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Tony Blair’s Moral Responsibility for Atrocities

by TED HONDERICH

What is it to have a moral responsibility for an atrocity finally performed by others? First, it is to have done something else freely that was a necessary condition of the atrocity ­ the atrocity could not have happened without it. Second, that earlier thing was wrong. If such wrongfulness is not such a matter of fact as the first consideration, truth certainly gets into it. Third, to have such a moral responsibility for the atrocity, the person has to have seen the nature of the earlier thing, including its wrongfulness, or anyway been able to see it.

There is no doubt that people who supply necessary conditions of an atrocity, other than the final agents, can share the moral responsibility for it. It is common to apportion legal responsibility in courts in such cases as war crimes. So it is common to share out what is more fundamental, which is moral responsibility. In the end judgements of moral responsibility take authority over judgements of legal responsibility.

Essential to the procedure of apportioning moral responsibility is a question of power, relations of power between individuals. This makes it possible that someone other than the final perpetrators of an atrocity is more responsible for it. Something like this has been the case with war crimes.

To what extent was the departed Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar morally responsible for the deaths in Madrid? Certainly his action in leading Spain into the American war in Iraq was a significant necessary condition of the Madrid atrocity. Since his country was 90% against the war, there is no room for dispute about this.

Was his action of leadership in joining the war wrong? That is the main question in both his case and others. In fact it can be considered independently of the question of moral responsibility. It is the question of whether Mr Aznar’s action, as best judged at the time, whether or not by him, would have certain consequences. With respect to the possible consequences by which actions are judged, consequences for humanity, there is actually quite wide agreement about them among disinterested people.

With respect to Mr Aznar’s moral responsibility, there is also the question of the extent to which he saw the nature of his action. It is possible to be too quick in thinking about this question. He may have successfully deceived himself. Self-deception is not looking into questions that may have answers you do not want. It is possible, to some extent, unintentionally or in confusion to be unaware of your own strategy.

The case of Mr. Blair is now more urgent.

He too in taking his country into the Iraq war provided a necessary condition for a possible atrocity. He provided a necessary condition for a possible atrocity now to come in Britain. It could be yet more unspeakable. It could be of an order different from that of Madrid, and indeed of September 11. It is this which we are now forced to consider.

The wrongfulness of his taking us into the war is to some of us as good as a moral fact. But this is disputed. What is not properly disputed, however, is that he lied in several respects, and in effect lied to the House of Commons. It may well be that he did enough lying to count as a liar. Admittedly this is not a perfectly simple issue, however, even putting aside the complications of self-deception.

It is not simple because leaders and others can rightly lie. No one disputes this after considering examples of telling the truth to someone who will as a result be able to murder or rape someone or destroy a country. But Mr. Blair’s purposes were not of such an exculpating kind. His purposes were not so clear to anyone, seemingly including himself.

They included what can be called an ideological war, a war to assert an ideology that certainly is not universally accepted in his country or elsewhere. Most certainly it is not adequately described as ‘democracy’. Nor is the continuing conflict adequately described as between ‘democracy’ and ‘terrorism’.

There is a connection between his moral standing, his lying in particular, and the right or wrong of his taking us to war. Someone can do the right thing, serve the right consequences, for a reason that discredits him, or the wrong thing for a misguided reason that in fact does him credit. Still, there are possible connections between the rightness of an action and the standing of an agent.

In the real world, the recommendation of an action may at least be touched by the moral standing of the agent. Consequences are looked at differently if a question of trust arises about he who claims to be most privy to knowledge of them. Mr. Blair himself, maybe in blindness, raises an additional question about his action.

That is not all.

As continuing Prime Minister, as continuing leader of this nation, he will have a unique share of moral responsibility in a possible atrocity against British people in the coming days or months. However, he is in a position to remove from the world a necessary condition of that possible atrocity. He can in fact prevent the atrocity. He can do so by resigning now. He is morally obliged to do so. In the present circumstance, no response about political or any other realism reduces this obligation. Nor does any theory of parliamentary government, or piece of political philosophy, or anything about past practice or about setting a precedent.

Mr Blair’s leadership is not worth a great deal to some of us. Is there anyone to whom it is worth a thousand deaths?

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: honderich@counterpunch.org

 

 

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