While waiting for a dentist's appointment this morning I took a look at a Time magazine from last month and was mildly irritated by its attempt to defend Obamacare. The author described a deliberate lie about people being able to keep their insurance if they wanted to as the administration being insufficiently clear—I do not have the magazine with me so can't offer an exact quote. And he echoed the Administration talking point that represented all existing policies that did not cover everything the ACA requires, including contraception, as worthless junk that people only bought because they were desperate for insurance. Which left me wondering about the author of that particular piece of partisan puffery disguised as news commentary. My guess is that, dosed with truth serum or in a sufficiently private conversation with a trusted friend, he would admit that the Administration's claim was a deliberate lie but justify it on the grounds that it was necessary in order to get a good law passed.
It is not an absurd position. "The end justifies the means" is usually stated as if it were obviously false, but it is not clear that it is. Most of us would be, I think should be, willing to do things we would usually disapprove of in order to achieve a sufficiently good result. To what degree ends do or do not justify means is, as it happens, one of the subthemes of my second novel
, where an antagonist who is not a villain behaves very badly to my protagonists for good, from his standpoint sufficiently good, reasons.
It occurred to me to wonder if the author of the Time piece or others with similar views would accept the same argument applied to a previous instance and a different President, if they would agree that, while the facts it was based on might be mistaken, the moral reasoning was correct.
Imagine that you are President Bush and that you believe the following:
1. Saddam Hussein is a murderous tyrant whose people would be far better off without him.
2. If he is overthrown by the U.S., his government can be replaced by a reasonably free and democratic one which will serve as a model to convert other dictatorships in the region into free and democratic societies.
3. Points 1 and 2 will not be sufficient to persuade the American people to support an invasion of Iraq. They would, however, support such an invasion if they believed that Hussein was producing weapons of mass destruction.
4. While it is possible that Hussein is producing weapons of mass destruction, the evidence is very strong that he is not.
Would you be justified in pretending to have good evidence of WMD's in order to get sufficient public support to make possible a U.S. invasion of Iraq?
The logic is the same as in the case of Obamacare—lying to the public in order to make possible policies you consider highly desirable.
In both cases, the argument hinges on factual beliefs. Point 2 above turned out to be strikingly false. Obamacare will, I think, turn out to have been a very serious mistake. But the question I am asking is not whether the beliefs were correct but whether the moral argument is. If Bush believed points 1 to 4, was he justified, in terms of those beliefs, in lying to the American people? If Obama believed that the ACA would greatly improve American health care, was he?
And, perhaps most interesting, would people who answered "yes" to the second question be willing to give the same answer to the first?