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The rhetoric of ethics

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MAY 22, 2013

Is it a butterfly or a pelvis? How so? Known for its ambiguities, the Rorschach test is often used by psychologists to discern an individual’s personality and mode of thinking.

Moral ethics are also ambiguous. Although we generally believe that good people are law-abiding citizens, this construct is not without flaws. In this context, “good” people think it’s only natural to abide by laws because they ban immoral activities like rape, fraud, robbery and so on. But even if these people do not abide by the laws, they would still be considered “good.” The ethics label is the cause of their lawful lives — not the effect. But we can easily flip the syntax to attain the reverse meaning: Law-abiding citizens are good people. Here, “good” is not an inherent quality; it is merely an effect that is contingent upon one’s willingness to obey the laws.

John Yoo, a law professor at UC Berkeley, falls in the latter category. During 2001-03, Yoo advised the Bush administration that an interrogation method was only considered torture if and only if it caused “death, organ failure, or the permanent impairment of a significant body function.” Subsequently, convicted terrorist Jose Padilla attempted to sue Yoo for authorizing interrogation methods that infringed upon his civil rights. Yoo ultimately won the case because the federal appeals judges unanimously agreed that, at the time of his authorization, the definition of “torture” was not made “sufficiently clear” for everybody in the nation.

Some argue that Yoo deserved his win because the plaintiff is a convicted terrorist and that America needs not care about terrorists’ civil rights. However, they forget that Padilla was allegedly tortured before he was given a fair trial. Putting our prejudices aside, this act infringes upon his constitutional and statutory rights. (If you were arrested, surely, you wouldn’t want to be isolated, beaten or starved before you receive a fair chance to defend yourself?) This is why we have a constitution — it’s there to prevent officials from stepping on our rights as human beings.

Even the Ninth Circuit, which ruled in Yoo’s favor, seems to be somewhat uncomfortable with its decision. In a footnote to its official opinion on the case, the court acknowledges that Yoo exhibited “professional misconduct” and “poor judgment” in his actions.

The court should add personal misconduct to the list as well. Yoo is notorious for his remarks — especially the ones that reference hobbies. After winning his case, Yoo said, “For several years, Padilla and his attorneys have been harassing the government officials … (he) will need to find a new hobby for his remaining time in prison.” And to those who protested against his employment, he said, “(E)veryone needs a hobby … for denizens of Berkeley, protesting makes for a neat distraction from working.” Furthermore, Yoo, along with 17 other Americans, was recently banned from entering Russia for being “responsible for the legalization of torture and indefinite detention of prisoners in Guantanamo (Bay).” He is proud of this feat.

Certainly, a Rorschach test always reveals more about yourself than you’re willing to admit. In showing my distaste for Yoo’s actions and behaviors, I’m opening myself up for criticism. But I think there is the anxiety that someone capable of advising others so ruthlessly might just turn on you the second you look away.

In other words, there is the notion that he has no morals. Is he still a good person? If we were to believe the law, then yes. But if we were to think using our own judgment, then no. He might be a “good” person for not having a criminal record to his name, but let’s not forget that it’s only an ethics label. And sometimes that is simply unsatisfactory — especially when we’re paying him, on average, $230,000 per year to teach at UC Berkeley.

Contact Anh Thai at [email protected].

MAY 27, 2013