Page 1 of 5
by J. Daryl Charles, Ph.D., Director and Senior Fellow of the Bryan Institute for Critical Thought & Practice, Chattanooga, Tennessee
My point is…that the field of international relations, more narrowly, and the wider culture, more generally, are ill-prepared – indeed, I would argue, unwilling – to deal with moral categories. Precisely this may be our biggest challenge. The fact that we in the West live in a “post-consensus” moral climate does not prepare us well to understand – let alone to deal with – many of the pressing geopolitical crises of our time….Evil cannot be identified because we cannot permit it to be identified; for once we identify something as evil, we are required to address it. —from the text of this essay
At bottom, just-war thinkers who are moral realists will insist that the linkage between politics and morality must not be severed, since an important part of politics – and ensuing policy – is how we respond to a world in which conflict, disagreement and disorder seem the norm. Policy, it should be emphasized, is the meeting-place of politics and morality, and our duty to act justly depends on our recognition of this symbiosis. –from the text of this essay
Part 1: Current Geopolitical and Cultural Realities
Not only did the end of the Cold War not usher in the new peaceful order that some had optimistically projected, if anything, it heralded new contexts in which human depravity might show itself, leaving policy-makers, policy analysts, and to a lesser extent, military strategists ill-prepared for the geopolitical crises that have arisen since -- from Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan to Bosnia-Kosovo and Rwanda, from Burundi, Sierra Leone, and Liberia to Somalia, Sudan and beyond. And this brief listing of nations doesn’t even begin to take into account more general developments such as the production of chemical and nuclear weapons by rogue nations, drug trafficking on most (if not all) continents, the escalation of human trafficking on most (if not all) continents, and the breathtaking rise of international terrorism. These crises, whether regional or global in scope, at the very least herald the need for reinvigorated debates about the moral basis for military as well as humanitarian intervention.
Daunting as these geopolitical challenges are, however, they may not be the greatest challenge before us. More formidable may be the West’s inability to make moral judgments, to be able to name good and evil, identify just and unjust, and demarcate unacceptable from acceptable human behavior. On the domestic front, this moral obtuseness poses serious challenges to “civil society” as we presently know it; and abroad, it presents challenges for serious statecraft and responsible foreign policy.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Hannah Arendt, whose post-war reflections on “the banality of evil” are familiar to many of us, predicted, in an essay titled “Nightmare and Flight,” that the problem of evil would become the fundamental question of post-war intellectual life in Europe.1 Strangely, in the 1950s, even when atrocities associated with the Holocaust were fresh and remained a scar on the European psyche, concern with moral evil and the political disorder had already begun to recede in Western political thought.2
But consider the present cultural climate. For an American President to speak of “evil” in the geopolitical context, as two of our last four Presidents have, is to invite scorn of the greatest magnitude, both at home and abroad, is it not? Regardless of your own political sympathies, what was unforgiveable to most people was the fact that someone in public office – much worse, a head of state – would name evil and then contextualize it in the field diplomatic relations. Such sin, in secular eyes, is simply unforgiveable.
My point is not whether making moral judgments can be done in a more nuanced or diplomatic fashion; indeed, they must, and those in public office must be wise in the language that they employ. My point is, rather, that the field of international relations, more narrowly, and the wider culture, more generally, are ill-prepared – indeed, I would argue, unwilling – to deal with moral categories. Precisely this may be our biggest challenge. The fact that we in the West live in a “post-consensus” moral climate does not prepare us well to understand – let alone to deal with – many of the pressing geopolitical crises of our time. This present state of moral affairs is reminiscent of the scenario depicted by Albert Camus in The Plague. Perhaps you recall the setting… The city of Oran had become host to an insufferable epidemic of pests. Rats were appearing everywhere in the city. At first, despite the pests’ ubiquitous presence, the townspeople ignore the epidemic, acting as if it did not exist. Only later, after conditions become unbearable and dead rats are piled high on the city streets, do the municipal authorities act and begin hauling away the dead carcasses, which ironically is the actual vehicle by which the plague spreads throughout the city. Camus’ metaphor is instructive. Why did the plague initially “not exist”? It did not exist precisely because it was not permitted to exist. And such, I would argue, is the moral climate that exists today, at least in the West. Evil cannot be identified because we cannot permit it to be identified; for once we identify something as evil, we are required to address it.
|Last Updated on Wednesday, 15 August 2012 17:15|