The Bill Maher Ethical Conundrum


“One of these things is not like the other…”


The Bill Maher Ethics Conundrum is not what you probably think it is.

Maher, the alleged comic and anti-conservative scold who hosts an HBO program, was chosen by a student committee to be the  commencement speaker for the University of California-Berkeley’s December graduation. This was a lazy, embarrassingly juvenile and politically-loaded selection, but Maher had also just recently used his show to join fellow atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris in a condemnation of Islam, calling it  “the only religion that acts like the mafia that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” Later on Maher nodded approvingly  as Harris also called Islam”the mother lode of bad ideas.”

This caused Muslim students at Berkeley to prove Maher correct about their religion’s entrenched intolerance of opposition, and they have been joined by other political correctness censors in the student body—there are a lot of them—to demand that the university rescind Maher’s invitation because of his “hate speech.”A petition—-now THAT site is the real mother lode of bad ideas—now urges students to boycott the decision and asks the campus to stop him from speaking. It has gathered more than 1,400 signatures. The committee that chose Maher, naturally, backed down, but the University, so far at least, is sticking to its decision to invite him.

Yes, yes, universities ought to be marketplaces of ideas where all views are welcome, and yes, it is hypocritical and offends the traditions of liberal education to stop Maher from stating his views on Islam, or re-telling “The Aristocrats,” or making a fool of himself, or whatever he’s going to do because some students or all students disagree with him, just as it was for Rutgers students to force Condolezza Rice into withdrawing after she was invited to speak at Rutgers. The dilemma illustrated by this flap is a classic ethics problem, which I will henceforth call the Bill Maher Conundrum, which has been long debated and never decisively settled:

Is the ethical nature of an act defined by its intent, or by an objective assessment of the act alone without reference to motive?

Like so many problems in ethics, the best answer we have been able to agree on is “It depends.” In real life, as opposed to  ethics hypotheticals in books or seminars, few acts have unmixed motives at their origin, and even the kindest, most altruistic conduct may have some selfish, non-ethical or even unethical motivations behind it. What proportion of pure motives compared to baser motives allows us to mark an action or a decision as ethical? 99%? Anything over 50%? Or is a single ethical motivation, among many unethical ones, enough to salvage an act’s ethical status, as long as that motivation is sufficiently virtuous? Does it matter if the ethical reason to do something is the decisive one? Can one unethical but catalyzing rationale single-handedly cancel the virtue of an otherwise ethical act?

The Maher controversy is a perfect example of this problem. For it is beyond reasonable debate that Bill Maher is about as unqualified to be a commencement speaker at any institution of higher learning as Kim Kardashian, a bad Elvis impersonator, Honey Boo Boo or a pet rock. If Berkeley students protested his invitation as an insult to them, Berkeley and their high-priced education,  a source of embarrassment, and a waste of money, it would be an ethically unassailable protest. (I will stipulate that there is a valid, though not decisive,  counter-argument that it would be unfair to Maher and thus unethical to withdraw an invitation once he accepts it without a legitimately disqualifying intervening event.)

In an unintentionally amusing defense of Maher’s invitation, Huffington Post writer Brian Levin actually wrote this howler:

“There has been a disturbing, often de facto, censorship of important, yet controversial speakers, by a community of progressives, to which I belong.”

Uh-huh. And what does that have to do with Bill Maher? The man is not articulate; he is not witty. He does not seek out the absurdities and hypocrisies of modern life and politics; he is not an accomplished author. Maher is an uncivil, completely predictable conservative and/or Republican-bashing hack, who has made his mean-spirited and unvarying views on them (they are all idiots and racists), religion (he hates all of them), drugs (he’s all for them), adultery and promiscuous sex (Go for it!) and marriage (he’s against it), without ever uttering a line or a phrase that wouldn’t turn up in the average late night bull session in a sophomore dorm. He calls women he disagrees with cunts, twats and twinks, regularly and without apology (and without serious criticism from Democratic “war on women” troops). This isn’t Will Rogers, Mark Twain, Mort Saul, Groucho, Dick Cavett or even Lenny Bruce we’re talking about here. This is a snide and arrogant vulgarian who has said trenchant, thought-provoking thing like these (to the cheers of his knee-jerk studio claque):

  • “At least half of the [Ten] Commandments are stupid!”
  • “You can’t be a rational person six days a week and on one day of the week, go to a building, and think you are drinking the blood of a two thousand year old space god. That doesn’t make you a person of faith…, that makes you a schizophrenic.”
  • “But I’ve often said that if I had – I have two dogs – if I had two retarded children, I’d be a hero. And yet the dogs, which are pretty much the same thing. What? They’re sweet. They’re loving. They’re kind, but they don’t mentally advance at all. … Dogs are like retarded children.”
  • “Again, (America is) a stupid country with stupid people who don’t pay attention.”

Forget about the content. Christopher Hutchins, Ambrose Beirce, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Levant, Dorothy Parker, hell, even Joan Rivers, could utter such controversial sentiments in ways that prompt thought and debate as well as laughter and anger. Maher’s command of critical thought and rhetoric  barely meet to the minimal levels Berkeley students should have to demonstrate to get a degree. He has no credentials, or experience. He’s built nothing, led nothing. The only reason Bill Maher has any name recognition is that he’s on cable TV—you know, like the Duck Dynasty— and calls public servants better than he is names sufficiently vile to attract publicity.

For students to protest Maher being invited to speak at commencement instead of the tens, hundreds of thousands of Americans who are better qualified would be responsible and ethical beyond question. He shouldn’t speak at commencement, not anywhere, at least nowhere that confers stature and prestige. Let people who think he’s clever go to his stand-up concerts, or clap like seals in his HBO studio audience. Maher adds nothing but ugliness and hate to public discourse.

Back to the Huffington Post “defense”: Levine engages in a classic “It’s not the worst thing” rationalization, noting that Berkeley has often invited even bigger fools.

Oh, well then, objection withdrawn!

The problem is that the current protesters at Berkeley aren’t trying to block Maher for the right reasons, but for a dangerous, censorious, intellectually stifling and crippling  one. As Patrick from Popehat wrote in the surprising forum (for him) of The Federalist,

“As hard as it may be to believe, the phrase “Banned in Boston” was once used by book publishers as a badge of honor, to note a work of cultural, political (or erotic) significance too dangerous to be allowed in a town dominated by pious bluebloods. Today the phrase “Banned at Berkeley” could be used in much the same way…If the purpose of a liberal education is to make young men and women worldly, they’re going to have to roll up their sleeves and wrestle in the mud with unpleasant thoughts…A liberal curriculum that shields its students from opposing views serves them poorly indeed. Outside the groves of academe, in the real world of horrible jobs, the best and brightest of Berkeley won’t be protected from such heresy. They’ll have to engage with the Bill Mahers of this world as best they can, and they might as well learn to do so in college, by wallowing in such ideas.”*

So now, I guess, since those trying to oust Maher have announced an unethical motive—daring to utter politically incorrect opinions—for doing so, the fact that they would have an extremely responsible and ethical motive for making the same demand if they simply insisted that he wasn’t qualified for the honor is to no avail. The otherwise ethical act of trying to protect Berkeley’s academic integrity by not giving an unqualified pundit an honor he doesn’t deserve has been irreparably ruined by the wrong motivation.

Or has it?

Welcome to the Bill Maher Conundrum!

* Note: Patrick agrees that Maher’s comments on Islam constitute “hate speech.” Baloney. They were about the least hateful thing he has uttered, because for the most part, he and Harris were correct. It is a toxic religion that has nurtured repressive, backward cultures. Res ipsa loquitur.


Source: Huffington Post, The Federalist

45 thoughts on “The Bill Maher Ethical Conundrum

  1. Fantastic piece, Jack! In this day and age, however, do you think Berkeley would retract their invitation for any reason not involving some sort of hate against a religion or race? It seems like that would be the only reason powerful enough (in the eyes of Berkeley, not myself) to have Maher not speak.

    • Agreed, George, that this is a fantastic piece, but then, rarely is Jack other than fantastic. Just an FYI, hate speech against Christianity would be perfectly acceptable at Berkeley, as would hate speech against white males. Or, Republicans/Conservatives. Quite frankly, I’m rather happy that, so far, at least, Berkeley is sticking to it’s guns. Having screwed the pooch in the first place, you kind of have to bite the bullet and suffer the consequences of an incredibly BAD decision.

  2. “The man is not articulate; he is not witty. He does not seek out the absurdities and hypocrisies of modern life and politics; he is not an accomplished author.”

    You can hate him — that is your right — but he is an accomplished author. He has written numerous books, in addition to providing constant content for his TV show. I think he is very articulate and witty, although (in my opinion) I think he crosses the line about 10% of the time. He is also a double-grad from Cornell and a very successful businessman. OF COURSE he is qualified to give a commencement speech.

    • I find no examples of skill at expression at all,unless it is written for him beforehand, by others. Show me one. A video will do. Articulate people don’t feel th need to use fuck, twat and shit every other sentence. The quotes I put forth were typical.

      I certainly don’t hate him. I think the practice of elevating comedians above their expertise and status is an offense to the education system. He is in the faux group of unqualified pundits who have done and written nothing to suggest any special insight, and have deluded themselves otherwise.

      I’ll accept your correction about authorship, sort of. He has a celebrity vanity novel (like Newt Gingrich and others who get them published out of name recognition alone), a couple of sub-200 page disposable airplane books stitched out of material he has delivered in stand-up routines, and collections of segments from his shows. I don’t call that being an “accomplished author,”: I call that canny merchandising. Maher himself has said in interviews that he doesn’t read books himself and prefers to wing it. He’s not a “double grad”…he had a double major. What does that prove? He proudly claims that he worked his way through college selling drugs? Role model? Good citizen? He’s a professional ass-hole, like Ann Coulter.

      Regarding Maher, who deals primarily in sarcasm and ridicule, as witty just shows how much popular culture has degraded wit.

    • And by the way…name me another qualified liberal arts college commencement speaker who 10% of the time does things like calling congresswomen, female anchorwomen and Vice-Presidential candidates cunts, twats and twinks, while comparing special needs kids with animals? My guess, none…because such people are irresponsible boors. No boor is boorish 100% of the time. You know, a modicum of dignity and professionalism is usually mandatory. It’s ridiculous for you to defend a smug misogynist like Maher with inconsequential credentials like a college degree from a second tier Ivy and a few quickie books produced to capitalize on cable celebrity. I repeat: any protests based on the fact that Maher is disgraceful choice on merit are fair and responsible. Opposing him because of the content of the political views is wrong.

      • “Second Tier Ivy?” Elitist much? Cornell is a fantastic school. I’m still a little ashamed that its law school wait-listed me. As for Maher’s sensational comments, you’re right, I think he crosses the line A LOT. But you are focused too much on the delivery — it doesn’t mean that the message isn’t sound.

        At the end of the day, he is a comedian. He should not be held to the same standard as other pundits (Democrat or Republican) re language choice. If Ann Coulter was remotely funny, I would defend her too.

        • Sorry, Beth, at the end of the day Bill is, as Jack well put it above, a professional asshole. He has raised being an asshole to an art form. If he just stayed with being a comedian, I would agree with what you said, but he is not a comedian who is all about entertaining, a la the list of wits Jack named, to which I would add the sadly departed Robin Williams and political pianist Mark Russell. All of them could make anyone laugh, while at the same time also making folks think and admit to holes in their assumption, hypocrisy, and life’s little imperfections. Bill makes his selected audience, mostly bitter, arrogant liberals who applaud his conservative-bashing and twentysomethings who applaud his libertine approach to life, laugh and pat themselves on the back for being so much smarter than everyone who doesn’t think like they do. He offends everyone else by frankly, conduct most of us wouldn’t accept in someone not on the tube.

          He also fancies himself a political pundit, same as someone like a Sarah Silverman or now-Senator Al Franken or a host of other folks who are unapologetically vicious with their politics, then use their status as “comedians” as a get-out-of-trouble-free card they can just swipe and wipe out any consequences, the same as back in school our classmates would play frankly cruel jokes and then ask us why we couldn’t take a joke. As such, he is subject to a different standard than a pure entertainer. I am aware of what Jack calls the jester’s privilege, and I am ok with it, if it’s used to fairly point up some of the things I mentioned above or to cushion the blow of bad things that happen. However, like any privilege, it’s not made of taffy and only stretches so far. Time and again Bill has exceeded it by a wide margin, and I’m partly surprised that a feminist like yourself would defend someone like him. I say partly surprised because feminists also defended Bill Clinton, so it does not surprise me too much when they look the other way on decidedly anti-woman personal behavior by someone who says all the right things about abortion, equal pay, etc., and hates all the people they hate.

          Frankly I’d rank him in the top ten professional assholes in the world, right in the company of liar Michael Moore, hate-spewer Dan Savage (who I guess would also rank as inarticulate under Jack’s standards here due to his inability to not use a sentence without saying fuck), unhinged bile-spewer Cindy Sheehan, and even ahead of a certain cartoonist named Ted, whose politics suck, but who at least makes a valid point now and then about a few things (bullying, Obama’s failure to deliver on promises, etc.) and who can at least shape and articulate his points without resorting to extremely foul language every other sentence.

          You are really barking up the wrong tree with this defense.

          • Hmmm…Top 10 assholes? Quickly, in no special order, 12:

            Maher, Coulter, Donald Trump, Harry Reid, Newt, Paul Begala, Michael Savage, Dick Morris, Michael Moore, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Ed Schultz, Carol Costello.

            • Not bad, although I keep a separate list for jerky political figures, topped by Rahm “dead fish” Emanuel, which is separate from the list of political figures who actually abused their office, who are worse than assholes, they are criminals.

        • Cornell is a second tier Ivy, which only matters if you are going to try to use a simple college degree as a credential after 40. (I think using a college degree of any kind is irrelevant and desperate, and unless the school is the Sorbonne, Oxford, MIT, Cal Tech, Harvard, Stanford or Yale, embarrassing).

          If Maher was posing as a comedian, then he just needs to put on a show. He’s like Stewart and Colbert, though, or Rush. He is sold as a substantive pundit, and like the others (besides Limbaugh, who doesn’t play the game), tries to have it both ways. Sorry: he doesn’t have the creds to be a pundit, and his attempted punditry consists of ad hominem attacks, bigotry and hate. And he has forfeited that lower comedian’s standard.

          • Just checked: of the Ivies, Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Columbia make the top 10 in most rankings, Dartmouth, Cornell and Brown are in the next ten. It’s been about like that for decades. I don’t think it matters, but we’re talking prestige.

            • He is a satirist and provocateur, just like the others. He is frequently funny; he includes scripted comedy bits on his show, though not as often as he once did. His show is at least 50% entertainment: Maher uses sarcasm, Rush’s tool of choice is hyperbole. Typically liberals don’t get the jokes, because he’s making fun of them, or intentionally sticking his finger in their eyes.

            • From Wikipedia:

              William “Bill” Maher, Jr. is an American stand-up comedian, television host, political commentator, writer, producer, and actor. Before his current role as the host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher hosted a similar late-night talk show called Politically Incorrect, originally on Comedy Central and later on ABC.

              Rush Hudson Limbaugh III is an American entertainer, radio talk show host, writer, and conservative political commentator. Since he was 16, Limbaugh has worked a series of disc jockey jobs. His talk show began in 1984 at Sacramento radio station KFBK, featuring his ongoing format of political commentary and listener calls.

              You’re really going to draw distinctions between these two? Really?

                • “If Maher was posing as a comedian, then he just needs to put on a show. He’s like Stewart and Colbert, though, or Rush. He is sold as a substantive pundit, and like the others (besides Limbaugh, who doesn’t play the game), tries to have it both ways. -Jack”

                  Let’s parse this to see where you stumbled.

                  The focus isn’t on “comedian”. The focus is on pundit / political commentator. Note the 2nd sentence, where Maher is compared to Stewart and Colbert and Rush with the term “though”, this indicates that considering Maher as a “comedian” is errant given that he is “sold as a substantive pundit” (as communicated in the 3rd sentence).

                  This is problem with Jester’s Privilege and how Lefties, such as yourself, use it to irresponsible ends. Jester’s Privilege (in my opinion) is forfeit as soon as “Jesters” step into serious commentary, which Maher does. He doesn’t get comedian protection like you’d love to afford him – therefore he is comparable to Rush and the others.

                  This is also why in HT’s Wikipedia excerpts, with “commentator” being the actual focus of this, Maher’s comedian line and Rush’s entertainer line become fair comparisons.

                  Now, this is where you usually sign off with a one liner to the effect of “I’m not responding to that gibberish”

                  • My focus is not on punditry but on comedy. Dennis Miller was/is a right-wing comic, and I have defended every thing he ever said. Comedians are allowed to offend, pure pundits are not.

                    Maher DOES put on a show. I just saw him recently in DC do his stand-up act. In case you missed it (snort), I can assure you that he makes fun of Democrats too. I can’t count the number of Clinton and Weiner jokes that he has made.

                    You haven’t written gibberish here — your analysis is just moot in my mind because we don’t agree as to the test to be employed.

                    Here is how I rank these “entertainers/people on TV or radio” — Maher is similar to Miller, both are comedians who use comedy to comment on politics. I give them more license than I do other entertainers because their primary goal is to make us laugh. Rush is an “entertainer” but not a “comedian” similar to a Keith Olbermann. They need to be a bit more careful with language choices because they are primarily engaged in punditry, but are trying to put it in a form more palatable to the general masses so we will stay engaged. The next category down would be someone like Moore. He represents himself to be a serious documentary director. Well, okay, but Moore better be damn sure that he is careful. Final category on my list would be shows like Face the Nation or the other Sunday morning talk shows. Their purported purpose is to educate, not entertain, so they have to be the most careful with word choice and presentation.

                    • Rush is an “entertainer” but not a “comedian” similar to a Keith Olbermann. Missing comma, I hope? Because I agree that Olbermann is a fair comp to Rush. He’s also never was a comedian…but neither is Maher on his show. (Olbermann is also wittier, funnier and smarter than Maher…and would never use the word “cunt” in his commentary. If you watch Olberman’s current show on ESPN, its is essen taill a sports Daily Show…and yet you are saying that Stewart and Maher get the jester’s privilege when they are engaged in punditry, but Olbermann and Rush don’t.

                      Miller at this point is indistinguishable from any other right wing radio talk host, except that he sounds like he doesn’t give a damn.

                    • Yes, I was putting Olbermann and Rush in the same camp. Maddow belongs there too.

                      And Maher rarely swears when he is giving interviews. At least I have never seen it. He tends to say his more controversial things during his HBO show.

                      I don’t think Olbermann is funny — in fact, I think he is a bit of an ass too. But that is all subjective. I would loved to have had any of these people (including Rush) speak at one of my commencement ceremonies.

                      And yes, I am saying that Maher and Stewart get the Jester’s privilege and Rush, Olbermann, and Moore do not. I haven’t listened to Miller’s talk show but I have watched his stand-up act — which is very similar in approach to Maher’s.

                    • I think she’s tied up with the word “Jester” and thinks it means the person receiving the privilege must be a comedian, as opposed to the actual meaning of the term, which would include entertainers. I mean, what jester is history used, sarcasm, wit, or satire, right? Or made jokes you didn’t immediately devolve into choruses of snickers to?

                      I used to think that Beth was being deliberately obtuse in the interest of partisanship, now I’m not so sure. Something as blatant as this, I’m not sure if it’s worth the fight.

                    • How am I partisan if I say the right equally applies to Miller and Maher?

                      Comedians always offend people — one of the risks of being a comedian is that certain jokes will fall flat or cross a line — and that line is different for each and every person. So yes, I am applying the word “Jester” literally.

                      The only one suffering from partisan bias is you.

                    • Your position in this case is not partisan at all, Beth…especially since you said that Rush would be an acceptable commencement speaker. (I think he’s be a phenomenal one, especially at a place like Berkeley, if they had the guts to invite him)

                    • I think you’re tied up with the word “partisan” and think it means the party in question must be political. Although that could be a dialect difference between Canada and America, in which case I apologise. Substitute “partisan” with “entrenched and argumentative”.

                      Regardless, your insistence that “jester” must mean “comedian” is wrong. it just is. It is in a historical context, it is in a contemporary context, you are trying to redefine the term to suit your argument, and I don’t think we need to argue this out any more.

                    • I like Wikipedia.

                      “A jester was a historical entertainer either employed to entertain a ruler or other nobility in medieval or Tudor times or was an itinerant performer who entertained common folk at fairs and markets. Jesters in medieval times are often thought to have worn brightly coloured clothes and eccentric hats in a motley pattern and their modern counterparts usually mimic this costume. In medieval times jesters entertained with a wide variety of skills which could include songs, music, storytelling, acrobatics, juggling, and magic. Much of the entertainment was performed in a comic style and many jesters made contemporary jokes in word or song about people or events well known to their audiences.”

                      Just saying.

  3. When I saw this ‘controversy’, I just wondered if it was possible for Berkeley to find a speaker who was politically correct enough for them. I just thought, wow, if Bill Maher isn’t liberal enough for them, who is?

    If they really wanted to show they are dedicated to the marketplace of ideas, they would have invited someone like George Will. Instead, they tried to find someone they thought embodied all of their good, liberal, ideals about hating others and that anyone who doesn’t think the way they do is stupid. Then they found out that Maher hates a group that they have (quite puzzlingly) decided should not be hated.

    I just wonder what the Berkeley student-group checklist for selecting a commencement speaker looks like.

    Candidate Must Hate Candidate Can’t Hate
    Christians Muslims

    Jews (if they oppose Palistinians) Jews (other times)

    Whites Minorities (except maybe Asians)

    Conservatives Liberals

    people against drug use drug users/dealers/pro-legalization

    the USA Any foreign government, no matter how

    freedom liberal totalitarianism

    expression speech codes

    responsibility government bailouts for personal

    police powers to eavesdrop expanded police powers to eavesdrop
    and prosecute minorities and prosecute ‘whites’ for ‘hate crimes’
    for any crime

    legal immigration illegal immigration

  4. So in summary the conundrum is this: Bill Maher shouldn’t be invited as a commencement speaker because of his lack of qualifications, and protesting his invitation is a good thing (even though the protest is based on a stupid reason also, not on his lack of qualifications).

    As stupid as it is to have invited him, now the question is, should they cave to protests or stand up against them. I’d say stand up against them.

    • Me too.
      This generally occurs in HR situations. Say there’s a lousy employee that you are getting ready to fire for cause, and it will be a slam dunk. Then she accuses a supervisor of sexual harassment. Now you can’t fire her, because it would be seen as retaliation by the rest of the staff, and chill their willingness to report misconduct. This is true even if you know that her accusation is a bogus one, and part of her over-all record of causing trouble.

      Still, I agree that you can’t fire her now, just as you can’t dis-invite Maher for his anti-Islam comments.

    • I can’t say that protesting them FOR THIS REASON is a good thing, though. Protesting it generally, yes.
      My favorite version of the conundrum, having long argued that the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima was ethical, is this: would it still have been justifiable ethical if Truman wrote in his memoirs, “It was a tough decision. Ultimately, what tipped the sales is that I just loved the idea of broiling a bunch of Japs, especially the kids.” ????

      • “It was a tough decision. Ultimately, what tipped the sales is that I just loved the idea of broiling a bunch of Japs, especially the kids.”

        I’m sure there’s a fallacy name for this somewhere, but I’ll call it the “winning touchdown fallacy”.

        In a close game 21-21, the final play, the running back barely makes it in for a touchdown. Everyone hails this as the “winning touchdown”. But in reality it wasn’t the winning touchdown, because the team wouldn’t have won without the 1st touchdown they made either…or the 2nd or the 3rd and all the extra points — every point made by the winning team is a winning touchdown.

        I find it a really really odd hypothetical to consider in Truman’s case. It would imply that there would have been just as many tactical/strategic options available to use not involving the bomb that would also have avoided the atrocious expected casualty rate of a mainland invasion; enough to balance the debate where the desire to fry Japanese children would tip the scale.

        But let’s say that indeed that was the case – that there must have been other tactical/strategic options available that also would reduce the expected casualty rate (the real math in that ethical decision was lives), then YES the decision based on that consideration becomes unethical.

        If however, in a flip of the “winning touchdown fallacy”, we actually have a team that is up by 28-21 and scores another touchdown, no one would ever call that the winning touchdown…just another score. So, in the Truman hypothetical – perhaps there was overwhelming support for the nuke and the decision was final based on those estimates – but it just so happened to fulfill his deepest desire to cook the youth of Japan, that doesn’t make the decision unethical but Truman himself.

        It certainly allows people to question the decision, but they’d be quickly corrected based on objective analysis of the situation.

        As it pertains to this scenario, I assume we have not dropped the bomb yet, and Truman announces to the nation: “We’ve had to make a tough decision whether or not to save more lives by killing fewer and using the atomic bomb, and I’ve decided that it will allow me to incinerate a whole lot of darling little youngin’s in Hiroshima, so we are going to”.

        I don’t know, I just can’t wrap my head around all the suspensions of disbelief in that hypothetical and all the secondary and tertiary effects of the suspensions of disbelief to decide.

        • Wait, you say Truman would be unethical for making an ethical decision for an unethical reason? TILT!! Doesn’t that mean that given his beliefs, it would have been more ethical for him not to do the ethical thing? That can’t be right.

          • No, in the “winning touchdown fallacy” situation:

            Drop nuke saves millions of lives at cost of hundred thousand (100 points)
            + Desire to Kill Japanese Children Fulfilled (2 points) = 102

            Alternate strategy not involving nuke also saves millions of lives without the loss of hundred thousand civilians* (101 points) = 101

            So, Truman decides to Nuke. In this case, yes, the decision to nuke IS unethical.

            *This suspension of disbelief is necessary for the hypothetical, because no other alternate could be seen to save the countless lives necessary to end the war conventionally.

            In the “running up the score fallacy” situation:

            Drop nuke saves millions of lives at cost of hundred thousand (100 points) + Desire to Kill Japanese Children Fulfilled (2 points) = 102

            Alternate strategy costing millions of lives (20 points) = 20

            So, Truman decides to Nuke. In this case, the decision IS ethical, but only reveals Truman to be a flippin psycho (no matter the weight given to the “Desire to Kill Children” variable).

            • You do know there are plenty of revisionist historians, academics and moralists who insist that dropping the bomb was NOT ethical, and NOT militarily necessary either, right? (Shift the hypo to Nagasaki, if you like.)

              • Every last one of them benefitting from hindsight bias. I don’t doubt we could have simply laid siege to the Islands of Japan for 40 years to end the war. But we can arm-chair general the past and determine that everyone in the past was wrong about everything they did – because we benefit from way more information and way more time to analyze that information.

                I haven’t seen a credible revisionist yet that puts himself in the constraints of decisions makers of the time.

                • Unless a realistic option (given everything experienced to that point) could be derived that cost fewer lives than the combined population of Nagasaki & Hiroshima (which would be a near impossibility), then I don’t see how in “War Ethics” dropping the bomb didn’t make sense. They refused to give up despite battlefield casualties, precision bombing didn’t bring them down, firebombing didn’t bring them down. Barring *complete destruction* of their culture and people down to a few ten thousand survivors, we had to threaten the *complete destruction* of it. Those bombs were the threat, and in the end, saved many more Japanese lives than they took. Revisionists (mostly America haters) can go cry me a river.

              • I think I’ve decided.

                If the only reason Truman decided to nuke Japan was to fry Japanese kids and fulfill his desire to do so (but the nuking of Japan would have been the ethical choice anyway by any other objective analysis), then yes, the decision is unethical even though it had the moral luck of being the right decision with the most ethical results.

                Truman would go down in history as a psychopath and eventually someone with a brain would crunch the numbers and decide, “well, it ended up being the right choice for all the wrong reasons. Lucky us…”

                • That is to say unethically made decisions are unethical, even if the decision made could be reached ethically. We just have to be prepared to explain how the decision-maker’s reasoning is absolutely abhorrent while also explaining why the conclusion was right and explaining why it SHOULD have been right, not why the decision maker thought it was right. All while carefully ensuring we aren’t just retroactively justifying an extremely unethical decision.

                  • To also clarify, I don’t see this as “It Turned Out For the Best”. Because, we wouldn’t use the right conclusion to rationalize the UNETHICAL DECISION MAKING PROCESS used, we’d still condemn that.

                    • Which would prompt me to ask if it is possible to make a decision that is inadvertently ethical. I can’t help but think that whatever motivation we have for making our decisions, no one else can possibly know what that motivation is. Consequently, the only way to judge the ethics of that decision is behaviorally, in other words, by what we do.

      • My feeling, yes, dropping the bomb would have been ethical. Writing that in his memoirs would not have been. Keep in mind that we can never really know what is going on inside someone else’s head. Even when they tell us, they may or may not be telling the truth, so all we have, objectively, is what they do.

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