Blair has a point

I’ve learned in the past that if I say anything at all positive about Tony Blair, people rush to say I’m defending the war in Iraq. (Or that if I defend intervention in the broad sense I’m defending his military interventions in the narrow sense – guilty party here.) With that warning in mind, Blair wrote something quite interesting in a valedictory piece in the Economist.

It is said that by removing Saddam or the Taliban—regimes that were authoritarian but also kept a form of order—the plight of Iraqis and Afghans has worsened and terrorism has been allowed to grow. This is a seductive but dangerous argument. Work out what it really means. It means that because these reactionary and evil forces will fight hard, through terrorism, to prevent those countries and their people getting on their feet after the dictatorships are removed, we should leave the people under the dictatorship. It means our will to fight for what we believe in is measured by our enemy’s will to fight us, but in inverse proportion.

Here I think is the worry. From a consequentialist point of view, there is a danger that our willingness to confront wrongdoing is going to be inversely proportional to how serious that wrongdoing is, if it is the case that by doing something we confront the possibility of retaliation. So imagine you have two heads of organised crime. One is a nasty S.O.B who has killed many people. The second is even worse, but in addition, he has made it clear to the authorities that if he is captured, his heavies will wreak vengeance in a nasty, bloody way.
If you take only take into account the consequences of capturing or not capturing, it seems you have less reason to go after the worse criminal, because the consequences of doing so will be more blood. Hence the worse guy is in a strange way rewarded for being so bad.
Of course, you could take wider consequences (as rule consequentialists do) and say that in the long run, society suffers if we shy away from dealing with the nasty guys in this way. But it’s not clear that move will always work.
So, Blair’s point is that if we allow the brutality of the resistance of baddies a reason not to confront them, we actually end up treating people better the worse they are. And that’s kind of crazy.
Except that, of course, you can’t just ignore that factor either. You don’t try to take on a nuclear armed North Korea, because it would be catastrophic if Kim Jong-Il retaliated. So, actually, in a strange way again, sometimes, if someone gets too bad and powerful, you do have to back off.
What does this prove? Nothing. I’m not trying to prove a point, simply outline a tricky moral dilemma. My feeling is that this is a good example of how both straightforward consequentialist and duty-based moral frameworks are not complex enough to deal with the real world. We have to think about both consequences of action and what the right thing to do is irrespective of immediate outcome. And, to use a phrase which is becoming a bit of mantra with me lately, There Is No Algorithm for determining how these (and other) considerations are balanced.
Hence Blair has a point; not Blair has justified the war in Iraq.

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