REVIEW: of The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror by Michael Ignatieff (Eve Garrard, Democratiya)

Which is most important, security or rights?

Ignatieff’s answer is to find a middle way: neither rights nor security, he thinks, is always most important, can always act as trumps. The violation of rights is always morally wrong, in his view, but nonetheless it is sometimes necessary to preserve democracy against those who would bring it down. If it’s necessary, we ought to do it, but all the same there remains something wrong in such decisions, and we must hedge about the policy of temporary rights-infringement with constraints and limitations (he particularly emphasises the need for ongoing adversarial review of such measures), to prevent us entirely losing our grasp of what it is we’re trying to defend. This is the ‘lesser evil’ which he sees as an alternative to the two greater evils which, in his view, threaten us as we respond to terrorist attacks. One of these greater evils flows from the adoption of a purely consequentialist view of defence against terrorism, in which any action which protects democratic society should be adopted, no matter what rights it violates, since preserving democracies will ultimately give rights their best protection. Ignatieff quite plausibly argues that, given some well-known and pessimistic facts about human nature, this view will rapidly lead to the destruction of respect for rights and human dignity. The other greater evil which he discerns results from what he calls perfectionism – the view that rights must act as absolute constraints on action, so that we are never justified in violating them. The perfectionist believes that any failure to respect rights, particularly at the level of policy, is morally unacceptable, and will probably take us down a slippery slope to unrestrained tyranny. We must set our face against any weakening of our commitment to rights and liberties, and maintain our full array of liberal democratic practices unchanged by the threat from terrorism. Ignatieff thinks (again quite plausibly) that this approach will be so ineffective at protecting security that it will yield democracies up to destruction at the hand of terrorists. Rather than incurring either of these greater evils, Ignatieff argues that we should adopt a lesser evil approach, in which we allow some trade-off of rights against increased security, so long as we do this in ways which limit the threat to rights and human dignity as much as is compatible with effectiveness against terrorism. […]

[T]he linchpin of the book is the claim that security and rights must be traded-off against each other, that such trade-offs are necessary to preserve democracies but must always be as limited as possible consonant with effective self-defence, and that necessary though they are, they’re still in some way wrong. This is his conception of the lesser evil: it’s preferable to the greater evils which are likely to follow from pure consequentialism or pure perfectionism, but it’s evil nonetheless. The whole of the rest of the book stands or falls with this conception. It’s not clear, however, that it can stand in the terms in which Ignatieff presents it.

Firstly, it’s not at all obvious that the contrast Ignatieff draws between security considerations and respect for rights can really be sustained. The rights which are immediately threatened by increased security measures are liberties of various kinds, and liberty and security needn’t be seen as entirely different kinds of things. After all, security protects people’s liberty to exercise their rights, and indeed can be regarded as a necessary precondition of that exercise. So the trade-off between the two on which Ignatieff places so much weight may be better seen as a choice between different ways of promoting rights and liberties. If that is so, then there is no profound conflict here, and no tragic dilemma of the kind which might prompt thoughts about lesser evil.

Indeed, to pretend that the fight for democracy is tragic does little but serve the purposes of those who don’t want to engage in it.

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