Archive for October 15th, 2007

Just Like That

I was talking to someone the other day who had been speaking in a party to a pilot who had flown bombing raids on Kosovo. He was asked whether or not the fact that he was killing people worried him. His response was, no, not at all: after all, “we” were helping to “restore democracy”.

There’s no reason to believe that he was fooling himself. People working within institutional frameworks are capable of conducting all sorts of activities unaware of the effect of their activities on others. They may be sincerely convinced that what they are doing is decent and just, even when the effects are barbarous.

Even when they may have cause to doubt that what they are doing is for the greater good, their institutional obligations enable or even encourage them to refrain from giving it too much thought.

Part of this seems down to the fact that modern work demands that you fulfil a role, in accordance with a job description. If you fail to carry out your tasks in accordance with the description, you will be dismissed, or moved on to something where you get less in the way.

It’s hard to think of a job out there where the description might include the line ‘Pro-actively identify and escalate all issues concerning the immoral nature of your employer’s objectives’, or ‘Be prepared to subject the effect of your employer’s actions on the greater good to relentless criticism’. And whatever the ads say about ‘interpersonal skills’, the fact is that you only need be enough of a person to meet whatever the demands of your employer might be.

All of the above was prompted by a comment piece I read in today’s Guardian by Max Hastings, where he praises a book on Just War. Rather than going to war on the impulses of leaders, he says, it would be far better if the decision was taken according to the criteria of:

Just Cause; Proportionate Cause; Right Intention; Right Authority; Reasonable Prospect of Success; Last Resort. Lest these should seem obvious, most people would agree that the 2003 invasion of Iraq failed to meet at least five and possibly all six criteria. Tony Blair could assert that, as a prime minister acting with the assent of parliament, he possessed constitutional authority. But there is still fierce debate about whether the attorney general’s advice on the war’s legality was either honest or proper.

On the surface of it that seems reasonable enough. But the evidence needed to measure against the criteria outlined above is determined, analyzed, filtered and presented through the work of institutions. Generally speaking, there is nothing inherently moral or immoral about these institutions, in the same way as there is nothing inherently moral or immoral about a bag of spanners. They all operate according to the interests of those that make use of them. Yet -it seems to me- a requirement for recognising whether or not ‘Just War’ criteria applies is that an institution is a moral agent.
So the British Ministry of Defence as an institution, for instance, must be capable of distinguishing right from wrong. Its past record on this is not inspiring. Its raison d’etre is defence of British interests, and nothing else, and unless you think that it is always right to defend British interests, then you may be wary of the MoD’s potential to be a moral agent.

I’m not saying that individual functionaries within the MoD are incapable of telling right from wrong as citizens; rather, in the context of their job descriptions they are just as likely to be as prone -if not more so- to ass-kissing, ass-covering, cherry-picking, blind eye-turning, as people working in any other institution.

As a test of this particular institution’s suitability in helping to decide if Just War criteria applies, one could try thinking about the last time it admitted to acting with the Wrong Intention, or in an Unjust Cause.

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October 2007