Saturday, July 26, 2008

McCain Says Obama Would "Rather Lose a War in Order To Win a Political Campaign"

Speaking on July 22, 2008, in New Hampshire, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (AZ) said the following about his rival, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (IL), criticizing Obama's position on the Iraq War, and Obama's insistence on withdrawing U.S. troops from the conflict there:

"This is a clear choice that the American people have. I had the courage and the judgment to say I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. It seems to me that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign."

McCain's comments are unacceptable, as they demonize Obama and his position on the Iraq War.

McCain and Obama have significant differences regarding the conflict in Iraq, but it is illegitimate for McCain to caricature those differences as being between people who want to win in Iraq (that is, on McCain's side) and people who don't want to win in Iraq, or who would rather lose there in order to win an election in the U.S. (that is, on Obama's side).

Obama and his fellow critics are skeptical of whether victory can be achieved in Iraq, and whether any victory there will be worth the cost to the U.S. Perhaps Obama and his allies are wrong in those assessments -- McCain certainly believes so, and it is fair for him to say so and argue his case -- but this is different from saying that Obama has no desire whatsoever to win in Iraq, or that he has prioritized his own political success over the nation's success in Iraq.

McCain should retract his statement and apologize for it. It is fair game for McCain to say Obama is wrong to think victory in Iraq is out of reach or not worth the cost. But it is wrong for him to accuse his opponents of not caring about victory there at all.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Culpability and Guilt

Culpability is a moral consideration related to justice. It concerns how we respond to guilt and innocence. As with need and merit, culpability concerns equitable treatment, rather than equal treatment. That is, we give extra consideration to those who have committed crimes or harmed others.

What this consideration amounts to is quite simple and intuitive: we believe that -- if a crime or harm is committed -- all and only those who are guilty of committing that crime should be punished, condemned, or in some sense be held responsible for it. Those who are innocent, who did not commit the crime, should not be punished or held responsible in any way.

Culpability is sort of the flip side of merit. You could say it's merit versus demerit. In the same way that we praise and reward people who do good -- as we do when responding to merit -- we also demand that those who do bad be held responsible and punished. And, of course, we also insist that those who have done nothing wrong have nothing wrong done to them.

This leaves a lot of subsidiary issues to consider, such as whether and how the guilty should be treated. The Civil Debate Page goes into some of these issues in the sections on defiance and punishment.

Culpability and Other Considerations

Frequently, we have to weigh the moral desire to punish the guilty (and only the guilty) against other moral considerations.

For instance, we often think that it's OK for the police to hold a person in jail prior to trial, effectively punishing them before they've actually been found guilty of any crime. Criminal suspects are typically remanded in custody if they might pose a risk to others: If you're pretty sure you've captured a serial killer, it seems unreasonable to allow them to roam free -- potentially killing more innocents -- until they've been convicted of their previous murders.

(Generally, though, we demand that there be substantial evidence of guilt before suspects are remanded, which is another bow to the drive to leave the innocent unpunished. Hence the burden of proof requirements in the justice system, and the admonition that we treat people as "innocent until proven guilty".)

Similarly, we often face a quandry when it comes to handling sex offenders. It is believed that they are very likely to commit such crimes again. In order to prevent them from doing so, it is often suggested that significant restrictions should be put on them even after they have served out their sentence. On the one hand, this seems like a good idea, if it really does serve to prevent them from committing further sex crimes. On the other hand, however, it also seems like it amounts to punishing them for crimes that they have not (yet?) committed, future crimes for which they are (so far?) innocent. And this runs counter to our moral desire to only punish the innocent.

Culpability Versus Culpability

And, of course, we often have to prioritize between different levels of culpability.

To use yet another example from the criminal justice system, sometimes a person who is guilty of a crime is granted immunity from prosecution (or is allowed to plead guilty to a lesser crime) in exchange for testimony that will convict someone who is guilty of greater crimes. These plea deals are often considered justified -- if somewhat unpalatable -- since we are giving up on defying and punishing a lesser offense in order to secure the punishment of a more serious offense.

Likewise, another reason for remanding suspects in custody is to make sure they don't flee and evade trial, depriving us of the process that assigns guilt. We're willing to risk unjustly detaining an innocent person in order to make sure a guilty person doesn't flee the justice system altogether.

And, just like -- in the name of compassion -- we give more attention to a person in greater need than the one in lesser need, we give more attention to the person guilty of committing a greater crime or harm than one committing a lesser crime. If a police officer sees one person making a littering violation and another person committing a murder -- and he can only chase one of them -- of course he should go after the murderer.


So, the role culpability plays in our moral reasoning can be quite complicated. But the basic moral intuition itself -- defy the guilty, leave the innocent alone -- is fairly straightforward.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Should People "Lay Off" Michelle Obama for Her "Proud" Comments?

On February 18, 2008, Michelle Obama -– the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (IL) –- made the following comment at an event for her husband's campaign:

"For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback."

Later that day, at another campaign event, she said:

"For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change."

Michelle Obama received a great deal of criticism for these statements, on the grounds that they seemed to assert that –- for the past 20 or so years -– there had been no reason to be proud of the U.S.

Prominently, the Tennessee Republican Party made an ad that contrasted Michelle Obama's comments with those of people saying that they were proud of the U.S., and explaining why.

Barack Obama's campaign offered several defenses of Michelle Obama's comments. Soon after Michelle Obama made the comments, campaign spokesman Bill Burton said:

"Of course Michelle is proud of her country, which is why she and Barack talk constantly about how their story wouldn't be possible in any other nation on Earth. What she meant is that she's really proud at this moment because for the first time in a long time, thousands of Americans who've never participated in politics before are coming out in record numbers to build a grassroots movement for change."

On May 19, 2008, in an interview with him and his wife, Barack Obama strongly criticized the Tennessee GOP ad:

BARACK OBAMA: Let me just interject on this. The GOP, should I be the nominee, I think can say whatever they want to say about me, my track record. ... I've been in public life for 20 years. I expect them to pore through everything that I've said, every utterance, every statement. And to paint it in the most undesirable light possible. That's what they do. ... But I do want to say this to the GOP. If they think that they're going to try to make Michelle an issue in this campaign, they should be careful. Because that I find unacceptable. ... The notion that you start attacking my wife, or my family -- Michelle is the most honest, the best person I know. She is one of the most caring people I know. She loves this country. And for them to try to distort or to play snippets of her remarks in ways that are unflattering to her I think is just low class. And I think most of the American people would think that as well. Whoever is in charge of the Tennessee GOP needs to think long and hard about the kind of campaign that they want to run and I think that's true for everybody, Democrat or Republican.

MICHELLE OBAMA: We're trusting that the American voters are ready to talk about the issues and not talking about the things that have nothing to do with making people's lives better.

BARACK OBAMA: But I also think these folks should lay off my wife.

Barack Obama again responded in an interview on June 17, 2008, and chastized his opponent, Republican Senator John McCain (AZ):

"This is unfortunately become a habit in our politics where anything's fair game, and we just make things up about people. If you think about Michelle, I mean here's somebody who's done everything right. She grew up in modest means. She grew up in a nuclear family. Her parents looked after her. She went to college on a scholarship. She's worked hard for everything that she has. ... She is the best mother I know. She has made repeated sacrifices on behalf of her family and has said that her children and her husband are her number one priority. ... So the fact that people have tried to make her a target, based essentially on a couple of comments in which she was critical of what's happening to our American dream and the enormous difficulties that people are experiencing -- the difficulties that she hears directly as she is traveling across the country, I think is really distressing. And you know I've said publicly before, and I'll say it again: I think families are off limits. I would never consider making Cindy McCain a campaign issue, and if I saw people doing that -- I would speak out against it. And the fact that I haven't seen that from John McCain I think is a deep disappointment."

Responding on her own to the criticism, Michelle Obama on June 18, 2008, said this on the TV show, The View:

"I take [the criticism] in stride. It's a part of this process -- we're not new to politics, but just let me tell you, of course I'm proud of my country. Nowhere but in America could my story be possible. ... I'm a girl that grew up in the south side of Chicago. My father was a working-class guy, worked a shift all his life, and because of his hard work he sent not just me but my brother to Princeton. ... Just imagine the pride that my parents, who didn't go to college, felt, that they could, through their own hard work and sacrifice, have us achieve things that they could never imagine. So, I am proud of my country, without a doubt. I think, what, when I talked about it in my speech, that I was talking about was having a pride in the political process. People are just engaged in this election in a way that we haven't seen in a long time."

There's a lot going on in this episode that needs to be addressed.

First of all, Michelle Obama's initial comment -- that she was proud of the U.S. for the first time in her adult life -- is certainly open for criticism. She says that the comment was meant with respect to the U.S. political process. Even so, many people would argue that, over the past 20-25 years, there's been at least a few occasions to be proud of the U.S. political process. Her assertion that there are no such occasions -- assuming she is going to stand by that assertion -- requires defending.

Michelle Obama's comment about not being proud of her country could be given a charitable interpretation: probably, she just meant to say that she was very proud of her country at this point in time, and in her enthusiasm overstated the case to the point of saying that it was the first time there was any reason to be proud. If that's the case, then she should simply admit it and back off of the claim that this is the first time in 20-25 years that there's been a reason to be proud of the U.S. political system.

Unfortunately, not only did Michelle Obama fail to do that in her appearance on The View, she went on to make another questionable assertion: that "nowhere but in America could my story be possible". Is that really true? (Burton made a similar statement about both the Obamas.) Is there really no other country today where a person with working-class parents can go on to receive an education at a top-notch school and enjoy success similar to hers? That sounds like another overstatement on Michelle Obama's part. Again, in the name of charitable interpretation, she probably just meant to express that she has been proud of her country for a long time, but in her enthusiasm overstated the case to the point of saying no other country allows the children of working-class parents to succeed as she has. And, again, the best way for her to respond to this is to admit she went a bit overboard and retract what she said as an exaggeration.

Second, Barack Obama mischaracterized his wife's critics. She was not being criticized for -- as he says -- being "critical of what's happening to our American dream and the enormous difficulties that people are experiencing"; rather, she was criticized for saying there was no reason to be proud of the U.S. (or, the U.S. political process) over the past 20-25 years. I don't recall anyone saying anything like "Michelle Obama is wrong for saying that Americans are facing enormous difficulties" economically, or in the political process, or otherwise. If there is such an instance, Barack Obama should name it. Otherwise, it's unacceptable for him to try to dismiss criticism by distorting it.

(This is not the first time Barack Obama has done this. As noted previously on the Civil Debate Page, when Barack Obama was criticized for saying that midwesterners "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations", he responded by insisting that he was being attacked for saying that some people are bitter about their economic situation. But no one had said any such thing. In fact, he was being attacked for suggesting that the midwesterners' bitterness explained their moral, political, and religious beliefs.)

Finally, Barack Obama's insistence that people "lay off" his wife is inappropriate. The families of political candidates should certainly be off limits if they're not politically active in the campaign (for instance, the Obama children). But Michelle Obama is publicly making political assertions and endorsements (in particular, in support of him). As such, her statements are fair game. It is completely legitimate for people to evaluate her assertions, just as it was legitimate for people to be critical of statements made by former President Bill Clinton while he was campaigning for his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY).

There are other issues to be addressed: in particular Barack Obama's claim that McCain should have spoken out in criticism of Michelle Obama's attackers, and that the Republicans will "paint [Obama's record] in the most undesirable light possible". I will save that for a subsequent post.

Suffice to say, both of the Obamas have thrown up obstacles to a civil, productive debate in this episode: Michelle Obama has made some false statements (or, at least, statements sorely in need of defense); Barack Obama has misrepresented the people criticizing his wife; and Barack Obama has made an unreasonable demand that his wife's political statements be above criticism.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Chelsea Clinton Dismisses Monica Lewinsky Question as Not Anyone's Business

While campaigning for her mother, presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Chelsea Clinton dismissed a question regarding Monica Lewinsky. (Chelsea Clinton's father, former President Bill Clinton, had been investigated and impeached, but ultimately acquitted, by the U.S. Congress on charges relating to his affair with Lewinsky.)

On March 25, 2008, at Butler University in Indiana, Chelsea Clinton was asked whether her mother's credibility had been harmed as a result of her defense of the president. (Hillary Clinton had defended her husband during the scandal, though many of the allegations made against President Clinton -- in particular, that he had an affair with Lewinsky -- later proved to be true.)

Chelsea Clinton responded by saying:

You're the first person, actually, to ever ask me that question in the -- I don't know -- maybe 70 college campuses that I've now been to. And I do not think that's any of your business.

A week later, on April 1, at N.C. State in North Carolina, Chelsea Clinton was asked by a student why she insisted that the matter was not anyone's business. She replied:

It's none of your business. ... Well sir, I respectfully disagree, I think that is something that is personal to my family and I'm sure there are things that are personal to your family that you don't think are anyone's business either.

Chelsea Clinton's argument, then, is that the Monica Lewinsky scandal is a personal matter for her and her family. As a matter of privacy, it is not something that should be discussed. Or, at least, it is not something that Chelsea Clinton (or, perhaps, her family) should have to discuss.

However, this argument is based on a flawed premise. The Monica Lewinsky scandal was not -- at least, not entirely -- a personal matter for the Clinton family. Central to the scandal were accusations of perjury, obstruction of justice, and other allegations of attempts by President Clinton to thwart the judicial system. The consideration of such charges is a matter of public interest (even if the suspect is ultimately acquitted of the charges, as President Clinton was).

In addition, beyond the judicial aspects of the scandal, there is a genuine debate as to whether President Clinton's behavior with Monica Lewinsky demonstrated a critical lack of character. Not everyone believes that character is a legitimate political issue (and some who do don't believe that President Clinton’s character was significantly flawed), but the matter of character in politics is not straightforwardly spurious, either.

Certainly, some aspects of the Lewinsky scandal are personal -- and undoubtedly painful -- to the Clinton family. They should not have to answer questions about those aspects, and it is arguably inappropriate for anyone to ask such questions in the first place.

But there are plenty of questions regarding the Lewinsky scandal that are entirely legitimate matters of public concern. It is wrong for Chelsea Clinton to dismiss any and all questions on this topic as being inappropriately personal. Her appeal to privacy is unfounded.

(Aside on MSNBC source: In the MSNBC video, anchor Brian Williams says that Chelsea Clinton has been taking questions "always from the public, never from the news media, presumably to avoid tough questions about things like family history". Williams doesn’t defend this presumption. Is there evidence that the media tend to ask tougher questions than the public does, on this or any other issue?)

Did McCain Set a 2013 Timetable for Withdrawal from Iraq?

One of the key positions of presidential campaign of Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is that there should be no timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq. That is, he has frequently said that the U.S. should not set a date by which U.S. troops will return from Iraq.

A speech he gave on May 15, 2008 (McCain Outlines Vision for First Term), however, has been widely criticized for going back on that position, and establishing just such a timetable.

In describing what he envisioned happening by the end of his first presidential term, McCain said this:

By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom. The Iraq War has been won.

In response, several people claimed that McCain had endorsed a timetable for withdrawal, and some criticized him for contradicting his "no timetable" pledge:

Republican John McCain declared for the first time Thursday he believes the Iraq war can be won by 2013, although he rejected suggestions that his talk of a timetable put him on the same side as Democrats clamoring for full-scale troop withdrawals ... Later, as the Arizona senator drove to the airport on his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus, McCain was peppered by reporters with questions about the timetable.
-- McCain believes Iraq war can be won by 2013, Glen Johnson, Associated Press, May 15, 2008.

Somebody who up until yesterday was insisting that you couldn't lay out a timetable for starting to bring down our troops and then suddenly, apparently had a vision in which he now believes that all of our troops are going to be out by 2013, although can't spell out any concrete steps in terms of how we are going to achieve it. It strikes me that he's the one that has been inconsistent.
-- Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (IL), May 16, 2008. [st]

McCain, however, has also altered his position. In May, after spending months scolding opponents who proposed withdrawal timetables, he reversed course and said he hoped to see most troops home by 2013.
-- Republicans seize on Obama's comments on Iraq, Peter Nicholas, Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2008.

But these descriptions of McCain as setting a timetable in his May 15 speech are false. McCain's speech was offering his prediction of what events will have taken place by the end of his first term. Among the events he was predicting was a victory in Iraq and the establishment of a stable democracy in that country capable of managing its own security. This is consistent with McCain's previous pledges that he would not set a timetable for withdrawal because he would not remove troops from Iraq prior to its being stable and self-sustaining (that is, prior to victory). In his speech, McCain is simply predicting that -- during his presidency -- Iraq will have achieved that state by the end of his first term, in January 2013. McCain has consistently stated that withdrawal should be contingent on and occur after victory; his May 15 speech is predicting that victory will happen by January 2013.

To draw an analogy: If I say, "We are having dinner by 8PM, no matter what," then I'm setting a timetable for dinner. If I instead say, "We are having dinner once we've done our chores, and I predict that we'll be done with our chores by 8PM," I'm not setting a timetable for dinner. Rather, I'm setting a condition for what has to happen before dinner occurs, and offering a prediction of when that condition will be met.

And this is in keeping with many of the other statements -- predictions -- McCain made in his speech:

What I want to do today is take a little time to describe what I would hope to have achieved at the end of my first term as President. I cannot guarantee I will have achieved these things. ... The following are conditions I intend to achieve. ... The threat from a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan has been greatly reduced but not eliminated. ... The increase in actionable intelligence that the counterinsurgency produced led to the capture or death of Osama bin Laden, and his chief lieutenants. There is no longer any place in the world al Qaeda can consider a safe haven. ... There still has not been a major terrorist attack in the United States since September 11, 2001. ... This is the progress I want us to achieve during my presidency.

McCain makes it very clear that he's issuing predictions. (Johnson's article admits as much when it describes McCain as having "peered through a crystal ball to 2013 and envisioned" what will happen in the future.) And some of the predictions that he makes -- for instance, regarding the death of Osama bin Laden, and the absence of major terrorist attacks on the U.S. -- can't be construed as timetables, because (unlike the deployment of soldiers) they're not things any president has direct control over.

Of course, McCain might be wrong in some or all of his predictions. If he is, then he should be held responsible for making false predictions. But his prediction about Iraq is just that: a prediction, not a violation of his pledge against timetables. To say otherwise is a distortion.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Douglas Bruce's Name-Calling in the Debate on Immigration

Douglas Bruce, a Republican member of the Colorado House of Representatives, April 21, 2008, made this statement during a discussion about a temporary guest-worker program [st st st st]:

"I would like to have the opportunity to state at the microphone why I don't think we need 5,000 more illiterate peasants in Colorado."

Bruce was promptly criticized for what he said. But he stood by his statement, offering this defense:

"I looked up 'illiterate' in the dictionary and it means somebody who is lacking in formal education or is unable to read and write ... I don't think these people who are planning to come over here and pick potatoes or peaches are likely to have much of a formal education. I looked up the word 'peasant.' The word 'peasant' means a person who works in agricultural fields."

Bruce is trying to argue that he cannot be criticized for referring to the guest workers as "illiterate peasants" because there are non-derisive definitions to those words that do, in fact, correctly apply to the guest workers.

But both of these words are ambiguous, having more than one definition. And some of those definitions ARE derisive. "Illiterate" is ALSO defined as "lacking culture"; "peasant" is ALSO defined as "an uncouth, crude, or ill-bred person". It's simply insufficient for Bruce to try to defend himself by appealing to only ONE of the technical definitions.

I don't think we do well to seek the worst interpretation of what someone says, or to instantly assume that someone is using "code words" or euphemisms to make bigoted or offensive remarks. But I also don't think Bruce would ever refer to U.S. citizens who work on farms -- for example, citizens whose families have worked on small farms for generations -- as "peasants". And Bruce offered no evidence for thinking that guest workers were illiterate in any sense of the term -- non-derisive or otherwise.

If Bruce wanted to make a legitimate point, he could have used language that was unambiguously inoffensive: "I don't think we need 5,000 more agricultural workers in Colorado." But, instead, he chose to use words that he wouldn't use to refer to U.S. citizens because they could be easily construed as derisive name-calling.