Tony Blair, Moralist?
Edmund Burke, MP, author of the book Reflections on the Revolution in France, said publishers deal in commodities they do not understand. “True”, said one Murphy, “some of ‘em deal in morality”. Are politicians the same? Is Mr Blair this way? It matters a lot more. A lack of moral intelligence in a politician can get other people killed by the thousands.
Mr Blair is letting us know at the moment that he wouldn’t be going to war if he didn’t think it was moral. But I never thought he was being consciously immoral. Did anybody? We didn’t think he was entirely amoral either, untouched by moral considerations, maybe just a cynic about international relations or a proponent of what is sometimes called political realism. But the irrelevance of Mr Blair’s present disclosure about himself is not the main point.
The question about Iraq is whether it is right to attack, invade and occupy it. Whatever the right thing to do is, it can be done out of good, bad or indifferent personal motives. Saints can do the wrong thing and monsters can do the right thing. It is not reassuring that Mr Blair seems not always to concentrate his mind on the issue of what is right, or runs it together with his own sincerity and his church-going.
A second thing hasn’t been reassuring. That was his seeming to discover a week ago, after some months of ardent campaigning and presumably reflecting on Iraq, that there was a moral case he could make — presumably about the right thing to do. It was about possible or probable effects on Iraqis themselves of leaving Sadam in power. That raises a question. What kind of case did Mr Blair think he was making in connection with the war before then?
Maybe he’ll say now that he was proposing the right thing all along, for various reasons, but didn’t think of it in terms of morality. It won’t be much of a reply. It will still seem that he has been and is uncertain about what he is involved in. Maybe uncertain of the fact that morality is absolutely inescapable. You can be as amoral as you want — it can’t save your from moral judgement, or indeed from your trying to put yourself somehow in the right.
There’s a third thing as bad. Does Mr Blair have a grip on the nature of reasons, including moral reasons? If you give something as a reason for attacking Iraq, you point to a fact. Say the fact that it has gone against UN resolutions. Any such reason, by its very nature, is general. If you run into the fact somewhere else, or have your nose rubbed in it, say with Israel and UN resolutions, you have the same reason for action there.
If you say you haven’t, certain things follow as night follows day. Your fact isn’t a reason with Iraq either. It can’t be. If it was, it would be a reason with Israel. And, further and relatedly, it isn’t why you are attacking Iraq. It isn’t any part of the explanation.
Of course Mr Blair says there are differences between the two cases. Well, there are differences between any two cases whatever. Whether they are relevant or powerful differences is another matter. It is a kind of self-deception, not very bright, to think you can always get out of things — always make a distinction that serves your purpose or interests. You can’t. There’s some actual truth at the bottom of morality.
A fourth item also worries me about Mr Blair as moralist. It has to do with that new argument a week ago about the effects on Iraqis themselves of leaving Sadam in power.
Mr Blair says we can attack Iraq because if we don’t, Sadam will be free to do terrible things to his own people. This is about as alarming as an argument can get. There is no parity between our doing something with the dead certainty of killing and maiming thousands, and not doing it with only some probability that some people will suffer. Sadam may not have changed, but his world sure has.
One more thought about Mr Blair as moralist. If Iraq is attacked, it will not just be about fear of terrorism, let alone a clear and present danger. It will not just be about oil. It will not just be about American imperialism. It will not only be about leaders not up to their jobs. It will not even be just about Israel. Nothing of any interest, no war in particular, is the result of a single cause. This complexity is close to the fact that there are many possible reasons for war, as there are many against.
To fail to see and to put each of them clearly, and to show how you weigh each of them, is to fail in your obligation as a leader. It is to let down democracy.
One particular way you can fail, and fail morally, is cant. It is cant to say that the UN is in danger of destroying itself when you yourself are trying to lead the world against its legitimate conclusion and may act to weaken or destroy it. It is cant to say that it is Sadam who is responsible for a war about to happen, and you are not, when you are massing armies, condemning every concession as fraud, about to attack, and so on.
Cant is no part of moral intelligence. It can turn the stomach. It should. It does.
What is about to start is not a moral war, but in good part an ideological war. That is as important as any other cause of it. It is a war owed to an American realization, produced by the monstrous act of September 11 and then the mixed reaction to it, that much of the world is against or half-against our way of life, and also what we are doing to theirs. They are against the way of life about whose moral basis Mr Blair has not been much troubled. What we are about to do is to defend our ideology, by killing people.
Do you say this is moral philosopher’s stuff? Well, a million people marched in London for something like it. A lot of Labour MP’s voted against their leader, most of the ones without something to lose. A million people and a few MP’s, for the same reason, may be in the streets not standing shoulder to shoulder with our army when it starts killing people in Mr Blair’s moral mission.
TED HONDERICH is Great Britain’s outstanding progressive philosopher, recently interviewed for CounterPunch by Paul de Rooij. One of his past books was Punishment, The Supposed Justifications. Another was the funny and deadly examination of a political tradition, Conservatism, and a third Violence for Equality: Inquiries in Political Philosophy. His new book is After the Terror (Edinburgh University Press, Columbia University Press). He can be reached at: email@example.com