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The law according to Yoo

[ 0 ] February 28, 2010 |

Some thoughts on what John Yoo will teach his students.

Yoo’s constitutional theories regarding presidential power raise some interesting jurisprudential and moral issues. If we assume Yoo isn’t a moral monster, we have to assume he doesn’t actually favor machine-gunning a village of civilians or crushing the testicles of a child merely because the POTUS thinks such actions will “keep us safe.” Yoo’s position, I’m assuming, is that such things, while morally monstrous, wouldn’t be illegal under certain circumstances.

It’s tempting to dismiss this view as absurd on its face (I happen to think that in this instance it is absurd on its face, because Yoo’s position regarding the extent of presidential powers in wartime is extreme to the point of absurdity), but the only way to avoid the possibility of finding oneself arguing for something similar in some other situation is to claim that “the law” never permits politicians to engage in grossly immoral practices. That seems to me very implausible. To take an obvious example, slavery was a grossly immoral practice in 19th century America, and also perfectly legal until 1863.

The moral dilemma lawyers in the situation Yoo (ex hypothesi) found himself in 2002 face is this: Suppose you believe it’s legal to do something which is very immoral, and you’re asked your professional opinion on whether it would be legal to do this very immoral thing, by people who are asking you precisely because they intend to do it. What do you do?

The two easy escapes from this dilemma are to take the view that nothing that is very immoral can actually be legal, or to take what appears to be Yoo’s position, which is that he was just being asked for his professional opinion, and what more powerful people chose to do with that opinion was their affair. Neither of these escapes seems legitimate to me. The first position is fairly incredible, while the second dodges the question of moral responsibility altogether.

The first escape appeals to what could be called legal utopians, while the second appeals to authoritarian personalities. For other people, the possibility of this sort of ethical dilemma remains very real.

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