Give up the fight for the moral high ground

Yesterday we all scrambled for the moral high ground. I tried Primrose Hill in North London. At my feet, Tony Blair’s tanks were moving into position across the capital. Peace marchers were about to converge on Hyde Park. A once-Tory Church of England had given them its blessing and a once-Labour Prime Minister had given them his curse. Australia had beaten England 3-1 at football and the Tube was on the point of collapse. I cannot remember London so surreal.

Yet on matters of peace and war moral high ground is no sooner gained than it is best abandoned. It offers no safe haven. Argue properly, don’t pontificate. Lock up the bishops and Popes. Shut away the ethicists. Meet grim reality unencumbered.

In the House of Commons on Wednesday Mr Blair seemed to agree. His own side had charged him over Iraq as a heartless warmonger set on killing innocent women and children through his infatuation with George Bush. Hold on a minute, he replied, what about the alternative, the so-called “containment policy”? That was killing far more women and children than war. Who, he asked, was entitled to claim moral supremacy?

The remark was significant. Mr Blair was in effect rejecting ethics and substituting relativity. In place of a moral precept he offered a league table. How many people would sanctions and containment kill compared with his quick-fix of bombs and tanks? As treason is said to be a matter of dates, so the ethics of war is a matter of body-counts.

More than any war in modern times, the one now imminent in the Middle East threatens Britain with a moral earthquake. It may be onesided in the war room. It is not so in Parliament, pulpit or printing house. And there is a dialogue of the deaf between the zeal of Downing Street and the White House and the moral pleading of the anti-war lobby across Europe and America.

The ground is familiar. Moral Position A holds that the war would be deeply wrong. Iraq has attacked nobody and threatens nobody. To start killing Iraqis on their own soil breaks a dozen ethical principles, from national sovereignty to the right to life. It reduces the West to the same moral plane as President Saddam Hussein. The West’s proposed aggression, by bombing infrastructure and using anti-personnel weapons, is so disproportionate and cruel as be a war crime.

Moral Position B is almost the precise reverse. It holds that Saddam is unconscionably evil and shows no sign of becoming good. For a better world, a moral stand must be made against him and his kind. The United Nations made that stand in 1991, reinforced by later resolutions and inspections. Its will must, and can, be enforced. If those with the power to enforce it pull back and leave the wrongdoer free to flout the UN’s will, that in itself is immoral. If the UN wobbles, those with the power to do the right thing must do it alone.

The professional purveyors of morality are no help. The bishops have strong views, but they are in terms no different from the morning’s editorials. When clerics draw from the fountain of religion, they tend to vacuity, like the priests of Delphi. Peace be with you all, they cry. Show restraint, show courage, show love, show any abstract noun that comes to mind, only please put away that gun. We cheer when a bishop is on our side. But that is not morality, just more weight in the scrum.

As for the real philosophers, they are all confusion. Kant’s crooked timber of humanity still yields no straight thing. He tells us to obey the categorical imperative, that the maxims by which we act are always capable of universal reference. Yet we no sooner ask, in that case why Iraq and not North Korea, than the old man rhapsodises war itself. “If carried on in good order and a sacred respect for the rights of citizens,” he says, “there is something sublime in war. It makes the disposition of those who execute it only the more sublime.” Besides, adds Kant, it is sometimes necessary to deny knowledge to make room for faith.

Another philosopher, Hobbes, turned up briefly at Mr Blair’s side this week. “When men live without a common power to keep them all in awe,” he said, as if of David Blunkett, “they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war is every man against every man.” To Hobbes the State must be supported as the sole guardian of peace, while in conditions of war “force and fraud are the two cardinal virtues”. But though this might be music to Mr Blair’s ears, he would not warm to Hobbes’s cold rationality, nor to his virtual pacifism. I sense that Hobbes would be in a dither over whether to attend Hyde Park.

John Stuart Mill would be equally unsure. He was a champion of parliamentary freedom and the individual’s right to non-interference by the State. But those who “harm others”, he said, sacrifice that right and are vulnerable to a countervailing right of self-protection. Which is Saddam? Mill is no help in taking forward UN Resolution 1441.

Nor is there consensus among the moderns. One philosopher, Noam Chomsky, is an articulate opponent of this war, as failing the test of both law and proportionality. Another, Roger Scruton, is for it. Scruton writes that just wars are usually in response to “unprovoked aggression”, but finds cause also in such motives as revenge and the sheer and violent projection of moral conviction.

Michael Ignatieff, in Virtual War, worries over the new “moral” wars fought far from home for humanitarian causes. He asks how a war can be ethical when one side kills thousands of non-combatants to minimise the cost of victory to itself. Minimising risk has always been a military objective, but a war might “cease to be just when it becomes a turkey shoot”. The danger with moral wars is that their perpetrators feel subject to no moral restraint. Hence America (and by proxy Britain) now claims the right to fight wars of aggression beyond the reach of international law, the Geneva Conventions and the UN umbrella.

Yet no sooner are these doubts expressed than Ignatieff champions Nato’s wars of aggression in the Balkans. How else, he asks, is the world to be made a better place? “When the sword is raised,” he cries, “it must be used to strike decisively, for only decisive force yields the results which can justify its use.” This looks suspiciously like the end justifying the means. And that, every ethics textbook tells me, is immoral.

The philosophy of war is permeated with two principles. They are that “means should always be proportional to ends” and that non-combatants have a “right to life” that is more weighty the less consent they have given to the conflict. An Iraqi peasant thus enjoys more moral protection than a British airman. To kill her to reduce the risk to him is plain wrong. Yet such a peasant has no hope against the moral certainty of today’s global musketeers. Indeed for most of the 20th century these principles have been dead letters. So why bother?

Such wandering in the realm of ethics is fun for mental gymnasts. I prefer to shut that door and turn instead to Hannah Arendt’s diktat, that we examine human actions, not thoughts, that we pay “devout attention to the real”. Today’s debate is not about who is more moral. It is over how we enforce United Nations resolutions on rogue states, and how we curb terrorism emanating from the Middle East.

Both sides can claim morality. Both sides can be for peace and against casualties. I personally see no “moral equivalence” between Saddam and the leaders of the West. But general principles must apply equally to anyone using violence to police the world, including principles of international law and of punishment fitting the crime. They make sense. They cause less death and destruction, reduce the scope for revenge and have regard to consequences. Mr Blair unwittingly conceded the point on Wednesday. Modern war is about fewer people dying.

Come to that, there is always one cussed philosopher left on the block. Machiavelli’s prince of pragmatism was “often obliged, in order to maintain the State, to act against faith, against charity, against humanity and against religion”. Why? Not because the prince was bad, but because there was no point in being good without power. Philosophy, implied Machiavelli, was always a matter of context.

So both sides are off the hook. We can all get back to talking politics.