The late Australian philosopher David Stove once ran a competition to find the Worst Argument in the World. Stove’s competition has now been revived – by me, just now – and the winner will be announced in the very next sentence. It’s Thomas E. Ricks, noted Washington Post military correspondent and author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq and The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008.
Ricks and Keith Pavlischek of First Things have been carrying on an exchange over the justice of the war in Iraq. In response to Ricks’ (quite correct) observation that “invading a country pre-emptively on false premises [fails to meet] Aquinas’ second condition” for a just war (viz. the just cause condition), Pavlischek responded (also quite correctly) that Ricks’ point is irrelevant to the present case, since President Bush and those who voted to authorize the war did not know at the time of authorization that the premises in question (e.g. those concerning WMD) were false.
Well, folks, Ricks’ rejoinder is what won him the Stove Award. Drum roll, please…
And here it is:
It is an interesting response but I am not buying it. Invading Iraq was wrong and executed on false beliefs, even if he and Sen. Levin, and many others, thought they were right. If what you believed was false but you thought it was true, that makes it okay? Would Augustine settle for such a low standard?
For most readers, I trust that no comment is needed. Ricks’ worthiness of the Stove Award is manifest and unchallengeable. Despite some formidable competition, at the end of the day no other candidates even came close. (Eat your hearts out, Georges and Brian!)
But I suspect that Ricks, given his evident humility, will fail to see why he should be so honored. So, some commentary, just for him.
Suppose Ricks comes across a starving homeless Iraq war vet begging on the sidewalk and, moved with compassion, hands him a Jackson. Suppose further that said vet takes his $20, walks into the nearest McDonald’s, and orders a much-needed meal. After being handed the money, the clerk runs his special pen across it and… it’s a counterfeit! (One that someone else had passed the hapless Ricks earlier in the day.) The vet is arrested. He is unspeakably abused in jail by a gang of anti-war protesters who’d been arrested the same day for vandalizing a Starbucks, and into whose cell he had been placed. At the end of his rope, he commits suicide.
Ricks is guilty of a horrendous crime, is he not? For he gave the vet the $20 bill on a false premise, viz. that the bill was genuine. And look what happened as a result!
“But he didn’t know it was a counterfeit! His intentions were noble!” you say?
Let’s let Ricks himself respond to that dodge: “If what you believed was false but you thought it was true, that makes it okay? Would Augustine settle for such a low standard?” By his own words he stands condemned.
Or not. In reality, of course, Ricks would in this scenario be totally blameless. He did what all of us must do, and the most that any of us can do: He did the best he could with the information available to him. He was also tragically mistaken. But that tells us nothing about his moral character, or the moral character of his act. In other words, Ricks’ implicit premise, viz. “Someone who acts on false premises, even unknowingly, is guilty of moral failing” is false.
Blindingly obvious, you say? Why of course it is. Except to someone absolutely desperate to accuse those who supported the war in Iraq, not simply of erroneous judgment, but of grave immorality.
A “fiasco” indeed. And that’s why you get the Stove Award, Mr. R!