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Ethically Challenged | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Ethically Challenged

Five years into an Administration of sniggering mendacity, George Bush apparently feels his staff needs a mandatory refresher course on ethics--a response with the too-little too-late feel of FEMA's to Hurricane Katrina. Harriet Miers's office will conduct the seminars. Out of a bipartisan concern that the White House's counsel will not have a strong grasp of the subject, I offer these Cliff Notes on the history of moral theory.

THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE: Immanuel Kant argued that all moral laws had to be absolute and unconditional and exert their authority in all circumstances. In Kantian terms, it was wrong to leak the name of a covert CIA agent, because if everyone did it, there would be no more covert CIA agents, and then who would we have to invent slam dunk evidence of Iraqi WMDs or torture suspected al-Qaeda members to death?

UTILITARIANISM: John Stuart Mill based his ethical system on the principle of "the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people." Under this formulation, lying to the grand jury is bad, because it makes Patrick Fitzgerald unhappy, and when he's unhappy people end up in jail. And jail is not a happy place, Scooter.

THE PRINCE: While more of an anti-ethicist, Nicolo Machiaveilli's principle that it is better for a leader to be loved than feared did find an ardent supporter in Karl Rove. But what is Rove to do if his Prince is neither loved by the people nor feared by his supporters (David Frum) or enemies (Kim Jong-il)? Find something else to make the people fearful. A global pandemic, perhaps.

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