Emergency ethics needed | Pakistan Today

Emergency ethics needed

In this country we have reached the point where, what Michael Walzer referred to in Arguing About War as emergency ethics, has to take over. In simple terms, emergency ethics refers to taking decisions in situations that demand tough, existential moral choices.

Between the absolutism of a moral position and the cavalier utilitarianism of all-is-justified lies another position. This position neither places itself in the abstraction of a moral principle nor goes into a utilitarian free fall. It deals with the situation on the ground and even when it breaks away from what is strictly just under normal circumstances, it does so with the clear understanding that a particular course of action is to be taken as part of an emergency and must not be accepted as the norm. Equally, however, it does not shy from resorting to that action on the basis of moral absolutism because it realises that inaction will result in social, political, economic and moral degradation that would, in the end, leave no space for the very principle which justified inaction as being preferable to action because action entailed moving away from the high moral principle.

In other words, there are situations where a moral principle may end up writing its own epitaph because it chose to defend itself on the basis of an abstraction rather than a concrete course of action.

In World War II, the British Bomber Command decided, at one point, to bomb German cities and kill German civilians because doing so was deemed the only way to break the German will to fight. And while the decision entailed killing thousands, it was meant to save many more thousands by bringing the war to a quicker end. Not a good choice that, perhaps debatable, but wars, conflicts and ruptures never offer simple, easy moral choices. And those who are called upon to make the tough choices at the moment of reckoning dont get many sympathisers years on from that moment when normalcy has set in.

Several years ago, Peru was facing terrible, multiple problems. Deep political cleavages, economic meltdown with inflation that boggled the mind, a Maoist insurgency, non-existent governance, corruption; in short, it was a collapsing state that had nearly collapsed. And then elections threw up Alberto Fujimori, now the former president, serving a seven and a half years imprisonment for corruption, to run concurrently with the twenty-five years he is already serving for abuse of human rights.

What did Fujimori do? He used methods to destroy the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), the Maoist insurgency, using methods that would not sit well with the squeamish. [NB: for more details read Theodore Dalrymples brilliant article Fujimori in the August 2009 issue of New English Review.]

The army was given a free hand; people disappeared. As Dalrymple noted, Some of the methods used to achieve that victory were not up to the standards of Scandinavian democracy. True also is the fact that later Fujimori developed an uncomfortable attachment to power. But the rub is elsewhere. Heres what Dalrymple wrote:

How does one assess his moral, as against his legal, guilt? Is it permissible to commit a lesser evil to avoid a greater one? I am not a utilitarian, but it seems to me unrealistic to say that we should never depart from the ideal in order to prevent a much greater departure from the ideal; that, like Kant, we should tell a murderer where his victim is simply so that we do not commit the moral fault of telling a lie. On the other hand, the doctrine that the end justifies the means has been responsible for many horrors, large-scale and small.

The tough choices are made tougher by our inability to look into the future and say with certainty which grain will grow and which will not. So the assessment must be based on how the situation stands and what patterns does it betray. Neither is it possible always to say the use of force or drastic measures is the only way to handle a situation even when the other side is employing them. The action or reaction has to be in terms of the known, the concrete, not unknown abstractions. Even more difficult is to say whether on a scale of 1 to 10, emergency measures at 4 would have done it and therefore there was no need to go up to 7.

To quote Dalrymple again, this is what the choice entails:

If I had been President of Peru at the time when it looked as if Sendero might win, and that Guzman might never be found, could I have been persuaded that extra-judicial killings were necessary to defeat it? I hope I am not revealing a disgraceful character when I say that I think I could have been so persuaded. I am not at all sure I should have been able to face down commanders in the field who told me they were necessary, or that my high-minded phrases about the end not justifying the means would not have dried in my throat as I uttered them. This is not to say that I would have been right; I am only relieved that I have never been put in the way of such temptation and that no such responsibility has ever devolved on to me.

Dalrymple observed the situation in a far-off state. He did not have to make those choices. But in Pakistan, where we live, where we want our children to have a decent future, where we do not want religious extremists and rogue elements to have a field day killing people for expressing good intentions and dissent, we are condemned to make those tough choices.

While peaceful protests are important; while we think we believe in decency, the enemies of this society do not. If the state has to survive, we will have to put a moratorium on our decency because that is the only way to ensure its survival in the long term. We need emergency ethics. Nothing else will do. Any takers?

The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times.

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