Dear politician, let’s talk morality

Abdullah Hamidaddin

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Morality in the realm of politics is difficult. More than often a political leader is faced with conflicting options each of which is morally challenging and each pressing for a decision. Lives are destroyed or exterminated as a consequence of unavoidable decisions made by good politicians. I know and accept – with a lot of bitterness – that as a society we are impelled into doing bad and immoral things to protect and sustain the good.

We are always sanctioning immoral decisions made by our political leaders. It is a heartbreaking predicament of human social existence made more tragic by our knowledge that we will make mistakes. We will do more immorality than is needed. We will be immoral to the wrong people. And we can never eliminate that. The best we can do is to minimize our mistakes.

When good politicians do bad things to bad people

Judging the morality/immorality of a decision is a complicated process. Just listen to moral justifications of drone attacks and moral justifications of terrorist attacks. Their similarity is deeply disconcerting. So we take shortcuts. We overlook the moral reasoning of the decision, and focus on the decider and the targets of the decisions as indicators. Thus depending on where we stand say from Obama or Yemeni civilians we would make a decision about the morality of drone attacks. Of course it can get complicated. What do we do when good people do bad things to good people? That’s a moral dilemma isn’t it? But then it can be quite easy, such as when good people do bad things to bad people. Here little thinking needs to be done. The answer is obvious. Bad people deserve bad treatment. Detain them. Torture them. Even exterminate them. Good riddance!

Obviously there is something of a dissonance here. If we want us as a society to minimize the immoral mistakes our politicians make, then how can we allow our moral judgments to be influenced by our like/dislike for decider and target? Such moral reasoning is a very sour recipe for making less immoral mistakes. But sadly such logic is the one I hear the most when I follow or engage in a debate about some of the issues in the region. The discussion is always shifted from judging the decision to judging the deciders or the targets.

Talking morality without acknowledging morality

Moral reasoning is a skill. And it needs moral talking. The more we talk morality the better we get. But the fact is that we do very little of that when looking into the political decisions that are being made. Our focus is on political analysis and on demonizing or @valorizing one party or another. Moral reasoning also requires that we acknowledge the moral dimension in that which we are discussing. But we get so bogged in the political consequences of the decisions and the political actors that we fail to see the underlying moral reasoning that is unconsciously directing our judgment. We are talking morality more than we think, but we don’t see it, and because we don’t see it, we end up not talking morality. Then we are left with low moral reasoning skills.

In the past two and half years we have discussed so many various decisions with a purely political focus. The American intervention in Libya, the alliance of the MB with the army on the eve of throwing off Mubarak, Hezbollah’s support of the Assad regime, the situation in Bahrain and drone attacks in Yemen just to name a few. Most recently there is the overthrow of President Mursi by the Egyptian army with the support of a wide spectrum of the Egyptian population. The debates here have been endless. But there is little mention of the moral foundation of the debate.

Let us take two statements out of the hundreds that have been used in the Egyptian case. Those who do not support President Mursi say: “no matter how bad Mursi was we have to respect the democratic process for the sake of preserving the sanctity of process and to facilitate the transition from electoral democracy to liberal democracy”. Those who do not support his overthrow say: “no matter how wrong it was to depose President Mursi it still had to happen to save the Egyptian people and their democracy from a despotic regime”.

Those two statements endlessly repeated in so many variations, are considered a matter of politics. But at the heart of the matter those two statements have a moral component. They are both about tying good ends to bad means. They fall within the premise that “the ends justify the means” which is a moral judgment. The debate over Hezbollah and Syria is very similar. Therein is also a classic use of “the ends justify the means”. Those supporting Assad say that: “we must preserve the ‘rejection front’ from falling apart regardless of human losses.” Those are just two examples of many situations where the debate has a strong moral component yet is unrecognized as such, and subsequently little moral analysis follows. In my examples, had the moral component been acknowledged we would have had debates about the premise of “the ends justify the means.” And had we had that we would have developed a new way of moral reasoning. We would have also improved our moral reasoning skills.

Trusting dirty hands

Moral reasoning skills are a matter of societal urgency. In the absence of sophisticated moral reasoning the only moral judgments that will remain available to us are good and evil. In the realm of politics we will engage in taking sides, in condemning one side and supporting another, and we will pass black and white moral judgments. There will be no room for grey morality. We will have a society divided across political lines and also sharply divided across moral lines. Our political adversaries will be judged as evil people.

There will be room for seeing them as good people in the grey. Soon we stop trusting each other. Can we trust someone who believes that drone attacks are right? Can I trust someone who supports the use of lethal force against protestors? Can I trust a human rights activist whose mission and raison d'être is to uphold rights yet finds himself in a situation where he needs to align with a despot? The answer of someone who can only see morality in terms of good/evil is clear. The more morally sophisticated a person is, the more he/she understands the moral dilemmas in each decision even when strongly opposing them. And understanding the moral dilemma in a decision is an important condition to avoid absolute demonization of the deciders.

I have seen many good people slipping into demonization of other good people for the sole reason of them taking an opposing political position. This is not right. You can be my political adversary and still be a moral and good person. It does not mean that I will like you. Or even want to speak to you. But I will not demonize you. So let’s start talking morality. We all need it.

Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

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