An Ethic of Responsibility
Free Inquiry, 24, no. 2 (February-March, 2004), pp. 16-17

George W. Bush has often emphasized the importance of taking responsibility for the decisions one makes. "America, at its best," he has said, "is a place where personal responsibility is valued and expected." When he was governor of Texas, he told an audience at Texas A&M University: "Always remember: you are responsible for the decisions you make." That seems a plausible moral stance. But over the past few months, it has become difficult to understand what Bush might mean by the idea that we are responsible for our decisions.

The difficulties have arisen because of the claim Bush made in his 2003 State of the Union Address that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Africa. Already in October, 2002, a secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) document, the "National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq," said that "claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are, in [the assessment of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research] highly dubious."1 That month, the CIA sent two mcmos to the White House voicing doubts about the claims. One went to Bush's deputy national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, and the other to his chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson. CIA Director George J. Tenet also phoned Hadley before the president was to make a speech in Cincinnati, on October 7, asking that the allegation be removed.2 Nevertheless, three months later the claim made its way into the most solemn speech that the president gives each year. By making the claim, Bush misled Congress, the people of the United States, and the world about a central issue in the case he was making for going to war with Iraq.

That the inclusion of the statement in the speech was an error is now universally admitted. Tenet has said that the evidence for it "did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches."3 But now the question arises: who should take responsibility for this error, and what are the implications of so doing?

If Bush's staff knew that the information in his speech was not reliable, then Bush himself should have known. If he knew, he is, of course, as culpable as they are, and he should, at a minimum, apologize to all those he misled. If his staff knew of the unreliability of the information and he did not, then either he had not properly instructed his staff on the importance of passing such information on to him-in which case the same apology should be forthcoming-or he had properly instructed them, and they failed to follow his instructions. If they failed to follow his instructions, then a president who insists that we must be responsible for the decisions we make should see, on first learning of the possibility that his staff had acted improperly, that whoever was responsible for this serious error of judgment suffered the usual consequences that befall senior officials or political leaders who make such mistakes. In other words, they should be dismissed from his staff or assigned to loss important duties.

Bush, however, did nothing of the sort. When the issue became public, instead of launching an investigation into what went wrong and why, Bush's initial response was to evade questions about the credibility of the information he had provided by asserting that the war has had, in the removal of Saddam Hussein, a good outcome.4 Then Bush said that his speech had been cleared by the CIA, as if that absolved him of all responsibility for it. After Tenet took responsibility for the inclusion of the misleading material, Bush said that he "absolutely" had confidence in Tenet and the CIA and that he considered the matter closed. When asked at a press conference why Condolcczza Rice (who is Hadley's boss) was not being held responsible for the mistaken inclusion of the statement about African uranium, he simply said: "Dr. Condoleezza Rice is an honest, fabulous person and America is lucky to have her service. Period." There was no further explanation of her role in the matter. (Rice later admitted that she feels "personal responsibility for this entire episode," but she did not indicate that she had offered her resignation to the president.5) Then, asked directly if he takes personal responsibility for the inaccuracy, Bush said: "I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course, absolutely."6

When Bush urges Americans to take responsibility for their decisions, he is presumably saying that, if they avoid finding work, take drugs, or have sex without using contraceptives, they must take the consequences. They should not expect that the state will always be there to pull them out of the mess they have gotten themselves into. That view can be harsh, because for those born into difficult circumstances it may be a lot harder to make prudent decisions than it is for others. Nevertheless, there is something to be said about encouraging people to take responsibility for their own decisions. But if the message is to be convincing, it must be more than words. Those who preach responsibility should show, by their actions, that they mean it and apply it to those close to them as well as to those most remote from them.


1. Text of statement by George J. Tenet, New York Times, July 12, 2003.

2. Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus, "Bush Aides Disclose Warnings from CIA," Washington Post, July 23, 2003, p. A1.

3. Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank, "Bush, Rice, Blame CIA for Iraq Error," Washington Post, July 12, 2003.

4. David Sanger and Carl Hulse, "Republicans Dismiss Questions over Banned Weapons in Iraq," New York, Times, June 18, 2003.

5. Condoleezza Rice, interview on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, as quoted in Richard Stevenson, "Bush Denies Claim He Oversold Case for War with Iraq," New York Times, July 31, 2003.

6. "President Bush's Rose Garden News Conference," New York, Times, July 30, 2003.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'An Ethic of Responsibility'