Friday, July 15, 2005

Why are some responses to evil immoral?

I haven't posted for a while, because I've actually been working quite hard, and not reading the paper. This just goes to show why...

Everytime someone tries to link terrorism to the foreign policy of Western government, someone takes up the job of calling such a connection immoral. Normally, in the SMH, Gerard Hendersen is the first with his hand up, but on Wednesday Christopher Kremmer got his moment in the sun. (Immoral to blame the West for London bombings, Opinion, July 13, 2005)

Here's what he wrote:
Few serious analysts would argue that Western policies towards the Middle East have not contributed to the political decay that afflicts the region. The 1953 coup in Iran, which eliminated the middle ground and paved the way for Khomeini's mullahs, and our failure to heal the running sore of the Israeli-occupied territories are but two examples.

But to link a reasoned critique of Western foreign policy blunders to a justification for the killing and maiming of innocent commuters in the London peak hour endows murder with an aura of morality and reason it does not deserve.

I'm sure I must have misunderstood Christopher somewhere along the way, but it's the word "justification" that seems so out of place here. First, he tells us that what is immoral about Ali's comments is that he is blaming the West for acts of terrorism. But then he goes on to explain why it's immoral by saying that it provides a justification for that terrorism.

You see my problem? I can't understand why Tariq Ali would blame the West for something that he believed to be justified. You can't have it both ways, Christopher. Either Ali is blaming the West for an act he takes to be immoral, or he's justifying the act and not blaming anyone. Since it's pretty clear that Ali is blaming the West for something - this is, after all, what Kremmer's own headline says - he must be holding them responsible for something he does not endorse.

There's a lesson here for all of us. We could avoid getting ourselves into these logical difficulties if we just abandoned a rule that has been routinely adopted by opinion-piece moralists like Christopher and Gerard. I call it the one-bad-thing-at-a-time rule. Bad things - for example, terrorism and the West's contribution to political decay in the Middle East - are entirely unrelated and should not be thought together.

Another way of articulating this rule might be: bad things don't have causes, they only have perpetrators. Putting it this way makes it easy to see why people who embrace this rule are also disposed to talking in terms of concepts like freedom and evil. Freedom in the sense that the perpetrators' actions do not require causal explanation in terms of economic or political relationships between them and us. Nothing we could ever do could be the cause of their actions, which is another way of saying their actions are pure evil.

Does that mean that those who wish to render such actions intelligible by tracing their causes don't think terrorism is evil? No, but they do respond to it differently. An important part of this is a responsibility to honestly ask ourselves whether and how we might share in the blame. Christopher Kremmer's dispute with Tariq Ali is an example of a clash within our own civilisation over how to respond to catastrophes - what Susan Neiman calls "the problem of evil".

In her book, Evil in Modern Thought, Neiman argues that Western thought since the enlightenment - despite its preoccupation with the possibility of certain knowledge - may actually be better characterised as looking for a way of dealing with the problem of evil. She points to two events that had incredible importance for the development of modern thought: the earthquake and ensuing tsunami which destroyed Lisbon in 1755, and in the last century, the death camps of Auschwitz. She offers the following insight in the preface (which you can read at the link above):

Two kinds of standpoint can be traced from the early Enlightenment to the present day, regardless of what sort of evil is in question, and each is guided more by ethical than by epistemological concerns. The one, from Rousseau to Arendt, insists that morality demands that we make evil intelligible. The other, from Voltaire to Jean Amery, insists that morality demands that we don't.

The debate between Ali and Kremmer isn't about the justification of evil. Neither side is attempting to justify these acts. It's about the intelligibility of evil. Both perspectives are, as Neiman rightly points out, ethically motivated.

Unfortunately, that doesn't make them any more compatible with one another. It should be pretty obvious that (for the moment at least) I'm leaning more toward Rousseau, Arendt and Tariq Ali than Voltaire, Amery and Kremmer. In fact, I think Kremmer is a good example of why I'm reluctant to embrace the anti-intelligibilist position (to coin a bloody awful phrase). In my opinion, it opens the door to irrationalism in general. It's not so easy to partition off evil from everything else, and so you can't help treating a whole bunch of things as unintelligible that we could respond to quite rationally. What's more, it creates a blank check for any political authority which has the power to designate what counts as evil (e.g. first Al-Qaeda, then Saddam and now Iran and Syria, but not CIA assassinations, capital punishment or torture).

It may be that, from a God's eye view, mere mortals are incapable of fully understanding evil, but it's just because we are mere mortals who are governed by mere mortals, with all the lust for power that entails, that we had better not act as though evil is beyond an intelligent and self-critical response.

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