Friday, July 21, 2006

John Stewart and Misrepresentation

Crooks and Liars posted a clip from John Stewart’s “The Daily Show” providing criticism of the Bush Administration’s policy on stem cell research.

Through a series of clips, Stewart points out that the Bush Administration approaches the issue of stem cell research with the view that every life is sacred and, effectively, that no amount of good could possibly justify the taking of an innocent life. Yet, when it comes to justifying the war in Iraq, the Bush administration has continually told us that some “carnage” is an unwelcome but unavoidable part of bringing about democracy in the Middle East.

The message seems to be that the Bush Administration is being somewhat inconsistent in this.

Yet, if the Bush Administration’s view is inconsistent, then the opposite view also has its problems. If we look at Stewart’s argument as an argument in favor of stem cell research, we must take the argument as beginning with the premise that the war in Iraq is justified. We have to begin by accepting the principle that some “carnage” is legitimate if it brings about a good end, so that the “carnage” of doing research on embryonic stem cells can be justified.

Now, I am well aware of the fact that many defenders of embryonic stem cell research deny that a clump of cells without desires or interests can be morally harmed. That is my position. However, that is not the argument that is going on here. That premise cannot be used in claiming that the Bush Administration is being hypocritical. The only reasonable charge of hypocrisy must depend on the premise that the Bush Administration is willing to defend “carnage” against the people of Iraq for the sake of democracy, but not “carnage” against (what the administration takes to be) young boys and girls to produce medical breakthroughs.

In defense of the Administration, there is a legitimate moral distinction to be made here – which is the same distinction that I made between Israel and Hezbullah. It is the distinction between intentionally taking an innocent life (Hezbullah firing rockets as Israeli cities intending to kill as many innocent people as possible), and Israel firing at Hezbullah targets with no intention of killing innocent civilians (they would probably be happier if no civilians were killed), but not really concerned enough about innocent life to prevent those deaths.

Similarly, stem cell research (if we accept the assumption that the embryo is a person) involves intentionally killing an innocent person to bring about desired ends (like Hezbullah), versus the war in Iraq which knowingly but unintentionally brought about the death of tens of thousands of innocent civilians.

This, then, leads to the question of the moral legitimacy of misrepresenting somebody else’s view in order to ridicule it. In this case, it involves first making up a claim about what somebody else has done, then laughing at them and holding them up for ridicule for something they did not do. It may be entertaining sport, but is it right?

I know full well that if I were to discover somebody giving an absurd interpretation to something I have written, showing this absurd interpretation to others, and instructing those others that I am a legitimate object of ridicule and contempt on the basis of my holding this view, I tend to react more with anger than with laughter. I tend to react with a fair amount of anger as I say, “You are a liar. That is not what I said. You have twisted my words and attributed to me something that I do not believe, and used these lies to generate a public impression of me that is not at all true.”

This is what John Stewart did with respect to the Bush Administration’s view on stem cell research versus the war in Iraq by failing to make the distinction between intentionally taking a life (which crosses a moral boundary) and knowingly taking a life (which is inevitable in war).

If we take this view and reverse it we get a somewhat different description of the Democratic side of the fence. Democrats, it turns out, are people who are willing to intentionally take the life of a child if some good will come of it, but who are unwilling to even knowingly take innocent life in order to preserve basic human rights (such as the right not to have one’s life intentionally taken for any purpose).

Now, many Democrats deny that a clump of cells lacking desires and interests can be a person, which allows them to justify all sorts of violence against their victims. Yet, it is always the case of those who intentionally do harm to others that they first seek to dehumanize their victims – to conceive of them as some sort of “other” in order to make “justify” the evil they do in their own mind. The slave owners did this to the slaves. The Nazis did this to the Jews. Islamic fundamentalists do this to the infidels. Democrats do this to embryos.

They laugh at Republicans seeking to promote the idea that intentional killing an innocent person others crosses a moral boundary that ought never be crossed the way that Nazis laughed at those who protested the killings of the Jews.

Okay, I know. I am a very anti-fun person who takes all of the enjoyment out of life. There is a certain amount of pleasure to be derived from ridiculing people we do not like, and it is such a spoil sport who robs us of this fun.

Yet, I suspect that many of us know people who write on political issues who make the most horrendous protests when political rivals distort their position in order to ridicule it and make it the object of jokes. And if those political rivals were to claim, “We are just having fun. Quit being such a cry baby,” these writers would protest, “It should not be considered ‘fun’ to distort somebody else’s view for the purpose of making it a joke. If you see a mistake in my position, please have the integrity to give me honest criticism. Don’t misrepresent my views and go around telling people that this is what I really think.”

Ultimately, I think that the Bush Administration makes a serious mistakes. What I am saying here is that it is not a mistake to recognize that there is a moral distinction between intentionally killing a group of children and knowingly killing a group of children – the mistake that John Stewart charges them with. In this case, it is John Stewart who is laughing at others because he cannot recognize a moral distinction of great importance.

The mistake that the Bush Administration makes is that – while, it is true that many villains in history justify their actions by dehumanizing their victims, sometimes these claims are true. We could say that foresters justify the violence with which they commit acts of mass genocide against acres and acres of trees by denying the moral worth of their victims. We could say that the farmer minimizes the moral crime of cutting down acres of wheat only because they are capable of making themselves believe that wheat plants have moral worth. We can say that, in doing this, the lumberjack and the wheat farmer are like the Nazi and the slave owner.

The difference is that Nazis and slave owners denied the moral significance of beings with desires and interests, while lumberjacks and wheat farmers deny the moral significance of beings that lack desires and interests. Of these two, the blob of cells that make up an embryo have more in common with trees and wheat than with Jews and slaves.

Though an embryo may be a necessary ingredient to creating a full-fledged human, it is not a sufficient ingredient. Air and water are also necessary. Yet, air and water molecules are not “persons” in any morally relevant sense.

(Note: Some argue that an embryo is special because, if you leave it alone, it will become a human. When, the fact of the matter is that if you leave an embryo alone, and do not nurture and feed it, it will die.)

Also, evidence suggests, as I have argued, the Bush Administration treats knowingly killing innocent people far too lightly. The Administration is correct to note that there is a moral distinction between intentionally and knowingly taking a life. The Administration is wrong to treat the former as absolutely prohibited and the latter as morally trivial.

Yet, they still recognize a distinction between intentionally and knowlingly killing -- a distinction that some critics seem to lack the ability to grasp.


Hume's Ghost said...

If you're interested (and I think you would be,) Peter Singer investigated if Bush's position on stem cell research was ethically consistent with military action in Iraq and Afghanistan in The President of Good and Evil.

He find the President's position inconsistent, but unlike Stewart, there is no ridicule and Singer does address the issue of intentional and nonintentional killing. He does this by introducing the consideration of foreseeable and nonforseeable deaths.

In his speech on the use of embryos to obtain stem cells, Bush said: "Even the most noble ends do not justify any means." SO perhaps his view is that the evil we bring about must nmot be a means to the end we are seeking, but we may allow the same evil to occur as a side effect of achieving a just and sufficiently important end. On this view, Bush might claim that the civilian deaths were a side effect of his attempt to kill Saddam, and not a means to it. But again, the scientists could equally well calim that the death of the embryo is not a means to extracting the cells they rquire, but a side effect of that extraction.

He also points out that Bin Laden used the same distinction of intending the death of innocents and foreseeing (knowingly) their death to rationalize the 9/11 attacks.

Finally, he makes the point that one could make a utilitarian argument for bombing in Iraq, but that Bush can not do so within a coherent ethical frameworkd since he has proclaimed himself an ethical absolutist in regards to stem cell research.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I have somewhat of a disagreement with Peter Singer's methodology, as applied in such things as his book, The President of Good and Evil.

Singer seeks to evaluate Bush as one would evaluate a moral philosopher such as Hume or Kant.

I think that this gives Bush far too much credit. He is not a moral philosopher, and lacks the habit of speaking precisely that comes from studying philosophy.

As a result, I think that Bush does a poor job of expressing the moral philosophy that he uses. Treating Bush as a moral philosopher creates a "straw man" account of the underlying philosophy that is easy to attack, but leaves the actual moral position that Bush is applying untouched.

This idea comes from the distinction between "knowing how" and "knowing that." Bush may be very skilled at "knowing how" to make certain moral distinctions without being able to "know that" he is making those distinctions.

The same thing happens when a child learns how to ride a bike. He can "know how" to ride a bike without "knowing that" he keeps his balance by turning the front wheel. If asked how he keeps his balance he will say that he does so by shifting his weight. Yet, this turns out to be false. The fact that the child cannot accurately explain how he keeps his balance on a bike does not prevent him from keeping his balance.

The fact that Bush cannot explain accurately the moral foundation of his actions does not prevent him from having such a foundation.

When I wrote this post, I intentionally wrote about the views of the "Bush Administration" because I wanted to distinguish between the underlying philosophy and Bush's expression of that philosophy. I wanted to avoid the "straw man" of pretending that Bush is a moral philosopher.

mathyoo said...

It seems like you're making a bit of a generalization about the stance of Democrats on the war in Iraq, and you're simplifying the issue a bit too much. While there are some Democrats who undoubtedly oppose all war, there are a great many (in fact, I'd say the majority) who understand it's occasional necessity. It's entirely possible for someone to be in favor of embryonic stem cell research and oppose the war in Iraq without being inconsistent.

In particular, I find this statement: "Democrats, it turns out, are people who are willing to intentionally take the life of a child if some good will come of it, but who are unwilling to even knowingly take innocent life in order to preserve basic human rights (such as the right not to have one’s life intentionally taken for any purpose)." to be a bit of a strawman argument. I doubt that you'd find many Democrats who would say that military war that results in the deaths of innocents is ALWAYS unnacceptable. The majority of Democrats understand that in order to defend the rights and lives of others, violence is occassionally necessary and that means that inevitably innocent lives will be lost.

I do agree with you that there's a clear distinction between knowingly killing and intentionally killing, but find it difficult to grasp how a collection of less than 150 cells can be considered a "victim" or how harvesting those cells can be considered killing.

Hume's Ghost said...

I'm not quite sure I see the straw man. Singer acknowledged that Bush makes the distinction, then he examined his behavior as a moral agent to see it if his actions are consistent or can be fit into a coherant ethical framework.

That examination came across, to me, as in the end making the point that you'are making (or that I think you're making) ... that Bush lacks the understanding of how he arrives at ethical decisions to be able evaluate whether or not his decisions are consistent or coherant.

If we can't evaluate a moral agent in such a way, then how would we do anything other than state what someone's ethical views are?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

mathyoo I meant for the paragraph that you quoted was meant to be a description of how Republicans could paint Democrats under the assumptions given above. However, it was written clearly enough to indicate this. It would make no sense for me to hold that position since I do not accept the assumption that morally relevant harm can be done to an embryo.

Derek Scruggs I know that everybody that I meet will eventually die and be disposed of. Yet, that does not give me the right to terminate their life prematurely and dispose of them. The type of program you mention simply will not pass. There is nothing inherently wrong with a politician being realistic about what he can accomplish and what he cannot.

Hume's GhostSinger is attempting to determine if Bush's deeds are consistent with his own words. What I am talking about is whether there is whether his behavior is consistent with some theory -- even if Bush is incapable of putting it into words. The straw man is that the theory that the theory that Bush puts into words may not be the best theory to explain his actions.

Bush may lack the ability to determine if his actions are consistent or coherent with some moral system -- but his actions can still be consistent and coherent with some moral system. This happens in the same way that a person may lack the ability to determine how he maintains his balance on a bike, but can maintain his balance on a bike quite well.

To determine how he rides a bike, you look at his behavior and determine what theory best explains his actions. You can disregard his own theory as just one possible theory, and not necessarily accurate. (We give ourselves too much credit sometimes when it comes to explaining even our own actions. Our explanations are often flawed -- filled with guesswork, self-deception, and denial.)

[Note: One of the more interesting set of psychological studies I have read involves studies of peoples' explanations of their own actions. The researchers control for certain variables, ask a person to explain their behavior, and often hear explanations that could not be true in light of the variables controlled for in the experiment. Bike riding provides just one example.]

Bush's flawed understanding of his own actions is Singer's "straw man."

Hume's Ghost said...

I'm missing something, because I'm still not seeing it. I'll think about it the rest of the day, then maybe tomorrow I'll see it from a different perspective.

Hume's Ghost said...

To add, I see what you're saying, but I don't see how its a straw-man, unless one assumes there is an unarticulated hypothetical moral system into which Bush's actions might fit.

Singer could not find any such system to fit them into, was his point.

Anonymous said...

"(Note: Some argue that an embryo is special because, if you leave it alone, it will become a human. When, the fact of the matter is that if you leave an embryo alone, and do not nurture and feed it, it will die.)"

One could say very similar things about a newborn. My position on abortion has always been that until we can definitively draw a line that divides between right-worthy and not, we should act conservatively. Birth is not the answer; the person who claims there is a subsantial difference between a nine-month fetus and a one-minute old baby is a fool.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I agree with your "presumption of personhood" approach -- that an entity should be given a benefit of reasonable doubt.

At the same time, the existence of those who would dispute a claim is not proof of "reasonable doubt." There are people who doubt the age of the earth at 4.5 billion years. Yet, they do not have "reasonable doubt."

I would hold that a clump of cells lacking desires or interests cannot be subject to morally relevant harm is true beyond a reasonable doubt.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Hume's Ghost There is an unarticulated hypothetical moral system into which Bush's actions might fit. Though Singer could not find such a system, it is a system that virtually all Democrats accept.

I'm going to discuss this more in tonight's (Sunday, July 23rd) post.

Hume's Ghost said...


Anonymous said...

Looking at this from a moral framework view, I don't believe there is any difference between the two sides. This is not a moral argument, but an argument of definition. There are two types of killing as you have pointed out, intentional and unintentional. I believe both sides would agree that intentional killing is wrong and that unintentional killing is usually wrong, but can change due to circumstances such as a war.

The argument then is over what stem cell research really is. One side would argue that it is intentional killing. The other side argues that stem cells are just objects, so there is no killing involved. Once you've defined what stem cell research is then both sides are in agreement.

So, we have two sides arguing trying to convince the rest of the population that they are right. The Bush Administration has taken an absolutist message with "Culture of life" that makes no distinction between intentional and unintentional killing. Painting the other side as beasts like Nazi scientists carving people up and selling them for parts. To argue that Bush doesn't know what he is saying, like a kid unable to describe how he rides a bike, misses the mark. All of his words are carefully chosen and tested. It's just that his message is not a moral argument, but a political attack attempting to convince someone in a 5 second sound bite.

The Daily Show bit was a simple exercise to demonstrate the absurdity of the message that the Administration was putting out. The Administration was playing loose with it's wording, trying to get more impact by claiming to be for all life and against all death. Since the Administration didn't make any moral difference in their statements about the type of killing, intentional or unintentional, the Daily Show called them on it.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


First, I want to distinguish between 'unintentional' killing and 'knowingly' killing -- the latter being the type of killing I have written about here. Unintentional killing also includes 'reckless homicide', 'negligent homicide', and 'accident'. So, it is a broader concept than that which can be attributed to an attack on a city where one knows that civilians (especially children) can be killed and maimed.

Second, I would also argue that 'intentionally' and 'knowingly' taking an innocent life (e.g., the life of an innocent child" are both always wrong. However, there are circumstances in which they can be a lesser evil. Either of these can become a lesser evil. However, it takes more counterweight for 'intentional killing' to become a lesser evil than it takes for 'knowingly killing' to become a lesser evil. 'Negligent' and 'reckless' homicide are also always wrong. However 'accidental' killing (not involving negligence or recklessness) is never wrong.

Third, the Bush Administration, as point of fact, does distinguish between 'intentionally' and 'knowingly' taking an innocent life. This is how it distinguishes between the moral prohibition of embryonic stem-cell research and the moral permission of actions taken in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Fourth, you are correct in that 'spin doctors' helped in the choosing of the words in order to explain the decisions to the American people. However, we still need to explain the decision itself. What explains the fact that the Bush Administration bombs civilians in Pakistan and Baghdad and calls it an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice, but sees no 'unfortunate but necessary sacrifice' in embryonic stem-cell research?

My point is that the explanation can be found in the 'intentionally'/'knowingly' distinction.

Anonymous said...

To reiterate what was said above, the Daily Show operates ad absurdum, and it must be understood that their ridicule of the Administration's position on stem cell research is targeted at a soundbite based platitude. The Administration refuses to clearly argue their position based on the difference between intentional and unintentional death, and instead relies on a "Culture of Life" pundit-like one liner to explain their actions. This behavior primarily results in a progressively less transparency of government in general, and should be brought to light.

empraptor said...

Hi. I'm not sure if I've posted comments here before, but I read your blog frequently. I have a homepage at

Anyway, I wonder how accurate it is to say Israel would rather not kill innocent people when you write "Israel firing at Hezbullah targets with no intention of killing innocent civilians".

It certainly seems that way if we listen to mainstream news media.

But it has been argued that news agencies have been persuaded and intimated into incompetence on the subject of Israel's actions against her neighbors.

Peace, Propaganda & The Promised Land

Like you, I would have assumed that Israel did not desire civilian casualties if I listened only to mainstream media. But having watched the video above, I question the assumption that Israel does not desire to kill civilians.

Israel's recent actions seem to fit the pattern of aggression that it has displayed toward its neighbors for decades. Coverage of these actions in US media also fit the pattern they have followed. Inconsistencies to reality abound. Larry King stated that Israeli bombings were a response to Hezbollah rockets aimed at civilian targets when anyone outside the US will tell you Hezbollah started firing rockets at cities after the bombings. US reporters sitting behind their desks tell Lebanese interviewees that they have got it all wrong when they say hundreds of civilians are dying. They are so convinced of their version of reality that they contradict someone who experiences the invasion first-hand and don't bother to supply a good reason for doing so.

Anyway, I don't see why we have to assume Israel doesn't want civilian casualties. Just because Israel is a state friendly to the US doesn't mean they share the same goals we have.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

We need to assume that Israel doesn't want civilian casualties because of an obligation to presume innocence. I have not known of an Israeli attack that did not have a military target.

However, the distinction here is between intending the death of civilians and callous disregard for the death of civilians. I would allow that the Israeli government seems to regard the physical bodies of innocent Palestinians like walls and roads -- a few holes in them are simply one of the effects of war and of no moral concern.

I will try to take a look at the video, though I do believe that the obligation of presuming innocence can only be overruled by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

empraptor said...

You've said, maybe in another entry, that Israel's the lesser evil because Israel does not intentionally attack civilians. But I tend to think that both Hezbollah and Israel are wrong, not that one is better than the other.

As far as I know from what I read, Israel pulled out completely from Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah's goal of ending occupation was apparently realized. If Hezbollah really wanted to do what's best for people of Lebanon, they should not have kidnapped the Israeli soldiers.

Regardless of whether demanding the return of all minors in Israeli prisons is reasonable or not, they should not have used violent means that could threaten the progress that have been made in Lebanon.

Israel, on the other hand, should not have retaliated to the degree it did. Better yet, it should not have attacked Lebanon at all. Israel knew what Hezbollah was going to do in response to its bombings. Despite knowing that Hezbollah could never be thwarted without heavy civilian casualties on both sides, Israel retaliated.

In turn, Hezbollah should have known that Israel wouldn't back down even if they fired at Israeli civillians.

Both sides know what they are doing won't improve things for their people. All they are doing is letting fear and anger drive their people.

The cynic in me can't help but think that both Hezbollah and Israeli politicians are killing civilians in order to gain power in the respective nations.

empraptor said...

Correction on my previous comment - children in Israeli prisons not part of Hezbollah's demand.

The Story Behind Hezbollah's Demands

It was Hamas that demanded all women and children in the Israeli prisons. Hamas also demanded a return of or information on a soldier. Hamas was holding an Israeli soldier. I don't know the current status of the situation.

Hezbollah's demands were of three prisoners, the most infamous of which is Quntar who killed four civilians before Hezbollah was formed.