February 11, 2005

The idea of accountability

Excellent post on the (non)justifiability of torture over at Kos. It got me thinking a bit about Bush's current defense of his policies: his administration had an 'accountability moment' -- the election -- and since the American people apparently approved of his policies, they are now exempt from attributions of blame for their actions prior to the election. Hence, it seems to go, because a slight majority of Americans voted for Bush and his administration, they are not morally responsible for Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, even if they approved of those policies themselves.

This strikes me as completely bizarre in two ways, both of which tie into Bush's rhetoric of moral absolutes. First, it is an explicit argument that one's moral accountability for one's actions can be negated by events after the action in question. Granted, I'm not an ethicist, but the idea of ex post facto exculpatory circumstances strikes me as ludicrous (and, in a legislative setting, in violation of the Constitution): you can't justify stealing a loaf of bread because two days later your boss unexpectedly fired you. There is a legal notion of a statute of limitations: a time limit after which one cannot be prosecuted for a crime; but such a statute must still be in place prior to the crime's committal, and I suspect this is largely pragmatically rather than ethically grounded. By contrast, the background for Bush's moral absolutism is a fundamentalist Christian theology of hellfire and damnation, in which humans are to be divinely judged for all their sins and sentenced to eternal punishment.

The second bizarre contrast is with the explicit, and quite radical, moral relativism of the argument: the citizenry must be actively and self-consciously responsible for determining who may and may not be held morally accountable for their actions. It is not that mere social conventions, out of anyone's real control, have just happened to lead to Bush's moral exemption; rather, the people themselves have granted him this status through their deliberate choice. Most pointedly, it is not God who has determined whether or not to hold these men and women responsible.

All of this is driven home by the fact that this extreme moral relativism is used to justify the methods of prosecution of the war on terror[ism] (the Jus in Bello), while the necessity of its prosecution (the Jus ad Bellum)is justified (by Bush) with moral absolutist rhetoric. (cf. Wikipedia's entry on Just War)

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