Reasons and Explanations

Kieran Healey over at Crooked Timber draws a distinction between reasons and causes in the ongoing discussion about US foreign policy in the Middle East and the invasion of Iraq. In “Reason, Truth, and History” (a title borrowed from Hilary Putnam’s 1981 book of the same name), Healy argues that when one looks into the explanation for why the war occurred, one’s finds multiple causes. Given the complexity of human affairs, this is what one would expect to find in almost any serious historical explanation. And notice that by emphasizing the causal chains leading up to an event, one has not addressed the ethical issues involved.

That brings us to the second part of Healey’s analysis. The flap over whether Bush lied to or deceived the American people in making the case for intervention turns on the reasons Bush had and the reasons he gave for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. To give reasons for something as important as going to war that are not the same as your reasons for doing so is manipulative and deceptive.

The question being raised now by his critics is whether Bush (Cheney, Rice, etc.) intentionally misled the public by giving reasons (e.g. the Niger “connection”) that could not possibly have been their reasons for invading Iraq. That, it seems to me, is a question of fact. Whether Bush (or any democratically elected leader in a similar situation) has a moral obligation to give his “real” reasons for going to war, reasons such as those offered by both Marshall and Den Beste — “to get America irrevocably on the ground in the center of the Middle East (thus fundamentally reordering the strategic balance in the region), bring to a head the country’s simmering conflict with its enemies in the region, and kick off a democratic transformation of the region which would over time dissipate the root causes of anti-American terrorism and violence: autocracy, poverty and fanaticism” (Josh Marshall), is unfortunately a much more difficult question to answer. Under what conditions, if any, is deception morally permissible?

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