The original dilemma in rhetoric was a device by which you presented your opponent with two alternatives; it didn’t matter which one he chose to respond to—either way he lost the argument. When you did this to your opponent you were said to present two horns to him, as of a bull, on either of which he might be impaled. As the scholar Nicholas Udall said in a translation of a work by Erasmus in 1548, it didn’t matter to which of the two points a person made a direct answer, either way he would run on to the sharp point of the horn. [world wide words via the tin man]
Last night at New York University I attended a lecture by Peter Singer, a contemporary Utilitarian philosopher who is attaining both fame and noteriety for his hard-line ethical stances on animal rights and infanticide. This evening was not about his own personal theories however...for this lecture he had one goal in mind, and that was to point out the inconsistency in the moral and ethical doctrines set out by George W. Bush.
Mr. Singer hardly looks the type of man you would expect to be crusading for the lives of chickens, let alone taking on our President with a sharpness that rivals Howard Dean. He is a thin man with a calm but pronounced voice, with wispy clouds of hair hovering around a receding scalp, wearing a wrinkled white dress shirt with collar unbuttoned and an equally creased brown sport coat. He never appeared angry when he spoke, but there was a certain energy to him when he put forth his argument point by point, which through the course of the lecture became almost overwhelming in its power -- it was the sort of argument that is so simple that it seems inevitable. Mr. Singer unloaded one bullet in his philosophical gun, but he only needed one.
Indeed it seemed to me that Mr. Singer was fulfilling a role philosophers should play in politics -- point out logical inconsistencies within our ethical, moral and political structures. Audience members later asked the philosopher whether he thought Bush was "psychologically troubled" to which he replied that he was not an expert on foreign policy or psychology or politics -- he was an expert in reason, and it was in this function that he would contribute.
The crux of his argument lay in the inconsistency between Bush's stances on stem-cell research and war. Stem-cell research uses stem cells taken from discarded embryos, often taken from artificial insemination procedures -- when a couple wants to have a child they fertilize up to a dozen eggs in hopes that 1-3 will fertilize, then implant the eggs in the potential mother's uterus, and sometimes more than 3 eggs fertilize in which case the extra embryos are either frozen, thrown away or used for this research. Stem-cell research is being used to try to find cures for diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimers, and has the potential for saving millions of lives. Bush has banned such practices because he is strictly pro-life -- Bush's argument runs that regardless of the potential benefit the research can have, it is at the cost of these human embryos, which have the same human right to live as we do. The embryos are not killed intentionally, as in the case of abortion, but are simply the means to an end, researching cures for diseases. So in the case of stem-cell research Mr. Bush says that the ends do not justify the means, that the loss of human life cannot be justified by its potential benefits to humanity.
On to War. In the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, on multiple occassions the military chose to bomb residential areas in hopes of killing hiding Iraqi leaders, including Chemical Ali and Saddam Hussein. This was done after Baghdad had already been taken over and the first chapter of the war, so to speak, had been completed. When asked about the decision to perform military bombings that would inevitably kill innocent civilians, Mr. Bush said that while the killing of women and children was not their intention it is a foreseen consequence, but it was justified by the necessity of killing Hussein and his evil allies. He argued that the U.S. was doing its best to minimize civilian casualties, but that some killing of innocents was necessary and justified by the potential benefit, that is, the overthrowing of the evil governments of the Taliban and Iraq, the bringing of democracy to the Middle East, and the weakening of terrorism in order to save future American lives. In other words, Mr. Singer says, Mr. Bush thinks the ends do justify the means in war, and the loss of human life can be justified by its potential benefits to humanity.
At this point I knew what was coming, but the weight of it still hit me hard. Mr. Singer puts forth the Horns of a Dilemma -- though seemingly unrelated, Mr. Bush's stances on stem-cell research and war in Iraq and Afghanistan are philosophically inconsistent. He cannot say in the case of stem-cell research that any loss of human embryonic life is unacceptable regardless of potential benefit, and then turn around and bomb residential areas and justify it with their potential benefit. If Mr. Bush wants to have people take his ethical and moral stances seriously, Mr. Singer argues, they must have an internal consistency. Either Mr. Bush must lift the ban on stem-cell research to be in line with his views on war, or he must admit to war crimes for the killing of innocent lives in Iraq to be in line with his stance on stem-cell research. If Bush, on the other hand, only applies his axiomatic ethical principles in certain cases and not others, he undermines the weight and necessity of his own arguments. That is the dilemma.
And that was it. No big condemning rant at the end about Mr. Bush's hypocrisy. That was not Mr. Singer's role -- he was merely putting forth a dilemma, and put it up to Mr. Bush, and the audience, to decide what to do with it. As Singer put it, "I think it's important to create a discussion about these things." It was a refreshing experience -- and indeed I think that Mr. Singer's got a good point, not just about Mr. Bush, but in general on the role philosophy should play in the modern world. Philosophers are experts in the examination of rational belief systems, and as such they have a role to play in modern policy because they are able to see inconsistencies within our ethical stances -- philosophy is not a toy or irrelevant artifact, it is a powerful practice with practical uses in the discussion of today's issues. Mr. Singer, as an ethicist in particular, feels that he and other philosophers have a civic duty not to merely write obscure works and get tenure, but to use their abilities to help the public understand the logic (or lack of it) in our own views and actions. I think he might be on to something.[Peter Singer: The Horns of Bush's Dilemma]