Moral equivalence doesn’t add up

Moral equivalency is a confusing topic. I was accused of it for saying George Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad both qualify as buffoons. …

For the record, let me say I don’t think there is such a thing as moral equivalence, since human beings and situations are not mathematical entities. What I believe in, instead, is a complex moral continuum on which all people and societies are located, where they might be ahead in some respects and behind in others. …

Iran, for instance, alongside its current authoritarianism and brutality, remains an ancient, rich culture. It has not invaded any other place in nearly two centuries, although it was attacked by Iraq in the 1980s and lost half a million people. The U.S. has invaded many countries and continues to.

The point, then, is not to make equations but to be aware of the complex continuum on which we are all located, thus sensitizing ourselves to everyone’s mixture of failures and successes so any judgments that must be made don’t fall into oversimplified categories of good on one side and evil on the other. That’s not even math, it’s housekeeping.

From time to time I like to quote Rick Salutin, whose columns appear weekly in the Globe and Mail and at rabble.ca. Sometimes Mr. Salutin is so far out to my left that I feel like a closet Cheneyite. But when he takes a step back and waxes philosophical, he can “give one furiously to think” (as Hercule Poirot would put it).

I’ll let the reader decide whether the above quote represents Salutin the “left-wing nutjob” or Salutin the “doctor of philosophy”.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. nebcanuck
    Oct 18, 2007 @ 10:37:15

    Good article, too, actually. I think that it’s an interesting philosophy, and quite valid. The anti-mathematical nature of it strikes a chord with me; I’ve always hated people who quote morals like they should somehow balance out in an equation. There isn’t that sense of balance. People do right and wrong, period. To imagine that we can somehow figure out the “rightness” or “wrongness” of an individual seems to me to be taking too much power into our own hands.

    Reply

  2. snaars
    Oct 18, 2007 @ 20:10:04

    I partially agree with Salutin, but only to a point. I appreciate that he seems to be trying to make his readers more sensitive to the legitimacy of foreign cultures and values.

    Recognizing that there is a “complex moral continuum” should not for a moment deter us from morally evaluating actions, situations, or people – and we shouldn’t stop trying to weigh moral options, or stop trying to identify moral principles.

    For instance, the guy that works in a soup kitchen could be a serial rapist and murderer. His good work for the homeless doesn’t excuse his crimes.

    I applaud Salutin for emphasizing the complexity of moral decision-making, but I think he mis-steps and over-simplifies by implying that judgments can’t be made because they are unnecessarily “mathematical.” Perhaps he doesn’t appreciate that complex, real-world moral problems often require complex, real-world solutions.

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  3. Random
    Oct 19, 2007 @ 05:07:10

    Nutjob, at least based on that quote. For example, citing in defence of Iran that “It has not invaded any other place in nearly two centuries, although it was attacked by Iraq in the 1980s and lost half a million people” without bothering to mention that for most of that period it was bordered by the Turkish, Russian and British empires (and for long periods of time effectively partitioned between the last two) and therefore hardly in a position to invade anybody seems to be a case of either treating your audience as idiots or assuming they’ll be too eager to agree with you to fact check what you say. Both of which are fairly common nutjob positions.

    And whereas it’s all very well to wax philosophical about complex moral continua, sometimes we have to take a stand and say that certain things are simply evil and wrong without giving in to the temptation to go soft on the likes of Ahmedinejad just because we don’t like George Bush. “The enemy of my enemy” is occasionally a useful thing to remember but it is not a universal moral truth.

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  4. Stephen
    Oct 20, 2007 @ 07:51:18

    • nebcanuck:
    I agree that there’s merit to Salutin’s reasoning. I think it’s true that nations exist along a continuum; that they may be bad in some respects and good in others. Thus there is a complexity that defies a simplistic black/white dichotmy. To that extent, at least, I think Salutin is right.

    • Snaars:
    Recognizing that there is a “complex moral continuum” should not for a moment deter us from morally evaluating actions, situations, or people – and we shouldn’t stop trying to weigh moral options, or stop trying to identify moral principles. … Perhaps he doesn’t appreciate that complex, real-world moral problems often require complex, real-world solutions.

    Well said. I think Salutin would probably agree with all of that, actually, but you wouldn’t guess as much by reading this particular article.

    • Random:
    Nutjob, at least based on that quote.

    Thanks for putting that opinion out there. I posed the question as an either/or, but actually Salutin might be right philosophically but wrong in the specific application, which is an attempt to partially exonerate Iran.

    I certainly have no desire to defend President Ahmadinejad, who is clearly a destabilizing player in a part of the world that is already extremely unstable.

    On the other hand, Iraq used to offset Iran. By deposing Sadaam, Bush destabilized the equilibrium — an entirely foreseeable consequence of the invasion.

    So Bush doesn’t come out of this unblemished, either. And that’s the gist of Salutin’s argument: the equation isn’t evil on the one hand vs. good on the other, but an admixture of both on both sides.

    I prefer Bush to Ahmadinejad, but I’ll be glad when the day arrives that they’re both out of office.

    Reply

  5. Ozymandias
    Oct 20, 2007 @ 20:08:43

    I am not pleased with Bush. I am not nearly as angry with him as many. But I cannot conceive of any person of reason and conscience trying to say that he and Mahmoud are equivalent.

    I also agree that we can and do need to make moral judgments about people. The example of the rapist was excellent.

    The issue now is no longer whether the war was a mistake, but what to do about Iran. Salutin’s comments about a noble tradition in Iran seem to ignore the present condition and that concerns me.

    Reply

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