Is the Bush lie acceptable?
“Bush lied. People died.” So reads the bumper sticker charging President Bush with deceiving the American people about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. According to former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, the Bush lie was intended to rationalize the Iraq war. “Saddam was to be removed from power, and WMD were always viewed by the policy-makers as the excuse for doing so,” concludes Ritter.The 9/11 Commission report quotes the CIA’s highest-ranking analyst who instructed her underlings to write a “speculative piece” that would “lean far forward” and “stretch to the maximum the evidence” supporting Bush policy-makers’ foregone decision to attack Iraq.Bush lied. Some would argue that the lie was justified by the end result – the purging of Saddam Hussein from power. Others say the lie was inexcusable and violated the public trust at grievous expense. Who is right?In his essay, “Truth Telling and Deceiving in Ordinary Life,” philosophy professor David Nyberg argues that absolute truth is a rare commodity among human beings and that lies and deceits are in keeping with our traditional social norms.Not only are we prone to lying, says Nyberg, truth telling can often be harsh, injurious and imprudent. The Bush lie about WMD begs the question of whether or not lying by the president is excusable, whether his means justify his ends.”I think deception is in our nature,” writes Nyberg, “and it is there for some reason: The mind does not evolve in ways harmful to itself … We deceive, among other reasons, so that we might not perish of the truth.”Nyberg argues that truth telling is “morally overrated” and that our interpretations are conveniently arranged in discerning the facts about almost anything. “We express an edited, personalized version of the results, to a selected audience, at a chosen time.”Nyberg draws boundaries not to be violated, like “the misuse of public office and public trust for personal self-interest,” but he calculates that deeply ingrained beliefs may lead to deceit when a lie is morally justified.”As our experiences widen, we learn through wonderfully indirect and subtle means that truth telling, like every other moral principle, has its drawbacks in practice, and sometimes we have to pass over it in our calculations for getting on as decent and successful human beings.”An opposing point of view is offered by Sissela Bok, a philosopher who states that lying violates our innate respect for truth, no matter what the consequences or rewards. To Bok, truth represents a final, simple, fundamental virtue.She quotes Immanuel Kant to that effect in his “Doctrine of Virtue.” Says Kant: “By a lie a man throws away and, as it were, annihilates his dignity as a man.” Bok agrees and implies that dignity through truth, no matter how painful or unprofitable, has a higher value than expediency through a lie.Bok assumes a simple clarity regarding truth and lies, saying that “truthfulness is a duty which no circumstances can abrogate.” She denies that lying can be rationalized for a moral purpose and insists that the entirety of human society is injured with a lie.”Trust is a social good to be protected just as much as the air we breathe or the water we drink,” opines Bok. “When it is damaged, the community as a whole suffers; and when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse.”The Bush lie is at the bottom of a heated debate. We can all think of times when our own lies seemed natural, prudent and defensible. We can also witness the dramatic significance of lies that kill, injure and destroy.The lie is operative in our language and throughout human society. By applying moral judgment to truth and lies, each of us becomes a judge of the kind of behavior we expect from one another and from the highest office in our land.Paul Andersen never lies and he always tells the truth. His column appears on Mondays.
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