended consequences of the sorts of activities that the President has been utilizing already and for which he now wants legislative cover. I suspect that in this particular audience, I don't really have to spend all that much time detailing them. Besides these guys have already done a better job than I can with this particular material. Okay, so maybe I could do better than the last guy. Still, suffice it to say that "limited emergency measures" have a way of not staying limited and emergencies have a way of lasting for a really long time.

Short version: on utilitarian (or consequentialist, for those of you who immediately find your panties bunching at the mention of the word "utilitarian") grounds, the utilitarian argument that Bush offers fails miserably.

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