Meta-Ethics of Impeachment

by Bill Meacham

The impeachment of the president has important philosophical implications. To help think about it, I want to start by making some simplifying assumptions, at least two of which are probably false but serve to draw the philosophical question in sharper relief. Let's assume (1) that it's not about politics and (2) that the issue is not about sex but about lying under oath. Finally let's assume, although at this writing this has not yet been adjudicated, that the president really did lie under oath, in other words that he is guilty. Is there, then, anything to debate? Yes, actually, quite a lot. Now the debate is between conflicting ethical principles.

Normative ethical principles -- principles on which we decide what to do from an ethical standpoint -- fall into two basic categories, Teleological and Deontological. Teleology, from a Greek word meaning "end" or "goal," speaks in terms of good and bad. Deontology, from a Greek word meaning "duty," speaks more often in terms of right and wrong. Teleology justifies an act on the basis of its consequences. If an act has useful or beneficial results, it's good, and if it doesn't, it's not. Deontology justifies one's actions on the basis of some quality or characteristic of the act itself, regardless of its consequences. Often this characteristic is its conformance to a rule. If an act is in accord with the rules then it's the right thing to do; otherwise it is wrong. A good discussion of the two approaches is found in a speech by Joe Hardegree on The Future of Ethics, who calls them the Aristotelian and the Kantian approaches.(1) I prefer to call them Consequentialist and Conformist.

Conformists speak of the "rule of laws, not men" and insist that the law be equally applied across the board. From the Conformist point of view (given the assumptions above), the president broke the law and must be punished. It's entirely unambiguous.

The Consequentialist point of view, however, asks "What's the harm?" If, indeed, punishment is merited, it should fit the crime. From this point of view, the crime was trivial compared to the magnitude of the punishment. Was it a matter of national security? Selling secrets to the Russians? Gross dereliction of duty? No, it was just a stupid guy's desire to cover up his sleazy sex life. As a friend of mine remarked jokingly, who among us hasn't been in that position? (I've even heard the case made that the president was a gentleman trying to protect the young lady's reputation, but that may be stretching it.)

The interesting philosophical question is a meta-ethical one. How do you decide which approach, Conformist or Consequentialist, to adopt?

I think the Consequentialist position makes more sense. After all, look at the amazing series of mental contortions Kant had to go through to figure out what the ultimate rule is. The Conformists implicitly justify their insistence on the "rule of laws, not men" on the consequences of not doing so. Great harm would come to society, it is argued, if the laws were selectively enforced. And even if one agrees that there is a rule or system of rules that govern ethical behavior, one can always ask "Why should I obey the rules?" To reply that you should do so because it's the moral law simply begs the question.

I like Hardegree's answer: "The epithet frequently thrown at us Aristotelians by the Kantians is that we believe the end justifies the means. Darn right we do. If the end doesn't justify the means, what does? Do you really think that the means justify the end, no matter how destructive that end might be?"(2)

I'm afraid that in our elected representatives' foolish rush to enforce the rules, the end is destructive. Great harm has come to the body politic and the Good has not truly been served.

(1) Hardegree, Joe (1997): "The Principles of Mediation and the Future of Ethics," electronic publication, URL=3D

(2) Hardegree, op. cit.

Dr. William Meacham lives in Austin, Texas, has three degrees in Philosophy, and makes his living as a software consultant. You can contact him at

Copyright (c) 1998, William Meacham. Permission to reproduce is granted provided the work is reproduced in its entirety, including this notice.