When an established journalist (Ruth Marcus) reporting for one of the most frequently quoted newspapers in the country The Washington Post, can utter the most glaring of non-sequiturs on public radio without the least audible signs of embarassment, one must wonder if there is still a place for reasoned inquiry in public discourse.
The general topic under discussion was the significance of the death of Mark Felt, legendary Watergate whistle-blower “Deep Throat” and #2 man in the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Felt was pardoned by Reagan amid considerable controversy 24 hours after conviction for his part in the Watergate break-in. Reagan’s flawed reasoning in granting the pardon, itself a classic in ad hominem argument, serves as precedent both for the Washington establishment who would like to see a similar free pass for Bush officials under current investigation for alleged abuses of power.
The utterance in question, made during an interview on Tom Ashbrook’s On Point Friday, is repeated in essence in her Washington Post column Saturday:
Yet I’m coming to the conclusion that what’s most crucial here is ensuring that these mistakes are not repeated. In the end, that may be more important than punishing those who acted wrongly in pursuit of what they thought was right.
Oh, puh-leeze! Just how are we to ensure that comparable mistakes are not repeated in a nation governed by Law, if we do not sanction those making those mistakes and place them outside the protection of Law? I would argue that a law without enforcement provisions is no law at all. And that intent is only one factor among many that ought to be considered in passing sentence. The seriousness of the offense, the number of injured parties, the public interest in deterring future offenses, the past history of the accused, all of these surely ought to weigh in the balance. Try using the “I meant well, officer, my wife is always so upset if I’m late for dinner” argument the next time you are stopped for speeding on your way home from work.
For a complementary perspective, see this article by Glenn Greenwald on Salon.com
I realized upon rereading the original post that perhaps the title was misleading. While it’s certainly true that the Marcus quote contains faulty reasoning, beyond my appeal to common sense in the final paragraph, I did not really show how it fails as a logical valid argument. I think it fails logically on at least two fronts. Here is how I would argue that failure:
• Proposition 1: Those who act with good intent should never be punished
• Proposition 2: Felt acted with good intent
• Conclusion: Felt should not be punished
I think it is clear that both Propositions 1 is not universally true, and that Proposition 2 is uncertain, at best. Thus the syllogism fails the validity test because the major premise is false.
But here is the second failure:
• Proposition 3: It is important that violations of law (“mistakes”) are not repeated
• (Unstated) Proposition 4: Repeated violations of law (“mistakes”) are preventable in the absence of punishment
• Conclusion: Repeat violations won’t occur if only we don’t punish the perpetrators. I.e., Punishing violators is optional.
Again, I think is is clear that one of the premises of the argument is far from universally valid. Beyond that, it is probably wishful thinking.
Again, I would recommend the Greenwald article linked above for additional substantive refutation of Marcus’s statement.