December 7th, 2005

The price for keeping our hands clean

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.

54 Responses to “The price for keeping our hands clean”

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  3. Harry Mallory Says:

    Oh, I dont know annon. As far as moral righteousness goes, I think I’ll take good old American jingoism over the European method of frittering away your nationality to multiculturalism any day.

    14 days of rioting in France, (if not more), the Netherlands having to place government officials, artists and writers in protective custody. “Honor” killings in the UK. Sweden knuckling under to the demands of local Imams. What a wonderful model of utopia you’ve become. But its nice to see that the moral beacon has shifted to Europe. Or is that another car on fire?

    Im sure you’ll survive, but the cost in lives may be more expensive.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    They cannot and they will not understand the secret to the greatness of the United States of America.

    Ugh … can’t … type … outrageous … jingoism …

    phew!

    Honestly, you are giving me great lines. I’ll be visiting relatives in Scotland this February, and I can’t wait to try out some of this material at the pub.

    If Europeans had their perceptions right, they would be as great as we are.

    Awesome!!! Bless you. That’s a pint right there.

    I fight for 3 things, Truth, Justice, and Liberty. And it matters not to me, how many people we have to obliterate to achieve those ends.

    AAAAAHHHHH HA HA HA HA HA HA

    I’m not going to torture them, they are just going to die. That’s morally clean, even for the best of us.

    AAAAAHHH! You’re killin’ me!!!

    Is anybody linking to this stuff???

  5. Harry Mallory Says:

    Well said, Ymarsakar. Thank you.

  6. Ymarsakar Says:

    The original post and the majority of the comments on it (so far) only confirm the suspicion of very many of us Europeans, including those of us who have always championed the US as a beacon of freedom and democracy in spite of everything,

    Maybe if the EUropeans had learned not to champion their pet dreams despite everything, they could have avoided WWII and Reconstruction.

    If Europe had followed our advice after WWI, WWII would not have happened. Now their excuse for not following our lead in the 21st century is this: that we had fallen off the pedestal they had put us on. Putting someone on a pedestal is a nice way to disregard everything they say.

    Holding the US on a pedestal and then claiming it has fallen in your eyes is a nice excuse to cover up for personal failures. And also why you aren’t listening to US guidelines and wisdom now.

    I can see that quite clearly. The US is no one’s pedestal, china doll, or punching bag. People should get their angst out on their own kind. Oh, the horror of the results of that, they might even get a working democracy going where 3/4ths of the people weren’t controlled by government doles.

    But that’s just the thing, the US got to where it is because we lifted ourselves out from the mire, we didn’t do so cause Europeans expected us to. We expect Europe to get a grip on reality, but the fact that they clearly don’t illustrates why the objections of other countries matter little. SInce American objections to European apathy and craziness doesn’t matter, what makes anyone think that European idealization of Americans matter?

    Since when does the United States lower itself to the same standards as people like Saddam?

    About when the FOunding Fathers came up with a notion called justice. They had nothing against execution of criminals, but you do. And there’s a reason for that, independent of the torture factor.

    To some people, justice is weak, to others, justice is strong. Don’t spread weakened notions of justice, decadent and foolish conceptions, onto Saddam’s trial in an invigorated and heartened nation. They won’t stand for it, and neither will I.

    I understand you are worried about the safety of your country but there is something even bigger at stake: the integrity of your country.

    Some people give their lives for what they fight for. Others give their souls. I fight for 3 things, Truth, Justice, and Liberty. And it matters not to me, how many people we have to obliterate to achieve those ends. I’m not going to torture them, they are just going to die. That’s morally clean, even for the best of us.

    Not everyone who disliked America or fought against her is my enemy. But anyone that fights against Truth, Justice, and Liberty is. And I have no compunctions about terminating those with extreme prejudice, whether by my own hand or through support of others. Saddam neither fights for Truth, nor Justice, nor Liberty. And I do understand why some people may not be willing to apply the death penalty for fear their hands will get dirty with work.

    I tend to agree with most people, Europeans included, that torture should not be done. But then again I do so primarily on a pragmatic basis. And Europeans tend to disfavor the death penalty and torture on ideological foundations.

    The US didn’t become as strong and as great as it is based upon “idealism”, but upon the hybridization of pragmatism and idealism. The French Revolution was all slogans and no sweat work. Truman championed liberty, but he also dropped two nukes on Japan. So don’t quote Andrew Sullivan’s weak and unpersuasive article, talking about how America must remain pure and respect human rights. Killing humans also respects their rights, it just doesn’t respect their life over ours.

    For a great nation must respect their own rights over the rights of our enemies. In any case where respecting the rights of our enemies does not harm us, then we should do so. But if it ever came to a pass that for the Japanese to live, Americans must die, then I’m sorry but the Japs are going up in smoke. It also applies to terroists, if a terroist’s right to not be tortured is mutually exclusive with our right not to be tortured, then the terroist is flat out of luck. However respected and well loved and great allies they are now, it didn’t change the fact that we were mortal enemies. And it wasn’t Andrew Sullivan’s “kindness” act that pacified Germany and Japan, but the iron hand of American ruthlessness and pragmatism. Just because American tends to put on velvet gloves over the iron first most of the time, doesn’t mean the US is as weak as it is percieved by Europeans.

    If Europeans had their perceptions right, they would be as great as we are. But they aren’t, and so they don’t.

    When people become far more enamored of the “integrity of America” than they are about the founding principles of AMerica, justice, liberty, freedom, then you are the one who should worry, not me.

    “Peace in our time”. People who value ideals and slogans, like Europeans do, need a reality check.

    I understand perfectly the reasons and the rationalizations of Europeans. I just don’t agree with them. And I cannot.

    Because I once struggled with the ethics of Hiroshima, like all other AMericans. But, like most Americans, I had to come to the conclusion that if the US isn’t around to guarantee human rights, then the human rights of the rest of the human race isn’t worth jack considering the quality of our enemies.

    And that is a consideration most Brits, Euros, and something Andrew Sullivan cannot understand. They cannot understand the iron hand in the velvet glove, the responsibility of having power.

    They cannot and they will not understand the secret to the greatness of the United States of America. For it is equal parts patriotism, idealism, pragmatism, and ruthlessness.

    You have to be willing to sacrifice everything in the service of your country. But it is incomplete, you must also fight for something greater than yourself or your country for that matter. That was lacking in France’s WWI. And you must also be ready to do your duty, to put it on the line, your lives, your fortunes, and your sacred honor when it is time to battle.

    European perceptions of America, without understanding those qualities first and foremost, are… sub-optimal and quite inaccurate.

    Andrew Sullivan lives not in the real world. TO defeat an enemy, one must become more like the enemy. That is a rule of war. And anyone who does not adapt their tactics to the tactics of the enemy, will lose, and their families will pay the horrible price of failure.

  7. BB Says:

    The original post and the majority of the comments on it (so far) only confirm the suspicion of very many of us Europeans, including those of us who have always championed the US as a beacon of freedom and democracy in spite of everything, that the new American Right — neo-cons, neo-neo-cons, whatever — is morally bankrupt, intellectually corrupt, and a traitor to the civilised values that we used to believe we had in common. I wouldn’t have believed that literate people who seem to take ethical problems seriously could be so self-assured and arrogant as to expose to the outside world their sneers and insults aimed at Professor Gearty, of whose philosophy and analyses they seem to have not the slightest comprehension. Has none of these commenters, apart from ‘anonymous’ and a very few others, actually read the Gearty article that most of them assail in such revealingly vicious terms? It’s a measure of the vacuity and intellectual poverty of most of these comments that so many of them end up arguing for the morally and intellectually disgusting position that some situations justify one human being torturing another. Shame on you! Go back and read Gearty and read him again until you understand what he is saying.

    No wonder we are witnessing the regression into the pre-Enlightenment moral desert of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, the solemn representation of such horrors as water-boarding as a regrettable necessity that is not to be regarded as torture, CIA hit squads roaming the streets of other people’s countries kidnapping their victims without legality or compunction — not to mention the monstrous evil of capital punishment that lines up the United States with China and Saudi Arabia.

    Few of our governments in Europe have completely clean hands in any of these areas, and some are actively complicit in the criminal activities of a global super-power whose very power seems to have destroyed its moral compass. But I hope our intellectuals will never stoop as low in their trahison des clercs as this post and (especially) these comments suggest is happening on the other side of the ditch.

    Gloom.

    (I would normally give my website and blog address with this comment, but in this case I don’t feel any obligation to expose them to the kind of smears and sneers that are directed here to a respected, thoughtful and eminent British — or Irish — professor in terms that say more about their authors than they say about Conor Gearty.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    We’ll pick our own path, there being no better example from which to take lessons.

    Another disconcerting theme from the American right. Good luck with that, too.

  9. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Sandra. I’m not sure what breaking Saddaam’s will has to do with our safety. Getting him convicted and executed will clear up some of the trash currently clogging our efforts. His will be damned. Don’t care.

    Andrew Sullivan is getting nuttier by the day. Fewer people are paying attention to him.

    I’d like to be a shining beacon. I’d also like to be alive.
    I recall the Europeans were with us after 9-11 until the first funerals were done and then it was back to the usual crap.
    My father was shot in several countries straightening out the world’s greatest oxymoron “European diplomacy”.
    We’ll pick our own path, there being no better example from which to take lessons.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    Fabulous recommendation Sandra, thank you.

  11. Inquiring Says:

    I have not read the rest of the comments, but the main post made me think of another place we often see this absolutist relativism: Comic Books.

    Batman, Superman, Spider-man, etc, they all share the exact same quality as Gearty; to preserve their own moral superiority they will not tarnish their hands with anything more than knocking the villian of the moment unconscious. No matter how many times the villian has escaped previously, no matter how many people they might have killed or endangered, each time the ‘hero’ always takes the high ground by simply apprehending them for the nth time.

    This realization that the ‘heroes’ were essentially morally bankrupt is what turned me off those continuing comics, and the movies they spawn. Admittedly the comic books have to do that so they can stretch the titles out for decades, but the heroes lose their shine and just become pathetic men/women in costumes afraid to stand up and take on true responsibility in the protection of innocent people when they refuse to stain their hands directly.

    Wonder how many people growing up have had their moral outlook profoundly affected by such drawn tales.

  12. Sandra Says:

    “Saddam has a mind, he has a heart, an understanding, and a will. To break his will one must carry his logical conclusions to the very end. The methods he thought justified to be used against others, is justified to be used against him, not because we chose so out of our own free will on an ethical standard of good and evil, but based upon HIS ethical standard.”

    Since when does the United States lower itself to the same standards as people like Saddam? I understand you are worried about the safety of your country but there is something even bigger at stake: the integrity of your country. Please read this article by Andrew Sullivan in the New Republic: http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20051219&s=sullivan121905
    Set your existing thoughts aside, read it, finish it and then think again.

    We need America to continue to be a beacon of light in a dark world. Without it, we are lost.

    A pro-American European

  13. Ymarsakar Says:

    Philosophy, I started with studying up on that before I went on to Greek Ancient History, Roman History, and Military Science/History.

    The good professor NNCon writes about is in the position that he is right to say that evildoers are not evil and should be treated as humans in a civilized manner. However, he also says of anyone else that says the evildoer is evil, that they are wrong. Even if they are the victims of the evildoers. Therefore, the professor seeks to decide for the entirety of humanity what is right and what is wrong, thus is their hubris, and thus is their fall.

    Why esteem the evildoer in the same way as he or she who does good?…

    Why treat them as humans if they are evil and we are good? Because you can’t freaking call a person in good conscience “Evil” if they aren’t human, if they have no free will. He thinks that a lion that ate up 5 children, and 10 men and women is FRACKING evil? or Good? What a stupid, retarded, utterly insane method of thinking.

    Saddam is evil because he is human, and therefore the punishment fits the crime. The punishment for a bear mauling a human, is death. The punishment for a human mauling another human is worse than if a human had simply killed another human by accidental methods. The punishment for genocide should be be poison gas execution, through the original agent used in the genocide.

    This is quite apart from an eye for an eye. This is based upon the equality of human free will, of humanity itself. And thus it brooks no dissent, for to dissent is to render unto nature what is not nature’s but humanity’s.

    Saddam has a mind, he has a heart, an understanding, and a will. To break his will one must carry his logical conclusions to the very end. The methods he thought justified to be used against others, is justified to be used against him, not because we chose so out of our own free will on an ethical standard of good and evil, but based upon HIS ethical standard.

    This isn’t about the “moral highground”. This isn’t about “being better than the enemy and the evildoer”, because I will never be better than HUMAN. And that is all I care about, to be human and to survive.

    To punish Saddam or another evildoer with a greater OR a lesser punishment than that deemed justified by THEIR ACTIONS and will, is tantamount to placing their actions, their wills, their humanity outside of ours. And that I cannot allow, for that would fail to esteem the evildoer in the same way as he or she who does good.

    Gearty seeks to elevate his humanity above the rest of us, above the victims of Saddam? He doesn’t know the meaning of the word, “humanity”.

    He just sucks. Pay no attention to the likes of him, for they are worth nothing in a war. He neither has the understanding nor the will to treat humans on an equal basis. To him, criminals are not humans, criminals are angels, they committ crimes because they know they will be punished and they do good works because they know they will not be rewarded.

    Have you ever heard of a human that will work 12 hours a day to pay for a child to go to school, graduate, join the army, and come back to kill him and recieve his inheritance?

    When you do, then Gearty will have eugenically created a new species of ‘man’.

  14. armchair pessimist Says:

    Anon: Yes, Marryat’s humor is coarse and dweadfully bwutal; such were his times and, alas, such are ours. It’s worth pointing out that it was the British Navy, with its keel haulings and floggings, that ended the slave trade at sea; or do you think the emanations of priggish milksops like your Professor Gearty would have been sufficient? Have a great weekend, Anon, but do take a moment to thank your stars that there are still Easy’s today willing to do the dirty work for your “human rights” and mine. Sorry, but I didn’t make the rules.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    It’s unlikely that Prof. Gearty is a fool.

    Logical fallacy: bifrucation. Just because Mondo does not submit to Gearty’s authority does not mean Mondo must think Gearty is a fool.

    Review the thread please to see the context in which I made the appeal to authority.

  16. maryatexitzero Says:

    It’s unlikely that Prof. Gearty is a fool.

    Not a fool, food. Anything with insufficient defense mechanisms is food in the natural world.

    In a discussion at Winds of change, others wonder how pacifists manage to survive, and (occasionally) to reproduce. Someone suggested that they’re a spandrel, or a “phenotypic characteristic that evolved as a side effect of a true adaptation.”

  17. Anonymous Says:

    It’s unlikely that Prof. Gearty is a fool.

    Logical fallacy: bifrucation. Just because Mondo does not submit to Gearty’s authority does not mean Mondo must think Gearty is a fool.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    Right, I read that one. I especially liked the part where Midshipman Easy kidnaps an innocent citizen and bundles him up to Syria without a trial, where for 22 months interrogators beat the soles of his feet with steel cables, routinely punch and kick him until he passes out, and keep him in a filthy, lice-infested cell.

  19. armchair pessimist Says:

    Let me put in a plug here for, of all things, Captain Marryat’s kid’s book, Midshipman Easy. Briefly, young Master Easy, a clever youngster of a philosophical turn, much taken with the gaseous political doctrines emanating out of revolutionary France, accidently enters the Royal Navy, an institution not known for trendy enlightenment. The charm of this book and its very relevant message to us is how through a series of utterly enjoyable episodes Easy collides with this thing we used to call duty, and grows from precocious brathood into a seaman, an officer and a man. Poor little Professor Gearty will have that opportunity. PS: For those of you who don’t know Captain Marryat, he’s better than Patrick O’Brien: he was there.

  20. Anonymous Says:

    Logical fallacy: Appeal to authority. The bredth of knowledge is impressive, but the challenges here are with his basic assumptions and concepts. The points he makes must be judged on their own merit, not the merit of the one giving them.

    It’s unlikely that Prof. Gearty is a fool.

    You’ve misinterpreted Gearty. You might want to read the source text.

  21. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Maybe we should revisit the question of how the sheepdogs look at the sheep.

    Motor. What’s 1560?

    71542

  22. ElMondoHummus (formerly E.M.H.) Says:

    “It’s downright frightening when the good guys start equivocating on concepts like human rights.”

    Due respect sir: No one here is equivocating on concepts like human rights. The arguments here are against the equivocation of such by folks such as Prof. Gearty who seek to replace the whole concept of what is right with what is the result of process.

    “To the folks here who condone torture as the lesser of two evils, imagine living with the knowledge that your missing spouse is being tortured by sadists in some far-off country. No trial. No communication. Is this the new standard? Is there a kind of war where that’s not necessary? What is it about the war on terror that makes it so? And without an enemy state or even measurable objectives for the war on terror, when does it end?”

    For the few who do discuss torture in the context of condonement (such as Alan Dershowitz), note that they’re doing it in the context of when it’s justified, how to constrain it, and how to make it accountable. In short, how to balance that with basic human rights. I may not agree with Dershowitz, or anyone else who want to discuss whether allowing torture is justified (I agree with Sen. McCain on the subject) but I don’t see the responsible members of that group painting the out-of-control, abusive scenario Mr. Anonymous has (well, except for the part about it occuring in “some far-off country”; don’t think that part can be avoided). Yes, there are the irresponsible ones in the debate, but those are the deviants, the exceptions. Every side of any political issue has folks like that.

    Also: Mr. Aubrey said it best: “…the discussion in the US is what constitutes torture and what doesn’t”. True. Can’t better that statement.

    And on top of that: The discussion includes the fact that we prosecute and punish the ones who do torture (re: The Abu Gahrib situation), as well as continually having to assert that, contrary to what some believe, torture is not standard practice of our armed forces. There are incidents, but I’d like to see proof of it being widespread or systemic.

    “The concepts of human rights is a social construct, it doesn’t exist in nature, we have to continually define it ourselves. When your government weakens the concept, and citizens like yourselves stand on the sidelines cheering, it really knocks the wind out of me.

    What knocks the wind out of me is when that same concept is weakened by the failure of the annointed enforcers of such rules to look the other way during gross and obvious violations of such by those deemed to supposedly be lesser threats than imperialists, “of freedom fighters”, or of those who, by virtue of opposing the US, Israel, or the West, somehow are not committing as grave a sin as the US et. al., even when their violations exceed in scope, magnitude, or level of depradation anything the US has done.

    “Let me put it plainly: Gearty has ten times the knowledge of the issues you’ve all pegged here from your armchairs.”

    Logical fallacy: Appeal to authority. The bredth of knowledge is impressive, but the challenges here are with his basic assumptions and concepts. The points he makes must be judged on their own merit, not the merit of the one giving them.

    “To work its moral magic, human rights needs to exude this kind of certainty, this old-fashioned clarity. To say ‘I have a right to’ is not to suggest something, it is to state it; it is not to ask, it is to demand.”

    This statement is not scholarship, it is stridency. “Moral magic”, as he puts it, is a quality derived from the legitimacy of the rights themselves, not the militancy of the one claiming them. “Old fashioned clarity” is not derived from the self-illusion inflicted upon ones self through zealotry, it’s derived from experience and continual evaluation and re-evaluation of one’s values and actions, and whether they’re proper in the conduct of whatever activity one engages in, whether campaigning for human rights or conducting war. And to “demand” rights… in the context of those truly oppressed or victimized, such as those suffering under repressive dictatorshiops it is correct to conduct and unfortunately necessary to include an element of firmness and agression. But the wanton utilization of such aggresiveness without regard to the target is irresponsible at best, self-glorification at worst. It creates the false illusion that a government that who may be in violation of such human rights but has a structure of justice and responsibility through which action can be taken is the exact equal of a repressive dictatorship where there is no hope of correcting wrongs without acting against said government.

    “Those of us here who are part of the human rights community do come across a bit smug in contrast to the rest of society – we know the right answers, we have special access to the truth. This is not ordinary politics, we say, this is morality, this is about right and wrong – and we know, even if you mere mortals don’t, which is right and which is wrong, not as a matter of policy but as a statement of truth.”

    Again, more militancy and self congratulation. I can’t help but think of the Catholic religion, which I belong to, and how arrogance and self congratulation must be a daily battle for both individuals and the Church as a collective whole. Yet, there is still an emphasis on humility and the danger of self-pride in the experience of the religion. True, there are remarkable failures, and they hurt, but I’ve never personally seen a priest or any devout catholic say anything even remotely like what was said above. Instead of lauding themselves and the truth, those priests or devout members I know would more come off as saying “Look, I’m a peon, but i’ve seen the truth, and I’m not exhaulted because of this, I’m just a simple human being with an insight that’s pretty profound”. Not “I’m self important because I believe in a religion derived directly from the Son of God, and I know the right answers, have special access to the truth… and I know what is right and wrong, even if you mere non-Catholics don’t.” I know there must be ones who fail to avoid self-exhortion, but the large majority are generally humble. Why is arrogance expected by this person? That statement comes off as saying “I’m important because of what I do”, not “What I do is important”. Self-glorification.

    Man, I gotta stop here. I haven’t even begun to address NNC’s point about Good vs. Evil and the blood on one’s hands from the overly fastidious nature of those who wish to make relativistic the ideas of good and evil. But this post is too long already, and I should stop here.

  23. Anonymous Says:

    Gearty is just as much a moral absolutist as Pat Robertson. He merely substitutes the words “victim” and “oppressor” for “good” and “evil.”

  24. Epaminondas Says:

    Keep our hands clean?

    We’re in a war of survival. Clean hands are the whimsy of dilettantes. The unborn children of future victims whose morality will be pristine.

    Don’t think so?

    Talk to the people who think it is their individual moral and religious responsibility to call you to islam, and subdue you if you refuse, and force to then to either pay the tax (jizya) or make you quite dead in the cause of god.

    They think they have the greater right, and BTW, those other muslims whose conscience would never permit such a state of affairs, and never ‘get their hands dirty’, and know something is wrong with those other guys who WILL get their hands dirty, apparently don’t have the religious authority to refute Islam’s KKK.

    Personally, I am compelled therefore to believe we and the rest of the world are better off with more democracies, and am prepared to PERSONALLY approve of just those kind of acts FDR and HST did, and which, if we are not prepared to do now, will cost us very heavily.

    The attack here is not just material, but attacks our will to resist by continually eroding action with ideas about clean hands.

    Clean hands = just what Lincoln achieved. Victory of right.

    US.

    Every single time.

    Measure us by our enemies.

  25. Standing in the Shadows Says:

    I did some quick googling on Mr. Gearty and found a Nov 15 article, on The Independent, called ‘To work its moral magic, human rights need certainty’

    The nut of the the editorial is…

    “This is not ordinary politics, we say, this is morality, this is about right and wrong – and we know, even if you mere mortals don’t, which is right and which is wrong, not as a matter of policy but as a statement of truth. This is not how most of politics works. Indeed it is not how the world works: uncertainty rather than certainty is, perhaps more than anything else, the key defining feature of our culture today.”

    Conor Gearty is not a moral relativist, but in fact a moral absolutest. His complaint about Michael Ignatieff using the terms good and evil comes, not from Mr. Gearty’s seeing the world in shades of gray, but rather that Ignatieff’s good and evil are not Gearty’s good and evil and is therefore heresy.

  26. Motor 1560 Says:

    Here’s the way The “moral high ground” of the relativists works in practice.

    Human beings are band or pack animals. When you have a dog, they join your pack and their behavior, as a pack animal themselves, shows this. I know some real smart dogs who have learned to “smile” by raising their lips at the sides while concealing their biting teeth. They have learned this ingratiating behavior to “fit in”.

    Every where we see people concerned with status in one way or another. In the material world in can be automobiles, houses or bling. I have observed, and studied the social dynamics of political “associations”, the voluntary “tribes” we join.

    In these groups adherence to group norms are paramount, recall the term “group think”. Status is derived from the way your adherence to these norms varies from the ideal. Bolsheviks who strayed were subject to “self criticism” sessions and these became normative in the Left.

    Moral relativism plays a big part in the Left and it also informs criticism. “speaking truth to power” as, for example throwing a trash can through a Starbucks window, is an action which your fellow anarchists will applaud and which will only be criticized by the rest of the Left in a discussion of “utility”. i.e.: “The objective reality of the Pre-revolutionary context suggests that it is too early in the process to throw trash cans through windows. As a brother in struggle, I hope you can see my point and not take this as a personal criticism.”

    Without BMW’s and Armani, the left has only the currency of the “purity” of their belief system. However, being pack animals, they will use this structure to create status hierarchies.

  27. Anonymous Says:

    I’m reminded of the old New Yorker cartoon depicting a group of new arrivals to Hell, being given their “cook’s tour” by the Devil.

    The caption reads, “You’ll find there’s no right or wrong here. Just what works for you!”

  28. Anonymous Says:

    Neo,

    What a wonderful post! I am a long time reader and a first time commentor. For anyone who is interested in going deeper into this question I would recommend “A New Birth of Freedom” by Harry Jaffa. The book is a profound meditation on the need for absolute moral standards and the practical political necessity of making real world moral compromises in pursuit of absolutist goals. It is not light reading but worth the effort.

    Bill

  29. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Anon.

    Gearty thinks human rights are whatever feels right to him.

    So who is he that we should worry?

    He wants the benefits of being protected while pretending he has no moral responsibility for the means of that protection.

    BTW. We can already think of our loved ones being tortured. It started with those whose loved ones fought the Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese, the NVA and the VC, the Iraqis.
    We are familiar with the process.

  30. Anonymous Says:

    I think the Gearty-quoting Anonymous’s problem is that he has an unreasonably broad notion of what “torture” is. By his standards, the police interrogations on shows like “Law & Order” would constitute torture.

    Problem is, his definition of “torture” is at odds with that of most of America. The average American doesn’t even consider what happened at Abu Gharib “torture,” let alone forcing Saddam Hussein to wear the same underwear three days in a row.

    I guess we’ve been numbed to “torture” by television, yet again.

  31. Anonymous Says:

    Actually, the way I phrased it was imagine living with the knowledge that your missing spouse is being tortured by sadists in some far-off country. No trial. No communication.

    In the speech I linked to Gearty addresses the questions you’re asking. Essentially, how can you justify the human rights position?

    Are human rights to be just whatever feels right? Is it enough to assert the importance of equal treatment or equality of respect as the basis of human rights but then avoid discussion of where these ideas come from? Why not hurt our neighbour, grab all we can from the passing stranger, walk past the hungry homeless with unmoved heart?

    Good luck finding the balance. I don’t envy you the task: I believe there’s no balance to be found, just a slippery slope. I believe the USA is the de facto role model (you may not want the position, but it comes with the territory), and you have to take the high road. Call me irresponsible if you like.

    I’m sorry we disagree and I’m sorry I seem to evoke sarcasm whenever I find time to post here.

  32. N. O'Brain Says:

    1. I always laugh at the “Don’t try to impose your morality” tagline. Isn’t ALL law a stab at imposing morality?

    2. “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.”

    I learned at the approximate age of 12, by reading science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, that a consumer of meat is at the same moral leval as the butcher. I guess this guy is a vegatarian.

  33. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Hey, most recent anon. Thanks for including a piece from Gearty.

    He’s right. They do appear smug. The whole thrust of his piece is that he not only claims to know stuff, which he admits comes across as smugness, he presumes he’s right.

    What if he’s not?

    “I have a right to….” Without filling in the blank, that’s meaningless, which sort of follows but even meaningless except to Gearty.
    What if I say I have a right to your liver on a stick?
    What Gearty and his ilk know is what they want.
    They have no idea of the price.

    The Presbyterian Church (USA), which is, in its hierarchy, nearly a pacifist church, except for the enemies of the west who are excused, has, after seeing the Balkans, come up with a doctrine of humanitarian intervention, which is one step less nuts than having the Quakers figure out the same thing.

    After a bit of nagging, the Professionally Incredibly Wonderful (just ask them) will admit that fighting might be necessary to impose the conditions for peace.

    Even the PCUSA knows there can be a cost to human rights. Amazing.

    So we end up trying to figure out balances.

    Anon wants us to figure our loved ones being tortured. Cool. As if we would be the first. He also hasn’t figured out that everybody knows the discussion in the US is what constitutes torture and what doesn’t. He hasn’t figured out he’s been BUS TID on that one.

    And, he thinks of himself as a superior being, having divorced himself from the messy necessity of trying to figure out how, exactly, to calculate the costs of promoting human rights.

    How about a solution for Rwanda, anon, or Darfur? Didn’t the mass murderers have rights, too? You know, like killing people who annoy them? Wouldn’t they have to be killed in large numbers to protect their remaining potential victims?

    Straighten us out on this, would you? We await The Word from On High.

  34. Anonymous Says:

    It’s downright frightening when the good guys start equivocating on concepts like human rights.

    To the folks here who condone torture as the lesser of two evils, imagine living with the knowledge that your missing spouse is being tortured by sadists in some far-off country. No trial. No communication. Is this the new standard? Is there a kind of war where that’s not necessary? What is it about the war on terror that makes it so? And without an enemy state or even measurable objectives for the war on terror, when does it end?

    The concepts of human rights is a social construct, it doesn’t exist in nature, we have to continually define it ourselves. When your government weakens the concept, and citizens like yourselves stand on the sidelines cheering, it really knocks the wind out of me. But, hey, I’m just an ivory tower liberal.

    I have to add that it takes a certain kind of mojo for to call Professor Gearty a fool. Let me put it plainly: Gearty has ten times the knowledge of the issues you’ve all pegged here from your armchairs. That’s the way it works when you have to read everything in the field for your Phd comprehensives, let alone qualify for a position as a professor, let alone at the London School of Economics, let alone as the Director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at LSE.

    From Gearty’s Can Human Rights Survive? The crisis of authority

    To work its moral magic, human rights needs to exude this kind of certainty, this old-fashioned clarity. To say ‘I have a right to’ is not to suggest something, it is to state it; it is not to ask, it is to demand. Those of us here who are part of the human rights community do come across a bit smug in contrast to the rest of society – we know the right answers, we have special access to the truth. This is not ordinary politics, we say, this is morality, this is about right and wrong – and we know, even if you mere mortals don’t, which is right and which is wrong, not as a matter of policy but as a statement of truth. This is not how most of politics works. Indeed it is not how the world works anymore: uncertainty rather than certainty is, perhaps more than anything else, the key defining feature of our culture today.

  35. David Thomson Says:

    Sometimes one can get confused looking at the larger picture. It can seem so distant and abstract. Thus, it might behoove everyone to imagine Conor Gearty’s moral premises being employed by the police officers patrolling your very own neighborhood. Perhaps the criminal trying to steal your car should be allowed to do so. How can we deny him his humanity?

    Conor Gearty reminds me why I generally have so much contempt for the soft science Ph.D. These people are often so silly. The leftist establishment protects them and punishes those who dare declare the emperor is wearing no clothes. Thank God our American tradition is somewhat “anti-intellectual.” We tend to rightfully laugh at these credentialled fools. Perhaps there is something to be said on behalf of someone being a functional illiterate. Not being able to read the inane thoughts of a Conor Gearty does have its pluses.

  36. maryatexitzero Says:

    If a person is walking in the woods with a gun, and if that person is confronted by a growling, hungry grizzly bear, should that person aim to kill and shoot the bear?

    Or should he stop to consider the bear’s moral outlook too? After all, the bear isn’t evil – he’s just being a bear. Why should a man deny a bear his perfectly justifiable right to eat? When you look at their comparable histories, humans in general have been far more evil than bears. The comparable moral superiority of bears is undeniable. Gandhi, Gearty and most advocates of peace and justice would be proud to be bearfood.

    Like these bear-admiring moral relativists, Gearty has great potential to be a yummy snack for one predator or another.

    Most people are willing to fight an enemy because that enemy wants to kill us and we don’t want to die. People like Gearty don’t understand that. Despite their extensive vocabulary they’re about as dumb as the darwin award winner who used a grenade to clean a chimney. There’s no question that, in the event of an escalated worldwide conflict, they’ll be the first to go. The question is, how we keep them from dragging us down with them?

  37. Richard Aubrey Says:

    How does one do good and promote human rights when the human rights are being violated by a group of…humans? Humans, moreover, who won’t quit violating the rights of others without a fight?

  38. m.vitruvius@gmail.com Says:

    It’s all relabelling. Extreme relativists of Gearty’s stripe exhort us simultaneously to do good, which they relabel in this case as adherence to human rights, and to eschew the distinction between good and evil, or even less prejudicially, between good and bad.

    When I was younger, I thought this was stupid. Now I simply think it is sad.

    And the horror of it is, I don’t deny that good things can come of relativism in small doses. I believe strongly that a small dose of relativism, as an innoculation against over-judgementalism, is a good and necessary thing. I consider all of politics, all of economics, all of the interaction between society and man as an ever-evolving species-wide search for ever-better ways of life. The stubborn insistence that we have found it, and there is no better life to be lived (except, perhaps for doing even more of exactly what we do, harder and faster) is toxic to this improvement.

    Equally so, at least, is the notion that no improvement is possible because all alternatives are equal.

    The whole art of the game is in figuring out how, where, and how often to discriminate; that so many people are still stuck rushing to either extreme is what I find so sad.

  39. Tom Grey Says:

    Great post, again, Neo. (Or do you prefer NNC?)

    I’ve long complained about implicit comparisons with Unreal Perfection. I’m sure you’re correct that Gearty’s morality is all about keeping HIS hands “clean” — like the Dems who voted for Clinton’s “no-genocide / no-war” policy in Rwanda in 1996. (Of course, the Reps didn’t bother to even try to make Clinton’s no-genocide lie an issue; nor did the newspapers.)

    In reality, there is a difference between doing the bad thing, and merely letting others do the bad thing. But the “grey” area is how much bad is justifiable to stop even worse.

    Some Harvard Law prof is now claiming that Iraq democracy isn’t worth 2000 American lives — implying it’s not even worth one American life.

    No American lives were wasted in not stopping Hutu killers; nor have there been any US soldiers killed in protecting Black Muslims in Darfur. I wonder if Gearty feels his hands are clean over the UN “not quite action” in Darfur.

    “War” will end when we have a world without dictators; international law only makes real sense among countries with democratically elected leaders, and demonstrated ability to transfer top executive power while the leader lives.

  40. Goesh Says:

    Like Pontius Pilate of the ivory tower, so far removed from the muck and mire and blood of the street, he washes his hands with platitudes reeking or morality. What a fool! Like Pancho said, his tune will change when someone he loves is murdered, or when anarchy and total panic erupts after the bastards get a WMD in and detonate it.

  41. David Says:

    See also this analysis of “nuance” by Arthur Koestler.

  42. Colin Says:

    Given the opinions expressed in the post (which seem spot on to me) you might be interested in Eve Garrard’s post at Normblog on Dec 2nd, defending Michael Ignatieff from an attack by Gearty. The latter used to be sceptical about human rights, but now he’s got religion.

  43. Anonymous Says:

    This is fascinating! A lengthy discussion of “sin” without any mention of the word. The liberals deny that it exists, and hence, that “There’s no right or wrong here, just what works for you”.

    In Jewish theology, “sin” is straying from the right path as defined in Torah. (The Ten Commandments are a fair example of the standards). In Catholic theology, the word end up capitalized as “Sin”, and categorized into “mortal” (very serious) and less serious theological categories.

    Your discussion loses a lot in failing to touch upon this subject, which is the cultural context for this discussion.

    Denial that there is “sin”, and denial of concepts of “good and evil” moves us into extreme solipcism rapidly. And at that point, the glue that binds our civil society disappears, and we really have returned to a dark age, a time before the primitive and rising consciousness of the Hebrew G-d.

  44. Anonymous Says:

    “It is very difficult for many people to think of themselves as morally compromised. “

    Indeed. I certainly am and living with bitter experience and seeing the consequences of my actions, (and to be fair those of others too) has helped my overcome this difficulty. It is my tentative conclusion, pending anything contrary I might learn after death, that we all are morally compromised.

    Gearty’s claim that “International humanitarian and human rights law represents the apogee of [the] civilizing trend in global affairs” is quite a stretch. I think instead of ‘apogee’ or high point, it would be more accurate to call it the high water mark of a certain kind of progressivist internationalist thinking in the 20th century. High water mark because I think that view has suffered significant historical setbacks in the past 15 years none greater than the discovery that the UN, the largest institutional advocate of “international humanitarian and human rights law,” was hopelessly corrupt and ineffective. Never mind its ineffectiveness when faced with the moral certainty of radical Islam. Or even the simple determination of Serbian or Jinjaweed genocidal activists, and French car burners. Lorenz Gude Perth Western Australia

  45. Paul Says:

    I think Jesus had it right when he said “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and “Love one another” , but of course we don’t. By the way, I am a Unitarian .

  46. Anonymous Says:


    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.

    Or perhaps he is simply more compassionate than you.

  47. TmjUtah Says:

    Pancho -

    I’ll go two to one that the prof would find a convenient western politician to blame for his family’s demise before condemning the terrorists.

    Bad things happen because of the western imperialist legacy and the contemporary backward, judgemental red state yobs. Oh, and White Privilege, too – those damned European white guys. The natives are just getting back their own.

    That’s the message I get from the prof and his kindred spirits.

    The good professor will probably seek comfort on the shoulder of Robert Fisk. They share the same hole in their souls.

  48. Pancho Says:

    I’m sure he will have his moral certainties unless his family is murdered in a London subway….then all bets are off.

  49. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Assistant.

    I hate when that happens. I should have thought of that years ago.

    Now I don’t have to.

    Thanks.

  50. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    Just because there is no black and white in this fallen world does not mean that all shades of grey are the same.

    Ever notice that when people start leaning on you that there is no black and white morality, they are always trying to get you to choose a darker shade of grey? When they want you to choose a lighter shade, they appeal to the moral sense they assume you have.

  51. Jim from LA Says:

    Leo Strauss raised, essentially, these questions in his classic, “History and Natural Right.” It’s a really long story, but this post sounds all the themes. Modern liberal thought took its hard turn away from Locke’s course when it saw the bloody French Revolution set in motion by a call for Natural Rights and moral clarity. But still, after all these years, notwithstanding how thinkers like Neitzche moved European thought farther down the road to relativism (if morality is defined differently from one age of history to the next, who’s to say what’s right?), the strength of our country and culture is the abiding belief that it is, simply, self evident that all men and women are endowed with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The war in and over the middle east – fought along dusty Iraqi roadsides as in the “debating” halls of academia in the West – is really a war over whether we have rights because we were born as citizens of this country, or because we were, simply, born into the human race. Thus, I say that although I have become increasingly conservative by today’s political definitions, I remain in the true sense of the word a Liberal.

  52. David Says:

    “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”…this is a self-contradiction in the space of a single sentence. The concept of “integrity” is itself dependent on some concept of “good and evil” (unless, of course, “integrity” is used in a strictly technical meaning like “the watertight integrity of the ship’s hull,” which would make little sense in this context)

  53. Richard Aubrey Says:

    As far as I can understand, the moral load of doing something bad and allowing something bad to be done are pretty much equal.

    That presumes, of course, that we are in a position to prevent the evil act.

    It’s easier for the non-self-examining to believe that the latter course keeps their hands clean.

    But it doesn’t.

  54. electric hole punch Says:

    electric hole punch…

    Hi. Thanks for the good read….

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