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The "Moral Standing" of Governments

Recently in conversation I remarked to a friend that the United States government lacks moral standing to judge another government in violation of generally accepted moral norms of behavior (such as the use of chemical weapons) because the United States government routinely and habitually violates those same and similar generally accepted norms of behavior, including international law. For example, it is well known that our own government has both violated and facilitated the violation by others of legal restraints on the use of banned weapons – by assisting Saddam Hussein in the use of nerve gas against Iranian troops in 1988, by our own military's widespread use of depleted uranium shells and white phosphorus incendiaries in Fallujah in 2004, Israel's use of those weapons against civilians in the Gaza Strip in 2008, etc. My friend's response was, basically, that mere hypocrisy cannot negate our moral duty to intervene to stop a clear violation of the international norm against use of chemical weapons against civilians.

In other words, my friend's position is that the duty to morally judge another is based solely on the facts that constitute the other's behavior, and does not depend on one's right or standing to reach moral judgment. The fact that one is oneself guilty of (either presently, or by having not exonerated oneself, to the extent that's possible) of serious moral indiscretion does not affect the validity of one's moral judgment of another. The validity of a moral judgment may be assessed by application of the relevant standard or rule to the facts; the judgment is either correct or incorrect according to its terms, just as any empirical judgment (e.g., in science) is either true or false.

But if the person judged responds to the moral rebuke by asking, "Who are you to judge me?" Here (with circumstances plausibly imagined), the moral judgment takes on the character of a moral encounter, and specifically a confrontation. How and why does the response refute, rebuke or otherwise blunt the force – at least the moral force – of the judgment? What of Jesus' rebuke to the Pharasees' condemnation of the adulterous woman in John 7:53-8: 11: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." It's important to notice that Jesus is not saying that the compromised judgment was mistaken; on the contrary, he implies that the judgment is correct, yet one that you yourself are not entitled to make because it also applies to and against you. The particular force of Jesus' rebuke is to shame the accusers.

In the modern Western tradition, two principal moral theories predominate: The first, deontology (associated with the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant), takes the idea of the right as fundamental, and emphasizes the assessment of human action by its responsiveness to obligation and the motive of duty. The second, referred to as teleology (associated with the utilitarianism of John Stewart Mill among others), takes the idea of the good as fundamental, and emphasizes the assessment of human action by its responsiveness to the call to maximize the pleasure or happiness of a person or group.

These moral theories are usefully deployed in debates concerning the great "moral issues" of the day – for example, the issues of abortion, capital punishment, whistle-blowing, child neglect, same sex marriage, and so on. But neither deontological nor teleological theories yield any significant place to the question of moral standing – that is, the right of anyone in particular to stand in moral judgment of another. A habitual criminal has as much right as anyone to his or her opinion on the abortion question, and no one can say that the criminal's view on that subject is in any way invalidated or impugned by past crimes or convictions.

But it seems undeniable that the vast, overwhelming majority of moral dilemmas that we encounter in our day-to-day lives have nothing to do with the pressing topics of public debate, like abortion or capital punishment. Rather, the kind of moral concerns we typically encounter are not publically debated, and are of no great civic importance at all, unless one's obligation to lead a decent and honest life is a matter of civic importance – a question that remains open in early 21st century America.

Moral dilemmas arise, for example, when I need to decide, with respect to someone I care about, whether or not that person's word can be trusted, whether my word should be trusted, whether my expression of love, of empathy, of gratitude or of disappointment is sufficiently clear, whether and when an apology is owed or rejected or excessive or inadequate, whether my pride in an accomplishment might be reasonably mistaken for arrogance, whether and how an unhappy indiscretion can be forgiven without being patronizing, and so on. None of these ordinary and common dilemmas necessarily involve judgments of what is "right" or "good", although each of them might; they do, however, necessarily involve questions of my standing vis-à-vis another, and that other's standing in relation to me. In fact, we might go further and say that in the grip of these kinds of moral dilemmas, the primary issue is precisely to determine or establish my standing vis-à-vis the other.

Suppose that A rebukes B for B's engaging in an extra-marital affair. What does this supposition really describe?

We might think that A has issued a moral judgment of B's behavior, either on (a) deontological or (b) on teleological grounds: B engaged in adultery; (a) adultery is wrong, in itself, regardless of its consequences; or (b) adultery is bad, insofar as adultery corrodes marriage, and society is on the whole better off when married people remain true to each other. Therefore, B's behavior is deserving of moral rebuke. But by whom?

But so far – without having described A's relationship to B, and in particular, without having described how A is in a position to rebuke B – the supposition does not yet describe a moral encounter at all. In order to make out the specifically moral nature of the encounter, which means, in order to describe the encounter as a "rebuke" in the first place, we need additional suppositions, including suppositions such as the fact that A and B know and matter to each other (e.g., A and B are blood relatives, friends, more than casually acquainted, etc.), and furthermore, that B has reason to care about A's opinion, and that A cares enough about B to assess B's behaviour for the benefit of B. It is the nature of the relationship that shapes the conversation into a moral encounter. A's assessment only counts as a rebuke insofar as A has the moral standing to issue a rebuke, and that is a matter of where and how A stands with respect to B.

Thus, we need to add to the supposition a description of who A and B are with regard to each other. If the person who does the rebuking is himself a serial adulterer (call him "A-1"), then A-1's accusation of B is exactly as "true" as A's accusation, but A-1's rebuke is ineffective in a way that A's rebuke is not. A-1's rebuke of B is not so much right nor wrong – just or unjust – as it is empty, a hollow expression of hypocrisy, which doesn't continue but ends the conversation between the two, or at least guides the conversation into a new direction (e.g., a discussion of A's own adulterous past, and the history of A's relationship to B and how it has evolved or devolved into this).

To the extent that A-1's rebuke is hollow, it seems that rebuking someone morally involves certain circumstances beyond the mere uttering of words of rebuke -- circumstances that allow the utterance of certain words to count as a moral rebuke. In A-1's case, those other circumstances are lacking, and that lack means that A-1’s words, even if his accusation against B is factually accurate, have no moral force. Stanley Cavell describes our widespread, even overwhelming tendency to apply moral standards to others without having first applied them to ourselves as the moralization of morality. Its characteristic expression is that of Mr. Know-It-All, who invokes moral concepts as a tool to try to get you to do something. Moralizing is less a manifestation of moral reasoning than its erosion; whatever the standard against which adultery is deemed morally unacceptable (e.g., whether the standard is deontological or utilitarian), that standard is degraded when used by an adulterer as a blunt object to bash or manipulate another.

In the language of J.L. Austin, A-1's purported rebuke fails because it lacks illocutionary force. In the lectures published as How to do Things with Words, Austin illustrates the concept of illocutionary force with the example of a marriage ceremony, which requires the utterance of "I now pronounce you man and wife" or some close variant. In order to convey the appropriate illocutionary force – which means in order to form the utterance into an intelligible human action – these words must be uttered, after appropriate preparation, by someone possessing certain specific qualifications – including a certain official status (a priest, a justice of the peace, etc.), on a suitable occasion, in appropriate circumstances. Pronounced by a person lacking the requisite qualifications (e.g., a stranger or a family friend), the words are empty in the sense that they fail in their essential purpose, which is to establish a legally binding marriage. Stated otherwise: the words cannot be fully meant – where meaning what one says is not (or not merely) a matter of the speaker's intention (he may have sincerely wanted to marry the couple), but of using those same words in a context and on an occasion in which they could be meant.

Returning to our initial question, in assessing the validity of the US government's invocation of moral principle to condemn another government for using chemical weapons, does it matter that the US government routinely ignores the international laws and norms and seems to invoke them only when convenient, for example as a tool for condemning, threatening, bullying or attacking others?

One might ask (like my friend in our exchange), how could this possibly matter? What matters is that the accusation is true, that a moral outrage has occurred, and something must be done to stop it. Nobody is denying that a moral outrage has occurred, but saying that "something must be done" is not enough; what must be done must be done in a manner that invests the response with legitimacy. "Legitimacy" means: the response must be executed in such a way that the principle in the name of which the response is carried out is vindicated rather than degraded. The legitimacy component is essential to what is done because only through legitimacy does the action become a moral response to the outrage.

In order to be vindicated, the principle embodied in the response must be seen to apply universally, not selectively. More specifically, the invocation of the moral principle must not be seen as a pretext for the achievement of goals other than vindication of the universally applicable principle. The words and actions invoking and vindicating the principle must be meant, in the same sense that the pronouncement of marriage must be meant, where meaning is less a matter of intention than of standing. To condemn another without the proper moral standing is in an important sense to not condemn at all; rather, it is to speak in a moral void, using words that are hollow. And to respond to a moral outrage through the use of force unilaterally deployed is to act in a moral void through the use of violence unredeemed by principle.

We have international institutions, including the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, which exist in order to enforce international law and norms in such a way that the principles underlying those laws and norms are vindicated (as universally applicable) rather than degraded (as selectively enforced). International laws and norms were originally established to protect the weak from the strong, but today are used for the most part to lend an aura of legitimacy to attacks by the strong against the weak. (Herein lies the most basic flaw in the doctrine of "humanitarian intervention", which is these days invoked to circumvent the international laws and norms relating to national sovereignty for purposes that are manifestly unrelated to the vindication of universal principles such as "humanity" and "human rights.") That we have allowed our international institutions to undermine the universality of the same moral principles these institutions were created to vindicate – that is a tragedy that must be averted if there is to be any hope for a just world in the new century.

When the President of the United States says that he is compelled to bomb another country, without securing the consent of the United Nations Security Council, in the name of "humanity", I don't believe him. Not necessarily because I doubt his sincerity (although I do as a matter of fact doubt his sincerity), but because the US President lacks the moral standing required to give his words meaning. Has the President forgotten that he was not elected by "humanity", and that he presides over a government that, based on the unequivocal record of recent history, is unprepared to accept the universality of the principles he invokes? I do not believe him because he cannot mean what he says.


1 The fact that rebuking involves more than uttering words of rebuke means that rebuking like other human action that involve speech, like asserting, questioning, challenging, implying, suggesting, hinting, etc. "Moral" actions are not a separate sub-category of human actions executed by means of language.

2 According to news reports, President Obama said, concerning his proposed bombing of Syria: "My credibility's not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line, and America and Congress' credibility is on the line ... I do have to ask people, well, if, in fact, you're outraged by the slaughter of innocent people, what are you doing about it? The moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing." The Secretary of Defense's argument to a Congressional committee relied heavily on the concept that America's response is required by "humanity" – but without authorization by the UN Security Council.


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