Back in the day (the radical anti-war days of the 1960s that is), the argument in favor of violent protest was cloaked in the slippery term that was all the rage on college campuses. “Situational ethics” was the way to justify all manner of illegal and immoral conduct. It was, in essence, a play on the phrase “the end justifies the means,” taken to an extreme level.
The concept was hardly confined to use by the left. In fact, Richard Nixon essentially adopted the phrase when he authorized the invasions of Laos and Cambodia in an effort to turn the tide in the Viet Nam War and again when he ordered the bombing of Hanoi and the mining of the Haiphong Harbor.
And so it went, as both liberals and conservatives found ways to rationalize their actions. Anything was okay if it was justified by the situation.
Situational ethics was the brainchild of an Episcopalian minister, Joseph Fletcher (1905-1991), who claimed that any action was acceptable, perhaps even mandated, if the individual actor was motivated by love. Fletcher used the idea to justify his views on abortion (he favored its legality), contraception (he approved of it), and euthanasia (he advocated for it).
What Fletcher espoused was a conceptualization that recognizes the ability of individuals to make decisions based on the specific circumstances attendant to a particular situation as opposed to the dictates of established law. Within the Christian religion, this concept would be used to justify divorce, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, and even homosexuality, all of which were (and perhaps still are) viewed by many as violations of scriptural (and in some instances civil) law.
Once situational ethics caught on, it quickly became a movement, especially on college campuses, where protests against the Viet Nam War and racial discrimination were exploding in the late 1960s. Soon, radical groups like the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and later the Symbionese Liberation Army (the SLA, infamous for its act of kidnapping Patty Hearst) were justifying violent protests on the grounds of “situational ethics” (i.e. violent law-breaking was justified because the immorality of the war, racial bigotry, or any other perceived injustice was a greater evil). In its most twisted and perverted form, the Helter-Skelter followers of Charles Manson were disciples of it (and of him).
Obviously, the problem with situational ethics is that it sanctions lawlessness. By invoking it, anyone can claim that a particular action is ethical (or moral or legal) because the “specific circumstances attendant to a particular situation” justify it.
All of which is mere preamble to a discussion of the recent offerings of former Vice-President Dick Cheney. Mr. Cheney has become quite the political celebrity of late, far more outspoken on all manner of subjects than he ever was at any time before in his long career in public life. Indeed, many commentators, while relishing the juicy headlines and inside-the-beltway chit-chat that Cheney’s extended comments have created, have wondered what motivates the new Dick.
But, in fact, apart from being far more loquacious and far more willing to offer his opinions, little has really changed about the man’s view of ethics and morality. When viewed objectively, they reveal him to be a man who fully embraces the situational ethics mantra that, one would guess, he may well have railed against 40 or so years ago.
Consider, for example, his pre-war claims about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He led the charge (before passing the ball to his new-found antagonist, Colin Powell) in pressing the views (all false) that Hussein: was a co-conspirator in the 9/11 attacks; was a sponsor of al Qaeda; had amassed chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction; and was seeking to acquire the means to produce nuclear weapons that would be used against U.S. interests.
Indeed, when pressed to refute those falsities, even now Cheney claims in his own double-speak way of saying things that they were true. Ever the situational ethicist: the original lies were justified because going to war in Iraq would further the interests of the United States (providing ready access to the country’s oil and establishing a pro-American beach-head in a hostile region of the world), and those lies are still justified because public support for that war is still necessary to make sure the task (a stable U.S. puppet-regime in that oil-rich country) is completed successfully.
But Cheney has done the situational ethics movement one better with his latest efforts to justify the unjustifiable. In claiming that “American lives were saved” by the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Cheney is pushing questions of immorality aside by creating the illusion of legitimacy. Parsing his statement thoroughly, we can see rationalization built upon misidentification, with obfuscation of the truth as the intended result.
The misidentification is in the use of the term “enhanced interrogation techniques” instead of “torture.” The records recently released by the Obama administration (the trumped-up legal authorizations penned by Messrs. Bybee and Yoo) clearly describe acts of torture (waterboarding being the most grotesque aspect of the many acts described in those documents).
The rationalization is in the claim that “American lives were saved,” as if, first, saying it makes it true (it most probably isn’t) and, second, if it were true, the results justified the actions. That two-pronged rationalization, while a nifty sleight of hand on Cheney’s part, is no less a rationalization just the same. Many actions might be undertaken to “save American lives” if, indeed, they are at risk at any time. Whether those actions would be justified cannot be dependent on the result obtained (or claimed to be obtained) unless morality is a completely irrelevant consideration.
And the obfuscation, of course, is of the fact that torture is absolutely immoral. And it is so, even when conducted under otherwise justifiable circumstances, for the very reason that Mr. Cheney refuses (or is inherently unable) to understand and appreciate.
Torture is immoral because it is conduct that all human societies must and do recognize as an intolerable breach of the norms of human behavior.
Dick Cheney doesn’t comprehend that basic fact. He never has, and he never will.