Friday, July 06, 2007

On moral equivalence

Are the perpetrators who murdered Daniel Pearl on the same moral ground as the administration that created Guantanamo?

Mr. Judea Pearl, Daniel Pearl's father, thinks not, in this well reasoned piece at the New Republic. Moral relativism and A Mighty Heart. (Free, registration required)
I used to believe that the world essentially divided into two types of people: those who were broadly tolerant; and those who felt threatened by differences. If only the forces of tolerance could win out over the forces of intolerance, I reasoned, the world might finally know some measure of peace.

But there was a problem with my theory, and it was never clearer than in a conversation I once had with a Pakistani friend who told me that he loathed people like President Bush who insisted on dividing the world into "us" and "them." My friend, of course, was taking an innocent stand against intolerance, and did not realize that, in so doing, he was in fact dividing the world into "us" and "them," falling straight into the camp of people he loathed.

This is a political version of a famous paradox formulated by Bertrand Russell in 1901, which shook the logical foundations of mathematics. Any person who claims to be tolerant naturally defines himself in opposition to those who are intolerant. But that makes him intolerant of certain people--which invalidates his claim to be tolerant.

The political lesson of Russell's paradox is that there is no such thing as unqualified tolerance. Ultimately, one must be able to expound intolerance of certain groups or ideologies without surrendering the moral high ground normally linked to tolerance and inclusivity. One should, in fact, condemn and resist political doctrines that advocate the murder of innocents, that undermine the basic norms of civilization, or that seek to make pluralism impossible. There can be no moral equivalence between those who seek--however clumsily--to build a more liberal, tolerant world and those who advocate the annihilation of other faiths, cultures, or states.

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