Self-Congratulation in the Future Perfect Tense

Posted on Posted in Philosophy, Politics

Here is a link to well written article called ‘The case for Obama: Why he is a great president. Yes, great.’ by Jonathan Chait.  (He also has a good one called ‘The case against Romney: At heart, he is a delusional one-percenter.’, which is pretty interesting as well. Check that out here.)

However, despite my vote for Obama I want to record my one (well, there’s actually one more but we’ll save that) complaint against Obama and hopefully shed a little philosophical light on the what may be happening.

My one complaint, which Hedges talks about at length in the previous article I posted, is Obama’s continued erosion of American civil liberties and continued expansion of denying American citizens and  people deemed terrorists by his administration due process.

There are lots of things one could complain about or be disappointed by but I think this is the one thing about Obama’s first term that really bothers me. Hopefully he’ll get a second to fix his record on this issue.

So, what’s up with Obama’s erosion of first amendment and due process rights?

I think he is proceeding along that path based on consequentialist reasoning. He must think that the beneficial consequences of such actions and policies out weight their benefits. This is however one of the strongest arguments against consequentialist normative ethical theories.

A simple argument might run something like this:

1. Any moral theory that requires us to infringe on basic human rights is not the correct moral theory.

2. Consequentialism requires us to infringe on basic human rights.

3. So, consequentialism is not the correct moral theory.

There are of course lots of way to respond to this type of argument. Obviously one could take issue with either the first or second premise. If one wanted to take issue with the first premise one would point out that the argument is obviously question begging as it assumes consequentialism to be false. Or if one wanted to take issue with the second premise one could argue that consequentialism either never or almost never requires us to infringe on basic human rights.

But there is a another possible problem with consequentialism, which is that it can lead one to commit moral atrocities in the name of doing good.

Allen Wood, in his characteristically bombastic and awesome way, calls this tendency “self-congratulation in the future perfect tense.’

Here’s the quote from his book Kantian Ethics(260):

A common moral error that sometimes passes for “consequentialism” is one we might call “self-congratulation in the future perfect tense’. People are sometimes tempted to violate an important moral principle by teh lure of some great good to be gained in the relatively near future (or the prevention of some terrifying evil). For example, people holding great political power use it in ways they know are wrong, but they imagine future generations contemplating with gratitude the bold vision led them to lie, or start an aggressive war, or violate the rights of others, This is the state of mind which, combined with short-sightedness and incompetence that usually attends such enterprises, has led to most of the terrible deeds for which their perpetrators are in fact remembered only with revulsion.

Wood doesn’t think that consequentialists are more prone to committing this kind of moral error, however I do think Kant thought that to be the case and I think I would have to side with Kant on this issue. I think this was one of the main reasons why he though consequentialism did not work as an ethical theory.

Back to Obama. I think, as Chait argues, that Obama is a great president in many ways, but the problem with greatness is pride and thinking that you are above the rules that everyone has to play by. And I think that Obama, because of his greatness, has fallen victim to the moral error that Wood calls ‘self-congratulation in the future-perfect tense’ without understanding that the moral law applies to everyone, himself included.

 

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