Friday, 4 May 2012

Executive Ethics

Mind The Gap: According to our Prime Minister: "There's quite a wide definition of ethics." To which we can only reply: "And it's getting wider!"

RON SUSKIND is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist, best known for his reporting of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). It was while covering GWOT for The Wall Street Journal that Mr Suskind first encountered the ethics of self-created reality.

All wars do violence to human sensibilities, but the war which began on 11 September 2001 was destined to set new benchmarks. Dark practices such as torture, collective punishment, and extra-judicial killings: extreme sanctions which, from the moment of its birth, the United States had proudly and emphatically renounced; suddenly became accepted elements of American state-craft. In order to live with these acts (for which no ethical justifications are available) American military, diplomatic and bureaucratic personnel were forced to devise a whole new way of looking at and explaining the world.

Ron Suskind was the first to report it.

“In the summer of 2002,”, he recalls, “after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend – but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors  . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.”

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this reported conversation. Not only because its content spoke to the very dark heart of the Bush presidency, but also because it constituted much of the “discernible reality” of contemporary politics – including our own.

In essence, what the Bush Administration official was saying to Mr Suskind was that the exercise of raw executive power, by virtue of its self-evident effects, removes any need for ethical justification. If the United States invades Iraq, then that is the reality the world must face. Questions about its ethics are simply irrelevant. As the 9/11 hijackers demonstrated: if the deed is big enough, it explains and vindicates itself.

Our ethical structures are simply too fragile to contain, or judge, such acts. Like the spider’s web which ensnares small creatures, but whose fragile threads are powerless to hinder larger prey, the “reality-based community” can only “judiciously” report and study – but never stop – what the “Empire” does. As President Richard Nixon notoriously observed to David Frost: “Well, when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Or, in the language of the Roman Emperors: Necessitas non habet legem: Necessity knows no law.

Fish, it is said, rot from the head down. If the most powerful men and women in the most powerful nation on earth were now free to embrace torture and murder with impunity, then how likely was it that those occupying the next steps of the social hierarchy would repudiate these new, self-justifying, realities of executive power? If the President of the United States could now condemn an American citizen to death without trial, what was there to prevent Wall Street looting the American treasury? Or fat Germans beggaring emaciated Greeks?

And, if the exercise of naked power now requires no justification, should we local representatives of the “reality-based community” really be surprised to learn that the rights of film technicians and actors can be cancelled at the urging of an accommodating prime minister? Or that, by building a convention centre, a casino owner can secure a revision of the gambling laws? Or that an “anonymously” funded politician can ride off, Scot-free, into the political badlands on the ass that is New Zealand’s local electoral law?

No. Not when, as our own self-created little emperor says: “There’s quite a wide definition of ethics.”

This essay was originally published by The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 May 2012.


SHG said...

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that your interpretation is correct. The aide does not seem to have been saying that action removes the need for justification. It's worse than that. He thinks that "the real" itself is determined by decision rather than discerned by observation. The question of moral justification simply does not arise unless It has been decided that it has, and if it does it is necessarily posterior to the created reality it evaluates.

And it is not just a matter of the elites. Our society is governed by this principle. Identity politics operates in just this way - a kind of magical thinking in which inconvenient facts are simply wished away. Conservatives long ago realized that postmodernism works for them, because all those who live in faith based realities have a common interest in opposing the reality based community and there are more of them than us. Hence liberals hopelessly counter anti climate change nonsense with reasons and evidence, when their opponents are not playing that game but offering placeholder discourse as a means of demonstrating that reasons have no power over them. Anti climate change propaganda should really be thought of as a kind of ritual incantation to that end.

The aide's point is that power creates reality in this radical sense (making the real as a category wholly dependent upon decision), not in the mundane sense that we have to live with the decisions of the powerful (after all, the reality based community already believes that).

Makr Wilson said...

Just for interest sake on your "for which no ethical justifications are available" comment if torture was the only way to stop a nuclear weapon being detonated in a major city and this would murder say 10 million people would torture of an individual be justified?

Olwyn said...

Mark Wilson;

Elizabeth Anscombe has said that "...if someone really thinks in advance that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration - I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind." Torture, even to save the city, would fall into the same category.

The stress is on "thinking in advance" - Anscombe is aware that people may succumb to temptation under pressure. But moral failure under pressure is still moral failure, not a new benchmark for "situations such as this one." Furthermore, real life situations do not generally present us with such a simple either/or: to torture the guy or lose the city. Where moral constraints are taken seriously, morally acceptable possibilities become the first port of call; where they are not, "what works" rules.

The view Chris appears to be challenging is the view that when you are very powerful, an empire, you can come to believe that you can can go straight to "what works" with impunity. And a feature of the reality you create under this principle is a dereliction of moral standards that begins at the top and potentially goes all the way down.

Tiger Mountain said...

Chilling quote via Suskind.

Shonkey does not publicly display much intellect but certainly has the dismissive “Whadarya gonna do abowdit then?” attitude in spades.

Mark Wilson said...

Olwyn your comments are immoral - to let 10 million die for a "moral principle" is leftist corruption on a massive scale. But I guess that is why far more millions have died under lefty loonies than ever died under rightest loonies.

Olwyn said...

Mark: You clearly did not read my comment properly. At no point did I advocate letting 10 million die. I made three main points: (1) That it is corrupt to think in advance that it is OK to subject people to unjust punishments, such as torture, (2) It corrupting to suppose that we can readjust our morality simply because we have in some instance abandoned it under pressure, and (3) That real-life situations are usually more complex than the either/or you suggested. There may be room for negotiation, delaying tactics, etc. If we have decided in advance that torture is OK we may fail to explore those other options.

Anonymous said...

'Your loonies kill more than our loonies'-now that's moral corruption.