“…I’m proud of all the efforts we made to try to lead people to a peaceful resolution.”
—John Kerry, in an interview on MSNBC, when asked if he had any regrets about the Administration’s handling of Syria;
The Sec. of State’s full answer:
Well again, Andrea, I’m going to have a lot of opportunities to be able to look back and digest what choices might have been made. I’m not going to do it now… Except to say to you, very clearly, that I’m proud of all the efforts we made to try to lead people to a peaceful resolution. And in fact, the only solution to Syria will be a peaceful agreement along the lines of what we laid out… and the several communiques that we issued, and the United Nations resolution that we passed. 2254. Those will be the basis for whatever happens, if they get there.
No, I’m not going to call Kerry’s statement an unethical quote, even as close as it came to making my head explode. Fortunately my expectations of John Kerry are basement-level low, from long experience. However, the latest fatuous sentiment from this veteran doofus is provocative and instructive.
In many pursuits, as we discuss here often, whether someone has done the right thing, made the ethical choice, should be evaluated on the basis of whether the conduct was competently considered and arrived at according to facts and ethical considerations before the conduct commenced. Judging its ethical nature afterwards, when factors the decision-maker could not have foreseen or controlled have affected the result, is a fallacy: “It all worked out for the best” and thus the decision must have been ethical. This is consequentialism, and “the ends justifies the means” in its most seductive form.
A very recent example was the Republican leadership’s decision not to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. No, the tactic wasn’t unconstitutional or illegal. It was unethical, however: obstructive, partisan politics defying tradition and fairness. It was also, as I pointed out at the time, stupid. When Obama, knowing of the GOP’s intent, appointed not a flame-breathing left-wing zealot but a moderate-liberal judge of impressive credentials, the GOP majority in the Senate should have rushed to confirm him, knowing well that a nomination by Obama’s presumed successor, Hillary Clinton, would unbalance the Court to a far greater degree.
The GOP lucked out, as we now know. Now President Trump will fill that vacancy on the Court, with major impact on important legal disputes for decades to come. That’s all moral luck, however. The ethics verdict on the conduct still stands. It worked, but it was wrong.
Success is not irrelevant to ethics, of course. Many jobs are ethically complex because getting a desired result is part of the mission. The result and the manner of achieving it are important. If your job is to win the war, you can’t say you did an excellent job if the war was lost. Competence is still an ethical value. A successful CEO’s company does not go belly-up by definition. Government is often analogized to sailing a ship to a destination, or flying a plane, with good reason. Part of the responsibility a government leader has is to make choices that work to the benefit of those governed, and others as well. A captain whose ship sinks cannot say afterwards, “I did one hell of a job.” Continue reading →