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Commentary: War and the Perfection of Lying
March 23, 2007    Episode no. 1030
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War and the Perfection of Lying
by David E. DeCosse

From the idea of preventive war to the question of torture, the Iraq war has prompted renewed scrutiny of some key ethical principles in the just war tradition, including its requirement that war must be undertaken by appropriate political authorities. But as the government's deceptions leading up to the Iraq war have demonstrated, this aspect of just war reasoning, and its traditionally great degree of deference to political authority in time of war, needs to be updated in a more democratic direction.

Photo of Fire By now the intelligence failures in the run-up to the war are broadly familiar: the absence of weapons of mass destruction; the lack of any substantial connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda; the significant dissent within the United States intelligence community and the doubts among weapons experts about Iraq's nuclear purposes, all expressed in advance of the Bush administration's repeated claims that Iraq was rebuilding a nuclear weapons program. As former American diplomat Joseph C. Wilson famously wrote in the summer of 2003, he "had little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat." In a similar vein, according to the so-called Downing Street memo leaked in May 2005 by a British government insider, "intelligence and facts were being fixed around policy." The decision to go to war, says former CIA official Paul Pillar, was undertaken with "intelligence…misused publicly to justify decisions already made."

Policymakers intentionally manipulated the presentation of intelligence data in order to make a more persuasive case for going to war with Iraq. There are simply too many indications that U.S. government officials made statements not justified by data existing at the time of their statements, and they had reason to know of the data contradicting or crucially qualifying their statements. In turn, these knowingly false statements were made with the apparent intention to deceive the American people into supporting a war they might not otherwise have sanctioned.

In both their knowing falsity and their purpose to deceive, these government statements conform to what St. Augustine called the "manifest lie" and St. Thomas Aquinas called the "perfection of lying." They contain both the essence of what constitutes a lie -- a "duplicitous utterance" -- and the de facto thing that usually completes it: the intention to deceive. Augustine and Aquinas, whose writings on war continue to be enormously influential in the Christian tradition, likewise forbid specifically political lies, finding no reason in the great affairs of state for the duplicitous utterance of kings.

Moral philosopher Sissela Bok provides a way of understanding the democratic implications of the deceptions that launched the Iraq war. She has argued that it is a common mistake to evaluate a lie from the perspective of the deceivers, rather than from the perspective of the deceived.

It is not difficult to imagine the motives behind those who may deceive out of a desire to advance the public good. But to consider any such explanations, as relevant as they may be, is to view the situation from the perspective of the deceivers. It risks, among other things, underestimating the anti-democratic pretension that accompanies political lying in a democratic country like the United States.

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From the perspective of the deceived, what can deception to launch a war do to democratic citizens? First, Bok argues, such lies undermine trust about the meaning of language and action that are the foundation of community. They obscure alternative courses of action and impede the accurate estimation of risks and benefits. These lies beget more lies and call into question the integrity of the liars.

When the leaders of democratic governments lie to justify war, they bypass the consent of both the governed and their representatives. They prohibit citizens from making choices according to the best possible information, and they gather power to themselves that citizens may not have permitted them to have. These same citizens then lose power they may not have consented to lose and, most tragically, soldiers die on the basis of such deceit. Lies strike at the heart of democracy understood as self-government by free citizens of equal dignity.

The Christian just war tradition should incorporate into its idea of legitimate political authority the democratic assumptions spelled out by Bok's reasoning, but on the basis of the Iraq war it should go even further. It should revise the just war requirement that has traditionally given great deference to governments in their assertion of a factual basis and moral reason for going to war.

Jesuit theologian Drew Christiansen has provided an incisive way for updating this aspect of just war reasoning to make it more democratic. What he says specifically about Catholic thought on war applies to broader Christian concerns.

First, says Christiansen, the experience of the Iraq war shows that political and military leaders do not necessarily have more accurate information than many others. Second, the responsibility for the common good in time of war belongs to every person and group in civil society, even if political authorities obviously have a decisive role in such matters. Third, just war thinking should show no more than a "weak" presumption in favor of the moral insight of civil authorities in time of war and no less than a "weighty" duty of citizens "to make their dissenting judgments public."

No one should suppose that integrating more democratic theory into the ethics of war will end all wars. But doing so may at least set a higher bar for going to war -- perhaps even in time to stop the United States from a reckless attack on Iran. In any case, it is a cruel irony of the Iraq war that one of its legacies may be the lasting use of more democratic moral reasoning about war if not the viable presence of democracy itself on the ground in Iraq.

David E. DeCosse is director of campus ethics programs at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

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