An Appeal to Survival Ethics

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: May 29, 2009 12:00 AM

Washington is a company town, and what the company makes best is politics and policy. Sometimes the politics is "unprecedented," as certain historians called the duel between President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Obama and Cheney argued in dueling speeches over how best to keep the country safe from terrorists and about Obama's continuing campaign against his predecessor. But at root was a philosophical discussion about who we are as a nation, and how the nation can be true to both the rule of law and to the survival of the country. What should the people know about the way the country is kept safe, and when should the people know it?

Predictably, the dueling arguments were quickly melted down by McMedia into glib nuggets of distorted facts, misinformation, moral preening and pious pretense that merely reinforced everyone's established opinions and positions. The ex-veep was derided as the Darth Vader of the Bush administration, but the president still won't release the evidence that Cheney says validates his defense of the interrogation techniques at Guantanamo as "legal, essential, justified, successful."

An Obama aide tells The Washington Post that the president "gets frustrated when arguments get dumbed down," because he wants to lay out a comprehensive vision about what he wants to do with the Guantanamo prisoners. But the president contributes to the dumbing-down and offers no assurance that he understands the manipulative nature of the Guantanamo scoundrels, or the reasons why nobody, Democrat or Republican, wants them released in his neighborhood.

The Pentagon did offer this week a summary of a study that reveals that 74 onetime residents who have been released from the military prison at Guantanamo -- one in seven of those freed -- returned to violent careers in terrorism. The list includes men accused or convicted of terrorist offenses in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia. These are men who never formed the habits of decency fundamental to civilized society, violent combatants still at war against the United States.

Who can blame the friendly countries that refuse to relieve us of the grim task of dealing with them? But deal with them we must, and the public is entitled to know exactly what Cheney meant when he said the comprehensive strategy "has worked" and has been crucial to keeping 300 million Americans safe since 9-11.

We can have that philosophical discussion of ethics and who we are if we keep in mind that survival comes first. On the very day that the president and the ex-veep dueled, Leon Kass, a professor of the humanities and the former chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, cut to the ethical core in the 38th annual Thomas Jefferson Lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, at a former movie theater within sight of the White House.

Kass spoke to the issues of human distinctiveness and dignity that underlie those identifying values, offering arguments that the Founding Fathers would certainly have recognized as seminal to the complexity of the American experiment. He speaks to the political process that is the be all and end all in Washington, but accompanied by the philosophical reflections crucial to engaging the Washington wonkery that often passes for considered judgment.

"For most Americans, ethical matters are usually discussed either in utilitarian terms of weighing competing goods or balancing benefits and harms," he said, "looking to the greatest good for the greatest number, or in the moralist terms of rules, rights and duties, 'thou shalts' and 'thou shalt nots.'" The focus must be on the larger picture before anyone can condemn or correct policy.

The language is lofty and above the fray in the war against the terrorists who would kill us, but the words appeal to that ethical core derived from knowledge of the best that has been said and thought by those who have gone before, "not because they are old and not because they are ours, but because they might help us discover vital truths that we would otherwise not see on our own."

He offers no judgments on the competing moral claims of either Obama or Cheney, but identifies the human dilemmas he first examined as a bioethicist. The good citizen, being human, must reflect deeply on how to find cures for disease, at the same time paying homage and respect to life itself, where the evils to avoid are thoroughly intertwined with the good the prudent citizen ardently pursues. Nothing glib about that.