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Moral equivalence

In political debate, you always need a conversation stopper or two. A good way to close discussion of Iraq, Palestine or refugees is to accuse your opponents of holding the doctrine of moral equivalence. While they are working out what it means and why it is so terrible, you can open up another front.

In 1985, Jeane Kirkpatrick, the then US representative to the UN, brought the doctrine of moral equivalence into political use in a speech given in London. She discussed its use in the Cold War. In her view, the Soviet bloc tried to project the image of two morally and politically symmetrical powers. Their program was to compare Western ideals with their practices, so showing systematic failure. The Soviet leaders also commended a falsely rosy view of their own practices, and claimed that they were inspired by values dear to the West. By redefining political discourse and making inappropriate comparisons, they encouraged the conclusion that there was no moral difference between the two power blocs. Moral equivalence, then, was the doctrine that there is no moral difference between the moral status and conduct of the United States and its adversary. It was used to subvert public support for the Western alliance. 

After the end of the Cold War, critics of Israel’s policy toward Palestine and the United States war against Iraq have also been accused of subscribing to the doctrine of moral equivalence. The accusation implies that the critics are not only wrong in their criticism, but also subvert the principles of moral judgment and are nihilistic and confused.

After 20 years it is hard not to read Kirkpatrick’s argument as self-serving and ideological. But moral equivalence, the denial of moral difference, is alive and well on all sides of political debate. In the tabloid version, outrage at the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison is countered by the argument that the regime of Saddam Hussein was far worse. Implicit in this argument is the claim that where two groups do terrible things to one another, the sins of the more obnoxious group disqualify criticism of the other. Critics should focus on the relative goodness and evil of the regimes, and not on the morality of the actions of the better party.

The broadsheet use of the principle of moral equivalence is more sophisticated. If you compare what was once done at Abu Ghraib under Saddam Hussein with what is now done under United States rule, I will criticise your doctrine of moral equivalence. I imply that you dismiss the moral difference between the two regimes, and undermine commitment to a just and necessary cause.

Three things need to be said about reference to the principle of moral equivalence. First, in itself, the charge of comparing one regime with another proves nothing. Comparisons do not prove moral judgments. Nor do they falsify them. At best they illuminate them, and at worst they obscure them.

Second, conversation about morality becomes useful when we speak about actions. Discussion about whether people are good or evil belongs in the primary school yard. On inspection, evil doers always turn out to be diminished human beings, and to compare their moral culpability with that of others assumes

a God’s eye view. It also obscures the fact that good people can do terrible things.

We may, however, compare the moral quality of actions done in the name of different governments. We can also compare the policies from which these actions flow. We may say, for example, that a nation which cares for the human dignity of its citizens by guaranteeing them shelter, food, education, personal security and the opportunity to shape society, is a better society than one where people are routinely starved, exploited, tortured or killed. Kirkpatrick is right to deny that abuses in a generally humane society make it morally indistinguishable from a brutal society. To justify such a judgment, we would need to compare in detail the abuses of human dignity in each society, and examine their context.

But the relative justice of a society does not entitle it to act as it wills towards a less just society. Nor is it entitled to endorsement of its unjust actions. If the United States has acted badly in going to war and in conducting it, it is important to protest at the incompatibility between its ideals and what it does.

Third, comparisons made between nations on the basis of what they do are not necessarily illegitimate. To compare the torture practiced by United States interrogators in Abu Ghraib with Saddam’s treatment of prisoners, for example, would be illegitimate if it simply insinuated that both parties were as bad as each other. It would invoke moral equivalence improperly. But it would be legitimate to make this comparison in order to underline the evil of torture by forces with which we are allied. It would also be proper to use the comparison in order to show that the roots of all torture lie in giving people power to use and abuse other human beings with impunity. To identify this kind of argument with an improper use of the doctrine of moral equivalence would be to reduce morality to politics.

Finally, the doctrine of moral equivalence is tricky to use, because it rests on a paradox. At one level, morality is built on moral equivalence. It assumes that the lives of all human beings matter equally, no matter who and where they are. Because the life of the Iraqi prisoner in an American jail matters as much as the life of the American prisoner in an Iraqi jail it is wrong to torture either. On the basis of this moral equivalence, we are committed to criticise the evil policies and practices of our own society as much as those of other nations. Apologists for evils like detention and wars lightly undertaken do not accept this moral equivalence. They ask us to measure what we do to others by different standards than what is done to us.

At a deeper level, the moral equivalence that values each human being equally, is based on a deeper lack of moral equivalence. The ground of morality is the conviction that each human being is uniquely precious. Because each human being is unique and so ultimately incomparable with others, we may not treat human beings simply as members of a group, but we must respect the dignity of each. That means not treating anybody as a means to an end, whether by detaining children in order to send signals, bombing people to implant democracy, or torturing some people to save the lives of others.

Ultimately, the coins of morality are stamped with individual human faces, each of which is precious. The principle of moral equivalence is benign when it defends each of those different faces. The real perversion of the principle can be seen in the hooded faces and naked bodies at Abu Ghraib.  

Andrew Hamilton sj is Eureka Street’s publisher.



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