Nick Cohen’s article in this week’s Observer has prompted me to think about ‘moral equivalence’, and the degree to which we condemn the actions of other countries, and our own.
To me, the failure of the archbishop to speak plainly was not a sign of his diplomacy, but flowed from his row with the Jews. Before he escaped to Africa, he couldn’t say why he wanted sanctions against Israel but not against countries that committed far worse crimes – China, Syria, Iran, North Korea and, indeed, Sudan – or give any indication that he was morally obliged to provide an answer.
Cohen’s point is persuasive, and requires an answer, and he is right to take the Archbishop to task over these double standards. However, the argument he uses raises some questions, because the moral door swings both ways.
The idea of ‘moral equivalence’ requires some unravelling. It is always used in the negative, to condemn someone who is equating one reprehensible act with another. Above, Cohen notes that those of a certain political viewpoint are equating the transgressions of the Israelis towards the Palestinians, with a wider and much more horrible genocides, in the other countries he mentions. His complaint is that the two are simply not comparable: Israel is simply not as bad as Sudan.
Another example might be to equate the attacks on the World Trade Centre, with the human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay. Imprisoning a few dozen militants without trial is simply not in the same moral ballpark as murdering 3,000 civilians on a cold September Tuesday. The actions of the Bush Administration are not morally equivalent to the actions of Al Q’aeda (so goes the argument) and it is offensive to suggest as much. Similar arguments can be made regarding transgressions in Iraq. One can always retort with “well, would you rather have Saddam back?” safe in the knowledge that the coalition forces never did anything as bad as the Ba’athists at Abu Ghraib. Discussions of this kind have been thrown around for decades, especially during the Cold War.
But they are all relative arguments. Relative to Sudanese actions in Darfur, Israeli transgressions against Arabs in the region could be described as minor. But thinking absolutely, they are nevertheless still transgressions. To reiterate, I do not disagree with Cohen when he asserts that Sudan is worse than Israel… but as soon as that point is made, someone is bound to ask the question: “Does that excuse Israel’s behaviour?”
The moral equivalence complaint is constantly used in political discourse, a smoke-screen to justify and excuse morally dubious action. An appeal to inhibit the ghettoisation of the West Bank is met with “what about the man on the Tel Aviv omnibus?” A fair point indeed, but in making it, the respondent has cunningly failed to answer the original point, and thus escapes from the discourse without condemning something that would not have looked out of place in occupied Poland, circa 1940. Likewise, legitimate questions about why, and when it was decided to go to war, are met by Tony Blair with the tired old cliché: “Would you rather have Saddam back?” Meeting questions with questions in this manner is to present a non-sequitur. By highlighting something morally worse, Tony manages to avoid answering the original question at all.
Complaining about the lack of moral equivalence between two acts should not be used as an excuse to avoid accounting for the actions of the governments we are responsible for. Although this final example, from ‘Tender’ at ProfessorBainbridge.com, I confess made me laugh:
As for morality – when the anal rape rate at Gitmo gets to say, half, of the rate at the Cook County jail let me know. I won’t worry till then.
The perceptive among you will have noticed that this particular gripe about the nature of moral arguments really only applies (by its very nature, I think) to governments such as that of Israel, the USA and the UK, rather than China, North Korea, and Sudan (to use some of Cohen’s examples). This is important, because I really want to write about why the former set of countries should be held to a higher standard – because we are responsible for them. I have’t finished with this yet. More in the next post.