Note To The News Media: Stop Encouraging Consequentialism!

Marco Rubio gallantly stood up to Fox’s Chris Wallace as the news anchor repeatedly asked him whether “knowing what we know now,” it was a mistake to invade Iraq in 2001. The previous version of the question that inexplicably tripped up Jeb Bush was self-answering: knowing how badly it would work out, no sane leader would make that decision, but since nobody can see into the future, it is like asking if we should have recruited Superman to help out U.S. troops if, you know, he was real. Wallace’s question, if possible, is worse. It validates the ethics rotting principle of consequentialism, in which we judge an action by its unpredictable results.

An decision is only a mistake if it was badly reasoned based on the information the decision-maker had at the time the decision was made. It does not become a mistake based on subsequent, unknowable events. Similarly, an action doesn’t become ethical just because it worked out well, or unethical because it didn’t. This misconception is rampant among the public, and leads to bad policy, bad decision-making, bad leadership, bad lots of things. It is bad.

Hectored by Wallace, Sen. Rubio, who does understand that “mistake” doesn’t mean what Wallace was implying it does, kept saying, “No, it was not a mistake, because it was the right decision based on what we knew at the time.” Now, you can argue that the decision was the wrong one based on that information, but that’s not what Wallace was asking…and asking, and asking. He obviously thinks “mistake” is defined as a decision that doesn’t work out the way the decision-maker hoped. Wrong.

Chris Wallace was making his audience dumber and less ethically astute. We judge actions and decisions based on the quality of the choice when it is made, which includes a rational, well-reasoned analysis of its likely results. By Wallace’s logic, driving home from the Christmas party smashed is only a mistake if you crash, kill someone, or get arrested.  The sober party goer who gets killed by a drunk driver as he drives home, in Wallace’s reasoning, made a mistake going to the party at all. The lesson, apparently, is that its a mistake to go to parties.

This is how incompetent and arrogant journalists made us dumber, and our leaders so risk averse that they are incompetent.

By the way, on CNN this morning, the gang is making fun of Rubio, like he’s the idiot. Of course. After all, he’s a Republican.

16 thoughts on “Note To The News Media: Stop Encouraging Consequentialism!

  1. Hindsight is a marvelous tool. Does Sears still sell it?

    Using your drunk driving analogy I am sure Wallace would not drive – he’d let Foster Brooks drive.

  2. Gotta keep everything GWB did wrong fresh in everyone’s mind and bury everything Obama did wrong so that no one will vote GOP this time out.

  3. Here’s something that always bothers me about “given how things turned out” hypotheticals. We have no idea what would have actually happened had we not gone in. For all we know, Iraq would have drawn so much attention away from Iran that it would have successfully gotten a nuke by now… I don’t think it’s likely, but we don’t have an alternate universe to actually check.

  4. I don’t really understand how a journalist can ask ANY question that starts out with “Given what we know now…”. Especially if someone whom is trusted just outright lies to the decision maker. In those circumstances, I would suspect that a truly informed and reasonable decision would be very difficult to make as would accurately predicting the consequences of the decision. Hence, there would not BE a “…what we know now…”.

  5. Given what you know now, would you have watched Fox News or CNN?
    Idiot questions such as Chris Wallace should be answered with another question: “Given what you know now, would you have reported the same story?” In an event such as the invasion of Iraq, the media have to share the blame for not warning about the failures that inevitably occurred.

    • The failures weren’t any more or less likely with Iraq than any war. As for the networks, the “mistake” misnomer has been on all four networks, CNN, MSNBC, the Times, the Post, and by numerous pundits. It’s a media driven story, and Fox started it with Megyn Kelly’s question, which did not use the term “mistake.”

    • My point was that there were many people, in and out of government, who foresaw the folly of the Iraq campaign. I don’t recall that they received much attention, given what I know now.
      BTW, “Given what I know now” is a good opening for a politician’s nonanswer. Abbreviation GWIKN. Pronounced “Gwicken.” If used as verb, past tense would be “gwickened.”

      • The mistake principle works the same way in reverse. The fact that someone’s prognostication happens to work out doesn’t mean it was necessarily wise or right. How many people “foresaw” Abu Graib? Did they foresee another President withdrawing troops prematurely?

        Nor are the opinions/assertions of others who don’t have to actually make a decision capable of being “mistakes.” There is no cost…they are just opinions. An opinion, or a guess, can be right or wrong, but there’s no accountability. I heard Janeane Garafalo scream on AL Gore’s defunct liberal talk radio network that an Iraq invasion would involve a million deaths. Is wrongly predicting who will win the Super Bowl a mistake?

        For those who actually have to be accountable for decisions that don’t work out as planned, the “mistake” fallacy encourages timid, tardy, risk-averse non-leadership.

  6. Given what we know now, it would have been a good idea for someone to shoot baby Hitler.
    Therefore I blame the Holocaust on all of the fools and cowards who had the opportunity to shoot baby Hitler, and didn’t do it. Bunch of bad decision-makers.

  7. I find that substituting technological considerations for ethical considerations helps to clearly expose the fallacy. Given what we know now, the silent movies that were made in the early 1920s were a mistake. They should have made those films in full color with Dolby surround sound.

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