Ethics Quiz Time! Which Euphemism Is More Unethical?

Ethics Alarms hates euphemisms, which are usually not intended as delicate ways of describing something controversial, but rather an unethical effort to hide its true nature. Affirmative action…pro-life… pro-choice….all cowardly, all designed to deceive and avoid accountability for one’s actions and views.

Today’s quiz involves a brand new euphemism, cooked up by the Obama administration to describe warfare in Libya that the administration doesn’t want to admit is warfare: kinetic military action!

The Quiz:

Which euphemism is more unethical?


“Enhanced interrogation” for torture (The Bush Administration)



Kinetic military action” for warfare (The Obama Administration)

Here is how to reach your decision: rank A and B in each of three categories…misrepresentation, cowardice, and degree of disrespect and contempt for the intelligence of the American public. First place is worth one point; second gets none. If you rate the category a tie, each gets one-half a point.

Good luck. By the way: there is no wrong answer, since both euphemisms are disgraceful. But let’s see if there is any consensus. I’ll reveal my answer later.

15 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz Time! Which Euphemism Is More Unethical?

  1. Though I’m no Democrat, I’d say Bush ranks higher on misrepresentation (because while ‘kinetic military action’ still at least implies that bombs are being dropped, it’s possible for the term ‘enhanced interrogations’ to include actions that don’t necessitate cruel and unusual physical and psychological torment), and therefore ranks higher on the cowardice scale as well. They tie in the degree of disrespect and contempt for the public, though, while Obama’s administration is fooling even less people than Bush’s, the latter’s team was banking (to a greater degree than our current administration) on the public to be too lazy to figure out what their term really meant.

    • Kudos for flagging the interesting distinction that Bush’s false label is more likely to fool people. I score that a point for Obama is the public insult category…just barely. This raises the conundrum visited here before: is the ineffective lie more ethical than the effective one, since nobody is likely to believe it?

      • I’d honestly make them tie, if only because the intent tends to be the same. (The real question is whether a dumb but honest politician is better than a smart but conniving one).

  2. What about ‘exceptional’ children for children with learning disabilities. You can just see people using the air quotes when they say it. First, they were learning disabled, then they were ‘special’ (think Dana Carvey as the Church Lady saying it), now they are ‘exceptional’.

    • Excellent. The uses of “special’ and “exceptional” for handicapped are particularly deceitful, as they convey no useful information except misleading information. Imagine a store holding a “special sale” in which the prices were higher and the merchandise especially shoddy. using words with positive connotations to describe conditions that are anything but positive is the essence of dishonesty.

      • You pretty much compared a handicapped child to “shoddy merchandise”.
        There are instances where handicapped children are quite overtly exceptional (see “autistic savant”). They aren’t any less human and its especially ironic that this is being said on an “ethics alarm” blog.

        so yeah, uh, that was kind of an ignorant and disrespectful thing to say.

        • Obscuring truth is neither honest nor virtuous. Autistic or otherwise, ill or handicapped children are fully human and worthy of love, autonomy and respect, but that does not make it either ethical, sensible, virtuous or wise to use linguistic deceit to mislead people about what their problems are. Obscuring the truth is hiding the truth…”special” tells us nothing; “exceptional” is infantile deception in most cases. Obviously savants are exceptional; there was nothing in the post about savants, who are most fairly described as “savants”, not “exceptional”, which could just as easily mean they are ten feet tall or purple. This an ethics site indeed, which means that it neither engages in or endorses politically-correct coded speech deigned to place “sensitivity” above communication.

          I did not compare handicapped children to shoddy goods, and I am not responsible for the fictions of compassion bullies, like you, who would manufacture that disgusting comparison out of what I actually wrote. Sadly, you may be be too enamored of phony ethics to comprehend the real thing. You’re welcome to try to learn here, but I won’t put up with another attempt to put words in my mouth from someone who is afraid to put accurate words in his own. So yeah, what I said was neither ignorant nor disrespectful, but what you wrote was. Exceptionally so.

          • Well, you did follow up your comments on “handicapped” with a comparative example.

            “…using words with positive connotations to describe conditions that are anything but positive is the essence of dishonesty.”
            Even if you didn’t make that direct comparison, you have clearly said the condition is anything but positive.

            The point is that, if you have worked with autistic children, if you have met them and become familiar with them, then yes, you may come to a point where you can’t describe them as anything but “special”. Maybe someone with a larger vocabulary could do better. It is not always an attempt at political correctness, or measure of sensitivity. “Special” is an attempt to shed new light on what might have been cast off and deemed as “retarded”

            “The uses of “special’ and “exceptional” for handicapped are particularly deceitful”

            To criticise something for “obscuring truth” when you have little experience of the “truth” yourself in this case seems a little uh… I don’t know, maybe you could find a suitable word?

            I didn’t want an argument from this and I certainly don’t want to be a bully, it was never my intent, but being politically correct is not in my agenda either.

  3. I think Julian’s analysis is a good one. I’d add that “kinetic military action” at least has the small virtue of sounding like a euphemism (or at least like jargon). My first response is to suspect some sort of misrepresentation, to wonder “what the hell does that mean in English?”. No such bells went off the first time I heard “enhanced intrerrogation.” Whether that means the Bush administration was more actively and intentionally deceptive than the Obama administration, or just better at it with respect to these particular examples, I couldn’t say.

  4. Bush’s linguistic lie (euphemism) is the worse.

    In considering the “exceptional”, think of what has come up in the last few years: children (and adults) are no longer “disabled”, they are “differently abled”.

    I don’t completely understand the difference between “disabled” and “crippled” (and I live in a wheelchair). Except that “crippled” lends itself to a nice short pejorative “crip”. What can you do with “disabled” – “dissed”? Whole different meaning.

  5. I think “kinetic military action” is much worse as a euphemism. I understood immediately that “enhanced interrogation” was some form of torture (what else could it mean?). I have no idea what kinetic military action could mean. I just implies that the military action involves movement (of troops? warships? missiles?). It is just not clear. “Enhanced interrogation” was perfectly clear. It was as clear as the phrase “enhanced beatings”. It was obvious that this was not a good thing.

  6. I give Bush the win. “Kinetic military action” is incomprehensible; it isn’t so much a lie that people will not believe, as something that makes you say “huh?” “Enhanced interrogation” is much more likely to be viewed as something good, when it isn’t.

    Incidentally, how do you come out on “police action”, which is what the Korean War was? (At least now, sixty years later, we’re honest enough to call it a war. The US hasn’t formally declared war on anyone since 1942.)

  7. Okay, here’s how I scored it:
    On misrepresentation: Bush 1. Kinetic military action SOUNDS like warfare. “Enhanced interrogation” could be an interview with soft music and comfy chairs. Cowardice: .5 points to each–a tie. Degree of disrespect: I’m more insulted by “KMA” because its is sooooo stupid and so obviously a way to avoid saying war when everyone knows that dropping bombs on a country is an act of war. It’s worse that calling the Vietnam war a “conflict,” which was like pretending it was a dispute between neighbors over playing the music too loud. Obama gets the point.

    Result: a tie. I do hate the torture euphemism more, though.

  8. I would think that Bush’s euphemism would have a higher unethical rating, mostly because the act of interrogation is done behind closed doors, away from the public eye. So, to ‘color’ an action (especially when he was a proponent of ‘with or against us’ or that things are black and white) that is being performed behind closed doors is more insidious that one performed in front of our eyes.

    Of course, I agree, the latter takes us for stupid. That makes Obama’s statement stupid and idiotic, but Bush’s more unethical.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.