11 July 2005

Moral Agents

Tim Worstall publishes a quick email from a correspondent:

Let us assume that when people such as George Galloway say that Tony Blair is responsible for the London bombings they are correct. This must mean that the bombers were not moral agents for their actions, but simply acting in response to British and American policy. But then, let's turn that around. For that surely means that, following 9/11, George Bush was not responsible for his actions but was simply reacting in a natural way to the attacks on America. As the scholastics said, reductio ad absurdum.
Fair point as far as it goes, but I consider it worthwhile to ask to what extent it is useful to evaluate the morality of people in other cultures. Within a culture, or perhaps more relevantly a society, there can be a common morality to which it is always useful to hold everyone -- morality needs to be reliably applied, and disregarding it in some cases will weaken the society.

It is not normally practical to judge the morality of actions outside your own society, except where they are extraordinarily visible, or impinge on you. But that very selectivity takes away the main reason for applying morality, rather than expediency, as a judge of actions.

The conclusion I come to is that there are concentric spheres of morality -- I hold my friends and associates to a very intrusive and detailed ("high") standard of morality, my countrymen to a slightly lower one, foreigners inside our broader international culture, lower still, and so on.

To me, by the time you get to the alien societies that these terrorists come from (or choose to identify with), morality has become totally irrelevant. It's not that I consider murders committed by them not to be immoral, it's that I don't care whether they're moral or not -- I want to stop them anyway. The level of morality, as far as I can see, that is shared across the whole world, and can be applied across the whole world, is zero. People that remote from my society, I can only influence with cruder tools than by making and setting examples -- bribery and deterrence pretty much cover it.

So, from the Arab point of view, Blair in invading Iraq may have just been responding to "root causes" among their own society's actions, but, as he is part of our society, it is necessary for us to hold his policy to moral scrutiny. And for the terrorists, vice versa.

Therefore, I don't have a problem with Galloway et al concentrating their moral judgements (whether or not I share them) on Blair. I would be happier if they would echo my sentiments that what matters regarding very foreign cultures is to what actions we manipulate them, rather than how moral they are.

Revealingly, in our society, as well as the error of treating foreigners as moral agents, we also frequently see the error of treating our countrymen as things to manipulate. While I am satisfied at least with the form of the argument "We should not invade Iraq because that will cause Arabs to bomb us", I reject utterly any argument of the form "We should not allow drinking after 11pm because there will be more crime". If our countrymen commit vandalism after drinking until 3am, they should be held responsible under our shared moral code, not clumsily appeased or deterred as if they were foreign potential terrorists.

There may one day be a time when Socrates would have been correct -- where people everywhere share a moral code, and we should consider an offence in Kirkuk in the same category as one in Kirkcaldy. But that is not yet.

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