We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

All governments, all people even, should be held to the same moral standards. If you allow it for Saddam or Uday, then you must allow it for Bush or Rumsfeld. If you forbid it for Bush or Blair, then you must forbid it for Saddam or Ahmadinejad. Anything else smacks of “you can’t expect any better of Middle Easterners”-style of racism, or at least cultural arrogance. Did Saddam lie about WMD? Does Bush rape women or imprison and torture small children? First set out what your standards of behaviour are, and when particular actions in response are justified, and only then consider the example set by particular nations. For if you pay more attention to Iraq than Tibet, say, people might be able to accuse you of being on the side of the tyrants, and your moralising protests no more than enemy propaganda. And you wouldn’t want that, would you?

– Commenter ‘Pa Annoyed’

21 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Andrew Selkirk

    No, sorry. Moral comes from the Latin, mores, meaning customs, and customs tends to vary, country by country, age by age.

    Take nudity for instance. It is quite OK for a woman to swim topless in most of Europe, but you mustn’t in Moslem countries (and sadly, in most of Britain).

    It was quite OK to show your cleavage in the late 17th century, but not in the early 17th century.

    You should always try to conform – more or less – to the customs of the country you are in. It is quite wrong to try to impose your standards on other countries, or to judge other ages by our own standards.

    Tolerance, please!

  • kc

    What a nice thought. It sounds sensible and noble but societies have different interpretations of moral standards. If everyone and all governments shared the same moral values, our chances of getting into armed conflict would be very low.

    People and governments are different. Blowing up women and children and raping little girls may seem perfectly defendable in another culture.

    “PA Annoyed’s” comparison of Bush and Saddam is nauseating. DID Bush lie about WMD? Or did Saddam?
    was it bungled intelligence or was there some truth to it? It’s not a matter of agreeing with the war or how much you dislike Bush. What happened to common sense and logic?

    “… For if you pay more attention to Iraq than Tibet, say, people might be able to accuse you of being on the side of the tyrants, and your moralising protests no more than enemy propaganda. And you wouldn’t want that, would you?”

    If we’re in armed conflict, I would hope we’d pay more attention to the region involved regardless of what people “might be able to accuse us of.”

  • It has been a long time since I read such bollocks. I’m always reminded of the expression “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” when I read similar screeds.

    The problem, always, is situational. Did Churchill lie to the British people during WWII? Undoubtedly. Should Britain therefore NOT have invaded Nazi-occupied Europe? Bollocks again.

    And therein lies the real problem: the balancing act between absolutist statements like Pa’s, and the nauseating “who are we to judge?” mantra of current post-modernist relativism.

    It’s a balancing act as old as humanity, and simplistic crap like this particular quote of the day doesn’t help.

  • Well Kim, you have that completely arse about face. Situation (context) does indeed feature strongly in the application of a moral theory but that is not the same as moral relativism and moral relativism is actually what Pa Annoyed’s comment is about. It is moral relativism by the BushMcHilter crowd and the Rothbardian crowd when they decry US/UK actions and all the death in Iraq and yet seem to not give a damn about Ba’athist mass murder for the last 20 years.

  • CFM

    It is quite wrong to try to impose your standards on other countries, or to judge other ages by our own standards.”

    While it may be WISE to modify your behaviour to function in another country, there are limits. I hardly think the lack of topless bathers in Britain provides the moral equivalence to justify, say, Saddam’s sons’ behaviour.

    I may keep my mouth shut when discretion is the wiser course, but I reserve the right to JUDGE any time I damn well please.

    The ‘tolerance” you seem to be promoting is nothing more than nihilism.

  • kc

    Perry, you and ‘Pa Annoyed’ need to quit ‘Bogarting’ the bong and pass it around.

    Cheers & Happy New Year!

  • I think Pa Annoyed is defending the very important concept of Ethical Universalism i.e. the idea we have the same moral and ethical obligations to every individual human being regardless of their situation.

    The problem with the politically opportunistic moral relativism that Pa Annoyed decries is that it ultimately leads us to value and protect the lives of some individuals more than others. We quickly find ourselves deciding to defend people based on the sole criteria of who is trying to kill them rather than just the fact that their lives are in danger. We end up exerting massive resources against relatively trivial evils while ignoring massive evils occurring just next door. The twentieth century is littered with examples of such behavior.

    By creating different moral obligation towards others based on who seeks to harm them we create a functionally bigoted world view.

  • Perry E. Metzger

    Some people in this discussion do not seem to be aware of the fact that George Bush has indeed been responsible, if not for murder, then at least for tens to hundreds of thousands of counts of what we call manslaughter or reckless homicide on this side of the pond (that is, actions showing a depraved indifference to human life which result in death unintentionally).

    If a murderer lives in a house, it is not okay to bomb the whole neighborhood to get him. If a thief is standing in a crowd, you may not machine gun the crowd to capture the man.

    As Shannon Love notes, there is an issue of ethical universalism here. We have the notion that it is wrong for people to engage in reckless actions such as these at certain times but not at others — it is wrong for the police in London to use jets to strafe a house, but that it is fine in Anbar Province, or that it is wrong for one man to steal to give money to charity but fine for a million operating via a group dubbed “the inland revenue service” to do so, or that it is necessary after capturing a group of thugs in Los Angeles to give them the presumption of innocence, clean jail cells, attorneys and a fair trial, but that in Baghdad or Guantanamo it is fine to just lock people up without trial or even hope of release for five or ten years and rough them up when the guards get bored.

    We cannot advance civilization this way. The whole point of a civilized society is that it bends over backwards to follow the rules, provide the presumption of innocence, protect innocent bystanders, etc., even when it is inconvenient to do so and even when the accused are accused of horrible things. We do this not for the benefit of the guilty but for the benefit of society. Even if the enemies of society are uncivilized, we must not drop to their level, or we destroy everything that civilization exists to protect. Freedom from torture, fair trials, etc, are not a privilege or a frill — they are what make the West a decent place to live, and without them, there is no point to the exercise at all.

    Some people may ask, in wonder, “What has George Bush done, you horrible person who dares to compare him to Saddam Hussein.”

    Well, he has sent people, often it is now known innocent people, off to various places around the world to be tortured. He runs secret prisons filled with such people still. He holds hundreds of people captive at Guantanamo, many of whom are certainly innocent of any crime, and claims the right to deprive them of trial indefinitely on his personal order. He holds at least one US citizen incommunicado under horrible conditions in military custody (one Jose Padilla), depriving the man even of light to the extent that he is blindfolded whenever he is taken even temporarily from his cell. He has ordered, extraconstitutionally and extralegally, the mass tapping of domestic and international communications.

    All of this entirely ignores at least tens of thousands of third parties who have died as the result of orders he has given that demonstrate, to use the legal phrase, a depraved indifference to human life.

    I will not argue that George Bush is anywhere near the sort of fiend that Saddam Hussein is. I will, however, with a perfectly straight face and in all seriousness, argue that his place is before a tribunal on trial, and not as the head of state of a supposedly civilized nation.

  • Perry E. Metzger,

    I don’t think that it is George Bush and like minded people that are engaging in differential morality. Far more often, it is the people who oppose him that do so.

    I often ask people opposed to the war whether they themselves would prefer that they and their loved ones lived through the experiences of the last 4 years in Iraq or would they have preferred to the same time under Saddam. The majority of people simply refuse to answer the question. Of those who do summon the courage to answer, 9 out of 10 would prefer to live through the war instead of under Saddam’s “peace.” Clearly, such people support one ethical standard for themselves and another standard for other people.

    Bush et al (myself included) support the war in Iraq in large part because we personally would prefer the risks of war for the chance, just the chance, at freedom rather to live in a police state. We hope that, were our situations reversed, the Iraqi people would send their sons and daughters to other side of the world in the attempt to save us. We follow the Golden Rule: We do for the people of Iraq what we would do for ourselves. You cannot get more Universally Ethical than that.

  • If a murderer lives in a house, it is not okay to bomb the whole neighborhood to get him. If a thief is standing in a crowd, you may not machine gun the crowd to capture the man.

    That’s because the murderer is not protected by a large army and additionally protected by his neighbours. There is a system in place for apprehending an individual who has broken the law in a society consisting of law-abiding people who would like nothing better than to see the police arrest a murderer, meaning that bombing the whole neighbourhood would be completely unnecessary. This was not the case with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, hence your analogy is flawed to the point of uselessness.

  • jimmmy

    Dumbest “Samizdata quote of the day” 2006. Just under the wire!

  • As jimmy does not say why or attempt to make any argument, he get the ‘dumbest commenter of the day’ award.

  • People P.E.M. would have put Churchill and the other war leaders on trial for their actions during WWII.

    Bush & Blair got rid of a genocidal tyrant bent on eliminating one people entirely from his nation (ie the Kurds), exporting terror all over the world (ie his bounties to the families of Islamists who killed Jews), using chemical weapons, develeloping a nuke and making war with his neighbours (Iran, Kuwait etc).

    Was it handled prefectly? Nope. But one less genocidal maniac is around which all & all is a good thing.

  • Reid

    The same people who decry the war in Iraq also decried the sanctions. Apparently, the only moral position was to leave Saddam unfettered in power. The only consistent thread through all of this is that the West in general, and the US in particular, is the root of all evil. It is a supreme form of arrogance and racism that excuses all the depredations of the leaders of the “inferior races” around the world.

    They could not help themselves, because the West projected its malignancy into their garden of innocence and purity. It is not that the West has been more successful than any other ideology at exporting their brand of evil liberalism around the globe, but that the West with its Imperial ambition is the sole agency which jockeys for position or seeks to promote its interests abroad. The West armed Saddam, it is said. But, Iran’s imperial ambitions in the Middle East were innocent and for the good of all, and China and Russia are not to be held accountable for the massive military aid they provided because, again, they could not help themselves. And, Iran had a legitimate grievance against the West which justifies its murderous actions even today because of the West’s efforts in the past to prevent Iran from falling into the orbit of the benign imperialists of the Soviet Union, whose sole intent was to institute a Socialist paradise in that country. But, what am I saying? The Soviet Union had no interest at all in Iran and exerted no influence of its own in the struggle for power there.

    No, only the West is to blame. Only the West meddles in the internal affairs of other nations. And, the systems they foist on unwilling nations are rotten to the core, and the world would be a paradise if only not for them and their pesky dedication to the promotion of individual liberty and economic pluralism. The nihilist creed is that “everyone would be happy and prosperous without the intervention of the West, at least everyone of any significance, and I would be one of them, not one of the sheeple who need enlightened people like me to kindly order their lives as I see fit.”

  • Some of the critics of the quote seem to be missing its real point, even though it seems clear. He’s not talking about different cultures having different standards, or insisting on judging actions in total disregard of their context. What he objects to is the practice of judging comparable actions differently depending on who performs them — usually meaning that someone condemns an action taken by Westerners while excusing a similar (and often far more egregious) action taken by non-Westerners.

    If we judge all actions by the same set of standards, we usually find that the actions of the enemy are far worse than those of our own side. For example, even if you object to executing Saddam Hussein, the earlier executions of thousands of Iraqis by his regime were far more reprehensible for many reasons. Yet parties like the EU, the Vatican, and various far-leftists who are criticizing Saddam’s execution failed to speak out with equal or greater vigor against each execution under Saddam’s regime. Thus they’re guilty of a double standard.

    We see the same with people who criticize Israel’s responses to terrorist attacks more vigorously than they criticize the original terrorist attacks themselves. It seems like an obvious point.

    If the people who condemn so much of what Bush does were to apply exactly the same standards to the behavior of Saddam, they would find that the latter was astronomically worse. But many won’t acknowledge this, and most never condemned Saddam as they condemn Bush. That’s the double standard.

    As for whether the violence used to overthrow Saddam was excessive, surely the magnitude of the measures justified to stop an evil should be proportional to the magnitude of the evil. We accept the use of deadly force, and the risk of damage to the property of innocent parties, in the course of trying to arrest a serial killer. We don’t accept the same measures in order to catch somebody who has failed to pay a speeding ticket. To bring down a regime which had killed over a million people, was continuing to torture and kill people, and was plausibly suspected of trying to build weapons which could kill huge numbers in other countries, even more violence could be justified, because the consequences of the action are still not as bad as the consequences of taking no action and letting the evil continue.

  • lurker mk.3

    I expect my leaders to keep out of the ME. I hope ME leaders will do likewsie to the West. How’s that for consistency?

  • Pa Annoyed

    Wow! I take a few days off to visit the family, and come back to find myself quote of the day! Thanks, and thank you to all those who supported my point.

    Unlike some, I don’t have any objection in principle to moral relativism (so long as it is used in a descriptive rather than judgemental sense – moral relativism is OK, but relative morals are philosophically incoherent). What I object to is its selective application. You can choose to use it to avoid criticising Middle Eastern cultures or ancient cultures if you like, but if you do, you must also apply it to modern Western culture and people. To spread our modern liberal values is a part of our culture, and you need to interpret our actions through the window of our morals.

    My main point was indeed with regard to Ethical Universalism but I’ll also address a couple of the counterpoints raised in response. There isn’t a lot left to say, but I’d like to clarify my position on a couple of issues.

    On the nudity example: Muslims regard nudity as wrong everywhere, including in the West. Most of us regard near-nudity as OK everywhere, including in the Middle East. They are two different moral systems, and that’s OK. What isn’t OK is for one moral system to try to incorporate both, and claim both to be right in their own contexts. You cannot make moral judgements except from within the context of a particular moral system. It is a fact that other moral systems exist, but it can never be right that they exist; because such a judgement implies the existence of a moral system making it, which by definition disagrees in some regards with any alternatives being discussed. True Muslims are not fool enough to reciprocate and say nudity is OK in the West simply because Westerners think it is; they have a well-defined moral system and they stick to it.

    On the question of imposing our standards on foreign countries; besides the fact that those other cultures do try to impose their standards on ours (no insulting the Prophet, for example), I would argue that the moral question is about the nature and degree of imposition, not who is doing the imposing. Take the business about attacks made against unveiled women in some parts of Iraq. Can Islamists impose Sharia standards of dress on Iraqi Christians, and why is that sort of imposition different from the US insisting that such women being able to dress as they choose unmolested? Both are cases of imposition, one on women, the other on pious Muslims, but is the important difference the accidental nationality of the person imposing, or which imposition is more restrictive of others freedoms, or is there no essential difference?

    Let me put it another way. If you believe foreign dictators should be allowed to oppress their people without interference, then you must also accept that our government must be allowed to oppress us without interference or resistance. If you believe foreign cultures should be allowed to subjugate women and religious minorities, then you must also accept being subjugated because of your sex or religion yourself. Many people do, and I respect that as an individual choice, but I still ask that the rest be allowed to choose differently, even if that means imposing something like Western culture on them. Others may legitimately disagree with this; all I ask is that if they do, they apply the same standards universally to all sides in explaining why they do, regardless of who is being criticised.

  • lurker mk.3

    How about East is East, and West is West, and if the East cannot, of its accord, create the conditions necessary for freedom for flourish, in sense is it our responsibility to sacrifice our own men to do that job for them?

  • Pa Annoyed

    “East is East, and West is West”

    In a sense. They happen to be generally located in East and West at the moment, and those are useful labels, but I prefer to think in terms of undifferentiated humanity, rather than principalities and princedoms. Of what moral relevance are states? Who is truly your neighbour – the respectable priest from your own community, or the hated and despised foreigner who rescues you nevertheless? There’s plenty about Christianity I don’t agree with, but I personally think they got that one right.

    The idea of “sacrificing our own men” is a difficult one, too. In a statistical sense, yes, in that I think we should be willing to take an increased risk of death to do something worthwhile, which logically implies some people will die as a result. I am thinking here of the British RNLI – the lifeboat service – volunteers who go out on a stormy winter’s night to pull people off shipwrecks and from the water. What is the moral position of the coastguard sending 8 men out in the lifeboat in dangerous conditions? We are, after all, sacrificing our men to save the lives of others, and I think they would even go out to rescue foreigners without regard to their nation of origin or the colour of their skin. Are they wrong to do so? Are they wrong to feel a responsibility towards foreign sailors?
    There is a balance to be struck here – how much liberation is worth how much increased risk? – and that is a legitimate subject for debate. (Although I believe the increase in risk serving in Iraq is not so large as the media like to portray it.) But I certainly disagree with your “no sense” statement.

    There is also something to be said for it not only from a moral point of view, but a strategic one too. There are many ways of expressing it, but I quite like the (uncanonical) Klingon saying: Nal komerex, khesterex.

  • Ryan Waxx

    If you believe foreign dictators should be allowed to oppress their people without interference, then you must also accept that our government must be allowed to oppress us without interference or resistance.

    What if one believes that oppression is not “right” anywhere, but selfishly wishes to only guarantee through force of arms one’s own freedom from tyranny, not everyone on the planet’s?

  • Pa Annoyed


    Quite. But then you had better have sufficient force of arms to take them all on and win, and not rely on bits of paper like NATO or the UN to guarantee your liberty. Because the other members mostly hold the same sort of view, and will also back away and watch from a distance if you ever find yourself in real trouble. Czechoslovakia, Poland, Tibet, Hungary, Rwanda, Croatia, Israel… the list goes on and on.

    No, in their thinking it is not a matter of having the force of arms to defend against tyranny, but of ensuring that we are no threat to tyranny so they will have no reason to attack us. That way, we can strip our own defences to the bone for short-term profit, and rest smug in our belief that ‘it could never happen here’.