Monthly Archives: March 2004

Richard Clarke, from an ethical perspective

For those concerned with moral philosophy and ethics, this is the most interesting part of yesterday’s historic testimony:

JAMES R. THOMPSON, COMMISSION MEMBER: Mr. Clarke, in this background briefing, as Senator Kerrey has now described it, for the press in August of 2002, you intended to mislead the press, did you not?

RICHARD CLARKE, FORMER NATIONAL COORDINATOR FOR COUNTERTERRORISM: No. I think there is a very fine line that anyone who’s been in the White House, in any administration, can tell you about. And that is when you are special assistant to the president and you’re asked to explain something that is potentially embarrassing to the administration, because the administration didn’t do enough or didn’t do it in a timely manner and is taking political heat for it, as was the case there, you have a choice. Actually, I think you have three choices. You can resign rather than do it. I chose not to do that. Second choice is…

THOMPSON: Why was that, Mr. Clarke? You finally resigned because you were frustrated.

CLARKE: I was, at that time, at the request of the president, preparing a national strategy to defend America’s cyberspace, something which I thought then and think now is vitally important. I thought that completing that strategy was a lot more important than whether or not I had to provide emphasis in one place or other while discussing the facts on this particular news story. The second choice one has, Governor, is whether or not to say things that are untruthful. And no one in the Bush White House asked me to say things that were untruthful, and I would not have said them. In any event, the third choice that one has is to put the best face you can for the administration on the facts as they were, and that is what I did. I think that is what most people in the White House in any administration do when they’re asked to explain something that is embarrassing to the administration.

THOMPSON: But you will admit that what you said in August of 2002 is inconsistent with what you say in your book?

CLARKE: No, I don’t think it’s inconsistent at all. I think, as I said in your last round of questioning, Governor, that it’s really a matter here of emphasis and tone. I mean, what you’re suggesting, perhaps, is that as special assistant to the president of the United States when asked to give a press backgrounder I should spend my time in that press backgrounder criticizing him. I think that’s somewhat of an unrealistic thing to expect.

THOMPSON: Well, what it suggests to me is that there is one standard of candor and morality for White House special assistants and another standard of candor and morality for the rest of America.

CLARKE: I don’t get that.

CLARKE: I don’t think it’s a question of morality at all. I think it’s a question of politics.

THOMPSON: Well, I… (APPLAUSE [apparently for CLARKE])

THOMPSON: I’m not a Washington insider. I’ve never been a special assistant in the White House. I’m from the Midwest. So I think I’ll leave it there.

In my opinion, what Clarke said in August 2002 was intended to mislead the press, because it contradicts what he is now saying under oath. Moreover, the choice between spinning a news story for your employer and resigning your job is certainly a “moral” one, just as Gov. Thompson claims. However, …

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the limitations of analytic moral philosophy

Analytic philosophy is the dominant tradition in the English-speaking world today, and I belong to it. (I was trained in the rival tradition known as “continental” philosophy, but have moved over; see this post for the distinction.) It recently occurred to me that analytic moral philosophy really is “analytical”; it takes views, values, and positions from outside of modern philosophy and analyzes them to see whether they are internally consistent, whether they match our intuitions about a range of cases, whether they agree with various other plausible views, and so on. Virtually all modern analytic philosophers endorse some form of what John Rawls called “reflective equilibrium”. They think that we should go back and forth between intuitions (which we obtain from outside of philosophy) and philosophical arguments, trying to make each conform to the other. If our intuitions are inconsistent, we should change our intuitions; but if our philosophical arguments are counter-intuitive, we should change our arguments.

Until at least 1900, philosophers were in the business of generating new moral views and positions. Indeed, modern analytical philosophers often analyze the views of long-dead theorists, but they do not develop new moral views of their own. Animal rights is one of the few examples of a moral or political doctrine that arose from philosophical inquiry, in this case, Peter Singer’s. In general, philosophers don’t possess a method for creating or discovering moral positions, whereas they do have a toolbox for analyzing positions that are, so to speak, “exogenous” to philosophy.

Analysis is useful, but it is not the only kind of relatively abstract and general moral thought that we need. In fact, I tend to agree with Bernard Williams that analysis reduces our confidence in received moral ideas, but ?our major problem now is that we have not too many but too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can.? (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, 1985, p. 117).

new ideas on the left?

(written in Syracuse, NY:) I think that the left desperately needs new policy ideas and new philosophical foundations–and so far both are notably absent in the 2004 campaign. For a long time, I have been worried that the Democratic nominee (whoever he might be) would run an essentially “conservative” campaign, promising to be a better steward of old Democratic institutions: Social Security, Medicare, labor unions, “progressive” public schools, and the United Nations. Unfortunately, these institutions don’t just need increased funding; they also need to be fundamentally rethought. So far, we have heard no serious proposals for such change from anyone on the Democratic side. Three months ago, it looked as if Bush was a prohibitive favorite to win, so Democrats had the incentive to develop new visions and new directions. They failed to do so. Now it appears that John Kerry can win the presidency if the economy continues to sputter and if he plays conventional hardball politics better than the incumbent. That kind of campaign may win the White House, but it will not generate new policies or broad new ideas; and if Kerry wins, he will have no mandate other than to preserve what is left of FDR’s welfare state and the multinational organizations that were founded in the same era.

Political candidates are not the only ones who develop new political visions. In 2004, the most exciting new participants in the political debate have been independent bloggers. But the major bloggers on the left–people like Josh Marshall, Calpundit’s Kevin Drum, and Markos Moulitsas Z?niga of the Daily Kos–strike me as strictly tactical thinkers. That is, they assume that the goal is to defeat George W. Bush, and they look for ways to score points against him. He is hypocritical one day, misguided the next. I thoroughly agree, yet I don’t see any basis for a new direction in American politics. Their strategy is to make the president look bad, elect a replacement, and hope that he comes up with new ideas. If there are more creative leftish thinkers in the “blogosphere,” I don’t know who they are. This void suggests to me that the left is weak today because of a lack of tough and creative thinking, not because good “progressive” ideas are being suppressed by the mass media.

teenagers talk politics

(Written in Syracuse, NY:) ABC News/Weekly Reader recently polled Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 about their political views. This is from the report:

“First, [the poll] finds less political discussion than you might expect: Fewer than half of teens, 47 percent, say they’ve talked about politics and the 2004 election with their parents. Hardly more, 54 percent of teens, have covered it in class at school.”

(By the way, if 47 percent of high schoolers really discussed politics, that is a higher rate than has ever been found among incoming college freshmen, going back to 1967. However, I don’t think that discussion is really more common this year than ever before; I just think this poll question generated a lot of affirmative answers.)

The ABC report continues:

Discussing politics “makes a big difference. Among kids who’ve discussed the election with their parents, more than three-quarters are interested in it, and even more ? nine in 10 ? plan on voting all or most of the time when they’re old enough. Kids who haven’t discussed the election with their parents are much less interested in it (46 percent) and less likely to plan to vote. Having class discussions about politics boosts interest and anticipated participation in elections as well ? but the effect is not quite as great as having discussed it at home.”

We wouldn’t claim, on the basis of this poll, that discussion “boosts” interest. Perhaps those who are already interested in politics are the ones who end up in classes where elections are discussed. However, other studies have shown that discussion of politics does increase political interest; this poll lends that hypothesis some additional support.

on giving solicited advice

I think many people deeply want to be asked for advice. This is a way to influence the world, to put one?s own stamp on things, to express oneself, to gain standing and self-respect– all without coercing or bribing people.

Hannah Arendt argued that ?politics?–debating policies with other people–was not just necessary; it was a positive good. ?In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world.? To have beliefs is to be fully human. Yet unless we argue publicly for our positions, Arendt said, we can possess only shadowy, inarticulate views. For Arendt, the paradigm of ?politics? was a competitive struggle to get one?s opinions endorsed by the community. I think that answering a request for advice is an even better way to express oneself and find oneself.

I realize that we sometimes ask people for advice for dubious reasons. For example, we might ask a potential funder in order to glean information about how to win a grant, or we might ask a professor in order to flatter him and get a better grade. These are more or less corrupted forms of dialogue. But there are also many occasions in which both the soliciting and the giving of advice is genuine.

At the risk of sounding like a self-help book, I think there are ways to encourage people to ask you for advice:

  • When asked, give thoughtful advice.
  • Do not oversell what you know. Be very quick to admit ignorance.
  • Rarely give unsolicited advice. Indeed, don?t talk much at all when there?s limited time for other people to speak.
  • Show up and listen. That way, you will know what?s going on, and also you will be there to be asked.