Colman McCarthy, in his op-ed column Aug. 8, offers us some Aristotelian advice for passing judgment on those in his gallery of evildoers: Oliver North, John Poindexter, Gary Hart, Jim Bakker, Ivan Boesky, James Deaver and Lyn Nofziger. McCarthy paints with a broad brush when he lumps those folks together. Their common fault lies in having fallen under the columnist's baleful gaze.
I take exception to McCarthy's Aristotelian lessons learned, particularly to his facile condemnation of North and Poindexter as liars and therefore unethical. At the outset, let's clarify several of his points about the texts for the lesson.
First, Aristotle's "Rhetoric" is not an investigation into moral character. It is a discourse on oratory as a practical art, a handbook on how to compose a good speech. Before lecturing, McCarthy should at least get the reference texts straight. Second, Aristotle's "Ethics" have come down to us in two versions, the "Nicomachean Ethics" and the "Eudemian Ethics." Neither is". . . an owner's manual on how to operate moral machinery . . ."
Perhaps McCarthy is led astray by the "theory of the mean." A careful reading of the "Ethics," however, would show that Aristotle's treatment of moral behavior is much more complex than following a set of rules. Aristotle is not a moral preacher, and it is no part of his intent to give men rules directing them in detail how to behave. He tells us that the right course of action depends upon many factors, which depend upon the details of the situation at hand and, most important, the motivation, or what lies in the heart. If moral behavior were simply following rules, we could program a computer to be moral.
Now with regard to North and Poindexter, how might Aristotle think of them? Aristotle recognized that the rules of society must admit exceptions because deeply held values often come into conflict. The problem of such conflict is one of mankind's recurring dilemmas. It is a basic characteristic of the moral life that it presents us with tough decisions that cannot be made by a set of rules.
For example, how does one choose between lying and honoring a commitment? In the Platonic dialogues, after the sophist Cephalus asserts that justice is speaking the truth and paying your debts, Socrates replies:
"And even to this are there not exceptions? Suppose that a friend when in his right mind has deposited arms with me and he asks for them when he is not in his right mind, ought I to give them back to him? No one would say that I ought or that I should be right in doing so, any more than they would say I ought always to speak the truth to one who is in his condition."
I believe Aristotle would see in North and Poindexter the conflict between truth, loyalty (to the president) and honoring an obligation (to the contras). One always ought to tell the truth, and one always ought to keep promises. I believe Aristotle would hold that the duty of truth must be observed if other moral considerations do not intervene, and it is up to the individual to choose the act he feels is the right thing at the right time for the right reason and to the right degree. Scholars call this Aristotle's dictum, which holds that the decision rests with the perception.
McCarthy lifts a quotation from the "Nicomachean Ethics" to condemn North for the "joys of lying":
"For the man who loves truth, and is truthful where nothing is at stake, will still more be truthful where something is at stake; he will avoid falsehood as something base, seeing that he avoided it even for its own sake; and such a man is worthy of praise."
The application to either North or Poindexter in this quotation is out of context and misses Aristotle's point. Aristotle was discussing lying for personal gain, and he declares purposefully:
"We are not speaking of the man who keeps faith in his agreements, i.e., in the things that pertain to justice or injustice (for this would belong to another virtue), but the man who in matters in which nothing of this sort is at stake is true both in word and in life because his character is such."
Neither North nor Poindexter lied for personal gain, boastfulness or because he enjoys the lie itself, which is what the section McCarthy quoted from is about.
The point of all this is: lying is always prima facie wrong and is always actually wrong unless it is made right by being necessary to avoid a greater evil or by some other moral fact in contention.
In the face of such conflict, North and Poindexter made their decisions to act as they saw to be the harmony of the whole, the just act. "In justice is every virtue comprehended." They made false statements to Congress to uphold their commitments to loyalty and obligation.
McCarthy has another agenda; hence he claims a different resolution to the dilemma to be the only right way. I consider myself to be as honorable as McCarthy thinks he is, and I frankly don't know what I would have done had I faced the situation North and Poindexter did. Of one thing I am certain: I will not smugly declare North and Poindexter immoral because they didn't choose to act as I might have.
We are all poorly served by the terms of the Iran-contra discussion. If we are indeed searching for the truth, we should avoid pejoratives that get in the way of clear thinking. Words such as "lying," "theft," "adultery" and "murder" connote acts which in themselves are wrong -- there is no Golden Mean. The media call North and Poindexter liars. Yet, reporters and editorialists have no moral difficulties when they quote out of context or give facts their own spin to make a point. This is falsehood, and lots of folks in this town recognize it as just that, judging by the number of bumper stickers declaring, "I don't believe The Post."
North was excoriated by Congress and the media for lying to Congress and the Iranians. On the other hand, lies about something politically acceptable become "calculated deception" to confuse the other side. Lies by those with whom we agree politically or sympathize with become misstatements, misleading comments or dissembling. In other words, they aren't really lies, but only extensions of reality, and that's just another unfortunate part of Realpolitik.
The writer is a businessman in the Washington area.