Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Friday, December 21, 2018 5:14 pm

Bill Kristol, Davidson College, and ethics

In public life some sins really are both disqualifying and unforgivable. Bill Kristol is guilty of at least two, and Davidson should have recognized that fact and chosen differently.  

I’m going to be very up-front about Bill Kristol: I do not like him. I never have. And despite his Billy-come-lately effort to vault to the front rank of never-Trumpers, I never will.

So what am I to do with the news that my alma mater, Davidson College, has named him its inaugural visiting Vann Professor of Ethics in Society for 2019? I think the college has made a big mistake.

First, let’s make clear what this ISN’T about. It’s not about censorship or free speech, which is an issue of government regulation, not private regulation. (Davidson is a private school.)

It’s not about exposing students to a broad range of views; Davidson already does that and has for many, many years. You’d have to have gone there to understand how truly laughable we alums find it that conservative critics on occasion have criticized Davidson as liberal.

For me, the mistake here, by Davidson and by the Vann family, who are funding this initiative, is to hold Bill Kristol up as someone from whom the rest of us can learn about applied ethics. Because unless the college were to identify Kristol specifically as a negative example, that certainly isn’t true.

One can disagree with Kristol about plenty, and that’s fine, and it wouldn’t disqualify him from speaking at Davidson or even holding a guest professorship in applied ethics. But I can point to two huge tests of applied ethics that Kristol failed, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and of world-historical consequences that humanity still will be grappling with long after he and I are dead. Those tests were the use of torture as an instrument of U.S. governmental policy and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

I’ve written a great deal on this blog over the years about the ineffectiveness and evil of torture — not just what it does to the victim but also what it does to the torturer and to the nation that sanctions the use of torture. You can plug “torture” into the search box over there on the right and find it all; it is, as the lawyers say, incorporated by reference.

Not only did Kristol support torture, , he also continued to support it even after all previous arguments for its use during the War on Some Terror had fallen flat. Why would Kristol — why would any human being — continue to support the use of torture even after all the practical arguments on its behalf have been weighed and found wanting? Is there an argument for supporting it other than a practical one? The War on Some Terror is 17 years old, and I have yet to come across such an argument. That Kristol has not repented of his views that I can find suggests he continues to support torture, and for what? For its own sake? That, I suspect, is a question for him and his counselor, but the fact that it exists ought to be disqualifying for a person expected to provide guidance to others in the field of applied ethics.

The other huge test of applied ethics that Kristol failed was the U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003. He and Robert Kagan were among the nation’s leading advocates for that invasion, and the only reason they weren’t the most effective was that George W. Bush, and not they, got to be the one to lie to Congress about the possibility of an Iraqi nuclear-weapons capability. To refresh your memory, most of Congress wasn’t buying what the Bush administration was selling about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as a justification for invasion. The so-called “16 words” in President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address — the suggestion that Iraq was working on nuclear weapons, though the country in fact had no evidence that that was so — got Congress to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which, unlike Desert Storm in 1991, was illegal under the United Nations charter and international law.

Tens of thousands of U.S. service members were killed and wounded, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and the grossly mismanaged occupation of Iraq gave rise to ISIS.

As with torture, Kristol has never repented.

I don’t have a real slam-bang ending here. But in public life some sins really are both disqualifying and unforgivable. Kristol is guilty of at least two, and Davidson should have recognized that fact and chosen a different visiting professor of applied ethics.

 

 

 

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