Wretchard of Belmont Club has written another of his signature, deeply thoughtful, posts.
All I can say is “read the whole thing.” Well, no, actually; that’s not all I can say.
Wretchard is writing about whether we can afford the luxury of moral absolutism in fighting the terrorists/Islamofascists/jihadists (select whichever word you think best), or whether the most moral course is to choose the lesser of two evils. He quotes this article by Conor Gearty, a human rights law professor at the London School of Economics (and with whom he disagrees), on the subject:
The moment the human rights discourse moves in this way into the realm of good and evil is the moment when it has fatally compromised its integrity. For once these grand terms are deployed in the discussion, all bets are off as far as equality of esteem is concerned. If we are good and they are bad, then of course equality of esteem as between all of us is ludicrous. Why esteem the evildoer in the same way as he or she who does good?…
International humanitarian and human rights law represents the apogee of [the] civilizing trend in global affairs, with rules of decent conduct that took their colour from the fact of our shared humanity rather than the superiority of our particular cause being agreed and promulgated.
Reading this, I felt a certain “aha!” moment come upon me. Gearty’s words are an almost perfect illustration of a certain mindset I hadn’t heard articulated so well before, one I believe is behind some seemingly incomprehensible positions taken by quite a few liberals and a large number of leftists.
Gearty speaks for many, I believe, in voicing a sort of morally absolute moral relativism. Lest this seem merely to be a tongue-twisting oxymoron, I’ll try to explain.
If I’m understanding him correctly, Gearty is saying that calling one side in a conflict good and another evil–or even calling one side morally better and the other worse in the relative sense–is itself a step onto the slippery slope that inexorably leads to human rights abuses. For that reason, such statements cannot ever be allowed, because allowing any such abuses would be to fatally and utterly compromise our own moral standing, the absolute and total protection of human rights being the highest good of all, one that trumps all others.
Furthermore, Gearty believes that one cannot make judgments about good or evil while simultaneously maintaining esteem (I think by this he means “respect”) for the evildoer. And, since Geary elevates equal esteem for all humanity as the highest good because it underpins human rights, then we cannot make judgments about good and evil.
However, in writing it out that way, I think a basic contradiction becomes glaringly obvious: Geary is himself making such a “good and evil” sort of moral judgment, and that is that the greatest good is to esteem all people on earth equally, and accord them all equal and complete human rights. It’s impossible, however, if one follows his logic, to escape the notion that groups with more of a dedication to preserving human rights would be more “good” and less “evil” than those who torture freely. I think this is an illustration of the fact that it’s simply impossible to talk about moral decisions without making some sort of moral judgments.
I guess Gearty has never heard of the notion of “hating the sin but loving the sinner”–that is, in secular and less loaded terms, believing someone has done something evil and yet still believing him/her to be a human being worthy of respect and with rights to be protected. Our entire legal system is actually predicated on such notions, and it’s difficult to see how a moral legal system could work if it were not. Surely all imprisonment, however just, includes the fact of depriving people of certain rights (although not basic ones). All imprisonment involves some sort of unpleasantness (therefore, according to some, “abuse” or even “torture”), both physical and mental. In addition, all imprisonment involves judgment of the wrongdoer’s acts as–well, as wrong, or even that old-fashioned word that Gearty so detests, “evil.”
This isn’t the place for a lengthy discussion on the nature of good and evil, and what is meant by those words (although…someday…). But I believe the heart of Gearty’s problem here is that he is mistaking what might be called “person-oriented” judgments with “act-oriented” judgments.
What is meant by that? Our legal system is based almost entirely on the latter rather than the former; we actually don’t judge people to be evil, we judge their acts to be such. Even Saddam Hussein is on trial for acts, not for the crime of being an evil person.
People who continually cross moral lines and do bad things are called, in a sort of shorthand, “evildoers”–that is, those who do evil. Does this mean they are inherently evil, have lost their claim to be human beings and to be respected as such? That’s primarily a religious/philosophical rather than a legal question, and it’s much too big for this essay, but as far as the law goes (and that’s what’s being discussed here), the answer is no, they have not lost their claim to be human.
So I see no contradiction between calling someone evil and calling them human. Even psychopaths and sociopaths, who seem to lack a conscience, are still human beings, although extremely dangerous and unusual ones. As humans, they are worthy of some respect, but that respect is not absolute. For example, it can certainly be argued that, even though we consider them humans, we are well within our rights to deprive them of their freedom and their right to harm us, if they are found guilty after a fair trial. Many argue that, in extreme cases, we are well within our rights to deprive them even of their lives.
And, in the unusual and rare situation of the “ticking time bomb,” it could be argued that despite the humanity of the evildoer, the consideration of some sort of physical coercion cannot and should not be taken off the table. What the dimensions of that coercion might be (for example, might it be limited to such methods as sleep deprivation), and when it would be not only morally acceptable but morally justified to apply it, are exceedingly difficult questions of extreme moral complexity. But to shy away from those questions and to propose an absolute ban is an act that leads to moral complexities of its own, a fact which Gearty refuses to acknowledge.
If you read Gearty’s piece, you’ll find an excellent example of the ivory-tower approach to the messy business of ethical decision-making. Gearty ignores almost everything about the real world as it actually works. As human beings making choices, I don’t see how we can ever avoid making moral judgments about relative good and evil (oh, how Gearty hates that word “relative!”). Even Gearty is making them here, whether he realizes it or not.
In the real world in which we live–rather than the lofty world of the London School of Economics in which Gearty seems to live, and where I’m sure no one ever does anything unethical–moral choices are usually between the lesser of two evils (or, as I’ve written before, the least crazy of several competing crazinesses). Failure to make such choices between relative goods/evils would make us into moral monsters of another sort, trapped in a rigid rules-bound way of thinking that would lead almost inevitably to tragic consequences. (If you doubt the latter, please see my pacifism series, particularly the one on Gandhi, who exhibited a similar rigidity of thought.)
But Gearty and his ilk believe that the rules will make you free, and that these rules must be rigid, since humans are incapable of making nuanced moral decisions (in other words, morally speaking, it’s all a slippery slope). Gearty believes that the rules of international law, based on ideas of shared humanity, are superior and must supercede any ad hoc notions of the good or evil of a certain cause. (Of course, Gearty is conveniently ignoring the fact that terrorists explicitly reject all such rules of international law, as well as any notions of the human rights that underlie them, although they will use international law to suit their purposes if faced with their own trials under its rules).
And, as Wretchard points out in his post, international rules of law are only enforceable if there is some teeth behind them, or in a society in which they are generally accepted: Humanitarian law works where law is obeyed, like the electric shaver that works where there is electricity. Otherwise, they are meaningless.
So, what is behind Gearty’s ability to hold his illogical and absolutist position? After all, he doesn’t seem to lack what we usually think of as intelligence, or a concern with morality itself. Quite the contrary.
It is my firm belief that a basic motivation behind positions such as Gearty’s (whether he’s aware of it or not) is the need to keep his own moral purity, and his notion of the moral purity of the society of which he is a member. That is, he desires to keep his own hands totally clean, his own conscience morally pure.
It is very difficult for many people to think of themselves as morally compromised. Gearty clearly believes he occupies the moral high ground in being an absolutist against human rights abuses such as any form of torture under any circumstances (as Gandhi did about violence). He never explores the actual real-world consequences of his position.
After all, it is far easier to see the consequences of action: that is, we torture someone, and someone suffers. Ergo, we are guilty of causing harm and pain to another human being. That cannot be denied. But the pain and suffering caused in certain cases by inaction, by not applying some form of human rights abuse or even physical pain (which I’m not here advocating; whether that is ever necessary or effective is a separate issue) is never factored by Gearty into his equation.
But it needs to be. Of course, it’s harder to see what the consequences of inaction might be, because the results of not acting are always speculative. But it would be illogical to ignore them, although that’s exactly what people such as Gearty–and pacifists worldwide–do.
As I wrote in another context, that of a discussion about the morality of the Iraq war:
My main point is quite a simple one: advocating a pullout–or even a timetable for a pullout–without understanding or recognizing the probable consequences of such action is utterly irresponsible…Yes, indeed, there’s enough blood to go around. There always is in war; wars involve blood on everyone’s hands, including pacifists, who are responsible for some of the blood involved in feeding the crocodile.
The important question is: how much blood is on whose hands, and to what end?
Yes, it’s relativistic. But I see no other way. In the real world in which we live, rather than the ideal one that exists only in the heads of academics such as Gearty or pacifists such as Gandhi, there is blood on everyone’s hands.