Monday, August 18, 2008

A Bad Idea Makes for Worse Policy

The early nineteen eighties saw the rise of a phrase to public prominence that most of us had not heard before: moral equivalence. Over the years, the users of the phrase back-formed it into a verb: moral equivalencing. Whatever form it takes, I consider this term one of the worst examples of the political abuse of language.

Moral equivalence, in its current sense, arose as a scornful label for the notion that moral standards apply to everyone equally, and therefore the crimes in the name of "anti-communism" ought to concern us. In the late 1970s, the phrase had a coherent idea behind it; some neo-conservatives developed the idea that Marxism had a uniquely corrupting effect that eliminated the possibility of any reform. This meant nations ruled by corrupt despots who took the American side could evolve into democracies, while nations ruled by despots who favoured the Soviets could not, and therefore we should not judge "friendly" dictatorships, and the atrocities they commit, by the standards we apply to "hostile" rulers. The events of 1989 to 1991 pretty well refuted this claim, but just as the Cheshire Cat disappeared leaving nothing but the grin, the idea behind moral equivalence has left the phrase as its only trace.

The phrase has persisted mainly as an indirect way of reinforcing or enforcing political identities. It implies, since a direct assertion would make the absurdity of the proposition unavoidable, that "we", however the speaker defines "we" cannot err. This kind of expression abuses words to prevent, rather than express, thought. It has serious effects on the quality of decision making in politics wherever people use it. Historically, the assertion of the moral equivalence of individuals and their actions underpins the rule of law, which asserts the wrongness of an action such as murder, regardless of who commits it and against whom they commit it. As a result, the use of the phrase "moral equivalence" when speaking of international relations denies the possibility of the rule of law in an international context, and more broadly denies the possibility of a coherent international policy at all. After all, to make a rational guess at what the government of another country may do, you have to first appreciate that they belong to the same species you do, with motives and calculations you can in principle understand. But I can see no clear boundary between a recognition of common humanity and the dreaded "moral equivalencing".

We can see the results all around us. In 2003, Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien warned that he could see no legal basis for the United States to invade Iraq. An international system can only work on one of two basis: the rule of law or power politics, and we have recently seen what power politics looks like, as the Russian government moved to quash what they saw as a threat from the Republic of Georgia. If the policy makers involved had kept a clear view of international relations, they might have seen that absent a consensus based on international law, extending NATO to all the borders of Russia would look very aggressive, and risk provoking a violent reaction. Nothing, perhaps, could blind decision makers as effectively as a complacent sense of moral superiority, exactly the sort of outlook I would expect the unthinking acceptance of a phrase such as "moral equivalence" to foster.

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