Moral Equivalence

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, 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.

Misogyny in the Monarchy: Volume I

From Japan comes news that Princess Kiko, wife of second-in-line Prince Akishino, is pregnant. If a boy results, he will be the first born to the Japanese royal family in forty years. He will become third in line to the throne, leap-frogging two older sisters and his cousin Princess Aiko.

The issue of the Japanese succession has been labelled a constitutional ‘crisis’, with the public divided over whether a female should succeed to the Imperial Throne (The Chrysanthemum Throne). It has caused a personal crisis for the Crown Princess Masako, who is said to have become withdrawn due to the pressue inside the Imperial Court, to produce a male heir.

It should be stated that is is entirely incorrect and irrational to pressurise a woman (princess or otherwise) to produce a male heir. The sex of a baby is determined by whether the sperm that fertilizes it carries an X (female) or Y (male) chromosone. It is entirely random which of these genetic codes gets through… but if it were not, then only the testicles of the man who produced the sperm could be held responsible for a lack of Y’s in the bag.

That a group of people can be allowed to pressurise a woman in this manner is bad enough. Worse is the underlying desire for a male heir which causes such pressure. Clearly this attitude is one which runs deep through the entire society – opinion polls see the country divided on the issue of whether a female heir should be allowed, and fierce debates have surrounded the proposal by Junichiro Koizumi, that a woman be allowed to ascend to the throne. It was even suggested that the Crown Prince be allowed to adopt a boy to ensure that his daughter would not succeed!

The message to Princess Aiko is simple: We wish you were not a girl. And the message to the country: boys are better than girls.

We could list examples where the sexes are not equal. Mothers have a different bond with their children than fathers. Men are (usually) physically stronger. These inequalities are always rooted in biology, or psychologies on the most inate level. Many will also argue that the traditional nuclear family is the optimal social arrangment to promote human flourishing (whatever that may be). A family or tribal unit is something that may evolve, with the structure adapting over time and due to environmental considerations. We may not be conscious of it, and we may not be able to break out of the structure we find ourselves within. Misogyny may continue, and parents will still secretly wish that they have a son, and not a daughter.

Conversely, a State is an entirely political entity. It exists only in the conscious human mind – no more, no less. The idea behind a democratic state is that people consciously endorse (and usually codify) the way their political system – their mutal concerns – are arranged. It is about taking responsibility for how you live. Let no-one say that the political rules, handed down from previous generations, are not open to consideration. Let no-one say they cannot be changed.

In fact, breaking away from the tyranny of previous generations is part of the point of democracy. The nature of the system almost demands that laws be changed, for they must always reflect the views of the populous.

When a law becomes outdated, when it no longer reflects the values of the people it governs, it must be scrapped. As the news of this royal pregnancy reminds us, sexism is institutionalised in Japan at the highest and most symbolic level. The people of Japan must now decide whether they wish their Head of State to be determined by these values, or whether a new millenium should herald a change.

Volume II will be posted later today, in which we will (of course) return to Blighty.

Google China

Now, it would be very hypocritical of me to complain about US government intrusion into internet search results, if I do not also utterly condemn Google’s decision to censor its Chinese site. However, even if I did not draw that parallel, I could never be more hypocritical than Google itself. The company who did indeed stand up to the aforementioned US government interference, has sold its morals down the Yangtze River. This is appalling blow to everyone who values freedom of expression, especially as the act comes from a company who emphasises its ethical policies. Via Blairwatch, we find that censorship directly contradicts Google’s admirable company policy:

Google does not censor results for any search term. The order and content of our results are completely automated; we do not manipulate our search results by hand. We believe strongly in allowing the democracy of the web to determine the inclusion and ranking of sites in our search results.

Not any more.

Perhaps Google should be subjected to some kind of boycott. Simply refusing to use the search engine would be almost impossible for most people, as it is such a ubiquitous tool (it’s even integrated into my Safari browser). Likewise, too many people use Blogger for this to be a viable proposition. It would also be counter-productive if our aim is the free flow of communication around the globe. CuriousHamster hints that he will remove the Adwords bar from his site, thus sacrificing some income from his blog. Will others follow suit?


Down In the comments, John suggests a very good article on the issue. Google does inform users that their search on will be blocked. This definitely doesn’t excuse the hypocrisy of going against a stated company policy though, nor does the fact that they are making money in a country through a censored search engine. I’m not sure that providing some search results is better than providing no search results. That seems to be a tacit endorsement of the system to me, especially as money is being made. As Danny Sullivan says, it would be better if they weren’t there at all.

Another Update

I just saw an AOL advert that used a clip of the man with shopping bags in front of the Tiannamen Square tanks, with a voice-over “The only place where freedom of speech is a reality”… Hmmph.