September 23, 2006

Musing on Hizb Al Tabir, relativism and the status of morality (DISCLAIMER this article is no more philosophical than a Guardian leader)

Just now a spokesman from Hitzb Al Tabir came on the World Service. He argued that secularism was more violent than Islam because it sought to dominate Iraq and Afganistan and insert democracies there. This point is worth exploring because in a very real sense the spokesman is right- we are involved in spreading democracy in Iraq and Afganistan by force. What therefore stops us from being classed in the same class as the terrorists who do the same thing? Or is as Noam Chomsky has argued the United States the greatest terrorist power in the world?

The word 'terrorist' here is a red herring. What we are actually discussing is the concept of just war, a concept which goes back through the history of Western Philosophy to Augustine and beyond. Most theories of just war accept a simple ground for war- defence- and consequently most political leaders who go to war are guided by fear. One of the most interesting aspects for instance of Ian Kershaw's recent biography of Lord Londonderry, a prewar appeaser, is his depiction on the insanity of Hitler, who beleived at the time of the Polish guarentee, that he not the West was threatened.* The wars in Afganistan and Iraq were not wars of defence: there is no evidence that there were weapons of mass destruction in either place, and any operation against Al Quaeda was not an operation therefore in which the defence of the realm was at stake but more akin to the rounding up of the Aum Cult in Tokyo in 1995 after they had gassed the subway. So is our source from Hizb Al Tabir right?

The other justifications of war are always more difficult- the spread of democracy invites two related questions- why here? and in particular why democracy? The problem of abandoning our objective values and ceding all in a flight to relativism appears most fully here. But it is here also that I think we can answer the spokesman. Because the West has not abandoned objective values. It has abandoned any idea that values and facts are the same thing, or that values derive from facts. The fiat of an omnipotent God still seems attractive to some- but most would admit that it does not give a good ground for a moral statement (after all why should God be obeyed? His power- surely that is an illegitimate answer). Rather Western philosophers since Kant have seen morality as resting in the will of the individual. The individual is able to will into existance moral norms which bind him. The only requirement upon the individual in willing these morally is that they must be consistent. The other requirement, sketched out most fully by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, is that the individual must recognise that if he creates his own morality so does everyone else and that there must be a process to reconcile them into a polity. Consequently the individual has to allow for a process of election and also a process of law- the one resolves disputes, the other ensures that the principles resolved on are implemented consistently to all individuals.

The spokesman of Hizb Al Tabir therefore is wrong to compare the imposition of Western moral norms of secularism upon societies. Those norms are not being imposed, what is being imposed is the autonomy of the individual moral will, what is happening in that sense is a liberation. What we therefore have is the imposition of the objective part of the Western idea of morality- the process and consistency- but and this is crucial the rest of morality, marriage, children, manners and all are left to the electorate to discuss. What Hizb Al Tabir doesn't recognise is that there is a very precise difference between the theology of the terrorist and the will of the West- one refuses to recognise the role of individual conscience, the secular view allows it. Consequently though all things are relative, it cannot be said that an invasion to spread democracy has the same status as a terrorist attack to spread theocracy.

In a world where God is dead, it is not true that all things are relative- rather it is true that as in the world with God there are absolutes- it may come as a surprise to Hizb Al Tabir that those absolutes may well be exactly the same and that God's rule itself might violate the rules established earlier in this post.

Therefore we have arrived at a position where we can state that the invasion of a country to install a democratic secular regime is not the same as a terrorist action, that is not to say that it is a particularly wise action- nor is it neccessarily to say it is a right action but it is to say that the equivalence drawn by our spokesman was false.

*Unfortunately I have not yet read Kershaw's biography of Hitler- a truly magnificent effort according to all my sources- a leading feature of Hitler's personality like that of many tyrants is what Sir Humphrey in Yes Prime Minister calls an advanced case of paranoia. Perhaps as Humphrey argues this is a neccessary aptitude of all rising politicians to various degrees, if so it rather bodes badly for the reality of war upon Augustinian grounds if those declaring war for defensive reasons are all paranoid and terrified of being attacked!


chiz said...

To the best of my knowledge no one ever claimed that the war in Afghanistan was primarily a war of defence let alone that were WMD there. It was mainly about getting OBL and, thereby, making sure that he couldn't plan anything else.

The war in Iraq however was, among other things, a defensive war. The Iraq Survey Group found the remains of fifty-something weapons left over from the Iran-Iraq war that tested positive for sarin, cyclosarin and mustard gas even though Saddam claimed that these devices had all been destroyed and the pentagon confirmed earlier this year that more than 500 such devices have now been found. Saddam Hussein clearly wanted WMD and as soon as the sanctions regime finished crumbling he would have been free to begin reaquiring them as well as pursuing nukes.

Gracchi said...

The Iraq Survey group did find evidence of weapons programs but no evidence of weapons. Hans Blix, the UN inspector on weapons, privately told me that he felt completely vindicated by the conclusions of the war because he saw that there were no weapons. What Saddam might have done after a sanctions regime faded is another thing and beyond that in terms of WMD threat both North Korea and Iran were and still are much more threatening than Iraq was. The reasons for the invasion of Iraq I admit are complicated and the politicians probably did beleive in the WMD story but it didn't turn out to be true and no ammount of obfuscation can make it so.

As for Afganistan it was a policing operation now the problem is does a policing operation merit the invasion of a country and the killing of many civilians.

What I was mainly dealing with though was the criticism from this particular advocate that an invasion for democracy was the same as an invasion for theocracy. Part of the justification for Iraq has been an invasion for democracy particularly after the Kay report now is that the same thing I don't beleive it is for the reasons advanced above. Therefore whilst in part your post is right- there was an element of defence in both wars but as I said above we need to be careful about how far we go with it as a justification because of the difficulty of the facts- there was also an element of introducing democracy, see for example Bush's second inaugural for your evidence.

Thanks for commenting.

chiz said...

As I said, the ISG found the remains of chemical weapons. See Vol 3 Annex F for the details (and pictures). People had been predicting for years that these devices were there - Richard Butler used to go on and on about them - and it turned out that they were right, although it looks as though they are probably all too degraded to pose a threat.

Media misrepesentation of the findings of the ISG are a big contributor to the debate over whether the war was justified. Most people are unaware that battlefield munitions were found, and, having been told by the media that no WMD were found have concluded that nothing was found, and, hence that the intelligence was false, and, hence, that there must have been a secret agenda (oil, war on Islam, etc). Of course it doesn't help that the term 'WMD' is ambiguous and that the ISG are using it in a sense that excludes the devices they found.

As to the invasion itself it is important to note that OBL attacked America bevause of the presence of troops in Saudi Arabia. Those troops were there as a part of the strategy to leave SH in power and contain him with sanctions and inspections. At the end of the first Gulf War there were two options - leave him in power and contain him, or remove him. They concluded that removing him had a reasonable chance of leading to a mess in Iraq worse than the one we see today and opted to contain him. An internal coup, which removed SH but held the country together, would have been nice but didn't happen.

Given that the containment regime was crumbling and would have eventually collapsed and that it had lead to the attacks in NY the situation was not sustainable any longer and America decided that SH had to go. Which meant he he needed to replaced with something, either another dictator or a democracy.

Gracchi said...

Well media misrepresentation may be one thing- but definitely the British government has recognised that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the British Government has abandoned that case. As I have said has Hans Blix who was the UN weapons inspector who said recently that he felt vindicated by the findings of the ISG. I can't really get around either of those facts.

But I reiterate that this article is not about the specifics of the invasion of Iraq nor of Afganistan- its about the ethics of invading of a non democratic country in the name of democracy and how that compares to theocratic aggression. That is the issue- Hizb Al Tabir's spokesman said they were the same and the issue I was interested in was whether they were or not the same philosophical proposition. Both the British government and the American have offered introducing democracy as a justification in both Iraq and Afganistan- see Bush's second inaugural and I was interested in testing the validity of that statement.

I think to some extent we are talking past each other and I apologise for any infelicities of language that that produced.