The Principle of the Ulterior Motive

Deep down, everyone needs to be right. So, when Michael Moore was justifiably criticised for dismissing the serious allegations against Julian Assange as “hooey”, his sense of amour-propre must have taken quite a battering.

When you are caught out in this way, the smart thing to do is to hold up your hands, admit you were wrong and go hide under your duvet for a couple of months and hope people forget. There will be a temptation to provide a secondary justification, typically an incongruous combination of l’esprit d’escalier and goalpost-shifting. This temptation must be resisted; it only compounds the original error.

Michael Moore has given in to this temptation and what an exquisite example of this ignoble genre it is. To précis his argument: Sweden has a large number of reported rapes, of which only a tiny proportion are prosecuted; therefore prosecuting Assange’s case is politically motivated and unjustifiable. He sustains this while admitting:

“I don’t pretend to know what happened between Mr. Assange and the two women complainants…I strongly believe every accusation of sexual assault must be investigated vigorously.”

This argument is reminiscent of those skewered in Cornford’s Microcosmographia Academica. Moore appears to have added a new entry to below the Principle of the Wedge (you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future) and the Principle of the Dangerous Precedent (you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case).

So I give you:

The Principle of the Ulterior Motive is that you should not act justly now, having failed to act justly in the past, for fear doing right be seen as an exception and motivated by the interests of something other than justice.

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